In the eighth century B.C., the first great literary works of Europe, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were created. They told about the struggle of Troy, and about the mistaken journey of Odysseus. We call their author Homer. In the eighth century B.C., too, the Olympic games were celebrated for the first time. And finally, in the eighth century B.C., a new script was invented, an alphabet, which was much simpler than all the earlier methods of writing in Greek; it consists of only a few letters.
The Greeks got the idea of an alphabetic writing system, instead of pictographic or cuneiform writing, from Semitic tribes. Our script today is of the same type that the Greeks developed out of the Semitic alphabets. The Greeks created the necessary preconditions so that we today can read and write, and don’t need professional scribes, as they existed in ancient Egypt. The Greeks formed the bridge between us and the original Semitic inventors of alphabetic writing.
We have also taken on many words from the Greeks, e.g., “political”. It meant in Greece “having to do with the Polis” or “belonging to the Polis”. “Polis” literally means “city” and means literally the city with its streets, temples, and walls, as well as - and above all - the city as a community of citizens.
Whoever behaved “politically” had, according to the Greek understanding, not only his own interests in mind, but rather those of all the citizens of a city. And, just as all the citizens learned to read and write, so also all the citizens codetermined about the fate of a city, occupied offices, and were judges. That is amazing. But remember, only a minority of those who lived in the cities were considered “citizens”! In Egypt, a civilized culture indeed arose, in which there was division of labor, but nowhere was there before the concept of a city as the political community of all citizens. How did the Greek polis arise?
Between 1000 and 700 B.C., we find tribes in the various regions of Greece, originally ruled by kings. The land was tended by farmers who were not serfs of the king, as in Egypt, but rather who had their own piece of land.
By the eighth century B.C., at the latest, large differences in property arose: whoever had much property was admired and didn’t need to work in order to survive. The wealthy people had free time, therefore, and filled it, by competing with each other in all activities, e.g., sports, public speaking, wealth. Much of what the Greeks achieved is related to competition. What consequences did competition have for the communal life of the Greeks?
Until the end of the sixth century, Greece was not threatened by any external power. Kings, therefore, were not needed as military leaders. And so the rich - we call them the nobility - pushed the kings out, called themselves “kings”, and oppressed the farmers by means of their “crooked verdicts”. The farmers often had to turn their land over to the nobles because of debts. Since the second half of the seventh century, the farmers demanded a redistribution of the land: “land reform”. The competition between the nobles now went so far, that some of them were prepared to side with the farmers, in order to get ahead of their fellow nobles.
This is the situation in which it was first attempted, in Greece, to introduce effective social structures and constitutions. This ordering was supposed to ensure that the farmers could work their land freely and independently of the power of the nobles. And, aside from that, it was now intended, that the nobles should be integrated into the polis, to seek an equilibrium between the claims of individuals and the claims of the community. The Athenian lawgiver Solon, around 600 B.C., still gave more to the nobles than to the simple farmers.
But in the fifth century, the Athenians then wanted that all citizens of the Polis should have the same political rights. Every citizen should take on almost any political office, the collection of all citizens should be able to decide about all important questions. According to the constitution of the Athenians, the freedom, too, of all citizens could only be realized by means of such political equality. Again, only a minority of the inhabitants of the city were “citizens”. We will see how this constitution effected also other areas of human life, e.g., the family and art.