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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsAthens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 2 - Book 5 - Chapter 3
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Athens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 2 - Book 5 - Chapter 3 Post by :bigincome Category :Nonfictions Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :3499

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Athens: Its Rise And Fall - Vol 2 - Book 5 - Chapter 3

VOL II BOOK V CHAPTER III

Revision of the Census.--Samian War.--Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Athenian Comedy to the Time of Aristophanes.


I. In proportion as it had become matter of honourable pride and lucrative advantage to be a citizen of Athens, it was natural that the laws defining and limiting the freedom of the city should increase in strictness. Even before the time of Themistocles, those only were considered legitimate (307) who, on either side, derived parentage from Athenian citizens. But though illegitimate, they were not therefore deprived of the rights of citizenship; nor had the stain upon his birth been a serious obstacle to the career of Themistocles himself. Under Pericles, the law became more severe, and a decree was passed (apparently in the earlier period of his rising power), which excluded from the freedom of the city those whose parents were not both Athenian. In the very year in which he attained the supreme administration of affairs, occasion for enforcing the law occurred: Psammetichus, the pretender to the Egyptian throne, sent a present of corn to the Athenian people (B. C. 444); the claimants for a share in the gift underwent the ordeal of scrutiny as to their titles to citizenship, and no less than five thousand persons were convicted of having fraudulently foisted themselves into rights which were now tantamount to property; they were disfranchised (308); and the whole list of the free citizens was reduced to little more than fourteen thousand. (309)

II. While under this brilliant and energetic administration Athens was daily more and more concentrating on herself the reluctant admiration and the growing fears of Greece, her policy towards her dependant allies involved her in a war which ultimately gave, if not a legal, at least an acknowledged, title to the pretensions she assumed. Hostilities between the new population of Miletus and the oligarchic government of Samos had been for some time carried on; the object of contention was the city of Priene--united, apparently, with rival claims upon Anaea, a town on the coast opposite Samos. The Milesians, unsuccessful in the war, applied to Athens for assistance. As the Samians were among the dependant allies, Pericles, in the name of the Athenian people, ordered them to refer to Athens the decision of the dispute; on their refusal an expedition of forty galleys was conducted against them by Pericles in person. A still more plausible colour than that of the right of dictation was given to this interference; for the prayer of the Milesians was backed and sanctioned by many of the Samians themselves, oppressed by the oligarchic government which presided over them. A ridiculous assertion was made by the libellers of the comic drama and the enemies of Pericles, that the war was undertaken at the instigation of Aspasia, with whom that minister had formed the closest connexion; but the expedition was the necessary and unavoidable result of the twofold policy by which the Athenian government invariably directed its actions; 1st, to enforce the right of ascendency over its allies; 2dly, to replace oligarchic by democratic institutions. Nor, on this occasion, could Athens have remained neutral or supine without materially weakening her hold upon all the states she aspired at once to democratize and to govern.

III. The fleet arrived at Samos--the oligarchic government was deposed--one hundred hostages (fifty men--fifty boys) from its partisans were taken and placed at Lemnos, and a garrison was left to secure the new constitution of the island. Some of the defeated faction took refuge on the Asiatic continent--entered into an intrigue with the Persian Pissuthnes, satrap of Sardis; and having, by continued correspondence with their friends at Samos, secured connivance at their attempt, they landed by night at Samos with a hired force of seven hundred soldiers, and succeeded in mastering the Athenian garrison, and securing the greater part of the chiefs of the new administration; while, by a secret and well-contrived plot, they regained their hostages left at Lemnos. They then openly proclaimed their independence--restored the oligarchy--and, as a formal proof of defiance, surrendered to Pissuthnes the Athenians they had captured. Byzantium hastened to join the revolt. Their alliance with Pissuthnes procured the Samians the promised aid of a Phoenician fleet, and they now deemed themselves sufficiently strong to renew their hostilities with Miletus. Their plans were well laid, and their boldness made a considerable impression on the states hostile to Athens. Among the Peloponnesian allies it was debated whether or not, despite the treaty, the Samians should be assisted: opinions were divided, but Corinth (310), perhaps, turned the scale, by insisting on the right of every state to deal with its dependants. Corinth had herself colonies over which she desired to preserve a dictatorial sway; and she was disposed to regard the Samian revolution less as the gallantry of freemen than the enterprise of rebels. It was fortunate, too, perhaps, for Athens, that the Samian insurgents had sought their ally in the Persian satrap; nor could the Peloponnesian states at that time have decorously assisted the Persian against the Athenian arms. But short time for deliberation was left by a government which procured for the Athenians the character to be not more quick to contrive than to execute--to be the only people who could simultaneously project and acquire--and who even considered a festival but as a day on which some necessary business could be accomplished (311). With a fleet of sixty sail, Pericles made for Samos; some of the vessels were stationed on the Carian coast to watch the movements of the anticipated Phoenician re-enforcement; others were despatched to collect aid from Chios and Lesbos. Meanwhile, though thus reduced to forty-four sail, Pericles, near a small island called Tragia, engaged the Samian fleet returning from Miletus, consisting of seventy vessels, and gained a victory. Then, re-enforced by forty galleys from Athens, and twenty-five from Lesbos and Chios, he landed on the island, defeated the Samians in a pitched battle, drove them into their city, invested it with a triple line of ramparts, and simultaneously blockaded the city by sea. The besieged were not, however, too discouraged to sally out; and, under Melissus, who was at once a philosopher and a hero, they even obtained advantage in a seafight. But these efforts were sufficiently unimportant to permit Pericles to draw off sixty of his vessels, and steer along the Carian coast to meet the expected fleet of the Phoenicians. The besieged did not suffer the opportunity thus afforded them to escape--they surprised the naval blockading force, destroyed the guard-ships, and joining battle with the rest of the fleet, obtained a decisive victory (B. C. 440), which for fourteen days left them the mastery of the open sea, and enabled them to introduce supplies.

IV. While lying in wait for the Phoenician squadron, which did not, however, make its appearance, tidings of the Samian success were brought to Pericles. He hastened back and renewed the blockade--fresh forces were sent to his aid--from Athens, forty-eight ships, under three generals, Thucydides (312), Agnon, and Phormio; followed by twenty more under Tlepolemus and Anticles, while Chios and Lesbos supplied an additional squadron of thirty. Still the besieged were not disheartened; they ventured another engagement, which was but an ineffectual struggle, and then, shut up within their city, stood a siege of nine months.

With all the small Greek states it had ever been the policy of necessity to shun even victories attended with great loss. This policy was refined by Pericles into a scientific system. In the present instance, he avoided all assaults which might weaken his forces, and preferred the loss of time to the loss of life. The tedious length of the blockade occasioned some murmurs among the lively and impatient forces he commanded; but he is said to have diverted the time by the holyday devices, which in the middle ages often so graced and softened the rugged aspect of war. The army was divided into eight parts, and by lot it was decided which one of the eight divisions should, for the time, encounter the fatigues of actual service; the remaining seven passed the day in sports and feasting (313). A concourse of women appear to have found their way to the encampment (314), and a Samian writer ascribes to their piety or their gratitude the subsequent erection of a temple to Venus. The siege, too, gave occasion to Pericles to make experiment of military engines, which, if invented before, probably now received mechanical improvement. Although, in the earlier contest, mutual animosities had been so keen that the prisoners on either side had been contumeliously branded (315), it was, perhaps, the festive and easy manner in which the siege was afterward carried on, that, mitigating the bitterness of prolonged hostilities, served to procure, at last, for the Samians articles of capitulation more than usually mild. They embraced the conditions of demolishing their fortifications, delivering up their ships, and paying by instalments a portion towards the cost of the siege (316). Byzantium, which, commanding the entrance of the Euxine, was a most important possession to the Athenians (317), whether for ambition or for commerce, at the same time accepted, without resistance, the terms held out to it, and became once more subject to the Athenian empire.

V. On his return, Pericles was received with an enthusiasm which attested the sense entertained of the value of his conquest. He pronounced upon those who had fallen in the war a funeral oration. (318) When he descended from the rostrum, the women crowded round and showered fillets and chaplets on the eloquent victor. Elpinice, the sister of Cimon, alone shared not the general enthusiasm. "Are these actions," she said to Pericles, "worthy of chaplets and garlands? actions purchased by the loss of many gallant citizens--not won against the Phoenician and the Mede, like those of Cimon, but by the ruin of a city united with ourselves in amity and origin." The ready minister replied to the invective of Elpinice by a line from Archilochus, which, in alluding to the age and coquetry of the lady, probably answered the oratorical purpose of securing the laugh on his own side. (319)

While these events confirmed the authority of Athens and the Athenian government, a power had grown up within the city that assumed a right, the grave assertion of which without the walls would have been deeply felt and bitterly resented--a power that sat in severe and derisive judgment upon Athens herself, her laws, her liberties, her mighty generals, her learned statesmen, her poets, her sages, and her arrogant democracy--a power that has come down to foreign nations and distant ages as armed with irresistible weapons--which now is permitted to give testimony, not only against individuals, but nations themselves, but which, in that time, was not more effective in practical results than at this day a caricature in St. James's-street, or a squib in a weekly newspaper--a power which exposed to relentless ridicule, before the most susceptible and numerous tribunal, the loftiest names in rank, in wisdom, and in genius--and which could not have deprived a beggar of his obol or a scavenger of his office: THE POWER OF THE COMIC MUSE.

VI. We have seen that in the early village festivals, out of which grew the tragedy of Phrynichus and Aeschylus, there were, besides the Dithyramb and the Satyrs, the Phallic processions, which diversified the ceremony by the lowest jests mingled with the wildest satire. As her tragedy had its origin in the Dithyramb--as her satyric after-piece had its origin in the satyric buffooneries--so out of the Phallic processions rose the Comedy of Greece (B. C. 562) (320). Susarion is asserted by some to have been a Megarian by origin; and while the democracy of Megara was yet in force, he appears to have roughly shaped the disorderly merriment of the procession into a rude farce, interspersed with the old choral songs. The close connexion between Megara and Athens soon served to communicate to the latter the improvements of Susarion; and these improvements obtained for the Megarian the title of inventer of comedy, with about the same justice as a similar degree of art conferred upon the later Thespis the distinction of the origin of tragedy. The study of Homer's epics had suggested its true province to tragedy; the study of the Margites, attributed also to Homer, seems to have defined and enlarged the domain of comedy. Eleven years after Phrynichus appeared, and just previous to the first effort of Aeschylus (B. C. 500), Epicharmus, who appears to have been a native of Cos (321), produced at Syracuse the earliest symmetrical and systematic form of comic dialogue and fable. All accounts prove him to have been a man of extraordinary genius, and of very thoughtful and accomplished mind. Perhaps the loss of his works is not the least to be lamented of those priceless treasures which time has destroyed. So uncertain, after all, is the great tribunal of posterity, which is often as little to be relied upon as the caprice of the passing day! We have the worthless Electra of Euripides--we have lost all, save the titles and a few sententious fragments, of thirty-five comedies of Epicharmus! Yet if Horace inform us rightly, that the poet of Syracuse was the model of Plautus, perhaps in the Amphitryon we can trace the vein and genius of the father of true comedy; and the thoughts and the plot of the lost Epicharmus may still exist, mutilated and disguised, in the humours of the greatest comic poet (322) of modern Europe.

VII. It was chiefly from the rich stores of mythology that Epicharmus drew his fables; but what was sublimity with the tragic poet, was burlesque with the comic. He parodied the august personages and venerable adventures of the gods of the Greek Pantheon. By a singular coincidence, like his contemporary Aeschylus (323), he was a Pythagorean, and it is wonderful to observe how rapidly and how powerfully the influence of the mysterious Samian operated on the most original intellects of the age. The familiar nature of the Hellenic religion sanctioned, even in the unphilosophical age of Homer, a treatment of celestial persons that to our modern notions would, at first glance, evince a disrespect for the religion itself. But wherever homage to "dead men" be admitted, we may, even in our own times, find that the most jocular legends are attached to names held in the most reverential awe. And he who has listened to an Irish or an Italian Catholic's familiar stories of some favourite saint, may form an adequate notion of the manner in which a pious Greek could jest upon Bacchus to-day and sacrifice to Bacchus to-morrow. With his mythological travesties the Pythagorean mingled, apparently, many earnest maxims of morality (324), and though not free, in the judgment of Aristotle, from a vice of style usually common only to ages the most refined (325); he was yet proverbial, even in the most polished period of Grecian letters, for the graces of his diction and the happy choice of his expressions.

Phormis, a contemporary of Epicharmus, flourished also at Syracuse, and though sometimes classed with Epicharmus, and selecting his materials from the same source, his claims to reputation are immeasurably more equivocal. Dinolochus continued the Sicilian school, and was a contemporary of the first Athenian comic writer.

VIII. Hence it will be seen that the origin of comedy does not rest with the Athenians; that Megara, if the birthplace of Susarion, may fairly claim whatever merit belongs to the first rude improvement, and that Syracuse is entitled to the higher distinction of raising humour into art. So far is comedy the offspring of the Dorians--not the Dorians of a sullen oligarchy, with whom to vary an air of music was a crime--not the Dorians of Lacedaemon--but of Megara and Syracuse--of an energetic, though irregular democracy--of a splendid, though illegitimate monarchy. (326)

But the comedy of Epicharmus was not altogether the old comedy of Athens. The last, as bequeathed to us by Aristophanes, has features which bear little family resemblance to the philosophical parodies of the Pythagorean poet. It does not confine itself to mythological subjects--it avoids the sententious style--it does not preach, but ridicule philosophy--it plunges amid the great practical business of men--it breathes of the Agora and the Piraeus--it is not a laughing sage, but a bold, boisterous, gigantic demagogue, ever in the thickest mob of human interests, and wielding all the various humours of a democracy with a brilliant audacity, and that reckless ease which is the proof of its astonishing power.

IX. Chionides was the first Athenian comic writer. We find him before the public three years after the battle of Marathon (B. C. 487), when the final defeat of Hippias confirmed the stability of the republic; and when the improvements of Aeschylus in tragedy served to communicate new attractions to the comic stage. Magnes, a writer of great wit, and long popular, closely followed, and the titles of some of the plays of these writers confirm the belief that Attic comedy, from its commencement, took other ground than that occupied by the mythological burlesques of Epicharmus. So great was the impetus given to the new art, that a crowd of writers followed simultaneously, whose very names it is wearisome to mention. Of these the most eminent were Cratinus and Crates. The earliest _recorded play of Cratinus, though he must have exhibited many before (327), appeared the year prior to the death of Cimon (the Archilochi, B. C. 448). Plutarch quotes some lines from this author, which allude to the liberality of Cimon with something of that patron-loving spirit which was rather the characteristic of a Roman than an Athenian poet. Though he himself, despite his age, was proverbially of no very abstemious or decorous habits, Cratinus was unsparing in his attacks upon others, and wherever he found or suspected vice, he saw a subject worthy of his genius. He was admired to late posterity, and by Roman critics, for the grace and even for the grandeur of his hardy verses; and Quintilian couples him with Eupolis and Aristophanes as models for the formation of orators. Crates appeared (B. C. 451) two years before the first _recorded play of Cratinus. He had previously been an actor, and performed the principal characters in the plays of Cratinus. Aristophanes bestows on him the rare honour of his praise, while he sarcastically reminds the Athenian audience of the ill reception that so ingenious a poet often received at their hands. Yet, despite the excellence of the earlier comic writers, they had hitherto at Athens very sparingly adopted the artistical graces of Epicharmus. Crates, who did not write before the five years' truce with Sparta, is said by Aristotle not only to have been the first who abandoned the Iambic form of comedy, but the first Athenian who invented systematic fable or plot--a strong argument to show how little the Athenian borrowed from the Sicilian comedy, since, if the last had been its source of inspiration, the invented stories of Epicharmus (by half a century the predecessor of Crates) would naturally have been the most striking improvement to be imitated. The Athenian comedy did not receive the same distinctions conferred upon tragedy. So obscure was its rise to its later eminence, that even Aristotle could not determine when or by whom the various progressive improvements were made: and, regarded with jealous or indifferent eyes by the magistrature as an exhibition given by private competitors, nor calling for the protection of the state, which it often defied, it was long before its chorus was defrayed at the public cost.

Under Cratinus and Crates (328), however, in the year of the Samian war, the comic drama assumed a character either so personally scurrilous, or so politically dangerous, that a decree was passed interdicting its exhibitions (B. C. 440). The law was repealed three years afterward (B. C. 437) (329). Viewing its temporary enforcement, and the date in which it was passed, it appears highly probable that the critical events of the Samian expedition may have been the cause of the decree. At such a time the opposition of the comic writers might have been considered dangerous. With the increased stability of the state, the law was, perhaps, deemed no longer necessary. And from the recommencement of the comic drama, we may probably date both the improvements of Crates and the special protection of the state; for when, for the first time, Comedy was formally authorized by the law, it was natural that the law should recognise the privileges it claimed in common with its sister Tragedy. There is no authority for supposing that Pericles, whose calm temper and long novitiate in the stormy career of public life seem to have rendered him callous to public abuse, was the author of this decree. It is highly probable, indeed, that he was absent at the siege of Samos (330) when it was passed; but he was the object of such virulent attacks by the comic poets that we might consider them actuated by some personal feeling of revenge and spleen, were it not evident that Cratinus at least (and probably Crates, his disciple) was attached to the memory of Cimon, and could not fail to be hostile to the principles and government of Cimon's successor. So far at this period had comedy advanced; but, in the background, obscure and undreamed of, was one, yet in childhood, destined to raise the comic to the rank of the tragic muse; one who, perhaps, from his earliest youth, was incited by the noisy fame of his predecessors, and the desire of that glorious, but often perverted power, so palpable and so exultant, which rides the stormy waves of popular applause (331). About thirteen years after the brief prohibition of comedy appeared that wonderful genius, the elements and attributes of whose works it will be a pleasing, if arduous task, in due season, to analyze and define; matchless alike in delicacy and strength, in powers the most gigantic, in purpose the most daring--with the invention of Shakspeare--the playfulness of Rabelais--the malignity of Swift--need I add the name of Aristophanes?

X. But while comedy had thus progressed to its first invidious dignity, that of proscription, far different was the reward that awaited the present representative and master of the tragic school. In the year that the muse of Cratinus was silenced, Sophocles was appointed one of the colleagues with Pericles in the Samian war.

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