The divine myths constitute the earliest matter of Greek history. These may be divided into those which belong to the gods and to the heroes respectively; but most of them, in point of fact, present gods, heroes and men in juxtaposition. Every community sought to trace its origin to some common divine, or semi-divine, progenitor; the establishment of a pedigree was a necessity; and each pedigree contains at some point figures corresponding to some actual historical character, before whom the pedigree is imaginary, but after whom, in the main, actual. The precise point where the legend fades into the mythical, or consolidates into the historical, is not usually ascertainable.
The legendary period culminates in the tale of Troy, which belongs to a period prior to the Dorian conquest presented in the Heraklied legend; the tale of Troy itself remaining the common heritage of the Greek peoples, and having an actual basis in historical fact. The events, however, are of less importance than the picture of an actual historical, political and social system, corresponding, not to the supposed date of the Trojan war, but to the date of the composition of the Homeric poems.
Later ages regarded the myths themselves with a good deal of skepticism, and were often disposed to rationalize them, or to find for them an allegorical interpretation. The myths of other European peoples have undergone a somewhat similar treatment.
Greece proper, that is, the European territory occupied by the Hellenic peoples, has a very extensive coast-line, covers the islands of the Aegean and is so mountainous on the mainland that communication between one point and another is not easy.
This facilitated the system which isolated communities, compelling each one to develop and perfect its own separate organization; so that Greece became, not a state, but a congeries of single separate city states--small territories centering in the city, although in some cases the village system was not centralized into the city system.
On the other hand, the Hellenes very definitely recognized their common affinity, looked on themselves as a distinct aggregate, and very emphatically differentiated that entire aggregate from the non-Hellenes, whom they designated 'barbarians.'
Of these states, the first to come into view--post-Homerically--is Sparta, the head of the Dorian communities, governed under the laws and discipline attributed to Lycurgus, with its special peculiarity of the dual kingship designed to make a pure despotism impossible. The government lay and remained in the hands of the conquering Spartan race--as for a time with the Normans in England--which formed a close oligarchy, while within the oligarchical body the organization was democratic and communistic. For Sparta, the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. were characterised by the two Messenian wars; and we note that while the Hellenes generally recognized her headship, Argos claimed a titular right to that position.
As a general rule, the primitive monarchical system portrayed in the Homeric poems was displaced in the Greek cities by an oligarchical government, which in turn was overthrown by an irregular despotism called tyrannis, primarily established by a professed popular leader, who maintained his supremacy by mercenary troops. One after another these usurping dynasties were again ejected in favour either of a restored oligarchy or of a democracy. Sparta, where the power of the dual kingship was extremely limited, was the only state where the legitimate kingship survived. Corinth attained her highest power under the despot Periander, son of Cypselus.
Of the Ionian section of Greek states, the supreme type is Athens. Her early history is obscure. The kingship seems to have ended by being, so to speak, placed in commission, the royal functions being discharged by an elected body of Archons. Dissensions among the groups of citizens issued in the democratic Solonian constitution, which remained the basis of Athenian government, except during the despotism of the house of Pisistratus in the latter half of the sixth century B.C.
But outside of Greece proper were the numerous Dorian and Ionian colonies, really independent cities, planted in the coast districts of Asia Minor, at Cyrene and Barka in Mediterranean Africa, in Epirus (Albania), Southern Italy, Sicily and even at Massilia in Gaul and in Thrace beyond the proper Hellenic area. These colonies brought the Greek world in touch with Lydia and its king, Croesus, with the one sea-going Semitic power, the Phoenicians, with the Egyptians and, more remotely, with the wholly Oriental empires of Assyria and Babylon, as well as with the outer barbarians of Scythia.
Between 560 and 510 B.C., Athens was generally under the rule of the despot Pisistratus and his son Hippias. In 510, the Pisistratidae were expelled and Athens became a pure democracy. Meanwhile, the Persian Cyrus had seized the Median monarchy and overthrown every other potentate in Western Asia; Egypt was added to to the vast Persian dominion by his son Cambyses. A new dynasty was established by Darius, the son of Hystaspes, who organized the empire, but failed to extend it by invading European Scythia.
THE revolt of the Ionic cities in Asia Minor against the governments established by the 'great king' brought him in contact with the Athenians, who sent help to Ionia. Demands for 'earth and water,' i.e. the formal recognition of Persian sovereignty, sent to the apparently insignificant Greek states were insolently rejected. Darius sent an expedition to punish Athens in particular, and the Athenians drove his army into the sea at the battle of Marathon.
Xerxes, son of Darius, organized an over-whelming force by land and sea to eat up the Greeks. The invaders were met but hardly checked at Thermopylae, where Leonidas and the immortal three hundred fell; all Greece north of the Isthmus of Corinth was in their hands, including Athens. But their fleet was shattered to pieces, chiefly by the Athenians under Themistocles and Aristides at Salamis, and the destruction of their land forces was completed by the united Greeks at Plataea. A further disaster was inflicted on the same day at Mycale.
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