We’ll begin with the very beginning, the discrimination that finally separated in the popular consciousness of the Greeks the East from the West. We’re beginning with Homer; we’re beginning with the Iliad, the first work of what can be termed a Western Literature. And while I could talk about the dramatic elements evident in the Homeric texts so utterly unlike its eastern contemporaries, I’m going to focus merely on the development of humanism. Homer’s works were always popular fiction, not the cultic practices of priests for religious performances, but being popular fiction they reflected the popular interpretation of the nature of the gods. And these gods were nothing like the god of the bible; in fact, they possessed human, that is anthropomorphic, qualities and they had a direct influence on human invents in which they seemed particularly invested. Furthermore, the warriors on the field behaved with human pathos to the events they endured. Indeed, it seemed finally that the poet found a subject in himself.
Now the Iliad is a fairly straightforward story in spite of all the wonderful aristeae which dominate the action throughout. In the background, Paris (sometimes known as Alexander) has stolen the wife (Helen, though she didn’t take much convincing) of the king of Sparta (Menelaus) and brought her to his own country of Ilium there to take as his own bride as one of the uncountable sons of the aged king of Ilium (Priam). Not too confusing, right? Now, Menelaus has not only lost his wife, he has lost face; he has lost his property to a hierarchical inferior and a foreigner. So he and his brother, the King of Argos (Agamemnon, who seems more interested in attacking Ilium than his relatively weak-willed younger brother) gather together the greatest heroes that Hellas (Greece) has to offer, and they string together a massive fleet of ships to bear them across the Aegean that they might invest (lay siege to) the mightily walled city, and they war with each other for ten years. The Iliad begins sometime within the tenth year, and Agamemnon’s massive incompetence is already on public display, complaining that he lost his war bride Chriseis to her father–who had previously offered a fortune in ransom–thanks to the curse of Apollo. He says he wants another woman, Briseis, who belongs to Achilles, who threatens to splay Agamemnon on the spot for the bald travesty of the insult, and is only impeded by the timely intervention of Pallas Athena. Anyways, sulking off to his own ships, Achilles promises not to fight and prays to his mother, who is a goddess, to beseech Zeus to destroy the Achaians–the general term for the Greek army. I never realized before how much of an influence women had on this story. Anyways, a bunch of bad things happen; Diomedes is amazing; and the Greeks are shortly losing. With the primary actors wounded and driven back, it’s down to the secondary actors to protect the bulwark of the ships before they’re burned utterly. A lot of stuff happens. The Greeks several times offer Achilles a wealth of treasure if he would rejoin the fight, but he refuses, until his closest friend Patroclus asks to fight bearing his armor as if the man himself. Achilles eventually agrees. Patroclus is amazing, would have taken the city himself but for the intervention of Apollo, and Patroclus is struck dead by Hector, the greatest of the Trojans. Trojans steal his armor. There’s a fight over the body. Menelaus does something for a change, and ultimately Hephaestus makes a swanky new set of armor just for Achilles. Achilles kills Hector, defiles the body. Kills a lot of other Trojans too, beforehand. Priam comes begging Achilles for the body. They share an uncomfortable father-son moment. Seems a lot like a drama with even more blood.
What can we take away from that? I’ve already mentioned the dramatic elements, the place of women (plot objects), but amongst the other elements I’d like to focus on one simple thing. This is a story about Europeans being wronged by Asians (Asia Minor was just called Asia back then), and the Europeans come seeking a revenge and compensation which is repeatedly denied. It would begin a violent relationship between Europeans and much of the rest of the world, which is defined in contrast rather than in comparison, and is generally termed to be weaker, more womanly, and undeserving of its wild accumulated wealth. This will be telling when Alexander crosses the Aegean.
But that’s worlds away a few hundred years since the time of its writing. In the full swing of the Classical Period, Greece is nothing special in the plight of nations–inconsequential in the light of the magnificent wealth of the East and possessing a minuscule population in contrast. Moreover, western ideals beginning to crystallize in the Greeks have yet to percolate into the rest of Europe and largely won’t until the rise of the Roman Empire. So the Greeks are functionally alone, and they’re watching their Ionian brothers on the far side of the Aegean be gobbled up one by one by a Persian Empire that has already obliterated the Lydians, a matter they can’t seem to reverse in spite of the Athenian sack of the satrapy capitol of Sardis, for which Darius promises revenge. In that end, he builds a huge army and a huge fleet and sails for Attica, the region in which the city-state of Athens predominated.
What happened is a very big deal. Had the Persian King been successful, it was unlikely the remainder of Greece would have been able to resist him, much of which had already been subdued by his massive army, constituted largely in excellent cavalry and fair archers too numerous to count. The Greek general Militiades drew up his force of around ten thousand Athenians and one thousand Plataeans opposite the Persian maritime camp facing over one hundred thousand soldiers in opposition, though many of them were sailors and not proper infantry. Even in that case, the Greeks were hopelessly outnumbered. On a broad front, Militiades placed an insufficient force of infantry, and on each wing he placed a powerful force of infantry. As the battle began, the Persian forces, spurred on by their early success against the Greek center, went oblivious of its slow retreat, and by the time the strong wings crashed together–what’s called a double envelopment–there’s was nothing to be done for their army any longer, which fled back into its camp, where the majority of its soldiers were cut to pieces amidst their property and tents by the victorious Greeks. Several of the ships were destroyed, and Darius wouldn’t see his revenge materialize before the end of his life, nor would he ever.
In the aftermath of this wild success, thanks to the honor of the achievements, the Athenians were reckoned perhaps highest among the Greeks, and as such their cultural and political developments were respected and predominated, a place that birthed great thinkers like Plato and was solace to great refugees like Anaxagoras. Their writings can be found abundantly online, in every library, in many homes and are respected to this day, thousands of years later. But there’s darker undertones. The Spartans had refused to participate owing to the time being inauspicious, as they were celebrating some religious ritual, and this refusal had reduced their esteem among the Greek cities, a mistake they wouldn’t make again.
So it was at Thermopylae that the Spartans demonstrated they could die more heroically than any other Greek. Commanding a force standing somewhere between five and eight thousand souls, they squared off against a Persian army, under the direction of Darius’ son Xerxes, that stood anywhere between seventy thousand and two million souls. Naturally they lost, but it was an embarrassment to the Persians who off the coast of Salamis would watch their massive fleet crushed by the less massive Athenian fleet, which would dash to ribbons any remaining hope of despoiling Greece forevermore.
Meanwhile, the dreams of revenge against Asia lingered on in the popular consciousness. The Iliad was the most popular text in the Greek world in the Classical Period–undoubtedly–and I’m no longer wondering why, somewhere between a bible and a manual for the salvation of the West, which was little more than Greece at this point, materially poor but conceptually strong, burgeoning with a host of wild ideas ranging from the poise of sculpture to the rights of man.