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Western Civilization-An Open Source Book, 1st ed.

by Ryan P. Johnson.

Chapter 1:  Archaic Age Greece 2000-479 BCE

Our story of Western Civilization begins with the earliest days of ancient Greece. The first Greek civilization was the Minoan based on the island of Crete, which was established by 2800 BCE and flourished from roughly 2000-1450 BCE. The sudden collapse of this civilization in the mid 15th century BCE is still a mystery, with some historians claiming a massive tsunami destroyed Crete while others argue that the Minoans were invaded and conquered by the next Greek civilization, the Mycenaeans. This culture lasted between 1600 and 1100 BCE and was based on warfare, with evidence showing conquests of various islands in the Aegean Sea and possibly Crete. We have also found Mycenaean pottery from Italy to Egypt to Syria, indicating a wide ranging trade network. By 1100 BCE, however, Mycenaean civilization was on the brink of collapse, throwing Greece into a dark period of roughly four hundred years before we see the development of the Greek city-state, or polis. A polis served as a region’s political, economic, and social hub, and for a period of roughly two hundred years various city-states began sending explorers and colonists to other parts of the Mediterranean and Black Seas to set up colonies that would be tied to the mother city, or metropolis, and spread Greek culture across the Mediterranean Basin. Also during this period changes in warfare reflected larger changes in Greek society. The primary soldiers of Greek armies were now foot soldiers, ordinary citizens who needed to provide themselves with basic armor and weapons. This reliance on non-nobles to defend the city-state meant a de-emphasis on aristocratic cavalry, with an accompanying decrease in the political power nobles held in some city-states, especially Athens. With a more open, inclusive and less martial society, Athens became one of the most powerful of Greek city-states, and it is here where the form of government known as democracy will begin evolving during the Archaic Age and flourish later on. Sparta, the other main Greek power, was quite the opposite of Athens:  closed off, xenophobic, warrior driven, and based off values such as order and stability. The differing paths these two will take during the Archaic Age will set the stage for conflict later in Greek history, conflict that will effectively bring Greek civilization to its knees.

Here in Chapter 1 the documents begin with a look at one of the greatest of Archaic Age poets, Hesiod, and an excerpt from his work Theogony. Specifically, we begin to see the attitude towards women during this period of Greek history. Likewise, the next document, Semonides of Amargos’ The Types of Women, also gives us a window into gender relations and the way women were viewed by men in the earliest centuries of Greek civilization. Following those two are excerpts from the poetry of Sappho, one of the most well regarded poets in Western civilization. Her writings are prime examples of lyric poetry, which developed during the Archaic Age, was meant to be accompanied by music from a lyre, and was much more emotionally charged than poetry that came before. Moving into the political realm we see fragments from the poetry of Solon, the first of three Athenian leaders who would reform the city-state’s political and economic life, giving an increasing amount of power to an increasing number of people, thus building Athenian democracy. His poetry discusses his views on order and his solutions to Athens’ most serious dilemmas. Lastly is an excerpt from the philosopher Aristotle’s work The Athenian Constitution, wherein he examines not only the deeds of Solon but also of the second reformer, Cleisthenes, and how the changes implemented by these two men impacted Athenian government and political culture.



1. Hesiod-Theogony

Hesiod is one of the two best known Archaic Age poets, Homer being the other. Only two of Hesiod’s works have survived intact down to today: Works and Days and Theogony, from which the excerpt below is taken. Theogony recounts the creation of the world, the birth of the titans, and the war between them and the Greek gods, led by Zeus. In the selection below we see a discussion of women and the way they were seen in the Archaic Age of Greek history. As you read the selection keep in mind the larger context of this phase of the Greek past and think of how this document fits into that larger narrative.

Pernicious is the race; the woman tribe
Dwells upon earth, a mighty bane to men;
No mates for wasting want but luxury;
And as within the close-roofed hive, the drones,
Helpers of sloth, are pampered by the bees;
These all the day, till sinks the ruddy sun,
Haste on the wing, ‘their murmuring labors ply,’
And still cement the white and waxen comb;
Those lurk within the covered hive, and reap
With glutted maw the fruits of others’ toil;
Such evil did the Thunderer send to man
In woman’s form, and so he gave the sex,
Ill helpmates of intolerable toils.
Yet more of ill instead of good he gave:
The man who shunning wedlock thinks to shun
The vexing cares that haunt the woman-state,
And lonely waxes old, shall feel the want
Of one to foster his declining years;
Though not his life be needy, yet his death
Shall scatter his possessions to strange heirs,
And aliens from his blood. Or if his lot
Be marriage and his spouse of modest fame
Congenial to his heart, e’en then shall ill
Forever struggle with the partial good,
And cling to his condition. But the man
Who gains the woman of injurious kind
Lives bearing in his secret soul and heart
Inevitable sorrow: ills so deep
As all the balms of medicine cannot cure.

Take to your house a woman for your bride
When in the ripeness of your manhood’s pride;
Thrice ten your sum of years, the nuptial prime;
Nor fall far short nor far exceed the time.
Four years the ripening virgin shall consume,
And wed the fifth of her expanding bloom.
A virgin choose: and mould her manners chaste;
Chief be some neighboring maid by you embraced;
Look circumspect and long; lest you be found
The merry mock of all the dwellers round.
No better lot has Providence assigned
Than a fair woman with a virtuous mind;
Nor can a worse befall than when your fate
Allots a worthless, feast-contriving mate.
She with no torch of mere material flame
Shall burn to tinder your care-wasted frame;
Shall send a fire your vigorous bones within
And age unripe in bloom of years begin.

Carroll Mitchell, Greek Women In all ages and in all countries (Philadelphia: The Rittenhouse Press, 1907-1908), 96-98. Located on the Internet Archive:

2. Semonides of Amargos-The Types of Women

Very little is definitively known about Semonides of Amargos other than that he was a poet. Only fragments of Semonides’ poetry exist, with the longest, The Types of Women, excerpted below. Other fragments of Semonides’ poetry make references to Hesiod, leading some to believe that The Types of Women and other examples of Semonides’ work were influenced by Hesiod. In the selection below Semonides writes of women as wives in Archaic Age Greece, comparing them to various types of animals. Keep in mind Hesiod’s Theogony excerpt as well as the larger narrative of Greek history as you read this source.

God made the mind of woman in the beginning of different qualities; for one he fashioned like a bristly hog, in whose house everything tumbles about in disorder, bespattered with mud, and rolls upon the ground; she, dirty, with unwashed clothes, sits and grows fat on a dung heap. The woman like mud is ignorant of everything, both good and bad; her only accomplishment is eating: cold though the winters be, she is too stupid to draw near the fire. The woman made like the sea has two minds; when she laughs and is glad, the stranger seeing her at home will give her praise—there is nothing better than this on the earth, no, nor fairer; but another day she is unbearable, not to be looked at or approached, for she is raging mad. To friend and foe she is alike implacable and odious. Thus, as the sea is often calm and innocent, a great delight to sailors in summertime, and oftentimes again is frantic, tearing along with roaring billows, so is this woman in her temper.

The woman who resembles a mare is delicate and long-haired, unfit for drudgery or toil; she would not touch the mill, or lift the sieve, or clean the house out! She bathes twice or thrice a day, and anoints herself with myrrh; then she wears her hair combed out long and wavy, dressed with flowers. It follows that this woman is a rare sight to one’s guests; but to her husband she is a curse, unless he be a tyrant who prides himself on such expensive luxuries. The ape-like wife has Zeus given as the greatest evil to men. Her face is most hateful. Such a woman goes through the city a laughing-stock to all the men. Short of neck, with narrow hips, withered of limb, she moves about with difficulty. O! wretched man, who weds such a woman! She knows every cunning art, just like an ape, nor is ridicule a concern to her. To no one would she do a kindness, but every day she schemes to this end—how she may work someone the greatest injury.

The man who gets the woman like a bee is lucky; to her alone belongs no censure; one’s household goods thrive and increase under her management; loving, with a loving spouse, she grows old, the mother of a fair and famous race. She is preeminent among all women, and a heavenly grace attends her. She cares not to sit among the women when they indulge in lascivious chatter. Such wives are the best and wisest mates Zeus grants to men. Zeus made this supreme evil—woman: even though she seem to be a blessing, when a man has wedded one she becomes a plague.

Carroll Mitchell, Greek Women In all ages and in all countries (Philadelphia: The Rittenhouse Press, 1907-1908), 100-102. Located on the Internet Archive:

3. Sappho-Poetry Excerpts

The poet Sappho was born on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea, where she would grow up to have a family and run a school for unmarried women. Her brilliance as a poet was recognized even in the ancient world, and though her reputation became sullied during the Middle Ages, she is still considered one of the West’s greatest poets. Only fragments of her work survive, but those that do focus more on human love than on gods. Her poetry is personal, emotional, and intense, making it relatable even today.

Poem A

“Sweet Nereids, grant to me
That home unscathed my brother may return,
And every end for which his soul shall yearn,
Accomplished see!

“And thou, immortal Queen,
Blot out the past, that thus his friends may know
Joy, shame his foes—nay, rather, let no one
By us be seen!

“And may he have the will
To me his sister some regard to show,
To assuage the pain he brought, whose cruel blow
My soul did kill,

“Yea, mine, for that ill name
Whose biting edge, to shun the festal throng
Compelling, ceased a while; yet back ere long
To goad us came!”

Poem B

“Splendor-throned Queen, immortal Aphrodite,
Daughter of Jove, Enchantress, I implore thee
Vex not my soul with agonies and anguish;
Slay me not, Goddess!

Come in thy pity—come, if I have prayed thee;
Come at the cry of my sorrow; in the old times
Oft thou hast heard, and left thy father’s heaven,
Left the gold houses,

Yoking thy chariot. Swiftly did the doves fly,
Swiftly they brought thee, waving plumes of wonder—
Waving their dark plumes all across the æther.
All down the azure.

Very soon they lighted. Then didst thou, Divine one,
Laugh a bright laugh from lips and eyes immortal,
Ask me ‘What ailed me—wherefore out of heaven,
Thus I had called thee?

What was it made me madden in my heart so?’
Question me smiling—say to me, ‘My Sappho,
Who is it wrongs thee? Tell me who refuses
Thee, vainly sighing.

Be it who it may be, he that flies shall follow;
He that rejects gifts, he shall bring thee many;
He that hates now shall love thee dearly, madly-
Aye, though thou wouldst not.’

So once again come, Mistress; and, releasing
Me from my sadness, give me what I sue for,
Grant me my prayer, and be as heretofore now
Friend and protectress.”

Poem C

“Peer of gods he seemeth to me, the blissful
Man who sits and gazes at thee before him,
Close beside thee sits, and in silence hears thee
Silverly speaking,

Laughing love’s low laughter. Oh this, this only
Stirs the troubled heart in my breast to tremble!
For should I but see thee a little moment,
Straight is my voice hushed;

Yea, my tongue is broken, and through and through me
‘Neath the flesh impalpable fire runs tingling;
Nothing see mine eyes, and a noise of roaring
Waves in my ear sounds;

Sweat runs down in rivers, a tremor seizes
All my limbs, and paler than grass in autumn.
Caught by pains of menacing death, I falter,
Lost in the love-trance.”

Carroll Mitchell, Greek Women In all ages and in all countries (Philadelphia: The Rittenhouse Press, 1907-1908), 116, 121-122. Located on the Internet Archive:

4. Solon-Poetry Fragments

Solon was an important Athenian statesman given full powers in the early sixth century BCE to reform Athens’ economy and government to avert serious crises. Many notable reforms, while not immediately establishing democracy in and of themselves, nonetheless put Athens on the path to democracy. In the poetry fragments excerpted below Solon explains why he felt Athens was in such dire straits and summarizes the steps he took to solve the city-state’s problems.

Fragment 13

‘‘Out of the cloud come snow and hail in their fury, and the thunderbolt springeth from the lightning’s flash: so from great men ruin issueth upon the state, and the people through their own folly sink into slavery under a single lord. Having raised a man to too high a place, it is not easy later to hold him back: now is the time to be observant of all things.”

“If ye have suffered the melancholy consequences of your own incompetence, do not attribute this evil fortune to the gods. Ye have yourselves raised these men to power over you, and have reduced yourselves by this course to a wretched state of servitude. Each man among you, individually, walketh with the tread of a fox, but collectively ye are a set of simpletons.  For ye look to the tongue and the play of a man’s speech and regard not the deed which is done before your eyes.”

Fragment 12

“The ruin of our state will never come by the doom of Zeus or through the will of the blessed and immortal gods; for Pallas Athena, valiant daughter of a valiant sire, is our stout-hearted guardian, and she holdeth over us her protecting arms. It is the townsfolk themselves and their false-hearted leaders who would fain destroy our great city through wantonness and love of money. But they are destined to suffer sorely for their outrageous behavior. They know not how to hold in check their full-fed lust, or, content with the merriment the banquet affords, to take their pleasure soberly and in order. . . . They are rich because they yield to the temptation of dishonest courses. . . . They spare neither the treasures of the gods nor the property of the state, and steal like brigands one from another. They pay no heed to the unshaken rock of holy Justice, who, though she be silent, is aware of all that happeneth now or hath happened in the past, and, in course of time, surely cometh to demand retribution. Lo, even now there cometh upon the whole city a plague which none may escape. The people have come quickly into degrading bondage; bondage rouseth from their sleep war and civil strife; and war destroyeth many in the beauty of their youth. As if she were the prey of foreign foes, our beloved city is rapidly wasted and consumed in those secret conspiracies which are the delight of dishonest men.”

“These are the evils which stalk at home. Meanwhile the poor and needy in great numbers, are loaded with shameful bonds and sold into slavery in foreign lands. . . . Thus public calamity cometh to the house of every individual, and a man is no longer safe within the gates of his own court, which refuse him their protection. It leapeth over the garden wall, however high it be, and surely findeth him out, though he run and hide himself in the inmost corner of his chamber.”

“These things my heart prompteth me to teach the Athenians, and to make them understand that lawlessness worketh more harm to the state than any other cause. But a law-abiding spirit createth order and harmony, and at the same time putteth chains upon evil-doers; it maketh rough things smooth, it checketh inordinate desires, it dimmeth the glare of wanton pride and withereth the budding bloom of wild delusion; it maketh crooked judgments straight and softeneth arrogant behavior ; it stoppeth acts of sedition and stoppeth the anger of bitter strife. Under the reign of law, sanity and wisdom prevail ever among men.”

Fragment 9

“I removed the stones of her bondage which had been planted everywhere, and she who was a slave before is now free. I brought back to their own divinely founded home many Athenians who justly or unjustly had been sold into slavery in foreign lands, and I brought back those whom destitution had driven into exile, and who, through wandering long abroad, no longer spoke the Attic tongue; and I restored to liberty those who had been degraded to slavery here in their own land and trembled at their masters’ whims. These things I accomplished through arbitrary action, bringing force to the support of the dictates of justice, and I followed through to the end the course which I promised. On the other hand, I drafted laws, which show equal consideration for the upper and lower classes, and provide a fair administration of justice for every individual. An unscrupulous and avaricious man, if he had got the whip hand of the city as I had, would not have held the people back. If I had adopted the policy which was advocated by my opponents then, or if thereafter I had consented to the treatment which their opponents were always planning for them, this city would have lost many of her sons. This was the reason why I stood out like a wolf at bay amidst a pack of hounds, defending myself against attacks from every side.”

Fragment 10

‘‘The common people (if I must give public utterance to my rebuke) would never have beheld even in their dreams the blessings which they now enjoy. . . . All the stronger and more powerful men in the city would sing my praises and seek to make me their friend.”

Fragment 6

“To the common people I have given such a measure of privilege as sufficeth them, neither robbing them of the rights they had, nor holding out the hope of greater ones; and I have taken equal thought for those who were possessed of power and who were looked up to because of their wealth, careful that they, too, should suffer no indignity. I have taken a stand which enables me to hold a stout shield over both groups, and I have allowed neither to triumph unjustly over the other.”

Fragment 7

“The populace will follow its leaders best if it is neither left too free nor subjected to too much restraint. For excess giveth birth to arrogance, when great prosperity attendeth upon men whose minds lack sober judgment.”

Ivan M. Linforth, Solon the Athenian (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1919), 135, 137-139, 141-143, 145. Located at the Internet Archive:

5. Aristotle-The Athenian Constitution

Aristotle is one of the most well-known philosophers of ancient Greece. A prolific thinker and writer, he produced works on a range of topics including ethics, metaphysics, the parts of the soul, and politics, in addition to numerous others. So broad was the array of subjects Aristotle discussed that during the Middle Ages thinkers referred to him as “The Philosopher.” The excerpt included here comes from The Athenian Constitution, in which Aristotle discusses the changes made to Athens’ politics and political culture by Solon and later by Cleisthenes, who established important democratic features that would aid in his city-state’s rise to prominence in Greece.

Next Solon drew up a constitution and enacted new laws; and the statutes of Draco ceased to be used with the exception of those relating to murder.  The laws were inscribed on the pillars, and set up in the King’s Porch, and all swore to obey them; and the nine Archons made oath upon the stone and declared that they would dedicate a golden statue if they should transgress any of them. This is the origin of the oath to that effect which they take to the present day. Solon ratified his laws for a hundred years; and the following was the fashion of his organization of the constitution. He made a division of all rateable property into four classes, just as it had been divided before, namely, Pentacosiomedimni, Knights, Zeugitae, and Thete. The various magistracies, namely, the nine Archons, the Treasurers, the Commissioners for Public Contracts, the Eleven, and the Exchequer Clerks he assigned to the Pentacosiomedimni, the Knights, and the Zeugitae, giving offices to each class in proportion to the value of their rateable property. To those who ranked among the Thetes he gave nothing but a place in the Assembly and in the juries. A man had to rank as a Pentacosiomedimnus if he made, from his own land, five hundred measures, whether liquid or solid. Those ranked as Knights who made three hundred measures, or, as some say, those who were able to maintain a horse. In support of the latter definition they adduce the name of the class, which may be supposed to be derived from this fact, and also some votive offerings of early times; for in the Acropolis there is a votive offering, a statue of Diphilus, bearing this inscription:

The son of Diphilus, Anthemion hight,

Raised from the Thetes and become a Knight,

Did to the gods this sculptured charger bring,

For his promotion a thank-offering.

And a horse stands beside the man, which seems to show that this was what was meant by belonging to the rank of Knight. At the same time it seems more reasonable to suppose that this class, like the Pentacosiomedinmi, was defined by the possession of an income of a certain number of measures. Those ranked as Zeugitae who made two hundred measures, liquid or solid; and the rest ranked as Thetes, and were not eligible for any office. Hence it is that even at the present day, when a candidate for any office is asked to what rank he belongs, no one would think of saying that he belonged to the Thetes.

The elections to the various offices Solon enacted should be by lot, out of candidates selected by each of the tribes. Each tribe selected ten candidates for the nine archonships, and among these the lot was cast. Hence it is still the custom for each tribe to choose ten candidates by lot, and then the lot is again cast among these. A proof that Solon regulated the elections to office according to the property classes may be found in the law which is still in force for the election of the Treasurers, which enacts that they shall be chosen from the Pentacosiomedimni.  Such was Solon’s legislation with respect to the nine Archons; whereas in early times the Council of Areopagus summoned suitable persons according to its own judgment and appointed them for the year to the several offices.

Solon also appointed a Council of four hundred, a hundred from each tribe; but he still assigned to the Areopagus the duty of superintending the laws. It continued, as before, to be the guardian of the constitution in general; it kept watch over the citizens in all the most important matters, and corrected offenders, having full powers to inflict either fines or personal punishment. The money received in fines it brought up into the Acropolis, without assigning the reason for the punishment; and Solon also gave it the power to try those who conspired for the overthrow of the state.

Such, then, was his legislation concerning the magistrates of the state. There are three points in the constitution of Solon which appear to be its most democratic features: first and most important, the prohibition of loans on the security of the debtor’s person; secondly, the right of every person who so willed to bring an action on behalf of anyone to whom wrong was being done; thirdly, the institution of the appeal to the law-courts; and it is by means of this last, they say, that the masses have gained strength most of all, since, when the democracy is master of the voting-power, it is master of the constitution.  Moreover, since the laws were not drawn up in simple and explicit terms (but like the one concerning inheritances and wards of state), disputes inevitably occurred, and the courts had to decide in every matter, whether public or private. Some persons in fact believe that Solon deliberately made the laws indefinite, in order that the people might have something left to its final decision. This, however, is not at all probable, and the reason no doubt was that it was impossible to attain ideal perfection when framing a law in general terms; for we must judge of his intentions, not from the actual results in the present day, but from the general tenor of the rest of his legislation.

The people, therefore, had good reason to place confidence in Cleisthenes. Accordingly when, at this time, he found himself at the head of the masses, three years after the expulsion of the tyrants, in the archonship of Isagoras, his first step was to distribute the whole population into ten tribes in place of the existing four, with the object of intermixing the members of the different tribes, so that more persons might have a share in the franchise.

Next he made the Council to consist of five hundred members instead of four hundred, each tribe now contributing fifty, whereas formerly each had sent a hundred.

Further, he divided the country by demes into thirty parts, ten from the districts about the city, ten from the coast, and ten from the interior. These he called Trittyes; and he assigned three of them by lot to each tribe, in such a way that each should have one portion in each of these three divisions.  All who lived in any given deme he declared fellow-demesmen, to the end that the new citizens might not be exposed by the habitual use of family names, but that men might be known by the names of their demes; and accordingly it is by the names of their demes that the Athenians still speak of one another. He also instituted Demarchs, who had the same duties as the previously existing Naucrari,—the demes being made to take the place of the naucraries. He gave names to the demes, some from the localities to which they belonged, some from the persons who founded them, since some of them no longer corresponded to localities possessing names. On the other hand he allowed everyone to retain his family and clan and religious rites according to ancestral custom.  The names given to the tribes were the ten which the Pythia appointed out of the hundred selected national heroes.

F. G. Kenyon, trans., Aristotle on the Athenian Constitution (London: George Bell and Sons, 1891), 10-15, 37-39. Located on the Internet Archive:

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Western Civilization-An Open Source Book by Ryan P. Johnson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.