\ Views of the Ancient Greeks | unlimitedi.net
Skip to main content
Soulless Zombie's picture
Posted in

Louisa gave the idea for this thread, for resources on some of the views that the ancient Greeks held on various subjects. Will be using this thread to post some of the odd things I can find. Some will be simple links to other sites, while others will be actual things I can go through and write myself.

So, to start it off, a series of three handouts on the Ancient Greek view of death - including the underworld.

Apollo and Hades
The Underworld (part one)
The Underworld (part two)

Religion & Magic

Jadyn's picture

N.B.: This is based on the rememberance of lecture notes from various courses. My primary bias comes from Professor Steven Rutledge.

To us, magic brings up one of two thoughts - either shows like Buffy and Sabrina on the one hand, or David Copperfield on the other. To the ancients, however, magic was a force that was both very real and very dangerous. This is relflected in the law banning the use of magic under the Emperor Augustus. Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass, if I remember correctly, had to defend himself in court on charges of using magic.

Religion was also viewed as extremely important. You had to do everything right to keep the Gods happy. Omens would be given greater attention by the ancients than we would today. One story, which I realise is Roman and not Greek, illustrates this point well. Before battle, the augurs reported to the general that the sacred chickens would not eat - a bad sign. The general, to get a favourable reading, is said to have siezed their cages, thrown them into the river and declared "If they will not eat, let them drink!"

A further point to stress the importance that the Ancients put on religion. Every year, Athens had a large festival to the God Dionysus (more about festivals later). During the war with Sparta, Athens stood on the verge of bankruptsy and defeat. However, they still put on this elaborate religious festival. That's how important religion was to the ancients.

(Brief note: just to cite my source for the following, this is based on a document atThe Ancient History Sourcebook)

For festivals, I just read a number of descriptions. The important thing to note is that these would be big events. The annual festival in Athens involved the famous play contest, in which playwrights presented trilogies of plays. A letter dated in 250 BCE from Demophon to Ptolemaios asks for flutes, drums, cymbols, and castanets. Along with this, cheeses, vegetables, and fish. Several performers were mentioned by name, to be sent with their finest.

According to Lucian (De Salt, 150 CE), each town celebrates the Gods according to their own rites "to Egyptian deities generally by lament, to the Hellenic for the most part by choruses, but to the non-Hellenic by the clangor of cymbalists, drummers, and flutists...." A number of the descriptions will often involve an elaborate procession of some sort or another.

Philosophers: Pre-Socratics

Jadyn's picture

Just to try to set the intellectual climate of the time, some information on some of the Ancient Philosophers. All dates are BCE.

Thales: Thales is the earliest philosopher we have fragments from. Born perhaps in 625, he is the first of the three philosophers of the "Milesian School." An interesting story told of Thales says that he was faulted for his poverty, then used his knowledge to make a killing in agriculture, thus proving Philosophers can be rich but they are not interested in this. In addition, Thales is said to have believed that all things were full of Gods.

Anaximander: The second Ionian philosopher of the Milesian School. Supposedly, he was the first person to construct a map of the world. His single basic substance is the 'indeffinate' or 'boundless.' He also becomes the first to indicate a lawlike order to regulate change between opposing forces in the world.

Anaximines: Last of the milesians. His basic substance is air, which becomes every other substance through condensation and rarefaction. Air is a god of some sort as well for Anaximines. The sun, moon, and heavenly bodies "are carried upon the air on account of their flatness."

Xenophenes of Colophon: There is some debate as to wether or not Xenophenes should be considered a philosopher. In a way, he is the first theologian and a social critic. Xenophenes was a wandering poet, who rejected belief in the Olympian Gods. Xenophenes believed in a single non-anthrophromorphic God, who was all-hearing, all-seeing, and all-thinking.

Pythagoras of Samos: We don't know much about the views of Pythagoras himself, but know more about the Pythagoreons. What is clear, however, is that he had a reputation for great learning and believed in the transmigration of the souls - a famous story told of Pythagoras has him asking someone to cease kicking a dog, because he recognized its voice as belonging to a friend. They believed the principles of number were the key to understanding the universe, and placed ratio to the scales of music. An important Pythagoreon number was 4, and the sum of the first four numbers (10).

As an interesting side note, the Pythagoreon communities are the only ones I am aware of who admitted women philosophers to their ranks on a more regular basis. Some letters from Pythagoreon women arrive. To my knowledge, none are available in translation.

Heraclitus of Ephesus: Born around 450, and called "The Riddler" for his seemingly paradoxical statements. Heraclitus believed there was a rational structure to the universe called the logos which we should live in accordance with, an idea later picked up by the Stoics. The Unity of Opposites figures prominently in Heraclitus as well - the bow (bios) is called life (bios), but brings death. A good example of his paradoxical remarks is his claim, "The road up and the road down are the one and the same." Often attributed to him is a doctrine of universal flux - a number of fragements make reference to being unable to step into the same river twice. Another fragement says, "It is necessary to know that war is common and justice is strife and that all things happen in accordance with strife and necessity."

Another Pre-Socratic

Jadyn's picture

Parmenides of Elea: The philosophy of Parmenides, able to be called the first metaphysician, comes to us in the form of a poem where he recieves a revelation from the Goddess. Parmenidian philosophy held there were only two ways of talking about the world: we can speak of what is and what is not. Further, the latter is utter nonsense. A series of paradoxical arguments are generated by Parmenides based on these for the impossibility of motion, change, creation, and destruction.

Views of the Ancient Greeks

Jadyn's picture

Socrates of Athens: Perhaps one of the most famous philosophers, known for his method of questioning. We have no direct writings of Socrates, and three different portraits of him. Aritophanes, in Clouds ridicules Socrates, making him look like one of the earlier Milesians and a Sophist. Plato's early dialogues present a picture of Socrates, by his own admission, "rejuvenated and reinigored." Xenophon provides a third portrait.

What we do know of Socrates is that he was President of Athens for a day, and all hell broke loose, acting in what he believed to be a just manner rather than how others wanted him to act. Charges of Impiety and Corruption of Youth were eventually brought against him, of which he was found guilty by a slim margin. Defendants were allowed to recomend an alternative to the death penalty that the jury then decided on. Socrates suggested a form of public welfare, being housed and fed at state expense. The jury overwhelmingly voted for death, leading to his drinking of Hemlock.

Some Philosophical Traditions

Jadyn's picture

The Sophists: Name for a collective group of philosophers, mainly moral and social thinkers. The Sophists are often accused of "making the weaker argument stronger," thought of as both fascinating and dangerous. Protagoras, the most famous Sophist, was born in 490, about 20 years before Socrates. Sophists were known for doing philosophy before large, well-paying crowds. Today, the term "Sophistry" refers to a plausible but misleading or fallacious argument.

The Stoics: Founded by Zeno of Elea, the Stoics are probably one of the lesser-known schools. They were materialists, who took the Heraclitean concept of the logos to a new level. The universe is regarded as a rational being, and the famous motto of this school of philosophy was "live in accord with nature." The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurlieus and Nero's Tutor, Seneca, were both Stoics.

Skeptics: Ancient Skepticism, unlike modern skepticism, does not engage in such oddities as doubting the existance of physical objects. Rather, the ancient skeptics held that when we looked at a broad range of issues, we find that there is as much to be said for one side as the other. As a result, the only rational course of action is to suspend judgement, leaving us with only the way things appear to us. Skepticism eventually found its home in the New Academey. Sextus Empiricus comes to mind as a good example of the Ancient Skeptic.

The Epicureans: The name given to Epicurus and his followers, perhaps most well known for their ethical theory. The Epicureans held that our final end was a form of pleasure, though it would involve developing virtue.

The Peripatetics: It would be difficult to mention schools of Ancient Philosophy without the Peripatetics. The Peripatetics were followers of Aristotle, and decend from his tradition.

Not More Philosophy! :)

Jadyn's picture

As the subject says, leaving philosophy now. Instead, will turn to the subject of slavery. My source is, once again, a page at the Ancient History Sourcebook and assorted lecture notes. One note - slavery for us usuallly brings up certain racial connotations. Slavery in the ancient world did not carry these connotations. The Greeks and Romans enslaved everyone. In addition, at least in Roman society, there was a great deal of social mobility available for slaves (something you may want to consider when writing Arbitus, Dave).

A remark of the orator Demosthenes gives a hint as to the social status of slaves in 350 BCE: "If, gentlemen of the jury, you will turn over in your minds the question what is the difference between being a slave and being a free man, you will find that the biggest difference is that the body of a slave is made responsible for all his misdeeds, whereas corporal punishment is the last penalty to inflict on a free man." Who was properly considered a citizen, it should be noted, could vary greatly among the city states.

However, the main source cited is the discussion of slavery in Aristotle's Politics. The "nature and office" of a slave is to be by nature another's man, wholly in his power and not your own. They are regarded as intruments of action, living property, seperable from the owner. Further, he sees some people as slaves by nature - men who are unfit somehow to govern themselves. Aristotle's remarks regarding women are not entirely charitable. While critical of some of the ways of becoming slaves, it is clear from Aristotle's attacks that one could become slaves through war. Everything of the vanquished in war was regarded as property of the victor - including persons of the vanquished. To become a slave by being captured in war would not be uncommon.

Dating in Antiquity

Jadyn's picture

Obviously, in Ancient Rome and Greece, they did not use AD/BC or CE/BCE dates. Well, how was the date kept?

The answer for the Romans (again, this is for Dave's benefit) is two ways. One was by the names of the Consuls. Another was by years A.U.C. (after the foundation of the city). 63 B.C., for example, would be either Antonio et Cicerone consulibus or 691 A.U.C - the year of Rome's founding is traditionally 753 BCE by our system.

Greek dates are much more confusing. Every city literally had its own system - and the few I was told I honestly don't remember what exactly they were. However, they would be similar to the Roman. Perhaps years since founding the city, or names of chief officials, and remember one city using the names of the priests of one of the temples.

The Greek Theatre

Jadyn's picture

Done specially for Louisa. :) As usual, all dates BCE unless otherwise noted.

Greek theatre, it is thought, has its origins in the Diphyram - which as the name suggests has something to do with Dionysus (if I remember correctly, a religious ritual or festival of some sort). Eventually, one member of the Chorus stepped out to assume roles. Aeschelus (525-456) added a second actor to drama. 7 of his plays survive, including the only trilogy to come down to us intact.

Every year at Athens, during the great festival to Dionysus, there would be a contest between playwrights. A trilogy of connected dramas would be presented, followed by a shorter piece parodying them called a satyr play.

Greek plays all took place in not just a single act, but a single scene, usually revolving around a single topic. For example, Oedipus Rex deals entirely with Oedipus trying to deal with the curse to come on Thebes, while the comedy Clouds is a parody of Socrates. The main character is evident from undergoing an agnagnorisis, a kind of insight into the main problem of the play. From time to time, the main actors leave the stage, and the Chorus would comment on the action; sometimes, there would be interaction between a main actor and the Chorus, or a particular member of the Chorus.

Performance would usually have an all-male cast wearing masks. Theatres would usually be cut into hill sides for the seating. This was followed by the Orchestra pit for the Chorus, the stage itself, and a sort of scenery house at the back.

Highly recomended is an 8-minute parody of Oedipus Rex done by A Prarie Home Companion. You will need Real Audio to hear it. The script may be found at http://prairiehome.org/performances/19961116/96_1116OEDIPUS.htm along with a link to the real audio.

The Greek Language

Jadyn's picture

As some of you know, I used to be a student of Greek before being forced to drop due to lack of time, and hope to pick it up in the future. However, after finding my old Greek text, I felt that is might be nice since we are set in Ancient Greece (by my calculations, the time period would likely be sometime around 74-44 BCE, if one of the incidents between Xena and Caesar is based on the one I think it is, but I digress) just thought it would be interesting to have some idea what the language sounded like.

What follows is my attempt at a phonetic translation of the story found on page 3 of Athenaze. English punctuation rules have been followed rather than the Greek.

Ha Dicaeopolis gar estin, oikei de ha Dicaeopolis ouk en tais Athenais alla en tois agrois; autourgos gar estin. Georgei oun ton kleron kai ponei en tois agrois. Tsalepos de de estin ha bios; ha gar kleros esti mikros, makros de ha ponos. Aiei ouv ponei ha Dikaeopolis kai pollakis stenakei kai legei. "O Zeo, tsalepos estin ha bios; atelestos gar estin ha ponos, mikros de ha kleros kai on polun siton parexei." Alla (cannot translate) estin ha anthropos kai aoknos; pollakis oun xaipei; eleutheros gar esti kai autourgos; filei de ton oikon. Kalos gar estin ha kleros kai siton parexei ou polun alla ikanon.

Facebook Share