History of Greece - Early Mythology

The history of the Grecian states commences about 1800 years before Christ, when the Egyptians on the opposite side of the Mediterranean. were in a high state of civilization; but the portion of history which precedes 884 B.C. is understood to be fabulous, and entitled to little credit.

According to the Greek poets, the original inhabitants of the country, denominated Pelasgians, were a race of savages, who lived in caves, and clothed themselves with the skins of the wild beasts. Uranus, an Egyptian prince, landed in the country, and became the father of a family of giants, named Titans, who rebelled against, and dethroned him. His son Saturn, who reigned in his stead, in order to prevent the like misfortune from befalling himself, ordered all his own children to be put to death as soon as they were born. But one named Jupiter was concealed by the mother, and reared in the island of Crete, from which in time he returned, and deposed his father. The Titans, jealous of this new prince, rebelled against him, but were vanished and expelled for ever from the country.

Jupiter divided his dominions with his brothers Neptune and Pluto.

The countries which he reserved to himself he governed with great wisdom, holding his court on Mount Olympus, a hill in Thessaly, 9000 feet in height, and the loftiest in Greece. Any truth which there might be in the story of the Titans and their princes was completely disguised by the poets, and by the popular imagination. Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto, were looked back to, not as mortals, but as deities and the top of Mount Olympus was supposed to be the heavenly residence of gods, by whom the affairs of mortals were governed. And for ages after the dawn of philosophy, these deified sons of Saturn, and numberless others connected with them, were the objects of the national worship, not only among the Greeks, but also among the Romans.

At an uncertain but very early date an Asiatic people named the Hellenes immigrated into Greece, in some cases expelling the Pelasgi, and in others intermingling with them, so that in process of time all the inhabitants of Greece came to be called Hellenes. They were, however, divided into several tribes the principal of which were the Dorians, Aeolians, and Ionians, each of whom spoke a dialect differing in some respect from those made use of by the others. These dialects were named the Doric, Aeolic, and Ionic, in reference to the tribes which used them and a fourth, which was afterwards formed from the Ionic, was named the Attic, from its being spoken by the inhabitants of Attica.

In the year 1856 B.C., Inachus a Phoenician adventurer, is said to have arrived in Greece at the head of a small band of his countrymen. Phoenicia, a petty state on the coast of the Mediterranean, in Asia Minor, was at this time one of a few countries, including Egypt and Assyria, in which some degree of civilization prevailed, while all the rest of the people of the earth remained in their original barbarism like the Pelasgians before the supposed arrival of Uranus. Navigation for the purposes of commerce, and the art of writing, are said to have originated with the Phoenicans. On their arrival in Greece, Inachus and his friends founded the city of Argos, at the head of what is now called the Gulf of Napoli, in the Peloponnesus.

Three hundred years after this event (1556 B.C.), a colony, led by an Egyptian named Cecrops, arrived in Attica, and founded the celebrated city of Athens, fortifying a high rock which rose precipitously above the site afterwards occupied by the town.

Egypt is situated in the north-eastern part of Africa. It is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, and is watered by the great river Nile, the periodical overflowings of which by supplying the moisture necessary for vegetation, render the soil very fertile. From this country, which had at a very early period made considerable advances in some of the arts and sciences (see ANCIENT HISTORY), Cecrops imparted much valuable knowledge to the rude inhabitants of Attica, whom he had persuaded or obliged to acknowledge him as their chief or king. He placed his rocky fastness under the protection of an Egyptian goddess, from whose Greek name, Athena (afterwards changed by the Latins into Minerva), the city which subsequently rose around the eminence was called Athens.

About the year 1493 B.C., Cadmus, a Phoenician, founded the city of Thebes in Boeotia and among other useful things which he communicated to the Greeks, lie is said to have taught them alphabetical writing, although it is certain that that art did not come into common use in Greece until several centuries after this period.

The city of Corinth, situated on the narrow isthmus which connects the Peloponnesus with the mainland of Greece, was founded in the year 1520 B.C., and from its very advantageous position on the arm of the sea to which it anciently gave its name, but which is now known as the Gulf of Lepanto, it very soon became a place of considerable commercial importance. Sparta or Lacedaemon, the celebrated capital of Laconia in the Peloponnesus, is said to have been founded about 1520 B. C . by Lelex, an Egyptian.

In the year 1485 B.C., an Egyptian named Danaus, accompanied by a party of his countrymen, arrived at Argos, the inhabitants of which must have been at that period in an exceedingly rude state, since it is said that he excited their gratitude so much by teaching them to dig wells, when the streams from which they were supplied with water were dried up with the heat, that they elected him as their king.

Fully more than a century after this period (about 1350 B.C.), Pelops, the son of a king of Phrygia, a country in Asia Minor, settled in that part of Greece which was afterwards called from him Peloponnesus, or the island of Pelops, where he married the daughter of one of the native princes, whom he afterwards succeeded on the throne. In the course of his long reign, he found means to strengthen and greatly extend his influence in Greece, by forming matrimonial alliances between various branches of his own house and the other royal families of the Peloponnesus. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, in Argolis, who was, according to the poet Homer, the commander-in-chief of the Greeks at the siege of Troy, and Menelaus, king of Sparta, on account of whose wrongs that war was undertaken, were descended from this Phrygian adventurer.

Hercules, a Theban prince, was another of the descendants of Pelops.

The numerous and extraordinary feats of strength and valor of Hercules excited the admiration of his, and being afterwards exaggerated and embellished by the poets, cause him at length to be regarded as a person endowed with supernatural powers, and even to be worshiped as a god.

Theseus succeeded his father on the Athenian throne (1234 B.C.), and by his wise regulations greatly consolidated the strength and increased the prosperity of his kingdom. Cecrops, the founder of Athens, had divided Attica into twelve districts, each of which possessed its own magistracy and judicial tribunals. As the country advanced in wealth and population, these districts became less closely connected with each other, and at the period of the accession of Theseus, they could hardly be regarded in any other light than as so many little independent communities, whose perpetual disputes kept the whole district in broils and confusion. But Theseus had influence enough with all parties to obtain their consent to the abolition of the separate jurisdictions, and to the fixing of all civil and judicial authority in the capital. He at the same time voluntarily resigned into their hands a portion of his own power. Having divided the people into three classes - the nobles, the artisans, and the cultivators of the soil he intrusted the first of these with the administration of public affairs, and the dispensation of justice, while he conferred upon every freeman or citizen, without distinction of class, a vote in the legislative assemblies. The command of the army, and the presidency of the state, he retained in his own person.

To strengthen the political union of the various districts of his kingdom by the tie of a common religion, he instituted a solemn festival, to be celebrated annually at Athens by all the inhabitants of Attica, in honor of Minerva, the tutelary deity of the city. This festival he denominated Panathenae, or the Feast of all the Athenians, the name by which the whole of the people of Attica were thenceforth called.

The wise and liberal policy of Theseus caused Attica to advance considerably beyond the other states of Greece in prosperity and civilization; and the ancient historian, Thucydides, informs us that the Athenians were the first of the Greeks who laid aside the military dress and arms, which till now had been constantly worn. The example of Athens was not lost on the other Grecian communities, all of which gradually adopted, to a greater or less extent, those political institutions which had conferred so many advantages upon Attica.

Notwithstanding the judicious and exemplary conduct of Theseus in the early part of the reign, he appears to have afterwards allowed his restless and adventurous disposition to hurry him into many extravagances, and even crimes, by which he forfeited the respect of his people, and brought, disgrace and suffering on his latter years. If we may believe the traditionary accounts, he accompanied Hercules in some of his celebrated expeditions, and assisted by Pirithous, a king of Thessaly, engaged in many martial and predatory adventures, conformably rather with the very imperfect morality and rude manners of the age, than with his own previous character. There reigned in Lacedaemon at this period a king named Tyndarus, who had a beautiful daughter called Helen, and according to the ancient historians, Theseus and his friend Pirithous formed the design of stealing away this young lady, and a princess of Epirus named Proserpine. They succeeded in carrying off Helen; but in their attempt to obtain Proserpine, they fell into the hands of her father, by whom Pirithous was put to death, and Theseus thrown into prison. Meanwhile, Castor and Pollux, the twin-brothers of Helen, who were afterwards deified, and whose names have been bestowed upon one of the signs of the Zodiac (Gemini), rescued their sister from the men to whom Theseus had given her in charge, and ravaged Attica in revenge for the injury they had received from its king.

Theseus was afterwards released from imprisonment by the assistance of Hercules, and returned home; but the Athenians had become so offended with his conduct, and were so angry at his having exposed them to ill treatment from the Lacedaemonians by his wicked attempt upon Helen, that they refused to receive him again as their sovereign. He therefore withdrew into exile, and soon after died in the island of Scyros. The Athenian people, however, never forgot the benefits he had in his wiser days conferred upon the state; and many centuries after his death, his bones, or some which were supposed to be his, were conveyed to Athens with great pomp, and a splendid temple was erected above them to his memory.

The Lacedaemonian princess who was stolen away by Theseus afterwards became the occasion of a celebrated war. The fame of her great beauty having spread far and wide, many of the princes of Greece asked her from her father Tyndarus in marriage; but he, being fearful of incurring the enmity of the rejected suitors, declined showing a preference for any of them. Assembling them all, he bound them by an oath to acquiesce in the selection which Helen herself should make, and to protect her against any attempts which might afterwards be made to carry her off from the husband of her choice. Helen gave the preference to Menelaus, a grandson of Pelops, and this successful suitor, on the death of Tyndarus, was raised to the Spartan throne.

At this period, in the north-western part of Asia Minor, on the shores of the Hellespont and the Aegean Seas, there existed a kingdom, the capital of which was a large and well-fortified city named Troy, or Ilium. Priam the king of Troy, had a son whose name was Paris; and this young chief, in the course of a visit to Greece, resided for a time in Sparta at the court of Menelaus, who gave the Asiatic stranger a very friendly reception. Charmed with Helen's beauty, Paris employed the opportunity afforded by a temporary absence of her husband to gain her affections, and persuade her to elope with him to Troy. It was not, according to the old poets, to his personal attractions, great as they were, that Paris owed his success on this occasion, but to the aid of the goddess of Love, whose favor he had won by assigning to her the palm of beauty, on an occasion when it was contested between her and two other female deities.

When Menelaus returned home, he was naturally wroth at finding his hospitality so ill requited; and after having in vain endeavored, both by remonstrances and threats, to induce the Trojans to send him back his queen, he applied to the princes who had formerly been Helen's lovers, and called upon them to aid him according to their oaths, in recovering her from her seducer. They obeyed the summons; and all Greece being indignant at the insult offered to Menelaus, a general muster of the forces of the various states took place at Aulis, a seaport town of Boeotia preparatory to their crossing the Aegean to the Trojan shore. This is supposed to have happened in the year 1194 B. C .

Of the chiefs assembled on this occasion, the most celebrated were Agamemnon, king of Mycene; Menelaus, king of Sparta; Ulysses, king of Ithaca; Nestor, king of Pylos; Achilles, son of the king of Thessaly; Ajax, of Salamis; Diomedes, of Aetolia; and Idomeneus, of Crete.

Agamemnon, the brother of the injured Menelaus, was elected commander-in-chief of the confederated Greeks. According to some ancient authors, this general was barbarous enough to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, to induce the gods to send a favoring gale to the Grecian fleet when it was detained by contrary winds in the port of Aulis; but as the earliest writers respecting the Trojan war make no mention of this unnatural act, it is to be hoped that it never was performed.

The Grecian armament consisted of about 1200 vessels, with from 50 to 120 men in each, and the army which warred against Troy is supposed to have amounted altogether to about 100,000 men. The Trojans, although reinforced by auxiliary bands from Assyria, Thrace, and Asia Minor, were unable to withstand the Greeks in the open country, and they therefore soon retired within the walls of their city.

In those early times men were unskilled in the art of reducing fortified places, and the Greeks knew of no speedier way of taking Troy than blockading it till the inhabitants should be compelled by famine to surrender. But here a new difficulty arose. No arrangements had been made for supplying the invaders with provisions during a lengthened seige; and after they had plundered and laid waste the surrounding country, they began to be in as great danger of starvation as the besieged. The supplies which arrived from Greece were scanty and irregular, and it became necessary to detach a part of the beleaguering forces to cultivate the plains of the Chersonesus of Thrace, in order to raise crops for the support of themselves and their brethren in arms.

The Grecian army being thus weakened, the Trojans were encouraged to make frequent sallies, in which they were led generally by the valiant Hector, Priam's eldest and noblest son. Many skirmishes took place, and innumerable deeds of individual heroism were performed, all of which led to no important result, for the opposing armies were so equally matched, that neither could obtain any decisive advantage over the other. At length, after a siege of no less than ten years, in the course of which some of the most distinguished leaders on both sides were slain, Troy was taken, its inhabitants slaughtered, and its edifices burnt and razed to the ground.

According to the poets, it was by a stratagem that this famous city was at last overcome. They tell us that the Greeks constructed a wooden horse of prodigious size, in the body of which they concealed a number of armed men, and then retired towards the sea-shore, to induce the enemy to believe that the besiegers had given up the enterprise, and were about to return home. Deceived by this manoeuvre, the Trojans brought the gigantic horse into the city, and the men who had been concealed within it, stealing out in the night-time, unbarred the gates, and admitted the Grecian army within the walls. The siege of Troy forms the subject of Homer's sublime poem, the Iliad,' in which the real events of the war are intermingled with many fictitious and supernatural incidents.

The Greek princes discovered that their triumph over Troy was dearly paid for by their subsequent sufferings, and the disorganization of their kingdoms at home. Ulysses, if we may believe the poets, spent ten years in wandering over seas and lands before arriving in his island of Ithaca. Others of the leaders died or were shipwrecked on their way home, and several of those who succeeded in reaching their own dominions, found their thrones occupied by usurpers, and were compelled to return to their vessels, and seek in distant lands a place of rest and security for their declining years. But the fate of Agamemnon, the renowned general of the Greeks, was the most deplorable of all. On his return to Argos, he was assassinated by his wife Clytemnestra, who had formed an attachment during his absence to another person. Agamemnon's son, Orestes, was driven into exile, but afterwards returned to Argos, and putting his mother and her accomplices to death, established himself upon the throne. About eighty years after the termination of the Trojan war, an extensive revolution took place in the affairs of Greece, in consequence of the subjugation of nearly the whole Peloponnesus by the descendants of Hercules. That hero, who was a member of the royal family of Mycenae or Argos, had been driven into exile by some more successful candidate for the throne of that state. After the hero's death, his children sought refuge in Doris, the king of which became subsequently so much attached to Hyllus, the eldest son of Hercules, that he constituted him the heir of his throne. Twice the Heraclidaean princes unsuccessfully attempted to establish themselves in the sovereignty of the Peloponnesus, which they claimed as their right; but on the third trial, they accomplished their object. In the year 1104 B. C . three brothers named Temenus, Cresphontes, and Aristodemus, said to have been the great-grandsons of Hyllus, invaded the Peloponnesus at the head of the Dorians, and conquered the greater part of it, with the exception of the province of Arcadia, the mountainous character of which enabled its inhabitants to defend it with success against the invaders.

Temenus obtained the kingdom of Argos, Cresphontes established himself in Messenia, and as Aristodemus had died during the war, his twin sons Eurysthenes and Procles shared between them the throne of Sparta. The thrones of Corinth and Elis were occupied by other branches of the Heraclidaean family. The Dorian troops were rewarded with the lands of the conquered inhabitants, who were driven out of the Peloponnesus, or reduced to slavery. Great numbers of the Peloponnesians, who were expatriated by the Dorian invaders, passed over into Asia Minor, where they founded several colonies in a district afterwards called Aeolia , from the name of the people by whom these colonies were established. Others took refuge in Attica, where the Athenians received them in a friendly manner. This, it would appear, gave offence to, the new rulers of the Peloponnesian states, and war was commenced between the Dorians and the Athenians. In the year 1070 B. C ., Attica was invaded by a numerous army of the Peloponnesians, and Athens itself seemed menaced with destruction. This emergency produced a display of patriotic devotion on the part of Codrus, the Athenian king, which has rarely been paralleled in the annals of mankind, and deserves to be held in everlasting remembrance: -

At Delphi in Phocis there was a temple of Apollo, to the priests of which the Greeks were wont to apply for information regarding future events, in the same manner as the people of comparatively recent times were accustomed to consult astrologers, soothsayers, and other artful imposters on similar questions. Now Codrus had learned that the Peloponnesians had received at Delphi a prophetical response, to the effect that they should not be victorious in the war, if they did not kill the Athenian king. Determined to save his country at the expense of his own life, Codrus disguised himself in a peasant's dress, and entering the Peloponnesian camp, provoked a quarrel with a soldier, by whom he was killed.

It was not long until the dead body was recognized to be that of the Athenian king, and the Peloponnesians, remembering the condition on which the oracle had promised them success, were afraid to continue the contest any longer, and hastily retreated into their own territories. The Athenians were filled with admiration when they heard of the noble conduct of their monarch, and in the height of their gratitude, they declared that none but Jupiter was worthy of being their king after such a prince as Codrus.

It is supposed that they were partly induced to make this declaration by finding the sons of Codrus evince an inclination to involve the country in a civil war regarding the succession to the throne. The Athenians therefore abolished royalty altogether, and appointed Medon, Codrus's eldest son, under the title of Archon, as chief magistrate of the republic for life; the office to be hereditary in his family as long as its duties should be performed to the satisfaction of the people. And as Attica was overcrowded with the Peloponnesian refugees, these, together with a large body of Athenians, were sent into Asia Minor, under the charge of Androclus and Neleus, the younger sons of Codrus, to plant colonies to the south of those already formed in Aeolia. The settlers founded twelve cities, some of which afterwards rose to great wealth and splendor. Ionia was the name bestowed upon the district, in reference to the Ionic stock from which the Athenians drew their descent.

Several Dorian colonies in Caria, a province still farther south than Ionia, completed the range of Grecian settlements along the western coast of Asia Minor. Cyprus, Rhodes, the coast of Thrace, and the islands of the Aegean Sea, together with a considerable portion of Italy and Sicily, and even of France and Spain, were also colonized by bands of adventurers, who at various periods emigrated from Greece; so that, in process of time, the Grecian race, language, religion, institutions, and manners, instead of being confined to the comparatively small country constituting Greece proper, were diffused over a very extensive region, comprising the fairest portions of Europe and of western Asia.

While this work of colonization was going forward, the parent states of Greece were torn with internal dissensions, and were perpetually harassing each other in wars, of which the objects and incidents are now equally uncertain. Almost all that is known of the history of the two centuries immediately following the death of Codrus is, that they were characterized by great turbulence and confusion, and that, during their lapse, many of the Grecian states and colonies followed the example of Athens by abolishing monarchy. Others did not, till a later period, become republican, and Sparta long retained the singular form of regal government established there at the accession of the twin brothers Eurysthenes and Procles, the descendants of whom continued for several centuries to reign jointly in Lacedaemon, though, practically speaking, no state of Greece was more thoroughly republican in many important respects.

Greece had been all along divided into a number of independent states, and after the abolition of kingly government, several of these were split up into as many distinct republics as the state contained of towns. These divisions of the country, and the obstacles which the almost incessant wars interposed to a free communication between the inhabitants of the different districts, necessarily prevented the advancement of the Greeks in knowledge and civilization; but fortunately, a king of Elis, named Iphitus, at length devised an institution by which the people of all the Grecian states were enabled, notwithstanding their quarrels and wars with one another, to meet periodically on friendly terms, and communicate to each other such information as might be useful for the improvement and welfare of the whole.

This institution was the Olympic Festival. From a very remote period, the Greeks had been accustomed to engage in contests of strength and agility during their times of festivity, and also at the funerals of distinguished personages. Iphitus conceived the idea of establishing a periodical festival in his own dominions for the celebration of these ancient games, and of religious rites in honor of Jupiter and Hercules; and having obtained the authority of the Delphian oracle for carrying his design into execution, he instituted the festival, and appointed that it should be repeated every fourth year at Olympia, a town of Elis.

To this festival he invited all the people of Greece; and that none might be prevented from attending it by the wars in which any of the states might be engaged, the Delphic oracle commanded that a general armistice should take place for some time before and after each celebration. The date of the establishment of the Olympic games (884 B.C. ) was afterwards assumed by the Greeks as the epoch from which they reckoned the progress of time; the four years intervening between each recurrence of the festival being styled an Olympiad.

Three other institutions of a similar nature were afterwards established: namely, the Isthmian Games, celebrated near Corinth; the Pythian, at Delphi; and the Nemean, in Argolis. These took place on the various years which intervened between the successive festivals at Olympia; but although they acquired considerable celebrity, none of them rose to the importance and splendor of that of Iphitus. The games which were celebrated at the festivals consisted of foot and chariot races, wrestling and boxing matches, and other contests requiring strength and agility, together with competitions in poetry and music. The victors were crowned with an olive wreath; an honor which it was esteemed by the Greeks one of the highest objects of ambition to attain.