Gilbert Murray
Greek Studies

It is surely a remarkable occurrence that Hellenism, a particular civilization which existed for its moment of history and passed away, should have remained so long for after ages and for utterly foreign nations something like an ideal, or at least an inspiration. It is common enough for a nation to look back with pride and longing to its own time of greatness. But through most of antiquity and again since the Renaissance, Greek civilization of the classical period has rightly or wrongly been something like a Golden Age to the imagination of very different nations, or at least to the more intellectual elements in them, without any illegitimate support from mere national pride or interest. Like all ideals this ideal Hellenism is very different from the reality on which it is based; and the present lecture is meant to make a comparison between the ideal and the reality in a number of separate domains.

Our own western civilization of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is to a marked degree both Hellenic and un-Hellenic. Historically we are, to a greater extent than we ever realize, the children of Greece in literature, in art, in thought, in ethics, in politics, and notably in religion; on the other hand, we are, to a degree unparalleled in history, a rich, highly organized material civilization in control—or shall I say under the control?—of material possessions and inventions; an age of machinery, of mass production, of economic complexity and terrific governmental strength. The civilization of the Greeks was conspicuous for the very opposite qualities. The arm of their government was neither long nor strong. Their clothes, however graceful, were little more than a sleeveless shirt and a blanket. I suspect they went mostly barefoot. At any rate, they thought the Lydians luxurious and 'soft-footed' because they habitually wore shoes. They had no proper roads, such as the Persians had, no drains like those of the Romans or even the Minoans, no palaces to compare with the Persian palaces. Indeed no Greek community in the classical period was at all comparable in size, wealth, population, material splendour, military strength, or steady permanence to—for instance—the great River Civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia. By all such standards the Greeks come out as little better than savages. The greatness of Greece depended on quite other qualities.

Writers often try to understand ancient Greece by comparing it with our own civilization, but of course that is quite unhistorical. The best starting-point for a study of Hellenism is to notice the significant differences between Greek civilization and those which preceded or accompanied it.

Now the first thing that strikes us is that in Greece there was no divine 'Great King' in the Babylonian or Egyptian sense, nor even in the Persian or Minoan sense. For one thing, Greek States are on a small scale; for another, Greek potentates are always sharply warned that they are not gods and will only get into trouble if they think they are. They must not put up megalomaniac inscriptions about their own glory; they must not expect to have concubines and attendants sacrificed on their tombs. They must not expect people to kiss the earth on entering into their presence or to walk backwards on leaving it. The law is always above them. They must not put people to death without trial; not seize other men's wives and daughters; not amuse themselves or the dregs of their people with gladiatorial games. Before they accepted such things as that, as the philosopher Demonax put it, they must 'overthrow the Altar of Pity in the marketplace'. Even in war, where most moral rules tend to disappear, Greek custom kept a high standard. There must be no triumph, no boasting, no maltreatment of enemy dead, no killing of prisoners of war, no torture. Furthermore, the Greek conqueror must put up no permanent war memorial, only what they called a 'trophy', that is, a wooden pole and cross-bar with armour upon it to mark the site of the victory a monument which the conqueror must never repair and the conquered never pull down, but both must allow gradually to break up and sink into the earth as the memory of the old bitterness faded. The Egyptian or Assyrian put up gigantic limestone reliefs, still extant after two thousand years, showing himself in superhuman size receiving tribute from his enemies; or, in the Assyrian case at least, making pyramids of their skulls and leading their kings into captivity by fish-hooks stuck through their noses after their eyes have been put out. How else shall a great king show his greatness? Even the Romans,' long afterwards, had their horrible triumphs, the conqueror in pomp on his chariot with the spoils; chained prisoners dragged behind him, and some of them strangled in the Tullianum. They made permanent sculptures in stone on triumphal arches afterwards, to keep the memories of glory and humiliation alive. Roughly speaking, in the Great Monarchies there was only one duty, obedience. 'Except for one man, all was slavery'; and that one, so far as he had any duty at all, had merely to obey some Great King in his own image among the gods. For the Greek there are many duties. There is a whole system of ethics. He is a citizen, one among others, whose rights are equal to his. Hellenism, we find, becomes in the fullest sense a humane civilization.

One can see some of the causes that led to this great difference. First a geographical cause: Greece is a country of small, broken valleys, like Switzerland, except for its harbours and islands, a place for many independent cities but not for any one great over-mastering city, like Babylon or Nineveh or Memphis. Then an historical cause: while Mesopotamia and Crete were both conquered by invaders from the north and passed through their Heroic Age or 'time of troubles', the Heroic Age in Greece was quite peculiar in its action. It resulted in no uniform subjugation of the natives by the invaders. There was no fixed centre of sovereignty for the conquerors, and there were always the sea and the islands offering chances of flight and refuge for the defeated. In the Greek or pre-Greek 'time of troubles', when people were flying from the invaders or from those whom the invaders were driving before them, there seems to have been a complete and general collapse of the social structure. Look at the Book of Leviticus with its meticulous list of taboos and rules of behaviour, or even at the detailed laws of Hammurabi. Most early tribes had similarly elaborate codes, but in Greece they were broken up.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.