One of the slow tasks required in the rise of the Greeks was the creation of port facilities. The smaller ships could be pushed up onto the beach, but the bigger merchantmen couldn’t be beached. First, these 50-ton and later 100-ton monsters just couldn’t be dragged up onto the beach. Second, as keels deepened, it became impossible to bring them up onto the beach without them toppling over and spilling the cargo. Therefore, port facilities had to be built. The most primitive arrangement was to anchor offshore and transfer the cargo in small boats. This process worked at the smaller ports without much activity, but as trade volumes grew, its inefficiencies began to tell. The first improvement was the building of piers out to deeper water. Later on, in the really big entrepots such as Athens, stone quays were built. These greatly increased the efficiency of trade -- but they represented huge investments justified only by greater volumes of trade.
Athens provides an interesting if uncharacteristic example. The town predates the Dark Ages, and was located on a readily defensible height (the Acropolis) in classic Mycenaean fashion. However, as the city grew, its dependence on trade grew with it, and so the Athenians built extensive port facilities at the Piraeus. Later on, the Piraeus became so vital to Athenian existence that the Athenians built the Long Walls stretching from Athens all the way to the Piraeus -- some ten kilometers in all. It was an expensive undertaking, and the scale of the effort demonstrates just how important trade had become to Athens.
During this early period of rapid population growth, the Greeks established a great many overseas colonies. “Colony” is a misleading term to use in this instance. The term implies that the town was established to absorb excess population or to exploit previously underpopulated lands. In fact, most colonies started as emporia (trading posts) in well-populated areas. The Greek merchants chose a site with the best combination of accessibility to their ships and easy access to the locals. River mouths were especially favored; natural harbors unringed by mountains were also preferred. The Greek merchants deliberately avoided underpopulated tracts of lands; after all, there wouldn’t be anybody to trade with in such areas. Later on, if an emporium looked promising enough, it would graduate to the status of apoikiai: complete, self-sufficient city-states with strong connections to the mother city. The point I am making here is that the colonies were part of the expansion of the trading system, not dumping grounds for excess population. True, the population of Greece was expanding rapidly, and the colonies did absorb some of that increase, but they were built as trading posts, not population sinks.
The mercantile nature of Greek society forced democracy upon it. Remember, the standard system of king-plus-goons that worked everywhere else on the planet did not work in ancient Greece, because the merchants didn’t have to put up with any such crap; if the king didn’t satisfy them, they took their business elsewhere. Anywhere else, the king would have snorted “Good riddance!”, but in ancient Greece, the merchants were crucial to the food supply. They were the ones who took the olive oil and wine produced locally and traded it for cereals. Without their services, the citizens starved. Ultimately, he who feeds the piper calls the tune, and the merchants ended up wielding enormous political power – but only as a group, not as individuals.
Since the merchants had no natural system of selecting leaders, they had no other system for making policy decisions than straightforward democracy. This is what led to Greek democracy. It’s difficult for modern readers to appreciate just how radical this was. No other society in human history ever developed a broad system of democratic institutions. There were lots of different systems, but none of them were democratic – except for the Greeks. This in itself is such a sensationally radical development that it should command our attention and force us to ask, “How in the hell did they do it?” And the answer is that the unique economic system the Greeks developed forced democracy on them.
Rhetoric and Rationalism
Greek democracy was implemented primarily through “town hall” meetings: all the voting citizens would gather together and listen to speeches arguing one way or the other, then they’d vote on what to do. This gave vast power to the people who could give convincing speeches. Thus was born the Greek art of rhetoric. A side effect of this was completely new: an appreciation of the power of rationalism. In a democracy, you don’t get your way by shouting louder; you have to convince people and that requires both eloquence and rationalism. Your arguments have to make sense. That too had huge effects.
Especially important, for our purposes, was the way trade scattered Greeks all over the Eastern Mediterranean, while requiring them to keep in touch with each other. The best available means of coordinating all that mercantile activity was writing. The Greeks stole the idea of the alphabet from the Phoenicians, but they made a big improvement on the Phoenician system: they added vowels. This made reading easier to follow, as you didn’t nd t fll n th cntrctns. They also added a few new letters to represent sounds that were in the Greek language but not in the Phoenician language. But they did nothing about putting spaces between words or punctuation; suchnicetiesapparentlyweretoomuchtrouble.
The Greeks also learned the use of papyrus from the Egyptians, which is much better as a medium for writing than the mud tablets that the Mesopotamians used. Those little slabs of baked mud were fine for recording little notes and records, but Tolstoy’s War and Peace would have weighed several tons in cuneiform. Papyrus was much superior because it was lighter, rollable, and immediately useful (no baking required). No, papyrus didn’t fold well. It was made by splitting and unrolling reeds then washing, flattening, and pasting the strips of reed together. The result was rather like very thin corrugated cardboard: it rolled along its grain readily enough, but going against the grain just wasn’t possible. The Greeks were able to purchase papyrus from Egypt at prices low enough to enable plenty of written communications.
The Expectation of Literacy
The Greeks added their own magic ingredient: the expectation that everybody who was anybody should be able to read and write. Illiterate merchants were at a huge disadvantage in the marketplace; hence, everybody quickly learned to read and write. You must realize, of course, that “everybody” didn’t mean what we mean by “everybody”. In the Greek case, “everybody” meant “everybody who mattered”, which didn’t include women, laborers, or slaves. So in truth, the literate class consisted only of the moderately well-off men. Hesiod, author of the second-oldest books of Greek literature (the oldest being the Iliad and the Odyssey), was a farmer, not some high-falutin’ big shot. But that group was large enough to constitute a critical mass of readers. A letter from far-off Pontus might be sent to provide prices, supplies, and demands for various commodities, but the sender couldn’t resist the temptation to describe the strange people of that distant land, their odd attire and curious customs. And the recipient would surely share such exotic information with his eager friends. Thus, the simple market report quickly became more like a travelogue. From there, writing blossomed into a hundred other fields. People reported on the political situations in various places, the natural wonders, the history of the people, and all manner of other wondrous curiosities.
What’s important about this is that the literate class of Greece was much larger than the literate classes of Egypt, Mesopotamia, or China. The morphemic writing of those cultures was so difficult to master that years of special training were required to become proficient. Since no society could afford to train that many people, the professional scribes were few in number. I have seen one estimate that the literacy rate in Pharaonic Egypt was 1%; it was 10% in Ptolemaic (Greek-ruled) Egypt. This suggests that the literacy rate in Greece itself was well above 10%. Indeed, many of their legal processes demanded literacy.
Moreover, services of Egyptian or Mesopotamian scribes were required for all manner of official tasks, so they didn’t have time to screw around writing travelogues or philosophical musings. But the Greeks had a simpler, more accessible writing system that most people could figure out with only a few years’ education. The difference between the Greeks and the earlier writing cultures was rather like the difference between computer users today and programmers. You need years of training and practice to program a computer, but you can become a power user with only a few years’ practice. That’s why there are millions of people who can use computers, but only a narrow elite who can program them.
Let’s talk about another communication system: email. Email is like writing letters, with several differences: the letter gets to the recipient a lot faster, it can’t have any tangible contents, and the recipient must have an email account and a computer. The first difference makes it much better than writing letters, but the third difference can be crippling. I remember the early days of email, when few people had email accounts. When a friend suggested that I get an email account, I objected: with whom would I communicate? My friend assured me that it would at least facilitate communications between the two of us, so I went along if only to humor my friend. There really wasn’t much value to email, because any person you might want to communicate with was not likely to have an email account. Let’s imagine a time when there were just four owners of email accounts. For any individual, there were only three people to communicate with by email. The “net social utility” of the email system was the total number of social connections created by the email system: in this case, just six connections. Here’s a diagram showing the group and its connections:
email system with only four users; it has only six connections
Now, suppose that they add one more person to the system so that there are now five users:
email system with five users; now there are ten connections
Suppose that they then add a sixth user to the group:
email system with six users; now there are fifteen connections
The point of all these diagrams is that adding just one more user increases the net social utility of the system by an increasing amount. Adding one to a four-person system increased the number of connections by 4; adding the next person increased the number of connections by 5. This process continues. When there are a million email users, adding just one more user adds a million new connections. Thus, as such networks get bigger, they don’t just get better -- they get a lot better!
This “network effect” applied to early writing just as it applies to email. When the only writers were scribes, there just weren’t that many connections and not that much social utility. But when the Greeks created a much larger literate group, the social utility of their letter-mail system exploded. Suddenly (well, it did take a few centuries), people were writing about all sorts of different things, sharing exotic information, arguing new ideas. Knowledge and intelligence mattered little in the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures; what mattered was naked power. But in mercantile Greece, knowledge truly was power -- and that induced the Greeks to exalt knowledge and intelligence in a way that no previous society had done.
The exaltation of reason
Another magic ingredient was the Greek exaltation of reason. There’s nothing like it in any previous civilization. The Greeks held the use of the mind in high esteem. This esteem for the intellect arose early; it shows up in Homer. The Greeks spend ten years besieging Troy to no effect. Achilles the mighty warrior slays all manner of people, but he accomplishes nothing. Lots of people beat their chests, hurl their mighty spears, mow down their enemies, and still Troy remains unbeaten. Then Odysseus comes up with a bright idea and Troy falls. Hint, hint, guys, says Homer; perhaps all this might and brawn aren’t as valuable as a good head on your shoulders. The fact that the followup to the Iliad is the Odyssey is itself instructive. I believe that the Odyssey is a sequel to the Iliad; if so, then the basic theme was set because audiences were clamoring for more about this fascinating character Odysseus. Achilles may have been the main character in the Iliad, but he didn’t inspire the same admiration Odysseus commanded. That in itself reveals much about the changing Greek character: the muscular heroes of old were being supplanted by brainier types. Odysseus is presented over and over as the quick-thinking fellow, the clever chap who always has a ruse up his sleeve. The Odyssey is an homage to the intellect -- and nothing like that appears in the Bible or Gilgamesh, or any of the Egyptian literature. My guess is that the high value Greeks placed on cleverness was the inevitable result of having trade at the core of their economy. The clever merchant grew wealthy; the slow thinker lost his shirt.
Body, mind, and soul
The continuing evolution of this idea led to another Greek innovation: the tripartite division of the person into body, mind, and soul. The soul was an old idea: prehistoric burial practices including grave goods suggest that ancient people wanted to provide the deceased with food, weapons, tools, or even servants (killed and buried with the deceased). We see this most clearly in the Egyptian burials, and we know that the Egyptian word for “soul” was ka. Many other early civilizations nurtured the concept of an immortal soul. But the Greeks added a new element to the dyad “body and soul”: mind. Your soul carried on into the afterlife, but in normal life, you consisted to two separate components: your body and your mind. The Greeks saw the two as polar opposites constantly at war with each other. Your body craved instant gratification that often led to ruin; your mind was always the better guide to correct behavior. This notion shows itself throughout Greek literature:
“That man is altogether best who considers all things himself and marks what will be better afterwards and at the end; and he, again, is good who listens to a good adviser; but whoever neither thinks for himself nor keeps in mind what another tells him, he is an unprofitable man.”
“Wars and revolutions and battles are due simply and solely to the body and its desires. All wars are undertaken for the acquisition of wealth; and the reason why we have to acquire wealth is the body, because we are slaves in its service.”
“Some have given way to shameful and desperate sorrow at the loss of a horse or dog; others have borne the deaths of virtuous children without any extravagant or unbecoming grief, have passed the rest of their lives like men, and according to the principles of reason.”
“The law is reason, free from passion.”
Indeed, this separation of mind and body came to permeate all Western civilization. It later came to be expressed as “reason versus passion”, and was embraced by the Christian church, leading to the rise of asceticism among Christians, especially the hermits who in the early centuries of Christianity reveled in living at the edge of starvation.
Maps for navigating the realm of thought
Writing had an even more profound effect on Greek thinking To understand this new development, I suggest that you contemplate one of those lovely drawings by M.C.Escher, such as Ascending and Descending. In this drawing, monks are walking up and down sets of stairs that are cleverly drawn so that they appear to be endless. The monks are walking in circles, always going up (or down) but never getting anywhere. At small scale, the rules of proportion are followed exactly, but at large scale, they are violated. Your eye does not easily take this in, so you see a visual paradox.
Much the same thing happens with many of our attempts at extended sequential reasoning. When we try to string sentences together in a long logical sequence, it’s all too easy for the meaning to drift slightly with each sentence, allowing us to arrive at paradoxical (or at least unreliable) results. Thus, we tend to treat oral arguments with skepticism. Sure, a fast-talking speaker can make an apparent case for almost anything, but we know from hard experience that ofttimes that case unravels under careful inspection. But it’s so difficult to carefully inspect the arguments when they’re racing past you at the speed of speech!
That’s where writing comes in. How many times have you responded to the fast-talker by offering to read whatever he has on paper? How many times have you deferred making a decision until you have had time to see it in writing? The reason for this is simple: a written version of the argument can be checked for the tightness of its logic. You can go back and precisely compare one sentence with an earlier one, to make sure that the logical connections are all tight. In other words, with writing you can precisely plot a logical path through a wilderness of confusion. Writing is a navigational instrument for thinking. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians had too few literate people to broaden the use of writing enough to realize its power for purposes of reasoning. But the Greeks stumbled upon it. And the transition is nowhere clearer than in Socrates and Plato.
But that was only the beginning. Next came Aristotle, perhaps the most important thinker in human history. Aristotle invented the syllogism and began the systematic exploration of its possibilities. This triggered an explosion of research into the possibilities of logical thinking. Unfortunately, the Greeks had such limited technology that their researches were necessarily confined to those areas in which results could be obtained with simple instruments: geometry and astronomy were the most prominent of these. Archimedes, Aristarchus, Hipparchus, Ptolemy, Euclid, and many others applied rigorous sequential thinking to a wide variety of fields and established the groundwork for mathematics and science.
We must realize, however, that these researches were confined to a tiny elite, and that they did not penetrate the civilization as a whole. Despite the impressive advances in specialized fields, Classical civilization as a whole remained generally illogical. Law, commerce, agriculture, military science, and manufacturing continued to operate without the use of deliberate logical analysis.
Collapse of the Bronze Age, Manuel Robbins, ISBN 0-595-13664-8
Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World, Lionel Casson, ISBN 0-8018-5130-0
Atlas of Ancient History, Michael Grant, ISBN 0-88029-009-9
The Rise of the Greeks, Michael Grant, ISBN 0-684-18536-9
The Coming of the Greeks, Robert Drews, ISBN 0-691-03592-X
Greece in the Making 1200-479BC, Robin Osborne, ISBN 0-415-03583-X