The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 2

Author: John Rudd  | Date: B.C. 5867-B.C. 451

The Development of the Greeks

Taking the idea "world power" in the restricted sense suggested, Persia lost it to Greece at Salamis. As the Asiatic hordes fled behind their panic-stricken king, the Greeks, looking round their limited horizon, could see no power that might vie with them. The idea of pressing home their success and overthrowing the entire unwieldy Persian empire was at once conceived.

But the Greeks were of all races least like to weld earth into one dominion. They could not even unite among themselves. In short it cannot be too emphatically pointed out that the work of Greece was not to consolidate, but to separate, to teach the value of each individual man. Asia had made monarchies in plenty. King after king had passed in splendid, glittering pomp across her plains, circled by a crowd of obsequious courtiers, trampling on a nameless multitude of slaves. Europe was to make democracies, or at least to try her hand at them.

It has been well said that a democracy is the strongest government for defence, the weakest for attack. Every little Greek city clung jealously to its own freedom, and to its equallyobvious right to dominate its neighbors. The supreme danger of the Persian invasion united them for a moment; but as soon as safety was assured, they recommenced their bickering. Sparta with her record of ancient leadership, Athens with her new-won glory against the common foe, each tried to draw the other cities in her train. There was no one man who could dominate them all and concentrate their strength against the enemy. So for a time Persia continued to exist; she even by degrees regained something of her former influence over the divided cities.

Among these Athens held the foremost rank. She was, as we have previously seen, far more truly representative of the Greek spirit than her rival. Sparta was aristocratic and conservative; Athens democratic and progressive. The genius of her leaders gathered the lesser towns into a great naval league, in which she grew ever more powerful. Her allies sank to be dependent and unwilling vassals, forced to contribute large sums to the treasury of their overlord.

This was the age of Pericles.1 As Athens became wealthy, her citizens became cultured. Statues, temples, theatres, made the city beautiful. Dramatists, orators, and poets made her intellectually renowned. A marvellous outburst, this of Athens! Displaying for the first time in history the full capacity of the human mind! Had there been similar flowerings of genius amid forgotten Asiatic times? One doubts it; doubts if such brilliancy could ever anywhere have passed, and left no clearer record of its triumphs.

Amid such splendor it seems captious to point out the flaw. Yet Athenian and all Greek civilization did ultimately decline. It represented intellectual, but not moral culture. The Greeks delighted intensely in the purely physical life about them; they had small conception of anything beyond. To enjoy, to be successful, that was all their goal; the means scarce counted. The Athenians called Aristides the Just; but so little did they honor his high rectitude that they banished him for a decade. His title, or it may have been his insistence on the subject, bored them.

His rival, Themistocles, was more suited to their taste, aclever scamp, who must always be dealing with both sides in every quarrel, and outwitting both. Athens was driven to banish him also at last, at his too flagrant treachery. But he was not dismissed with the scathing scorn our modern age would heap upon a traitor. He was sent regretfully, as one turns from a charming but too persistently lawless friend. The banishment was only for ten years, and he had his nest already prepared with the Persian King. If you would understand the Greek spirit in its fullest perfection, study Themistocles. Rampant individualism, seeking personal pleasure, clamorous for the admiration of its fellows, but not restrained from secret falsity by any strong moral sense—that was what the Greeks developed in the end.

Neither must Athens be regarded as a democracy in the modern sense. She was only so by contrast with Persia or with Sparta. Not every man in the beautiful city voted, or enjoyed the riches that flowed into her coffers, and could thus afford, free from pecuniary care, to devote himself to art. Athens probably had never more than thirty thousand "citizens." The rest of the adult male population, vastly outnumbering these, were slaves, or foreigners attracted by the city’s splendor.

But those thirty thousand were certainly men. "There were giants in those days." One sometimes stands in wonder at their boldness. What all Greece could not do, what Persia had completely failed in, they undertook. Athens alone should conquer the world. By force of arms they would found an empire of intellect. They fought Persia and Sparta, both at once. Plague swept their city, yet they would not yield.2 Their own subject allies turned against them; and they fought those too. They sent fleets and armies against Syracuse, the mightiest power of the West. It was Athens against all mankind!

She was unequal to the task, superbly unequal to it. The destruction of her army at Syracuse3 was only the foremost of a series of inevitable disasters, which left her helpless. After that, Sparta, and then Thebes, became the leading city of Greece. Athens slowly regained her fighting strength; herintellectual supremacy she had not lost. Socrates,4 greatest of her sons, endeavored to teach a morality higher than earth had yet received, higher than his contemporaries could grasp. Plato gave to thought a scientific basis.

Then Macedonia, a border kingdom of ancient kinship to the Greeks, but not recognized as belonging among them, began to obtrude herself in their affairs, and at length won that leadership for which they had all contended. A hundred and fifty years had elapsed since the Greeks had stood united against Persia. During all that time their strength had been turned against themselves. Now at last the internecine wars were checked, and all the power of the sturdy race was directed by one man, Alexander, King of Macedon. Democracy had made the Greeks intellectually glorious, but politically weak. Monarchy rose from the ruin they had wrought.

As though that ancient invasion of Xerxes had been a crime of yesterday, Alexander proclaimed his intention of avenging it; and the Greeks applauded. They understood Persia now far better than in the elder days; they saw what a feeble mass the huge heterogeneous empire had become. Its people were slaves, its soldiers mercenaries. The Greeks themselves had been hired to suppress more than one Persian rebellion,5 and to foment these also. They had learned the enormous advantage their stronger personality gave them against the masses of sheeplike Asiatics.

So it was in holiday mood that they followed Alexander, and in schoolboy roughness that they trampled on the civilization of the East. In fact, it is worth noting that the most vigorous resistance they encountered was not from the Persians, but from a remnant of the Semites, the merchants of the Phoenician city of Tyre.6 In less than eight years, B.C. 331-323, Alexander overran the whole known world of the East,7 only stopping when, on the border of India, his soldiers broke into open revolt, not against fighting, but against further wandering.

If this invasion had been the mere outcome of one man’s ambition, it might scarce be worth recording. But Alexander was only the topmost wave in the surging of a long imminent, inevitable racial movement. Its effect upon civilization, upon the world, was incalculably vast. Alexander and his successors were city-builders, administrators. As such they spread Greek culture, the Greek idea of individualism, over all their world.

How deep was the change, made upon the imbruted Asiatics, we may perhaps question. Our own age has seen how much of education may be lavished on an inferior race without materially altering the brute instincts within. The building-up of the soul in man is not a matter of individuals, but of centuries. Yet in at least a superficial way Greek thought became the thought of all mankind. We may dismiss Alexander’s savage conquests with a sigh of pity; but we cannot deny him recognition as a most potent teacher of the world.

His empire did not last. It was in too obvious opposition to all that we have recognized as the Grecian spirit. At his death the same impulse seems to have stirred each one of his subordinates, to snatch for himself a kingdom from the confusion. Instead of one there were soon three, four, and then a dozen Semi-Grecian states in Asia. The Greek element in each grew very faint.

From this time onward Asia takes a less prominent place in world affairs. Her ancient leadership in the march of civilization had long been yielded to the Greeks. Now her semblance of military power disappeared as well. Only two further happenings in all Asia seem worth noting, down to the birth of Christ. One of these was the Tartar conquest of China, an event which coalesced the Tartars, helped make them a nation.8 It was thus fraught with most disastrous consequences for the Europe of the future. The other was the revolt of the Hebrews under Judas Maccab us, against their Grecian rulers. This was a religious revolt, a religious war. Here for the first time we find a people who will believe, who can believe, in no god but their own, who will die sooner than give worship to another. We approach the borders of an age where the spiritis more valued than the body, where the mental is stronger than the physical, where facts are dominated by ideas.9

Had Alexander even at the moment of his greatest strength directed his forces westward instead of east, he would have found a different world and encountered a sturdier resistance. He himself recognized this, and during his last years was gathering all the resources of his unwieldy empire, to hurl them against Carthage and against Italy. What the issue might have been no man can say. Alexander’s death ended forever the impossible attempt to unite his race. Once more and until the end, Grecian strength was wasted against itself.

This gave opportunity to the growing powers of the West. Alexander is scarce gone ere we hear Carthage boasting that the Mediterranean is but a private lake in her possession. She rules all Western Africa and Spain, Sardinia and Corsica. She masters the Greeks of Sicily, against whom Athens failed. Rome is compelled to sign treaties with her as an inferior.

1See Pericles Rules in Athens, page 12.

2See Great Plague at Athens, page 34.

3See Defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse, page 48.

4See Condemnation and Death of Socrates, page 87.

5See Retreat of the Ten Thousand Greeks, page 68.

6See Alexander Reduces Tyre, page 133.

7See The Battle of Arbela, page 141.

8See Tartar Invasion of China, page 126.

9See Judas Maccabaeus Liberates Judea, page 245.


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Chicago: John Rudd, "The Development of the Greeks," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 2 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), xiii–xvii. Original Sources, accessed May 22, 2024,

MLA: Rudd, John. "The Development of the Greeks." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 2, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. xiii–xvii. Original Sources. 22 May. 2024.

Harvard: Rudd, J, 'The Development of the Greeks' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 2. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.xiii–xvii. Original Sources, retrieved 22 May 2024, from