The Iliad of Homer tells of the Trojan War. The myth was handed down by word of mouth until it was put in writing in about 700 BC. Together with Ulysses, it became a kind of bible for the Greeks. These myths looked back to times well before Moses of prehistoric cities at Mycenae, the seat of Agamemnon, and in Crete. I said elsewhere of the hero of the Iliad: ‘Achilles is the worst kind of aggressor – he is super-sensitive to insult or affront. T.S. Eliot called Achilles a ‘spoiled teenager’. The capacity of Achilles to sulk is limitless. This is a characteristic of a high-born, spoiled brat.’ At bottom, things don’t change. We now see Achilles in the White House. That is apt for a book that links us to animal acts in prehistory.
Especially in the fifth century BC, the Greeks went through a phase of explosive growth that looks unique in the history of the world. They lived in and about towns. They never formed a nation, and their internal jealousy would be their undoing. They went through phases of monarchy, aristocracy and oligarchy. They wound up with a gentlemen’s club version of democracy – only male citizens need apply.
Athens at its height rested on slavery and a protection racket, a kind of empire. Athens had achieved this pre-eminence by leading the defence against Persian invasions in battles like that of Marathon. It was they who stopped an Asian takeover of Europe. It was about the time Athens had its empire that Greece produced dramatists like Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, historians like Herodotus and Thucydides, and philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
But the Athenian confederacy became an empire, and an empire of free states is a contradiction in terms. Then Athens made Sparta jealous. If you reflect on the English in Ireland, or the Dutch and other whites in Africa, and apartheid, or, perhaps, the Nazi occupation of France, you will begin to follow Sparta. The people Sparta conquered were called ‘helots’, state controlled but privately managed. This Spartan form of slavery was cruel, greedy, and unique.
The State ruled this version of Animal Farm with an iron discipline that the Prussians admired. The first object was to create invincible warriors, and their soldiers frequently adopted the Japanese model of atoning for defeat by suicide. To pursue their ideals, each Spartan had to be relieved of having to maintain himself or his family. Education and marriage were all conditioned to maintain a perfect army. There was of course a Krypteia or secret police. The young Spartans had to get practice at killing. They were sent out with the power to kill any helot who looked suspicious. And as with any fascist state, corruption was everywhere. Nor should we leave Athens out here. The Republic of Plato is a blueprint for fascism.
The war between Athens and Sparta – the Peloponnesian War – dragged on for decades. The Greek city states were exhausted. A cunning ruler called Philip of Macedon had little trouble subduing the shattered Greeks. His son found himself in trouble at home, so he went out and conquered the world. This was Alexander the Great. He got as far as India before dying in 323 BC. The following period is called the Hellenistic period. One city Alexander created, Alexandria, became a store house of knowledge in dark times that followed. Otherwise, European intervention in that part of the world was about as useful then as it has been recently.
The blazing meteor of ancient Greece had just burnt out. It subsided into the Mediterranean, never to be revived. Even now, it looks like a failed state.