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Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE

From: Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon
and Schuster. 1939 -- Notes

Pictured here a Minoan Krater with Plastic Decoration Kamares Style 1300 BC
located at Ancient Aegean Art [Dr. Rozmeri Basic, Univ. of Oklahoma]

Aegean Prelude: 3500 - 1000 B.C.

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"There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water; and therein are many men past counting, and ninety cities." [44]

When Homer sang these lines, perhaps in the ninth century before our era, Greece had almost forgotten, though the poet had not, that the island whose wealth seemed to him even then so great had once been wealthier still; that it had held sway with a powerful fleet over most of the Aegean and part of mainland Greece; and that it had developed, a thousand years before the siege of Troy, one of the most artistic civilizations in history.

Probably it was this Aegean culture --as ancient to him as he is to us --that Homer recalled when he spoke of a Golden Age in which men had been more civilized, and life more refined, than in his own disordered time . . . . . "

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I. The Mediterranean
As we enter the fairest of all waters, leaving behind us the Atlantic and Gibraltar, we pass at once into the arena of Greek history. "Like frogs around a pond," said Plato, "we have settled down upon the shores of this sea."[1] Even on these distant coasts the Greeks founded precarious, barbarian-bound colonies many centuries before Christ: at Hemeroscopium and Ampurias in Spain, at Marseilles and Nice in France, and almost everywhere in southern Italy and Sicily. Greek colonists established prosperous towns at Cyrene in northern Africa, and at Naucratis in the delta of the Nile; their restless enterprise stirred the islands of the Aegean and the coasts of Asia Minor then as in our century; all along the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmora and the Black Sea they built towns and cities for their far-venturing trade. Mainland Greece was but a small part of the ancient Greek world.

Why was it that the second group of historic civilizations took form on the Mediterranean, as the first had grown up along the rivers of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, as the third would flourish on the Atlantic, and as the fourth may appear on the shores of the Pacific? Was it the better climate of the lands washed by the Mediterranean? There, then as now,[2] winter rains nourished the earth, and moderate frosts stimulated men; there, almost all the year round, one might live an open-air life under a warm but not enervating sun. And yet the surface of the Mediterranean coasts and islands is nowhere so rich as the alluvial valleys of the Ganges, the Indus, the Tigris, the Euphrates, or the Nile; the summer's drought may begin too soon or last too long; and everywhere a rocky basis lurks under the thin crust of the dusty earth. The temperate north and the tropic south are both more fertile than these historic lands where patient peasants, weary of coaxing the soil, more and more abandoned tillage to grow olives and the vine. And at any moment, along one or another of a hundred faults, earthquakes might split the ground beneath men's feet, and frighten them into a fitful piety. Climate did not draw civilization to Greece; probably it has never made a civilization anywhere. [p. 3]

What drew men into the Aegean was its islands. The islands were beautiful; even a worried mariner must have been moved by the changing colors of those shadowed hills that rose like temples out of the reflecting sea. Today there are few sights lovelier on the globe; and sailing the Aegean, one begins to understand why the men who peopled those coasts and isles came to love them almost more than life, and, like Socrates, thought exile bitterer than death. But further, the mariner was pleased to find that these island jewels were strewn in all directions, and at such short intervals that his ship, whether going between east and west or between north and south, would never be more than forty miles from land. And since the islands, like the mainland ranges, were the mountaintops of a once continuous territory that had been gradually submerged by a pertinacious sea[3] some welcome peak had been greeted the outlook's eye, and served as a beacon to ships that had as yet no compass to guide them. Again, the movements of wind and water conspired to help the sailor reach his goal. A strong central current flowed from the Black Sea into the Aegean, and countercurrents flowed northward along the coasts; while the northeasterly etesian winds blew regularly in the summer to help back to their southern ports the ships that had gone to fetch grain, fish, and furs from the Euxine Sea. [The Greeks called the Mediterranean Ho Pontos, the Passage or Road, and euphemistically termed the Black Sea Ho Pontos Euxeinos --the Sea Kindly to Guests --perhaps because it welcomed ships from the south with adverse currents and winds. The broad rivers that fed it, and the frequent mists that reduced its rate of evaporation, kept the Black Sea at a higher level than the Mediterranean, and caused a powerful current to rush through the narrow Bosporus [Ox-ford] and the Hellespont into the Aegean. The Sea of Marmora was the Propontis, Before the Sea.] Fog was rare in the Mediterranean, and the unfailing sunshine so varied the coastal winds that at almost any harbor, from spring to autumn, one might be carried out by a morning, and brought back by an evening, breeze.

In these propitious waters the acquisitive Phoenicians and the amphibious Greeks developed the art and science of navigation. Here they built ships for the most part larger or faster, and yet more easily handled, than any that had yet sailed the Mediterranean. Slowly, despite pirates and harassing uncertainties, the water routes from Europe and Africa into Asia --through Cyprus, Sidon, and Tyre, or through the Aegean and the Black Sea --became cheaper than the long land routes, arduous and perilous, that had carried so much of the commerce of Egypt and the Near East. Trade took new lines, multiplied new populations, and created new wealth. Egypt, then Mesopotamia, then Persia withered; Phoenicia deposited an empire of cities along the African coast, in Sicily, and in Spain; and Greece blossomed like a watered rose. [p. 4]


II. The Rediscovery of Crete
"There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water; and therein are many men past counting, and ninety cities."[4] When Homer sang these lines, perhaps in the ninth century before our era, [all dates in this volume are B.C. unless otherwise stated or obviously A.D.] Greece had almost forgotten, though the poet had not, that the island whose wealth seemed to him even then so great had once been wealthier still; that it had held sway with a powerful fleet over most of the Aegean and part of mainland Greece; and that it had developed, a thousand years before the siege of Troy, one of the most artistic civilizations in history. Probably it was this Aegean culture --as ancient to him as he is to us --that Homer recalled when he spoke of a Golden Age in which men had been more civilized, and life more refined, than in his own disordered time.

The rediscovery of that lost civilization is one of the major achievements of modern archeology. Here was an island twenty times larger than the largest of the Cyclades, pleasant in climate, varied in the products of its fields and once richly wooded hills, and strategically placed, for trade or war, midway between Phoenicia and Italy, between Egypt and Greece. Aristotle had pointed out how excellent this situation was, and how "it had enabled Minos to acquire the empire of the Aegean."[5] But the story of Minos, accepted as fact by all classical writers, was rejected as legend by modern scholars; and until sixty years ago it was the custom to suppose, with Grote, that the history of civilization in the Aegean had begun with the Dorian invasion, or the Olympic games. Then in A.D. 1878 a Cretan merchant, appropriately named Minos Kalokairinos, unearthed some strange antiquities on a hillside south of Candia. [The modern capital, now officially renamed Heracleum.] The great Schliemann, who had but lately resurrected Mycenae and Troy, visited the site in 1886, announced his conviction that it covered the remains of the ancient Cnossus, and opened negotiations with the owner of the land so that excavations might begin at once. But the owner haggled and tried to cheat; and Schliemann, who had been a merchant before becoming an archeologist, withdrew in anger, losing a golden chance to add another civilization to history. A few years later he died.[6]

In 1893 a British archaeologist, Dr. Arthur Evans, bought in Athens a number of milkstones from Greek women who had worn them as amulets. He was curious about the hieroglyphics engraved upon them, which no scholar could read. Tracing the stones to Crete, he secured passage thither, [p.5] and wandered about the island picking up examples of what he believed to be ancient Cretan writing. In 1895 he purchased a part, and in 1900 the remainder, of the site that Schliemann and the French School at Athens had identified with Cnossus; and in nine weeks of that spring, digging feverishly with one hundred and fifty men, he exhumed the richest treasure of modern historical research --the palace of Minos. Nothing yet known from antiquity could equal the vastness of this complicated structure, to all appearances identical with the almost endless Labyrinth so famous in old Greek tales of Minos, Daedalus, Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. In these and other ruins, as if to confirm Evans' intuition, thousands of seals and clay tablets were found, bearing characters like those that had set him upon the trail. The fires that had destroyed the palaces of Cnossus had preserved these tablets, whose undeciphered pictographs and scripts still conceal the early story of the Aegean. [Evans labored brilliantly at Cnossus for many years, was knighted for his discoveries, and completed, in 1936, his monumental four-volume report, The Palace of Minos.]

Students from many countries now hurried to Crete. While Evans was working at Cnossus, a group of resolute Italians --Halbherr, Pernier, Savignoni, Paribeni --unearthed at Hagia Triada [Holy Trinity] a sarcophagus painted with illuminating scenes from Cretan life, and uncovered at Phaestus a palace only less extensive than that of the Cnossus kings. Meanwhile two Americans, Seager and Mrs. Hawes, made discoveries at Vasiliki, Mochlos, and Gournia; the British --Hagarth, Bosanquet, Dawkins, Myres --explored Palaikastro, Psychro, and Zakro; the Cretans themselves became interested, and Xanthoudidis and Hatzidakis dug up ancient residences, grottoes, and tombs at Arkalochori, Tylissus, Koumasa, and Chamaizi. Half the nations of Europe united under the flag of science in the very generation in which their statesmen were preparing for war.

How was all this material to be classified --these palaces, paintings, statues, seals, vases, metals, tablets, and reliefs? --to what period of the past were they to be assigned? Precariously, but with increasing corroboration as research went on and knowledge grew, Evans dated the relics according to the depth of their strata, the gradation of styles in the pottery, and the agreement of Cretan finds, in form or motive, with like objects exhumed in lands or deposits whose chronology was approximately known. Digging down patiently beneath Cnossus, he found himself stopped, some forty-three feet below the surface, by the virgin rock. The lower half of the excavated area was occupied by remains characteristic of the Neolithic Age --primitive forms of handmade pottery with simple linear ornament, spindle whorls for spinning and weaving, fat-buttocked goddesses of painted steatite or clay, tools and weapons of polished stone, but nothing in copper or bronze. [Since the earliest layer of copper implements at Cnossus may be dated, by correlation with the remains of neighboring cultures, about 3400 B.C., i.e., about 5300 years ago, and since the neolithic strata at Cnossus occupy some fifty-five per cent of the total depth from surface to rock, Evans calculated that the Neolithic Age in Crete had lasted at least 4500 years before the coming of metals --approximately from 8000 to 3400. Such calculations of time from depth of strata are, of course, highly problematical; the rate of deposition may change from age to age. Allowance has been made for a slower rate after the abandonment of Cnossus as an urban site in the fourteenth c. B.C.[7] No paleolithic remains have been found in Crete.] Classifying the pottery, and correlating the remains with those of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, Evans divided the post-neolithic and prehistoric culture of Crete into three ages --Early, Middle, and Late Minoan --and each of these into three periods.

The first or lowest appearance of copper in the strata represents for us, through a kind of archeological shorthand, the slow rise of a new civilization out of the neolithic stage. By the end of the Early Minoan Age the Cretans learn to mix copper with tin, and the Bronze Age begins. In Middle Minoan I the earliest palaces occur: the princes of Cnossus, Phaestrus, and Mallia build for themselves luxurious dwellings with countless rooms, spacious storehouses, specialized workshops, altars and temples, and great drainage conduits that startle the arrogant Occidental eye. Pottery takes on a many-colored brilliance, walls are enlivened with charming frescoes, and a form of linear script evolves out of the hieroglyphics of the preceding age. Then, at the close of the Middle Minoan II, some strange catastrophe writes its cynical record into the strata; the palace of Cnossus is laid low as if by a convulsion of the earth, or perhaps by an attack from Phaestus, whose palace for a time is spared. But a little later a like destruction falls upon Phaestus, Mochlos, Gournia, Palaikastro, and many other cities in the island; the pottery is covered with ashes, the great jars in the storerooms are filled with debris. Middle Minoan III is a period of comparative stagnation, in which, perhaps, the southeastern Mediterranean world is long disordered by the Hyksos conquest of Egypt.[9]

In the late Minoan Age everything begins again. Humanity, patient under every cataclysm, renews its hope, takes courage, and builds once more. New and finer palaces rise at Cnossus, Phaestus, Tylissus, Hagia Triada, and Gournia. The lordly spread, the five-storied height, the luxurious decoration of these princely residences suggest such wealth as Greece would not know till Pericles. Theaters are erected in the palace courts, and gladiatorial spectacles of men and women in deadly combat with animals amuse gentlemen and ladies whose aristocratic faces, quietly alert, still live [p. 7] for us on the bright frescoes of the resurrected walls. Wants are multiplied, tastes are refined, literature flourishes; a thousand industries graciously permit the poor to prosper by supplying comforts and delicacies to the rich. The halls of the king are noisy with scribes taking inventories of goods distributed or received; with artists making statuary, paintings, pottery, or reliefs; with high officials conducting conferences, hearing judicial appeals, or dispatching papers stamped with their finely wrought seals; while wasp-waisted princes and jeweled duchesses, alluringly dÚcoletÚ, crowd to a royal feast served on tables shining with bronze and gold. The sixteenth and fifteenth centuries before our era are the zenith of Aegean civilization, the classic and golden age of Crete.


III. The Reconstruction of a Civilization
If now we try to restore this buried culture from the relics that remain --playing Cuvier to the scattered bones of Crete --let us remember that we are engaging upon a hazardous kind of historical television, in which imagination must supply the living continuity in the gaps of static and fragmentary material artificially moving but long since dead. Crete will remain inwardly unknown until its secretive tablets find their Champollion.

1. Men and Women
As we see them self-pictured in their art, the Cretans curiously resemble the double ax so prominent in their religious symbolism. Male and female alike have torsos narrowing pathologically to an ultramodern waist. Nearly all are short in stature, slight and supple of build, graceful in movement, athletically trim. Their skin is white at birth. The ladies, who court the shade, have fair complexions conventionally pale; but the men, pursuing wealth under the sun, are so tanned and ruddy that the Greeks will call them [as well as the Phoenicians] Phoinikes --the Purple Ones, Redskins. The head is rather long than broad, the features are sharp and refined, the hair and eyes are brilliantly dark, as in the Italians of today; these Cretans are apparently a branch of the "Mediterranean race." ] Current anthropology divides post-neolithic Europeans into three types, respectively preponderating in north, central, and southern Europe: (1) "Nordic" man --long-headed, tall, and fair of skin and eyes and hair; (2) "Alpine" man --broad-headed, of medium height, with eyes tending to gray and hair to brown; and (3) "Mediterranean" man --long-headed, short, and dark. No people is exclusively any of these "races."] The men as well as the women wear their hair partly in coils on the head or the neck, partly in ringlets [p. 8] on the brow, partly in tresses falling upon the shoulders or the breast. The women add ribbons for their curls, while the men, to keep their faces clean, provide themselves with a variety of razors, even in the grave.[10]

The dress is as strange as the figures. On their heads --most often bare --the men have turbans or tam-o'-shanters, the women magnificent hats of our early twentieth-century style. The feet are usually free of covering; but the upper classes may bind them in white leather shoes, which among women may be daintily embroidered at the edges, with colored beads on the straps. Ordinarily the male has no clothing above the waist; there he wears a short skirt of waistcloth, occasionally with a codpiece for modesty. The skirt may be slit at the side in working men; in dignitaries and ceremonies it reaches in both sexes to the ground. Occasionally the men wear drawers, and in winter a long outer garment of wool or skins. The clothing is tightly laced about the middle, for men as well as women are resolved to be --or seem--triangularly slim.[11] To rival the men at this point, the women of the later periods resort to stiff corsets, which gather their skirts snugly around their hips, and lift their bare breasts to the sun. It is a pretty custom among the Cretans that the female bosom should be uncovered, or revealed by a diaphonous chemise;[12] no one seems to take offense. The bodice is laced below the bust, opens in a careless circle, and then, in a gesture of charming reserve, may close in a Medici collar at the neck. The sleeves are short, sometimes puffed. The skirt, adorned with flounces and gay tints, widens out spaciously from the hips, stiffened presumably with metal ribs or horizontal hoops. There are in the arrangement and design of Cretan feminine dress a warm harmony of colors, a grace of line, a delicacy of taste, that suggest a rich and luxurious civilization, already old in arts and wiles. In these matters the Cretans had no influence upon the Greeks; only in modern capitals have their styles triumphed. Even staid archeologists have given the name La Parisienne to the portrait of a Cretan lady with profulgent bosom, shapely neck, sensual mouth, impudent nose, and a persuasive, provocative charm; she sits saucily before us today as part of a frieze in which high personages gaze upon some spectacle that we shall never see.[13] [p. 8]

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[Durant, Will. The Life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1939. Aegean Prelude, pp. 3-23.]




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