The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/History II.

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By Professor William Scott Ferguson

OF the three periods of approximately fifteen hundred years each into which the history of the Western World falls, two belong to the domain of antiquity.

The first of these "links in the chain of eternity" includes the rise, maturity, and decay of the Oriental civilization at its three distinct but interconnected centers, Egypt, Babylonia, and Crete-Mycenæ. The second reaches from 1200 B. C. to 300 A. D., and it too is filled with the growth, fruition, and decline of a civilization—the high material and intellectual culture of the Greeks and Romans. Overlapping this for several centuries, the third or Christian period runs down to our own time. The nineteenth century of our era may be regarded as the opening of a fourth period, one of untold possibilities for human development.

The Greeks, like the Christians, went to school for many centuries to their predecessors. Their earliest poems, the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" of Homer, are in one sense a legacy from the Cretan-Mycenæan age, in which the scene of their action is laid. None the less, like the peoples of mediæval and modern Europe, the Greeks owed the production of their most characteristic things to their own native effort.

It was in the eighth and seventh centuries B. C. that the Greeks became a new species of mankind. In this, the time of their expansion from an Ægean into a Mediterranean people, they shook off the bonds which had shackled the Oriental spirit, and, trusting to their own intellects, faced without flinching the grave problems of human life. When they then awoke to a realization of their position, they found themselves in the possession of cities which were at the same time states. Political connection between them there was none, and slender indeed were the ties of sentiment, language, and religion which bound to one another the Hellenes of Miletus, Corinth, Syracuse, Marseilles, and the hundreds of other Greek city-states then in existence. The complexity of the map may be appreciated by observing that Crete alone had twenty-three distinct states. In Greece, as elsewhere, cities in which life was at once national and municipal proved the most favorable soil for the growth of free institutions.


The keynote of the formative age of Greece was the rise of individualism. Poets freed themselves from the Homeric conventions, and dealt not as of yore with the deeds of ancient heroes, but with their own emotions, ideas, and experiences. They laid aside the measure and diction of the Epos and wrote every man and woman in his native rhythm and dialect. Sculptors and painters, long since accustomed to work in the spirit of a school, and to elaborate more and more scrupulously certain types of art, now became conscious that so much of their work was of their own creation that they began laying claim to it by adding their signatures.

The problems of religion were no longer satisfactorily settled by the Homeric revelation. They forced themselves directly upon the attention of every thinking individual. One man remained orthodox, another took refuge in the emotional cults of Dionysos and Demeter, another revolted and sought to explain the world as a product of natural laws and not of divine creation. Men who had earlier been obscured by their respective families, clans, and brotherhoods, now severed themselves for all public purposes from these associations, recognizing only the authority of a state which threw open its privileges to all alike. There were revolters in politics as there were revolters in religion and in art: the tyrants are the kinsmen of the personal poets, Archilochus, Sappho, Alcæus, and of scientists like Thales of Miletus and the Ionian physicists.

The Asiatic Greeks were in general the leaders at this time, and Miletus was the greatest city in the entire Greek world.


The sixth century which followed was an age of reaction. Men shrank from the violent outbreaks of the preceding generations. It was the time of the "seven wise men," of the precept "nothing in excess," of the curbing of aristocracies with their claim to be a law unto themselves. During this epoch of repression a rich and diversified culture which had developed in Sparta was narrowed down to one single imperious interest—war and preparation for war. With the leveling down of the Spartan aristocracy went the decay of the art and letters of which it had been the bearer. The Spartan people became an armed camp living a life of soldierly comradeship and of puritanical austerity, ever solicitous lest its serfs (there were fifteen of them to every Spartan) should revolt and massacre, ever watchful lest the leadership which it had established in Greek affairs (there were 15,000 Spartans and 3,000,000 Greeks) should be imperiled. In Athens the course of development had been directly the opposite of this. There, too, the nobles were ousted from their monopoly of political rights, but on the other hand, the serfs were admitted to citizenship. The men who molded Athens in its period of democratic growth were themselves aristocrats who never doubted for a moment that the culture of their order would ennoble the life of the masses. Hence no pains or expenses were spared by them to build and maintain—at their own cost—public palæstræ and gymnasia in which poor and rich alike could obtain a suppleness and grace of body that added charm and vigor to their movements; and to institute so-called musical contests in which the people generally had to participate, and the preparation for which incited all classes to study literature and art—above all to learn the words and the music of lyric and dramatic choruses. The aristocracy died down in Athens, but the Athenians became the aristocracy of all Greece.

That they did so was largely the work of their most brilliant statesman, Themistocles, whose "Life" by Plutarch is included in The Harvard Classics.[1] Under his far-sighted guidance Athens built an invincible fleet at great financial sacrifice, cooperated with Sparta with singular devotion and unparalleled heroism in beating off the Persians, and established her maritime empire. Aristides[2] was at first his unsuccessful rival and later his faithful collaborator, and Pericles,[3] whose interest in science, philosophy, jurisprudence, art, and literature makes him the best exponent of the culminating epoch of Greek development, profited sagaciously by their work. He both perfected the institutions of Athenian democracy and defined and organized its imperial mission. No man in high place ever took more seriously the doctrine that all citizens were equally capacitated for public service, yet no more ardent imperialist than he ever lived. The truth is that Athenian democracy with all that it implies was impossible without the Athenian maritime empire. The subject allies were as indispensable to the Athenians as the slaves, mechanics, and traders are to the citizens of Plato's ideal republic.

This empire Sparta sought to destroy, and to this end waged fruitless war on Athens for ten years (431–421 B. C.). What she failed to accomplish, Alcibiades,[4] the evil genius of Athens, effected, for at his insistence the democrats embarked on the fatal Sicilian expedition. After the dreadful disaster which they sustained before Syracuse (413 B. C.), their dependencies revolted and ceased paying them tribute; whereupon, unable to make head against the Sicilians, Spartans, and Persians, who had joined forces against her, Athens succumbed in 405 B. C. It is doubtful whether any other city of 50,000 adult males ever undertook works of peace and war of similar magnitude. Athens led Greece when Greece led the world.

The Spartans took her place, but they held it only through the support given them by their confederates, Persia and Syracuse. When they quarreled with the Persians they at once lost it; regained it by the Kings' Peace of 387 B. C., but only to fall before Thebes sixteen years later. Thebes depended solely upon her great warrior-statesman, Epaminondas. His death in battle, in 362 B. C., meant the downfall of the Theban supremacy, and at the birth of Alexander the Great in 356 B. C. the claim could be made that what the Greeks had sought for two hundred years had now been accomplished: all the European Greek cities, great and small, were again free as they had been in the seventh century. In reality, as Plutarch's biography of Demosthenes[5] shows, they lived rent by factional struggles, in constant fear and envy of one another, and under the shadow of a great peril which union, not disunion, could alone avert.


Philip of Macedon united Greece under his own leadership, and with the power thus secured Alexander the Great laid the Persian Empire prostrate and open for swift and persistent Greek colonization. As Machiavelli in his "Prince"[6] points out, "his successors had to meet no other difficulty than that which arose among themselves from their own ambitions." This was sufficient, however. It led to a thirty years' war such as had never before been seen. At its end the Graeco-Macedonian world was paralyzed by an unstable balance of power in which Egypt, under the Ptolemies, by using its great wealth to maintain a magnificent fleet held Macedon and Asia in check. The unification of Italy under Rome (343–270 B. C.) and the subsequent destruction of the Carthaginian Empire (264–201 B. C.) brought into hostile conflict with Egypt's enemies a military state which was far stronger than any individual Greek kingdom. This state had a population of 5,000,000, an army list of 750,000, and it could keep 100,000 men in the field for many years at a stretch. Such a force could be stopped only by a federation of the entire Greek world. The Greeks again paid the just penalty for their disunion, and after a bitter struggle they sank under the Roman sway.


The Romans who conquered the Greeks were not "gentlemen" like Cicero[7] and Caesar[8] and their contemporaries of a hundred and fifty years later. Their temper is only partially revealed in Plutarch's "Coriolanus,"[9] in which a legend which, however, the Romans and Greeks of Plutarch's time (46–125 A. D.) believed to be a fact is made to illustrate the alleged uncompromising character of their political struggles and the lofty virtues of their domestic life. In fact, they had many of the qualities of Iroquois, and when they took by storm a hostile city, their soldiers uncultured peasants, once the iron bonds of discipline were relaxed often slew every living thing which came in their way: men, women, children, and even animals. The world was not subdued by Rome with rosewater or modern humanitarian methods.

Five generations later the Italians were in a fair way to being Hellenized, so powerful had been the reaction of the eastern provinces upon them in the interval. During this epoch of rapid denationalization, the Roman aristocracy, which had guided the state first to internal harmony, then to stable leadership in Italy, and finally to world-empire, became divided against itself. The empire had nurtured a stock of contractors, money lenders, grain and slave dealers—the so-called equestrian order—which pushed the great landed proprietors, who constituted the senate, from position to position; wrested from them control of the provinces which it then pillaged most outrageously, and helped on the paralysis of government from which the rule of the emperors was the only escape. The youth of Cicero coincided with the suicidal strife between the agrarian and the commercial wings of the aristocracy. Cicero, being a "new man," had to attach himself to great personages like Pompey, in order to make his way in politics, so that his political course and his political views were both "wobbly"; but he had at least one fixed policy, that the "harmony of the orders" must be restored at all costs.[10] This, however, was impracticable.


The empire had also bred a standing army, and the necessity that this be used against the Teutons, Italians, Greeks, and Gauls bred leader after leader who could dictate terms to the civil government. The last of these was Julius Cæsar. He was the last because he decided not to coerce the senate, but to put himself in its place. His short reign (49–44 B. C.) is a memorable episode in the development of Rome, in that it was the first reappearance of a world monarchy since Alexander the Great's death. Cæsar is greeted in contemporary Greek documents as "the Saviour of the entire race of men."

After his murder a quarrel arose between rival candidates for the command of the troops—Cæsar's troops, as the assassins found to their sorrow. Antony,[11] his master of horse, finally took one half of them with him to the East, to finish Cæsar's projected campaign against the Parthians, to live in Alexandria at the feet of Cleopatra, Cæsar's royal mistress—who was not only an able and unscrupulous woman, but also the heir of a bad political tradition—to bring Egypt into the Roman Empire by annexing the Roman Empire to the Egyptian crown. The most that can be said for him is that he was a kind of bastard Cæsar. On the other hand, Augustus, Cæsar's adopted son, to whom the command of the rest of the troops fell, proved to be a statesman of the highest order. He roused national and republican feeling in Italy against Antony and his Egyptian "harlot"; but, after defeating them at Actium in 31 B. C., he had to reckon with the demon—or was it a ghost?—which he had conjured up. This he did by establishing a peculiar compromise between republicanism and monarchy called the principate, which lasted, with fitful reversions to Caesar's model, and gradual degeneracy toward a more and more complete despotism, until the great military revolt of the third century A. D. occurred, when the Roman system of government, and with it the Græco-Roman civilization, sank in rapid decay. For two hundred and fifty years sixty millions of people had enjoyed the material blessings of peace and orderly government. They had cut down forests, made the desert a garden, built cities by the hundreds, and created eternal monuments of the sense for justice and magnificence which penetrated from Rome to the ends of the known world. Then they became the helpless prey of a few hundred thousand native and barbarian soldiers. The decline of the Roman Empire is the greatest tragedy in history.

During the principate the prince or emperor seemed to be the source of all actions, good and bad. Upon the will and character of a single individual hung suspended, apparently, the life and weal of every human being. It was, therefore, natural for this age to be interested in biography. Hence Plutarch is at once a "document" for the time in which he lived and a charming "betrayer" of the Græco-Roman world on which he looked back.

  1. Harvard Classics, xii, 5.
  2. H. C., xii, 78.
  3. H. C., xii, 35.
  4. H. C., xii, 106.
  5. H. C., xii, 191.
  6. H. C., xxxvi, 7.
  7. H. C., xii, 218.
  8. H. C., xii, 264.
  9. H. C., xii, 147.
  10. See Cicero's "Letters" in Harvard Classics, ix, 79.
  11. H. C., xii, 322.