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5-08-2015, 22:48

A Crossroads of Cultures

Aeschylus was at the height of his career in the early 400s BCE. At the time, Athens operated under a newly established democracy. This form of government that gave power to the masses would become widespread more than 2,000 years later. But in the first decades of the 400s BCE, democracy was controversial and still evolving. It was an idea, not an institution. Members of the aristocracy still struggled to retain power, and it was rarely a peaceful process.

On stage, Aeschylus’s plays explored the conflict in real-life Athens and in other parts of Greece. In one of his plays, The Eumenides, Aeschylus seems to reveal his preferences for an aristocratic government. This view did not sit well with many of Athens’s residents. At one point, Aeschylus was threatened while on stage. He also stood trial for revealing the secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a religious cult based in his hometown. He was acquitted, but the political tide was against him. Shunned by his fellow citizens, Aeschylus moved to the island of Sicily, where he lived the rest of his life in peace.

In the middle of the 400s BCE, Greece was changing. The ancient mythology of gods and goddesses still dominated the culture, but an age of reason was emerging. Battles made heroes, and people celebrated military achievements, but Greeks were also developing more intellectual pursuits: math, science, theater, and philosophy. The political voices of the masses were coming together as they tried the new experiment of democracy. At this time, the city of Athens was at the heart of this crossroads in thinking. And ideas from this time in history still have resonance today.

Mount Olympus

Located in northern Greece, Mount Olympus stands approximately 9,570 feet (2,920 m) at its highest point. The steep sides make it difficult to climb. The Greeks did not venture to the summit of Mount Olympus—that was the home of the gods, and they considered it off-limits to humans. In Greek mythology, it was a beautiful place, with never-ending nice weather, but at one time it had been a battleground, the place where Zeus led a campaign to overthrow his father Cronus, leader of the Titans.


Zeus then became king of the gods and ruler on Mount Olympus.

Ancient Greece was steeped in mythology. The Greeks believed Mount Olympus, in northern Greece, was home to a group of gods. Zeus hurled his thunderbolts when he was angry; Poseidon raised his trident to stir up storms on the sea; Apollo pulled the sun across the sky. In every way, the gods had control over people’s lives. They could be temperamental, but they were not irrational. If people behaved well toward each other—and particularly if they treated the gods right—the gods would be appeased and allow people to live happy lives.

By as early as 700 BCE, the famous Greek poet Homer was composing his two masterpieces, the Iliad and the Odyssey. These epic poems are about the Trojan War and its aftermath. Many historians today believe the Trojan War did not actually happen—at least not in the way Homer describes it. But the story, which exalts the qualities of competition and military ability, inspired the Greek people for centuries. Much of ancient Greek history is a story of wars, as independent city-states fought to protect their borders.


Ancient Greece was not one but many places.

Its physical borders were fragmented and far-flung, with colonies stretching from mainland Greece into what are now Italy, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and northern Africa. Greek civilizations sprang up on the thousands of islands sprinkled in the Mediterranean Sea and along most of the sea’s shores. Greece was a people and a way of life more than it was a country.

As with other ancient civilizations, it is impossible to know the precise time “Greece” began. Tribes of people existed in the region for millennia, but the first substantial records begin in approximately 1400 BCE, with what is known as the Mycenaean civilization. This culture died by approximately 1100 BCE, and Greek history remains hazy until the Archaic Age (approximately 800-479 BCE). During this time, Greeks began leaving their homes in search of land to support the growing population. Fiercely proud and independent, they established numerous citizen-states, autonomous states in which the citizens ruled themselves.

The Blind Poet

Little is known about the Greek poet Homer, who lived in the 700s BCE. Some question whether Homer existed at all. Records say Homer was a blind, wandering poet, but this description is common in Greek legends, and the poet could also be a combination of several people. In any case, the stories attributed to Homer were likely not invented by him alone—they were the result of hundreds of years of an oral tradition of storytelling. Although today Homer’s narratives are seen as mythical, the ancient Greeks believed the tales were their authentic history. Today, Homer’s epic poems are considered a cornerstone of Western literature.

Stormy Seas

Living surrounded by water on the Greek peninsula and on many islands dotted across the Mediterranean and Black Seas, the Greeks naturally became a seafaring people. Still, choppy waters plagued sailors, and early ships weren’t always seaworthy. The three-leveled triremes, used in war, were built for power, but water tended to leak in because shipwrights used lighter-weight wood prone to rot. Merchant ships, on the other hand, were sturdier but heavier and harder to navigate in coastal waters, where they could easily scrape against rocks. The Greeks developed a healthy caution for the water, particularly in the winter. The poet Hesiod of the 600s BCE warned, “Go to sea if you must, but only from mid-June to September, and even then you will be a fool.”1

and most influential would be Athens. Although the story of Greece cannot be assigned to a single city, much of its known history comes from Athens, where the ideals that still influence Western society were born.


Aeschylus lived in what is now called the age of Classical Greece. It began, roughly, when the Greeks first experimented with democracy in approximately 510 BCE. For the next 150 to 200 years, Greece—and Athens in particular—made astonishing leaps forward in cultural development. Democracy was born, fought, rejected, revived, tweaked, and eventually celebrated. Pericles, a famous leader of Athens and a champion of democracy, began a public building campaign. Many examples still survive, most notably the spectacular Parthenon, a temple to the goddess Athena. Theater thrived, becoming a form of entertainment and political expression.

Many of the great Greek philosophers who are remembered today lived during this time. Socrates asked probing questions of Athens’s leaders and eventually died for his outspokenness. His student, Plato, wrote about the nature of the soul and the qualities of an ideal society. From Plato’s way of thinking came Aristotle, who believed logic and reason should guide people’s lives. Much of Western literature and philosophy today builds on elements found in the beliefs and writings of these ancient Greeks. The golden age of Classical Greece would launch a new era of government, art, drama, literature, and philosophy. But it had been a long time in the making.