Gateway to the Classics: Ancient Greece by James Baikie
Ancient Greece by  James Baikie

A Land of City-States

NOW, as I told you in the first chapter, there never was a Greek nation at all, in the sense in which there is a British or a French nation. A Greek, of course, or as he would have called himself, a Hellene, always recognized another Hellene, whether he was a Spartan from Laconia, an Athenian from Attica, or a Syracusan from the great Corinthian colony in far-away Sicily, as being far more close to him than a man of any other race. And he always felt that any Greek, even though he came from the rudest parts of the country, Arcadia or Ætolia, or places like these, was infinitely better than any outsider. The outsider might be a high-bred Persian gentleman from a city far greater and more gorgeous than any of the Greek towns, and the Greek might be a shepherd or an olive-grower from a rough little country place; still the Greek was a Hellene, and the Persian was a barbarian, whose speech no decent human being could understand. All the same the Greek never dreamed of the feeling which we have for our country. We may belong to London or to Edinburgh, or to some little country village in England or Scotland; but we think of ourselves first and last as Britons, not as people of this town or that. Our laws are the laws of Britain, not of any town in the land; our loyalty, however loyal we may be to our town, is first of all to our country; our pride, no matter how proud we may be of our native place, is the pride of Britain and of Britain's greatness.

All this a Greek would not have understood in the least. It would have seemed to him that all our feelings were upside down. With him it was his city, first, and last, and all the time. Everything that we give to our country, and feel about our country, he gave and felt to and about his city. There were no laws of Greece, holding in every part of the country, though there were some religious customs and ideas and ceremonies that prevailed everywhere. The Greek thought of himself as an Athenian, a Spartan, or a Theban; he only called himself a Hellene to distinguish himself from the barbarians. His city had its own form of government and its own laws, both quite different from those of the next town twenty miles away. His pride was in the splendour, the power, the great history of his own town, rather than in that of the land to which it belonged. To us it would seem a most unheard-of piece of treason that Edinburgh should make war on Glasgow, or Liverpool on Manchester; but a Greek saw nothing strange in his town making war on another Greek town only a few miles away over the hills from his own town; in fact it seemed to him the most natural thing in the world to do. Sometimes he carried the thing so far that, to make his city victorious over the rival city, he would call in the help of the very barbarians whom all the Greeks despised as scarcely better than beasts. In the great war between Athens and Sparta, for instance, each town in turn tried to overwhelm the other by bringing in help from those very Persians against whom they had both fought side by side only a generation or so before.

It seems very topsy-turvy, doesn't it, to our ideas? But to the Greeks our ideas would have seemed just as topsy-turvy. For there was nothing clearer to their minds than that the city was the one perfect form of state, that it was to his city that a man owed his allegiance, and that in city-life alone could man make the best of himself, and reach the greatest heights of civilization, comfort, and learning. And really, when we think of all that they did, and what wonderful results they got out of this way of theirs, which seems so strange to us, we must not be in too great a hurry to assume that they were wrong and we are right. The Greek's idea would have a very poor chance to-day, and his little city-states would be ground to dust between the great empires of the modern world; but in their own time they did their work perhaps better than it could have been done by our method.

No doubt it all meant that Greece could never become a great empire. Athens did try for a while to make an empire, but she failed out of sheer exhaustion, because she was far too small a state for the task. But if your city-state was small, it was all the more compact and interesting. You loved it all the more intensely, because you knew from your childhood almost every stone of its buildings, and could see almost every acre of its land from the temple-crowned fortress in the heart of it. Its wars were not far-away things that only professional soldiers took much interest in, as so many wars of a great empire must always be. You knew by sight, and perhaps by name, almost every soldier of the little citizen-army that marched away out of the city gates, and your anxiety, while the strife went on, was all the greater, your pride in victory all the keener, your sorrow and shame in defeat all the sorer.

In fact, patriotism was to the Greek a thing of whose intensity we can scarcely have any idea. It was, of course, a far narrower thing than we understand by the word, since it only referred to a single city and the little patch of land around it; but, if the channel was narrow, the current was all the deeper and stronger. A Greek counted nothing too much to do or to give for his beloved city. His devotion might claim his life, as with the Spartans who died at Thermopylæ, and whose epitaph was—

"Go tell at Sparta, thou that passest by,

That here, obedient to her word, we lie";

or it might show itself, as at Athens, in the intense pride which the Athenian took in making his city more beautiful, more stately, more cultivated than any other in Hellas; but it was always wonderful. When the Athenian silver mines at Laurium, the property of the state, began to yield a revenue, Themistocles had little difficulty in persuading the citizens that, instead of each man claiming his own share, as he had a right to do, they should all unite in devoting the whole sum to the building of a fleet—the fleet that saved Greece from Persia at Salamis. I wonder if all the citizens in our land would be patriotic enough to do a thing like that to-day.

Each young Athenian, when he was enrolled in his tribe, took an oath, not only that he would never disgrace his arms or desert his comrade, but also that he would hand on his fatherland greater and better than he found it. And if the rivalries of the different cities led to a ruinous waste of the energy that might have made Greece mistress of the world, we must not forget that there was a nobler side to this rivalry, and that the citizen's pride in his city was the spur that made the Greek accomplish the wonders of art and literature which are the marvel of all ages. "As iron sharpeneth iron," so the generous rivalry of the Greek cities made each citizen eager and alert to see his own city taking a foremost place. What other group of towns no larger than the cities of Greece can show one hundredth part of the glories of building, of sculpture, of learning and literature that these can show? It was the intense patriotism bred by the eager life of the city-states that alone made such triumphs possible.

How then did these little states, that have done so much for the world, first arise? I have told you already how Nature had so divided Greece by bays and mountains as to make a united nation almost impossible—each little plain, separated from its neighbours by sea-loch or mountain range, making a home for a separate clan or tribe, which lived its own life between the mountain-wall and the sea. Let us look for a little at the most famous of them all—Athens, with its land of Attica.

You have a triangular piece of land about the size of Kent, projecting into the Ægean Sea, which washes two sides of the triangle. The third side is walled in by the mountain ranges of Kithairon and Parnes, which cut it off from its northern neighbour, Bœotia, where the Thebans live. Between the mountain-wall and the sea, you have a clan of Ionians, living in scattered villages, and finding their main industry in olive-growing. The light soil is not good for grain, and what between the call of the sea, and the need for importing corn, the clan is naturally inclined to seafaring and trading.

But our villages are far too scattered and defenceless for these troubled times. The Ægean swarms with the long black galleys of the sea-rovers, for piracy is looked upon as a regular and quite gentlemanly trade. Sad experience teaches us that we must take steps to resist these wandering gentry more efficiently than any group of scattered villages can do. We must have a central fortress, where the strength of the land can gather and its treasures be stored in time of need. Here, almost half-way down the western side of the triangle, is the very place for it—a great flat-topped rock, standing alone, and towering almost two hundred feet above the plain. It is four miles from the sea, so that we have good warning of any pirate raid, and can be ready to meet the rovers when they come; and yet it is handy enough to the sea, if we want to go trading ourselves, for there are bays with fine beaching-ground for our own galleys. On this rock, then, we will build a castle and a temple—the castle, to make our land secure, the temple to honour our tribal God; and in time of danger folks can come here to shelter from the enemy.

Gradually people begin to find it handier to live under the shadow of the great rock than merely to run to it when the sails of the rovers are sighted; and so a town begins to grow up on the lower ground around the Acropolis, as we now call our stronghold. For a while we go on as before, each little village in the plain governing itself, though in time of war we all obey the chief who has his home in the castle on the rock. But that is not good either, for with so many governments it is difficult to organize the clan for war; and so at last one strong wise chief (people say it was Theseus, the prince who slew the Minotaur) persuades or compels us to make the town by the rock the seat of government for the whole land. We can't all go to live there, for it is too far to travel to our farms, and only the wealthier folks from the country take up town houses. But we are all enrolled as citizens of Athens (so our new city is called, after its virgin-goddess Athene); we all, by and by, come to have a vote and a share in the government; and we all call Athens our Metropolis—our Mother-city.

Bit by bit the city grows in importance, and the land around it becomes more and more only a convenience for the city, until at last the rude fortress on the rock has grown into a magnificent citadel, with temple after temple crowning it in splendour of marble and bronze, and a great town lies beneath in its shadow, with stately squares and streets, and magnificent porticoes and theatres. Down on the shore lies a busy seaport, with three great harbours, Peiræus, Munychia, and Phalerum, and the four-mile stretch between the city and its port is enclosed between battlemented walls, which make town and harbour practically one. Athens dominates all Attica now, and every free citizen in the farthest corner of the little plain looks to the city by the Acropolis as his city, for which he lives, and for which, if need be, he is ready to die.

Of course the story would be a little different in the case of each city-state in Greece; but its main outlines would always be the same. A scattered tribe living in little open villages—the need of a fortified centre for refuge and defence—the choosing of a strong hill or rock for the building of a fortress—and then the gradual growth of the city and the city-state round the castle and temple on the rock. So it was at Corinth, with its stately Acrocorinthus; so at Argos, with its Larissa; so at Thebes, with its Kadmeia. The one outstanding exception to the rule was the state of Sparta, which remained to the end of its existence nothing but a cluster of open villages, where a small warrior-caste of knights, who never deigned to soil their hands with trade or field-labour, ruled by force and fear over a great crowd of slaves and serfs.

Strangely enough it was Athens and Sparta, the two states of Greece that lay wide apart as the poles from one another in almost every detail of their constitution and life, and that were destined in after days to be deadly rivals for supremacy in Greece, that were called upon to stand shoulder to shoulder against the might of the vast empire of Persia in the great struggle which settled, once and for all, whether Europe should become a mere province of an Eastern empire, or be left free to work out its own fate and to shape its own civilization.

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