(This week finds me in Florida helping my son with some stuff. Busyness or lethargy – take your pick – has prevented me from doing something topical, so here’s a chapter from my as yet unpublished history of the world. It on the short side, so shouldn’t tax your patience too much. As always, you have the option to ignore.)
Greece – Birthplace of Democracy and the Olive Burger
By Patrick F. Cannon
While the Sumerians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babbleonians and their ilk (including the pesky Israelites) were battling among themselves for supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean, to their left (if they were facing north) the great Greek city-states that would ultimately conquer them were developing.
The blind poet Homer was describing their exploits at around 800 BC, so that we know the famous Trojan War must have occurred before then. You will recall the bard’s description of the famous Trojan horse, left outside the gates of Troy, presumably as a peace offering, but in actuality containing a group of bloodthirsty Greeks. When the unwary Trojans dragged the horse into the city, the Greeks leapt out and laid waste to the hapless populace. Here, of course, we have the reason for the famous saying “beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” This has caused endless trouble ever since, particularly for those marrying into Greek families.
As the city states developed, they began inter-city sporting competitions called the Olympic Games, named after Mount Olympus, which was the nearby birthplace of the Gods, who got in free. Many of the events are still contested today, including foot races, discuss throwing, wrestling, the javelin toss and the rock (now shot) put. Contestants, all men, wore no clothes because they were so proud of their muscles. This unashamed nudity eventually became the downfall of the Olympiad, not because of public prudery (which was in any case strictly a Judeo-Christian concept) but because there was no place to put a sponsor’s logo. When the Olympics were revived in the later 19th Century, the organizers made sure that everyone was fully clothed and fully sponsored.
Athens and Sparta soon became the dominant cities. The Athenians invented democracy, philosophy, art and the corner restaurant. Sparta invented only militarism, but it was generally enough to sway the balance in their favor
It is Athens we think of when we think of Greece. Its Golden Age is typified by the great orator, Pericles, whose wisdom brought forth the first flowering of democracy. Great architecture and sculpture appeared, not to be surpassed for the next 2,000 years, when the fig leaf was once again discarded. Drama, as we know it today, was perfected. To playwrights like Aeschylus and Sophocles we owe the basic tragic plot (hero makes love to mother, loses eyesight); to Aristophanes the essentials of comedy (hero makes love to mother, who thinks it’s a hoot).
The Greeks also invented mathematics, philosophy and the oliveburger. Socrates came up with the revolutionary idea that truth actually existed, or as he put it: “I walked into a tree and broke my nose; therefore I must concede the truth of the tree.” He was so busy declaiming his ideas, he didn’t have time to write them down. This chore was handled by his graduate teaching assistant, Plato, who later came into his own as the author of The Republic and teacher of Aristotle. Aristotle was a true Renaissance man, although no one was aware of it at that time. He made advances in biology and mathematics and was the inventor of logic. (Who can forget his apt example: if A hits B and B hits A, then A better hit B again or run away.)
Aristotle in his turn was the teacher of the greatest Greek of them all, Alexander III, conqueror of the known world. To the Greeks, of course, the “known” world included only Spain on the west and Persia on the east. Alexander didn’t know about India, so he declined to conquer it. He also didn’t know about China, although the Chinese knew about themselves, but not about the Greeks. To the Chinese, the known world was China, an attitude they retain to this day.
Alexander was the son of Phillip II of Macedon, who had united all Greece under his sway. Not everyone was willing to swing to his tune, so he was assassinated in 336 BC. Alexander inherited the throne and soon had all Greece swinging and swaying in perfect harmony. But like many young Greeks, he decided to emigrate in 334 BC and took his army along for company.
Persia was Greece’s ancient enemy and Alexander set about conquering their extensive empire. Even though the Persian forces under Darius were far more numerous, Alexander’s brilliant generalship always seemed to catch them napping, or eating lunch. The campaign took 10 years, mainly because the Greeks expected regular time outs to rape, loot and pillage. Nevertheless, they got as far as modern Kashmir before Alexander’s soldiers had had enough. They had been away from their wives and families for 10 years and were understandably concerned about their constancy. They had also reached the frontier of the known world and were a little edgy. Even though Alexander wept that he had no more worlds to conquer, he wasn’t silly enough to go it alone, so he turned back.
Alexander died in 323 BC. It was believed he was poisoned, but without DNA testing, we’ll never know. What we do know is that his generals were soon squabbling among themselves with predictable results. While the empire soon broke up, they did leave behind many interesting ruins, a boon to tourism to this day.
Copyright 2017, Patrick F. Cannon