Early Greece

by Oswyn Murray

This is a rather old book: it was published in 1980, and so some of its content is dated. Michael Grant’s The Rise of the Greeks is a better book. But in my search for understanding the development of rationalism, this book nevertheless offered some useful information. Here are some of the snippets that I noted:

“Herodotus records a disaster in the town of Chios in 496, when the roof fell in on a school ‘where children were learning their letters, so that out of 120 boys only one survived.’” This is interesting because, first, it clearly establishes that literacy was an important component of Greek upbringing as early as 496; and second, that education was “of course” limited to boys, not girls.

“It is hard to overestimate the consequences of literacy for early Greece... Literacy indeed becomes the cause of what the German sociologist Max Weber saw as the distinguishing mark of western civilization, the ‘formal rationality’ of its institutions.”

“The chief economic factor influencing Greek colonization was undoubtedly the search for land. The sixfold population growth that seems attested by the eighth century graves of Attica is an order which has only been reached in other periods under circumstances where the normal population constraints are lacking...” While this merely serves to confirm the now well-established dramatic growth of Greek population in the post-Dark Age period, it also contradicts (to a small degree) my hypothesis that trade was the driving force in population growth. Since Mr. Murray does not attempt to explain the sixfold increase in Attic population, I think that my hypothesis is still secure. Perhaps the big push in colonization came after the population boom triggered by increased trade.

“Solon... prohibited the export of agricultural products, except for olive oil...” This makes sense when applied to cereals, which Athens had to import in large quantities. However, it would also be meaningless, for the Attic farmer could certainly sell his crop for a better price at home than abroad. Perhaps Solon’s prohibition applied to transshipment of cereals. But this statement might call into question my hypothesis that Greeks were trading wine and olive oil for cereals, if you accept wine as an agricultural product rather than a manufacture. Also, by this late date, Athens was doing well selling its manufactures, especially pottery, so perhaps wine was no longer such an important part of the Athenian economy.

“Equally important were the new sources of wealth, which produced an upward social mobility much disapproved of by the hereditary aristocracy. In the elegaic poetry attributed to Theognis of Megara in the mid-sixth century, the identification of virtue and birth is complete, while wealth is primarily seen as an undesirable disturbance of the established order...” This serves to confirm that mercantile wealth was growing so rapidly as to threaten the landed aristocracy, thereby establishing the overwhelming importance of trade in Greek society.

“The introduction of ‘decimal democracy’ [a re-organization of the Greek population into ten groupings called ‘tribes’] has an intellectual coherence which demonstrates for the first time the systematic application of reason to the creation of a constitution.” Yep, the Greeks were get rational.

So the book provided me with a little more grist for my hypothesis. Now all I have to do is put all the pieces together and re-write my web pages on the development of rationalism.