Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon
The Story of Mankind by  Hendrik Van Loon

The Greeks

Meanwhile the Indo-European Tribe of the Hellenes Was Taking Possession of Greece

T HE Pyramids were a thousand years old and were beginning to show the first signs of decay, and Hammurabi, the wise king of Babylon, had been dead and buried several centuries, when a small tribe of shepherds left their homes along the banks of the River Danube and wandered southward in search of fresh pastures. They called themselves Hellenes, after Hellen, the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha. According to the old myths these were the only two human beings who had escaped the great flood, which countless years before had destroyed all the people of the world, when they had grown so wicked that they disgusted Zeus, the mighty God, who lived on Mount Olympus.

Of these early Hellenes we know nothing. Thucydides, the historian of the fall of Athens, describing his earliest ancestors, said that they "did not amount to very much," and this was probably true. They were very ill-mannered. They lived like pigs and threw the bodies of their enemies to the wild dogs who guarded their sheep. They had very little respect for other people's rights, and they killed the natives of the Greek peninsula (who were called the Pelasgians) and stole their farms and took their cattle and made their wives and daughters slaves and wrote endless songs praising the courage of the clan of the Achaeans, who had led the Hellenic advance-guard into the mountains of Thessaly and the Peloponnesus.

But here and there, on the tops of high rocks, they saw the castles of the AEgeans and those they did not attack for they feared the metal swords and the spears of the AEgean soldiers and knew that they could not hope to defeat them with their clumsy stone axes.


An Aegean City on the Greek Mainland

For many centuries they continued to wander from valley to valley and from mountain side to mountain side. Then the whole of the land had been occupied and the migration had come to an end.

That moment was the beginning of Greek civilisation. The Greek farmer, living within sight of the AEgean colonies, was finally driven by curiosity to visit his haughty neighbours. He discovered that he could learn many useful things from the men who dwelt behind the high stone walls of Mycenae, and Tiryns.

He was a clever pupil. Within a short time he mastered the art of handling those strange iron weapons which the AEgeans had brought from Babylon and from Thebes. He came to understand the mysteries of navigation. He began to build little boats for his own use.


The Achaeans Take an Aegean City

And when he had learned everything the AEgeans could teach him he turned upon his teachers and drove them back to their islands. Soon afterwards he ventured forth upon the sea and conquered all the cities of the AEgean. Finally in the fifteenth century before our era he plundered and ravaged Cnossus and ten centuries after their first appearance upon the scene the Hellenes were the undisputed rulers of Greece, of the AEgean and of the coastal regions of Asia Minor. Troy, the last great commercial stronghold of the older civilisation, was destroyed in the eleventh century B.C. European history was to begin in all seriousness.


The Fall of Cnossus

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