Chapter 4 The Persian and Greek World

Section 4 The Development of Greek Culture 

Like other peoples, the Greeks displayed both their values and their conception of the nature of reality in their arts, their literature, and their religious and philosophical ideals. Above all, this meant expressing their sense of arete, meaning excellence or efficiency. In the arts they sought a sense of balance, symmetry, and proportion. In religion they sought to understand the divine order of the universe. Eventually, through philosophy, they pursued an even clearer understanding of Nature, meaning both the world around them and the nature of humanity itself. 

While the Greeks may have been divided by their allegiances to tribe and polis, they nevertheless remained in their own eyes a single people, different from other peoples, with a common cultural identity. Despite their political divisions, three fundamental elements underpinned this sense of common identity - language, religion, and geography. Geography united them even as it separated them - for although the mountainous nature of the Greek peninsula divided city from city, it also forced most of them to adapt to the common element of the sea in order to survive. And the sea provided both the common lifestyle of a fishing (and eventually a trading) people, as well as a highway that connected all the city-states, and even allowed the establishment of new city-states beyond Greek shores. Certainly the sea provided enough connection among them all that, despite the difficulties of overland communications, the Greek language did not evolve too differently from locale to locale. Even after the age of colonization had spread Greeks from the coasts of Spain to the eastern end of the Black Sea, variations in the Greek language amounted to no more than the present-day differences in English as it is spoken around the globe from India to Britain, the Americas and Australia. 

A common religious and secular literature also prevented the fragmentation of Greek into dialects that could not be understood by one another - for just as Shakespeare and the Bible have provided a common source for English-speakers, so Homer and Hesiod provided a common source for the Greeks. The literature of Homer and Hesiod illustrates too the religious unity of the Greeks. For all Greeks recognized the same Olympian gods - so called because they were thought to dwell on Mt. Olympus in northern Greece - although individually they may have been devoted to different particular deities from the pantheon. Moreover, in honor of the Olympian gods, all Greeks celebrated certain annual festivals, known as the Pan-Hellenic Games, even if it meant temporarily suspending wars between rival poleis to do so. 

The oldest and most important were the Olympic Games, held every four years at Olympia, outside the city of Elis, in honor of the god Zeus. So significant were the Olympics that the Greeks actually dated events according to the "Olympiad" in which they occurred. The Olympics themselves occurred in the first year of the Olympiad. The year after, two additional festivals were held in different months: the Nemean Games, held in honor of Zeus outside the city of Nemea; and the Isthmian Games honoring Poseidon, great god of the sea, outside the city of Corinth. The Pythian Games honoring the god Apollo occurred in the third year of the Olympiad near his shrine at Delphi. The Nemean and Isthmian games were held again in the fourth year, before the Olympics started the whole cycle all over again. While all the games eventually consisted of athletic contests, the Pythian Games were originally organized as competitions in music and poetry, in recognition of Apollo as the god who most inspired and watched over these activities. 


Greek Religion and Mythology

Throughout the Archaic and Classical periods, the polis lay at the heart of the Greek sense of identity. From the beginning, however, the polis was not just a political and economic organization, it was also a religious institution. Religion for the Greeks, as for other Indo-Europeans, was a way to explain and understand the natural world in which they found themselves, and their own relationships to the forces of the universe over which they had no control. 

The early Greek tribes believed in a multitude of gods and goddesses that embodied the great forces of nature, as well as lesser spirits living in physical objects like trees, rocks, mountains, even streams and fountains. Over time, however, the Greeks developed and elaborated their notions of the nature of the gods and the natural world. They created a series of stories or myths that explained where the gods came from, how they created the world and the manner in which they came to rule over the universe. As they did so, their understanding of the nature of the divine order of the world also evolved. For example, as presented in Greek mythology, the earliest deities were apparently seen as rather impersonal, even abstract, forces of nature. Eventually, however, these early creator gods produced off-spring that overthrew and replaced them. Headed by Zeus, originally a sky god who came to be seen as the king of the younger generation of gods, these more personally developed gods and goddesses were all part of an extended heavenly family that seemed to suffer from many of the characteristics and dysfunctions of any human family, but on a larger-than-life scale appropriate to immortals. After overthrowing their parents, according to the mythology, this second generation of gods came to live on Mt. Olympus and were therefore known as the Olympian gods. 

Above all, what the Olympian gods represented for the Greeks was the maintenance of a natural order in the universe - instead of the chaos they believed the earlier creator gods and their first offspring, the Titans had embodied. Consequently, worship of the Olympian gods came to be seen as an essential affirmation of Nature, an orderly universe holding the forces of chaos at bay. This pursuit of order over chaos lay at the heart of both Greek religious practices and the ideal of the polis - it also came to dominate Greek conceptions of beauty and artistic excellence, and the accumulation, organization, and understanding of knowledge, or what the Greeks called philosophy.

Religious activities were both personal and public. Although the Greeks believed in all the deities of the Olympian pantheon, much like the early city-states of Mesopotamia many of the Greek city-states came to believe that they were under the protection of a particular god or goddess. For example, Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, was the patron deity of Athens. Sparta paid particular homage to Ares, the  god of war, and Artemis, the goddess of the hunt who was also associated with war. All the Greeks worshipped Zeus and his son Apollo, the god of sunlight, wisdom and prophecy. 

The Greeks looked to the gods for help and protection, offering them praise and sacrifices in the form of burnt offerings of animals and other foodstuffs. Alternatively, if the rites were neglected, or if any citizens were guilty of impiety and failing to honor the gods, they might withdraw their protection of the polis as a punishment. On rare occasions, when the Insecurity Index was especially high due to war, drought, or disease, apparently even humans were sacrificed to restore the favor of the gods. Consequently, religious practices were intimately bound up with concepts of patriotism. In fact, the development of the cults of these patron deities seems to have been part of the process by which the polis gradually superseded the local tribal identities of the Greeks - just as the cults of the city gods replaced local and tribal cults at the center of Greek religious life.

The gradual transformation of Greek mythology and religion  is perhaps best seen in the different ways the gods are presented in the two most important sources Greeks had about them - the great epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Theogeny of Hesiod. 


After the Persian Wars, the wealth and power of Athens attracted artists and teachers from throughout the Greek world to the city. As Greece's center of art and culture, Athens inspired many people whose artistic and literary contributions exerted a lasting impact on Western civilization. 

Poetry. The greatest poet of the fifth century was the Theban Pindar (ca. 518 -ca. 438 B.C.). Pindar, a professional and wandering poet, is best known for his "victory odes", poems celebrating individual victories of athletes in the different Pan-Hellenic games in Greece (such as the Olympic games). Pindar was an aristocrat writing for aristocratic patrons. He found aristocratic excellence (aretè)  in athletic achievements. In victory, he believed, man approached the divine. Celebrating the victory of a wrestler, for example, Pindar elegantly portrayed his conception in verse:  

We are things of a day. What are we? What are we not? The dream of a shadow is man, no more. But when the brightness comes, and God gives it, there is a shining of light on men, and their life is sweet. (Pythia 8. 446 B.C.) 

Greek Drama. One of the most popular means by which the Greeks explored the nature of their world and themselves was through theater. Greek theatre had its roots in the religious festivals of the god of wine and fertility Dionysus (or Bacchus as he was known to the Romans). Originally the play was a dialogue between one actor and a chorus of fifteen singers and dancers. The addition of a second and later of a third actor made possible a better use of the dialogues. The Greeks were the first people to write dramas, or plays containing action or dialogue, usually involving conflict and emotion. Focusing on the meaning of human existence and on man's actions and responsibilities, Greek theater became an educational experience for the public. 

In Athens, the spectators assembled in the theatre of Dionysus, which could accommodate between 14,000 and 17,000 spectators. Everybody could attend the plays, including women, foreigners, and slaves. The plays were organized and financed by rich citizens and the poor were given free tickets. Every March, three of the greatest playwrights from throughout the Greek world were invited to compete in the festival of the "Greater Dionysia." Over a three-day period, each author presented three tragedies and one "satyr" or semi-comic piece to the public. At the end of the festival, 10 judges chosen by lot from the citizens ranked the performances and awarded prizes.

In the early days of Greek drama, man was portrayed as powerless against the will of the Gods and destiny but, in the middle of the fifth century, Greek playwrights began to acknowledge human responsibility. The main focus of drama shifted from the acts of the gods to conflicts between human characters. In both cases, human beings constantly had to prove themselves by their courage and their determination to accept responsibility for both their circumstances and their actions. This evolution in the focus of Greek drama is perhaps best illustrated in the works of the three greatest Athenian playwrights of the fifth century, who often competed in the Greater Dionysus: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

From Aeschylus (ca. 525 - 456/5 B.C.) we have seven tragedies out of some eighty known titles. Although he was apparently the first to explore the very real and personal problems of human beings - such as the nature of good and evil in human relationships, murder, betrayal, forgiveness, and the potential for such human conflicts to disrupt society as a whole - for Aeschylus, men's actions were always controlled by the will of the gods, who often intervened directly in human affairs. With Sophocles (ca. 496-406 B.C.), on the other hand, the gods seem more remote, less personal. Instead of being passive victims of the gods, Sophocles' heroes and heroines were increasingly seen as having to make moral choices that would affect their own lives and the lives of those around them. The tragedy lay in trying to reconcile the demands of the divine universal order and those of human traditions and customs. To revolt against the divine order or to challenge it - what the Greeks called hubris, usually translated as 'human pride' - inevitably led to disaster and tragedy. Sophocles warns the public against the dangers of disregarding the order of the universe and the power of the gods: 

The man who goes his way overbearing in the word and deed, who fears no justice, honors no temples of the gods -- may an evil destiny seize him. And punish his ill-starred pride  (Oedipus the King). 

With Euripides (ca. 485-406 B.C.), however, neither the gods nor the divine order of the universe mattered as much as the individual human beings in his plays. For Euripides, human beings were free agents, clearly responsible for their own actions and thus in charge of their own destiny. Where Aeschylus and Sophocles saw tragedy as the result of human efforts to defy or escape the will of the gods and the natural order of things, for Euripides it was to be found in the flaws of individuals who allowed their reason to be overthrown by their emotions and passions. In his masterpiece Medea, for example, Euripides confronts his audience with a heroine who murders her own children as an act of vengeance against their father who has abandoned her to marry another woman. At this point, the question of moral responsibility is left entirely in the hands of human beings. The gods are neutral and cannot be blamed or appealed to for an answer. Human beings must make their own decisions and face the consequences of their actions alone; the results, as Euripides shows his audience, can be frightening. 

Greek Comedy. Greek comedies, which also originated at the festival honoring Dionysus, mocked ideas and people. No social and political institutions, for example, could escape the wit of Aristophanes (ca. 448-ca.380 B.C.). In his plays, Aristophanes poked fun at modern education, women, politicians, and legal institutions. There was a remarkably moralistic tone to Greek theater, however. Even in comedies, Greek spectators faced serious matters: Aristophanes used the Peloponnesian war for the background of many of his plays and if many scenes are extremely funny, the lesson he most tried to convey to his audience was the absurdity of the war. 

History. The Greek fascination with human nature and conduct accounts also for their interest in history. Two of the greatest historians belong to this period: Herodotus and Thucydides. Herodotus (ca. 484 - ca. 424 B.C.) the "father of history" wrote the history of the Persian wars "to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own  (i.e, the Greeks) and of other peoples", as he writes in the first sentence of his work. A Greek from Halicarnassus (Asia Minor), Herodotus was a wonderful storyteller, a man of insatiable curiosity who had traveled extensively in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Yet while he is perhaps our best literary source for the history of the Persian Empire and of Greece at the beginning of the 5th century B.C. he was nevertheless a child of his times - for example, he believed in divine interventions in history and sometimes even cited dreams, omens, and oracles to explain historical events.

Thucydides (ca. 460-ca.400 B.C.) was also a product of his times, but the times had changed by then. For Thucydides, men were the responsible actors in history; the gods did not intervene in their affairs. A rationalist, Thucydides wanted to write an account of the Peloponnesian war "not  (as) a piece of writing designed to meet the needs of an immediate public, but to last forever", as he states in his introduction (I,22). The contrast with Herodotus is evident: Herodotus wrote for the present; Thucydides for the future, for men to learn how to avoid the mistakes of the past and how to benefit from its positive lessons. A scientific approach to history, he believed, would serve as a guide for future political leaders. For Thucydides, the past was a laboratory to understand human nature and understanding human nature was the great project of the Athens of Pericles.


The evolution toward rationalism and secularism in Greek theatre and Greek history is also found in philosophy. The first philosophers that influenced Greek philosophy in the fifth century were still preoccupied with understanding the physical nature and the origin of the universe.

            Parmenides may be credited with two intellectual revolutions in western thought: he claimed that the nature of the universe should be investigated not necessarily through the senses but through the mind, introducing abstract thought into western philosophy.  But abstract concepts must be developed with rational and methodical ways, introducing formal logic into Greek philosophy.

            Empedocles must be credited with a theory of evolution, some 24 centuries before Darwin: according to the Greek philosopher, human beings were the result of natural selection, of adaptation to the environment. His contemporary, Anaxagoras, made another important step in philosophy when he dissociated mind from matter. Finally, Democritus closed the "cosmological" phase of Greek philosophy when he proposed an atomistic explanation of man and the universe. These intellectual revolutions found application in medicine with Hippocrates. This intellectual revolution later found its conclusion with the Sophists whose vision can be summarized with the dictum of one of them, Protagoras: Man is the measure of all things.


While the Spartans preferred a simpler, more ascetic existence, most Greek cities deliberately cultivated the arts, viewing them as a proof of the superiority of their civilization. The Athenians in particular surrounded themselves with beauty. They showed their love of Athens and their pride in their city by erecting impressive temples, gymnasiums, and theatres. They decorated these structures with their finest works of art, especially sculpture.

Architecture. Certainly the finest example of Greek classical architecture is the Parthenon erected on the Acropolis in Athens. Its ideal proportions and sculptural decorations were deliberately designed to metamorphose it into a piece of sculpture for the eyes and into the ideal of perfection for the mind. It housed a 40-foot high statue of Athena covered with gold and ivory (for the exposed flesh). 2530 pounds of gold (more gold than was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb) were used for the statue.


The sculptures that adorned the Parthenon were finely executed and represented mythological scenes associated with the city as well as a representation of the procession of citizens for the birthday of the goddess, the first example in Greek history of ordinary human beings being represented on a temple in place of gods and heroes. The Parthenon was thus more a temple to Athens than to her patron goddess. 

Sculpture. Few original works of Greek sculpture still exist. What we know about Greek sculpture has come chiefly from copies made later by the Romans. Among the true masterpieces of this period we find the bronze charioteer from Delphi (a rare original work) representing the ideal of human beauty and balance, the Discus Thrower  of Myron, an outstanding representation in sculpture of movement, and the Spear Bearer  by Polykleitos that epitomized the ideal of proportion and the application of the principle of weight-shifting. Greek classical sculpture is a glorification of the human body, a god-like vision of man.

Women are still represented dressed in the fifth century but, at the end of this period, draperies began to reveal the Greek notions of the ideal female body. A magnificent illustration is to be found in the relief of a Nike  (victory) fastening her sandal  on the parapet of the temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis.

Painting. Nothing remains of mural paintings and we must try to appreciate this genre through the paintings adorning vases. Greek vase painters illustrated scenes from everyday life as well as mythological events.