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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 3: The Early Greek World, History and Prehistory

[For a more detailed history and cultural overview of ancient Greece, see the Perseus web site (click here).]

I. Geography and Greek Culture

Greek Landscape (click to see larger image)The geography of Greece is a primary factor, if not the pre-eminent feature of the culture and lives of the ancient populations who lived there. Inhabiting an area that is ninety percent mountains with little arable land forced the Greeks into ways of life that did not center strictly around farming and agriculture. They were, for the most part, driven to go to sea to make ends meet. Indeed, no place in Greece is further than fifty miles from the sea, so the inevitability of fishing and maritime adventure was incumbent upon many in antiquity, as it still is. To this day, many Greeks make a living in shipping, for instance, Aristotle Onassis, the multi-millionaire who acquired a fortune in international trade and married Jacqueline Kennedy after the assassination of her first husband.

Ironically, while the mountainous topography pushed the Greeks to explore lands far beyond their immediate locale, at the same time it also separated the cities of Greece and obstructed intra-Hellenic contact, leading many of them to develop along discrete, sometimes incompatible lines. For instance, settlements as close as Athens and Thebes, which are less than sixty miles apart, not only came to see each other as "foreign" but even evolved a long-lasting rivalry that persisted into the Classical Age. Ironically, in some ways the ancient Greeks became generally friendlier with peoples across the sea than their own neighbors because the landscape made foreign nations seem "closer" than many cities on the Greek mainland.

Overall, their geographical situation forced the ancient Greeks from early on to look outward from their immediate locality and internationalize their interests. This broadened their horizons and exposed them like few other civilizations to foreign ideas and ways of living. The ensuing cosmopolitanism played an important role in their development as a focal group in ancient Western Civilization. For a people living on the edge of nowhere, they found themselves uniquely thrust in medias res ("into the middle of things").

II. The Prehistory of Greece

The earliest inhabitants of Greece are a mysterious—and possibly mythological—people called the Pelasgians about whom we know very little. These natives and their culture were overwhelmed and ultimately utterly annihilated by the invasion of a new people known now as the Indo-Europeans (click here to read more about the Indo-Europeans). If it were not for a handful of Pelasgian words like plinth ("brick"), a term preserved in ancient Greek, along with a few city-names like Corinth and other scattered vestiges of the Pelasgians' language, we would hardly even know these people ever existed. That's how completely devastating was the Indo-European conquest of this region.

Map of Indo-European Groups (click to see larger image)So, when people today study the ancient Greeks, they are examining not the earliest known humans in the area but later invaders called the Indo-Europeans. This is clear because of the language the Greeks spoke. All extant forms of ancient Greek clearly derive from a common ancestor called Proto-Indo-European, a language that engendered a large number of daughter languages found across much of the Eurasian continent, all the way from India to Norway. These closely related tongues show that the Indo-Europeans must have migrated over thousands of miles in different directions, displacing natives and settling themselves in lands across a wide swath of the Eurasian continent.

Another thing we know about the Indo-Europeans is that they tended to enter a region in successive waves. That is, Indo-Europeans rarely migrated into an area just once, and Greece was no exception. As early as 2000 BCE one Indo-European contingent had begun infiltrating the Greek peninsula and by the end of that millennium at least three major discrete migrations of these intruders had surged across various parts of Greece.

Map of Greek Dialects (click to see larger image)One racial group of these Indo-Europeans was called the Ionians. They settled along the eastern coast of Greece, in particular the city of Athens, and along the western coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). Another group, the Dorians, settled the Peloponnese (the southern part of Greece) and many inland areas. The result was a "dark age" accompanied by massive disruptions in the Greek economy and civilization, including a total loss of literacy.

This dark age lasted about three centuries, from 1100 to 800 BCE and, while it seems from our perspective today like a dismal time, it must have been a dynamic and fascinating period in Greek history, perhaps a wonderful time to have lived. The lack of written historical records—the inevitable product of the age's illiteracy—leaves the impression of a vast void but, to judge the period from its outcome, it gave shape to much of the rest of Greek history. Many of the things we associate with Greek culture—for instance, vase-painting, epic poetry, and ship-building—assumed their basic and most familiar forms during this "dark" age.

Homer (click to see larger image)Particularly, many of the Greek myths read and studied today are traceable to this time period. Quite a few are set in the generations just before the dark age or in its early phases. For example, the famous cycle ("collection") of myths about the Trojan War—if, in fact, it is based on any real event in history—must date to some time around 1185 BCE. These myths found their most brilliant expression in the early Greek epic poems attributed to Homer, ancient Greece's greatest pre-classical poet.

Greek Vase: Achilles and Ajax playing a game (click to see larger image)Homer's first epic, The Iliad, tells the tale of the Greeks' sack of Troy and the anger of their formidable hero, Achilles. Among other famous characters included there are the beautiful Helen and her hapless Greek husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta. His brother, Agamemnon, the king of neighboring Mycenae who leads the expedition of Greeks to Troy, is married to Helen's sister Clytemnestra with whom he has several children including Electra and Orestes. All later became important characters in drama as well as epic. The gods also play a large role in The Iliad, in particular, the king of the gods Zeus, the sun god Apollo, and the goddess of wisdom Athena.

Heinrich Schliemann (click to see larger image)Homer's other epic, The Odyssey, narrates the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus as he wanders around the Mediterranean Sea trying for ten years to get home to Ithaca, an island on the western coast of Greece. Along the way he encounters a number of deities and monsters and is involved in much mayhem. Ultimately with the help of his patroness, the goddess Athena, he arrives back in his kingdom safe, if not entirely sound. There he encounters his wife Penelope and son Telemachus after an absence of twenty years.

These stories convey such a compelling sense of realism about their day and time that more than one scholar has been tempted to see in them history rather than mere myth, but their historicity is questionable at best. One such investigator was Heinrich Schliemann, a nineteenth-century German millionaire and archaeologist, who excavated the site that is now known as Troy. This ancient settlement in the northwestern corner of Asia Minor near the straits that separate Asia and Europe indeed contains the ruins of a once-great city that thrived in the middle to late second millennium BCE, but is this site Homer's Troy? Moreover, even if its name was Troy—and there is no firm evidence to that effect—that still leaves open the question of the extent to which Homer's epics preserve historical reality. The debate about the amount of verifiable history preserved in Homeric epic lingers unresolved to this day, a tribute to the enduring, gripping picture of humanity painted by this purportedly blind poet. [To read more about Troy, Homer and Schliemann, click here.]

III. The Pre-Classical Age of Greek History

Map of Archaic Greece (click to see larger image)With the reappearance of written records after the dark age, Greek history as such comes back into focus. From the earliest extant inscriptions and vase-paintings with writing on them, we know that the alphabet was introduced to the Greek world at some point around 800 BCE, which is probably at or about the time Homer himself lived. This provides one way to explain why his epics, originally composed "orally" (i.e. as narratives that were not written down), were preserved. They came into being at just the right moment, when oral poets were still active but writing had been introduced so oral poetry could be recorded. This revolutionary period in Greek history—and indeed world history—witnessed the rise of the polis, the classical city-state (for instance, Athens, Sparta and Corinth) which would dominate the political scene for several centuries. These quasi-independent communities in their inter-political rivalry elevated Western civilization to unprecedented heights.

This epoch now known as the Pre-Classical Age (800-500 BCE) is also called the Age of Tyrants because powerful individuals came to rule the majority of these city-states by overthrowing the existing regime in a military coup. While our word "tyrant" which comes from the Greek tyrannos has strongly negative overtones, the Greek term had in antiquity both negative and neutral connotations, or sometimes even positive ones. That is, not all Greek tyrannoi (plural of tyrannos) were seen as "tyrannical."

Attic owl, the principal Athenian coin (click to see larger image)One, in particular, Pisistratus of Athens, was a visionary who did much good for his city. He established festivals that united the Athenians culturally, boosted their economy by creating a market for Athenian exports and stabilized Attic (i.e. Athenian) coinage, making it widely respected throughout the Mediterranean world. Though he brought himself to power through force and violence, he used the position he assumed to better the lives of his fellow townsmen in general. He remained in power for many years and, when he died in the early 520's BCE, his sons inherited his power. While they did not manage Athens as well as their father had and were eventually ousted, Pisistratus' lasting contributions laid the groundwork for the Athenians' rise to prominence in the next century, the fifth century BCE (500-400 BCE), the Classical Age.

Solon (click to see larger image)Other tyrants around the Greek-speaking world did much the same. More than one is famous as a "lawgiver," the man who, even while sole ruler, paved the way for fair and representative government in his city. Thus, this age is also known as the Age of Lawgivers. The introduction of writing, no doubt, played a great role in the advancement of law. Initially law codes, no doubt, entailed little more than the codification of already existing custom—in Greek, the word for "custom" is nomos which eventually became the term used for "law"—in deed, Athens had no less than two (in)famous lawgivers: Draco at the end of the seventh century (600's) BCE and Solon in the next generation (the early part of the sixth century, ca. 580 BCE). Both have left their imprint on English. A solon today means a "politician," and draconian means "extremely harsh or punitive" because Draco was famous for the severity of the punishments his laws imposed.

Map of Greek and Phoenician Colonies (click to see larger image)Also, because at this time the Greeks began to colonize large parts of the Mediterranean world—in particular, Asia Minor and Sicily (the large island southwest of Italy)—and the coastal regions of the Black Sea as well, this age has also been dubbed the Age of Colonization. In particular, the Greeks settled in large numbers in southern Italy which came to contain so many of them that the later Romans referred to the area as Magna Graecia ("Big Greece"). In part because of their essentially Greek heritage, the people and culture of southern Italy and Sicily are to this day quite different from those of central and northern Italy.

The reason Greek colonization occurred on such a grand scale at this time goes back to changes in Mesopotamia (the modern Middle East), more than once the distant impetus for significant developments in the Western world. In the eighth century BCE, the Assyrians had come to dominate most of the ancient Near East. Their conquest and brutal treatment of captive states demolished many of the existing social, political and economic structures in the day.

Among those subjugated to the Assyrians were the Phoenicians who lived on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean. From that crossroad, they had enriched themselves through a network of commercial exchange protected by a powerful navy but, when the Assyrians conquered and uprooted them, that navy evaporated and the trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean were opened up. The Greeks stepped into the vacuum, making a new life of wealth for themselves in shipping and cultural exchange. They then went on to colonize those areas where they traveled most often, in part to protect their trade routes. Put simply, had the Assyrians not shattered the Phoenicians, the Greeks might never have found the economic room and energy needed to spark the cultural revolution they undertook in the Classical Age.

Greek Vase depicting a lyric poet singing (click to see larger image)Yet one more way to refer to this period is the Lyric Age, a name derived the dominant form of literature in the day. While long heroic epics predominated as the principal form of narrative entertainment in earlier days, by the middle of pre-classical times (ca. 650 BCE) a new kind of poetry had begun to spread across the Greek world. These poems were shorter, livelier, and focused on modern life and love, not the redoubtable feats of a glorious past. Because the singers of these poems often accompanied themselves on the lyre—the lyre is a stringed musical instrument that could be plucked to create certain harmonies—this sort of poetry came to be known as lyric poetry.

Greek Vase depicting Sappho and Alcaeus (click to see larger image)By 600 BCE lyric poetry ruled the ancient Greek entertainment scene. Lyric poets and their musical verse were in great demand with the public, much the way rock stars are today. Indeed, the analogy of lyric poetry and rock music is not altogether off-base. In their day, Greek lyric poets were idolized, imitated and at least one is reported to have performed in a state of intoxication.

The most famous of these, however, is also one of the few woman's voices we hear from any quarter of antiquity. Her name is Sappho, and her love poetry is perhaps the most famous of all time. The beauty of Sappho's lyrics in Greek was heralded throughout antiquity, as was the complexity, subtlety and rapturous grace of her rhythms and melodies.

Unfortunately, most of her poetry is now lost, shattered in its long passage through neglectful ages. So much has been disappeared that we are not sure we have even a single poem of hers complete. But the many fragments of her songs which survive today attest to the high reputation in which the ancients held her. More important for our purposes, lyric poetry like Sappho's played an important role in the formulation of Greek drama which borrowed heavily from lyric modes of expression and, in fact, rose at the very time that lyric poetry began to decline. So, Sappho's legacy lived on, at least in part, through the tragedies and comedies that followed in her wake.

In the end, be it called the Lyric Age, the Age of Colonization, the Age of Tyrants, the Age of Lawgivers or simply the Pre-Classical Age, these three centuries of Greek civilization (800-500 BCE) are by any name one of the great revolutionary periods in human history. Were it not followed by an age even more magnificent (i.e. the Classical Age), this could easily be deemed a golden age. If nothing else, all the titles of this epoch point up the centrality of these centuries as a pivotal and formative moment in not only Greek history but all of Western Civilization. And so it will come as little surprise that this was the time and place, the laboratory if you will, where Greek drama was created.


Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

Pelasgians [puh-LASS-gee-uns]
Ionians [eye-OWN-nee-uns]
Asia Minor
Peloponnese [PELL-oh-pun-NEESE]
Trojan War
The Iliad
Heinrich Schliemann [SCHLEE-man]
Polis [PALL-liss]
Pre-Classical Age

Age of Tyrants
Tyrannos [TURR-raw-noss]
Pisistratus of Athens [pie-SISS-trah-tuss]
Classical Age
Age of Lawgivers
Solon [SAW-lahn]
Black Sea
Age of Colonization
Magna Graecia [GRY-kee-yuh]
Phoenicians [FONE-nee-shuns]
Lyric Age
Lyric Poetry
Sappho [SAFF-foe]


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