Greece and the First World War

Greece and the First World War

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In 1914 both the Triple Entente and the Central Powers, tried to form alliances in the Balkans. Both alliances promised privileges to any country that took their side. Eventually, Serbia allied with the Triple Entente while Bulgaria and Turkey preferred the Central Powers.

In Greece, the situation was rather complicated. The prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, argued that Greece should enter the war on the side of the Triple Entente. King Constantine, whose wife was German, insisted that Greece should stay neutral and avoid entering the war, something that would help the Central Powers.

The king refused to join the alliance with Triple Entente and when he opened treaty negotiations with Germany, Eleftherios Venizelos resigned on 5th March 1915. Twenty-six days later, Venizelos won a landslide victory in the June elections. Venizelos immediately continued with his efforts to get Greece to join the Triple Entente. Venizelos wanted to send military help to Serbia. King Constantine disagreed and on 5th October 1915, Venizelos resigned a second time.

While this dispute was going on, the Bulgarian army invaded northern Macedonia. The danger was immediate and so Venizelos, after his resignation, went to Crete and formed an alternative government. This consisted of three members: Eleftherios Venizelos, Panagiotis Daglis and Pavlos Kountouriotis. Venizelos began recruiting volunteers for an army that would fight with the Allies. In was not long before 20,000 men had joined the struggle against the Bulgarian army. It was a very difficult task and Triple Entente did not help as much as Venizelos expected.

Meanwhile, in Athens, the Triple Entente made efforts to convince the king to enter the war. But Constantine refused and so the French Admiral Dartigue du Fournet started an Athenian siege. On 11th June 1917 Constantine abdicated and left the country. The throne was taken by his son Alexander, who agreed to work with Venizelos. Eleftherios Venizelos, returned to Athens to form a government and on 29th June 1917, declared war against the Central Powers. By July 1918 the Greek Army had 250,000 men fighting in Macedonia.

A brief History of Greece & the islands

Greece is a country with a very rich history and the homeland of many famous personalities throughout the centuries. This section proposes information about the history of Greece: from Stone and Bronze age to the Twentieth century, but also information about other historical facts: famous quotes, famous personalities of ancient Greece, Olympic games, flags, archaeological sites, historical monuments, and Unesco Sites in Greece. We also propose information about the history of Greece for many locations and Greek islands.



Southern Europe, bordering the Aegean Sea, Ionian Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea, between Albania and Turkey

Geographic coordinates

Map references

total: 131,957 sq km

land: 130,647 sq km

water: 1,310 sq km

Area - comparative

slightly smaller than Alabama

Area comparison map

Land boundaries

total: 1,110 km

border countries (4): Albania 212 km, Bulgaria 472 km, Macedonia 234 km, Turkey 192 km


Maritime claims

territorial sea: 6 nm

continental shelf: 200-m depth or to the depth of exploitation


temperate mild, wet winters hot, dry summers


mountainous with ranges extending into the sea as peninsulas or chains of islands


highest point: Mount Olympus 2,917

lowest point: Mediterranean Sea 0 m

mean elevation: 498 m

note: Mount Olympus actually has 52 peaks but its highest point, Mytikas (meaning "nose"), rises to 2,917 meters in Greek mythology, Olympus' Mytikas peak was the home of the Greek gods

Natural resources

lignite, petroleum, iron ore, bauxite, lead, zinc, nickel, magnesite, marble, salt, hydropower potential

Land use

agricultural land: 63.4% (2018 est.)

permanent crops: 8.9% (2018 est.)

permanent pasture: 34.8% (2018 est.)

forest: 30.5% (2018 est.)

other: 6.1% (2018 est.)

Irrigated land

Total renewable water resources

68.4 billion cubic meters (2017 est.)

Population distribution

one-third of the population lives in and around metropolitan Athens the remainder of the country has moderate population density mixed with sizeable urban clusters

Natural hazards

volcanism: Santorini (367 m) has been deemed a Decade Volcano by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior, worthy of study due to its explosive history and close proximity to human populations although there have been very few eruptions in recent centuries, Methana and Nisyros in the Aegean are classified as historically active

Environment - international agreements

party to: Air Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Air Pollution-Sulphur 94, Antarctic-Environmental Protection, Antarctic-Marine Living Resources, Antarctic Treaty, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Climate Change-Paris Agreement, Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban, Desertification, Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping-London Convention, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timber 2006, Wetlands

signed, but not ratified: Air Pollution-Heavy Metals, Air Pollution-Multi-effect Protocol, Air Pollution-Persistent Organic Pollutants, Air Pollution-Volatile Organic Compounds

Geography - note

strategic location dominating the Aegean Sea and southern approach to Turkish Straits a peninsular country, possessing an archipelago of about 2,000 islands

Greece Web Travel

From Balkan Wars to the 30s

Venizelos and Zaïmis were the main Greek political figures from 1890 to mid 1930. In the Balkan Wars (1912-13) Greece obtained the south-eastern Macedonia and western Thrace, the border with Albania, the newly independent, gave a larger part of Epirus to Greece, but neither country was satisfied, and the area remained under discussion until 1971, when Greece, at least temporarily, dropped its claims on the northern Epirus.

George I was assassinated in 1913 and was succeeded by Constantine I. In World War I, Venizelos, who favored the Allies, negotiated (1915) an agreement that allowed the Allies to land troops at Salonika. However, King Constantine, who favored neutrality, refused to help the Allies and Venizelos was dismissed as prime minister.

Venizelos organized then (in 1916) government in Thessaloniki, while a year later, in 1917, pressure from the Allies led to the abdication of Constantine in favor of the younger son, Alexander. Venizelos again became premier, and Greece fully entered the war.

At the Peace Conference (Treaty of Neuilly) Greece obtained the rule of the Bulgarian coast of the Aegean Sea and some remnants of European Turkey, including the eastern Thrace and the Dodecanese (except Rhodes) but excluding the area of the Strait. Izmir was placed under Greek administration pending a plebiscite.

Encouraged by the Allies, the Greeks invaded (1921) Asia Minor, but were defeated (1922) by Turkish forces of Kemal Ataturk. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) identified the Maritsa River as the border Turkish-greek in Europe. A separate agreement established compulsory exchange of populations, for which about 1.5 million Greeks of Asia Minor were resettled in Greece, about 800,000 Turks and 80,000 Bulgarians left Greece to be repatriated to their countries.

Constantine, who had returned after the death (1920) of King Alexander, was again deposed in 1922. George II succeeded Alexander, but soon he too was deposed (1923), and the republic was proclaimed in 1924, later confirmed by a plebiscite.

The years 1924-35 were marked by unstable economic conditions and by violent political strife (including coups), in which Paul Kondouriotis, Theodore Pangalos, George Kondylis, Panayot Tsaldaris, Zaïmis, and Venizelos were the protagonists. The defeat (1935) rebel Venizel in Crete marked the end of the republic. Kondylis ousted Tsaldaris and organized a plebiscite that led to the restoration of the monarchy and the return of George II.

In 1936, Premier John Metaxas, supported by the king, established a dictatorship, ostensibly to avoid the Communist takeover of the country. In foreign policy, Greece abandoned the anti-Turkish policy by establishing (1934) the Balkan Entente with Yugoslavia, Romania and Turkey.

World War II and Civil War

When the Second World War broke out (1939) Greece remained neutral. In October 1940, however, Italy, after an ultimatum farce, invaded Greece. The Greeks resisted successfully, carrying the war in southern Albania. When Germany began to gather his troops on the border greek, mainland Greece, at the end of April, and fell into German hands during the month of May followed Crete.

The greek government fled to Cairo, then in Great Britain, and in 1943 he settled back to Cairo. The German occupation, in which Bulgarian and Italian troops took part, plunged Greece into abject poverty, with serious food shortages. The resistance began to grow despite ruthless reprisals, and puppet governments soon destined to failure. Bands of guerrillas controlled large rural areas.

In 1943 sporadic civil war began between the Communist guerrilla group (EAM-ELAS) and the monarchist group (EDES). The fighters soon began to control much of Greece, after the Germans began to retreat in September 1944. British troops landed, and by November all Germans were expelled.

The appalling financial and economic conditions faced by the government on his return greek (October 1944) to Athens were complicated by an explosive political situation. In December of 1944 fighting broke out in Athens between British troops and the EAM-ELAS, which ignored the British order to disarm. With the intervention of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was established a temporary but precarious truce was arranged (Feb. 1945) under the regency of Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens. In September 1946, a referendum decided in favor of the return of George II, reigning monarch, George died in 1947 and was succeeded by his brother Paul.

Also in 1946, was renewed and the guerrilla bands led by the Communists were successful in the mountainous districts of the north. With the accusations by the greek government, backed by Britain and the United States, that Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria would help the communist rebels were born very controversial at the United Nations between the Western and Soviet bloc. With the continuing civil war, Britain was no longer able to extend the government financially and militarily greek.

Thus, U.S. President Harry S. Truman announced (Mar., 1947) the "Truman Doctrine", with which the United States sent a group of military officers to train and advise the army greek allocating, finally, about $ 400 million in military and economic aid. In December 1947, the Communists, led by Markos Vafiades, proclaimed a rival government in the country. However, at the end of 1949, the rebels, having suffered severe military setbacks and no longer able to receive aid from Yugoslavia (which had defected from the Soviet bloc in 1948), ceased open hostilities.

The civil war was marked by brutality on both sides. Economic conditions were miserable and accusations of incompetence and corruption were brought against the greek government is not the communists, both from the Communists. Political freedom was reduced, and the Communist Party was outlawed. The legislator, member of the populist party (royalists), led by Constantine Tsaldaris, ran the country under the constitution of 1911 and was authorized to be revised.

Everyone has always fought for their freedom

Feeling abandoned, the Cretans – who only four decades earlier had fought for and won their independence after 250 years of Ottoman occupation – came out of their homes and continued to challenge Hitler’s forces using whatever weaponry they had. It was the first time the Germans had encountered significant opposition from a local population. The Cretan Resistance is cited by The National Herald, an English-language Greek newspaper, as one of the factors that lead to the fatal delay of the the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, while also reducing the number of troops available for missions in the Middle East and in Africa. Despite repeated attacks from the Nazis on local villages and communities, the Cretan Resistance remained active until the Germans surrendered four years later, in 1945.

This period of history hugely shaped Cretan identity, and even the smallest villages contain a memorial. “Crete has always been liberated by itself. Everyone has always fought for their freedom,” Tripalitakis told me.

When Hitler’s army invaded Crete in May 1941, it encountered a fierce local resistance (Credit: Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH/Alamy)

Tripalitakis’ hometown of Galatas, just outside the major city of Chania on the island’s north-west coast, was captured by the Germans on the sixth day of fighting. “When I was 12, the municipality of Galatas published a small magazine about the battle and gave it to all primary school pupils for free,” he remembered. “I was fascinated.”

His interest was also piqued by the military debris that still litters the island. “Everyone has relics from the war. Cretan people didn’t have many materials, so they used whatever they could find,” he said. As the Cretans worked to rebuild their homes, fences were constructed from rifle barrels, roofs from aircraft parts, and helmets were turned into flower pots or containers for animal feed. These can still be spotted in some more remote villages.

“I realised, when I was very young, that all these things had to be saved, because over time they get destroyed or thrown away,” Tripalitakis said. “It’s really important for people growing up to learn about our history. If we don’t show them these items, they won’t learn.”

Tripalitakis’ collection, which includes more than 40,000 items, can be viewed by appointment (Credit: Louiza Vradi)

Tripalitakis made his first searching trip in 1999, gathering pieces from a German aircraft wreckage on an islet off the coast of Galatas. Since then, he’s searched the entire island. “Sometimes I go once or twice a week, sometimes four,” he told me. “Sometimes I search for just a few hours. If I’m going into the mountains, I take a sleeping bag, food and water, and stay for a few days.” He’s even learnt how to scuba dive. “It’s so cool, feeling like you’re flying over a plane wreck.” Because of Crete’s many archaeological sites, collectors have to get permission from the authorities to use metal detectors. However, Tripalitakis usually prefers to search using just his eyes and hands.

However, luck wasn’t on our side that day – our thorough search of the olive grove failed to deliver any goods, so we drove the 10km back to Galatas for a look around his museum. I walked into the apartment he shares with his father and fiancée, and was greeted by four walls of floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with every memento imaginable, from rifles to cooking equipment to dressmakers’ dummies wrapped in German and British uniforms. Pieces of gliders and parts of sub-machine guns spilled out of the apartment onto the terrace and driveway.

“I have everything, but there are still things I want, such as more motorcycles,” Tripalitakis said as he picked up a metal pot he had purchased from another collector the day before for 100 euros, and began to scrape the rust from it.

What Greek, and German, history can teach us about today's crisis

I n an arty cinema at the end of the 60s I watched Costa-Gavras’s stylish political thriller Z which satirised the brutal military regime then ruling Greece. When the film ended the audience enthusiastically applauded, something I had never previously seen in a cinema, and have rarely seen since.

As Europe’s acknowledged home of political philosophy and practice, Greece of the hated military dictatorship had a special place in the hearts of many Europeans, as it did for Lord Byron when he went off to fight (and die) for Greek independence in 1824. This weekend’s “Solidarity with Greece” demonstrations, in small villages as well as major cities, shows it still does.

In its showdown with creditors, the Greek government of Alexis Tsipras exploits this romantic attachment. And why not? Small countries have to use the assets at their disposal in a big world.

But sentiment alone is rarely an adequate guide to action, is it? The Greeks have a case against the counter-productive and excessive severity imposed on them by their creditors. But the creditors also have a case against the Greeks.

Foreigners did not make their government fiddle the entry qualifications to join the eurozone, rack up debts or force citizens to evade their taxes, unless you count the legacy of the rackety Ottoman empire which ruled Greece from 1453 to 1821.

But the very concept of Greece has always been both powerful and fragile, its existence more usually sustained by foreign or domestic tyranny than by sophisticated philosophies from the 4th and 5th centuries BC. Disunity and rebellion have also been characteristic features of Greek politics and identity.

After defeating successive invasions launched by the mighty Persian empire at Marathon (490BC), at Thermopylae (sort of), at Salamis, Plataea and Mycale, did not the Greek city states soon succumb to civil war which ended in Athens’s defeat by militaristic Sparta? Yes.

And so it went on. Domination by Macedonia meant that the spread of Greek culture across the Mediterranean – previously led by the soft power of trade and settlement – was expanded east and south by the conquests of Alexander the Great (356BC to 323BC). The Romans later conquered, but deferred (“though captured, Greece took its wild conqueror capture”, wrote Horace the poet) to the Greeks, much as the Americans did towards Britain for a while. “We are the Greeks to their Romans,” the future PM, Harold Macmillan, once told a colleague.

In the western Roman empire Rome duly fell (476AD) to barbarian invasions. The eastern half, though battered, morphed into the Christian Byzantine empire which staggered on, a Greek entity, for 1,000 years before Constantinople finally fell to the Muslim Ottomans after the great siege of 1453.

Does any of this matter to the bean counters in Brussels or Berlin this summer? It should.

So should the bean borrowers of Athens acknowledge that German fear of excessive debt and a debauched currency is rooted in troubled German history, the Weimar Republic which led to the Nazi coup, and the fragility of a national identity ravaged by the brutal thirty years’ war (1618-48).

When Greece restored national sovereignty and unity in 1832, Germany was still 40 years away from doing the same.

If Greeks see themselves as victims, so do Germans, who have picked up the bill to rescue East Germany well within living memory and widely resented it (but they were at least fellow Germans).

This is psychologically risky territory as Angela Merkel and her advisers decide what Germany – and the EU – must do to rescue Greece from its own brinkmanship and save Europe from its lackadaisical management of the crisis.

But rebellion comes more naturally to Greeks than to Germans who have often traded liberty for security, not always wisely, but understandable with fluid frontiers which an island people like us should gratefully acknowledge.

In the Ottoman centuries the Greeks had an instinct to side with the Caliph’s enemies, rising in revolt many times and usually being hammered for their pains. The fact that Venetian Corfu remained free and prosperous and that Crete held out until 1670 (the long siege was a fashionable cause for years) only fed an appetite for defiance which broke into open, ultimately successful revolt in 1821. Cue Lord Byron.

Two further points are worth registering here.

Greece’s successive 19th- and 20th-century wars to regain its historic territory, usually involving neighbouring Turkey (as the Ottoman successor state became after defeat in the first world war), were bloody, traumatic affairs. We hear a lot about the Turkish Armenian massacres (were they genocide?), less about the one million Greeks living abroad (resident for centuries) who may have died during waves of displacement and expulsion from Asia Minor. In invading Turkey in 1919, Greece was a part-author of its own misfortune: it lost.

None of this is good for people. Greece had rival governments, once pro-German, once pro-British, during the first world war and remained divided during the inter-war years. Greeks fought like tigers against the invading Italians in 1940 who had to be rescued by the Germans. Even Hitler acknowledged the courage of the Greek resistance which continued long after defeat.


By 1914, trouble was on the rise in Europe. Many countries feared invasion from the other. For example, Germany was becoming increasingly powerful, and the British saw this as a threat to the British Empire. The countries formed alliances to protect themselves, but this divided them into two groups. Germany and Austria-Hungary had been allies since 1879. They had then formed the Triple Alliance with Italy in 1882. France and Russia became allies in 1894. They then joined with Britain to form the Triple Entente.

In 1908, Austria-Hungary had taken over Bosnia, a region next to Serbia. Some people living in Bosnia were Serbian, and wanted the area to be part of Serbia. One of these was the Black Hand organization. They sent men to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria when he visited Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. They all failed to kill him with grenades while he passed through a large crowd. But one of them, a Serbian student named Gavrilo Princip, shot him and his pregnant wife with a pistol.

Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia for the assassination. Germany supported Austria-Hungary and promised full support should it come to war. Austria-Hungary sent a July Ultimatum to Serbia, listing 10 very strict rules they would have to agree to. Many historians think that Austria-Hungary already wanted a war with Serbia. Serbia agreed to most of the ten rules on the list, but not all of them. Austria-Hungary then declared war on Serbia. This quickly led to a full-scale war. [8] Both countries' allies became involved in the war in a matter of days.

Russia joined the war on Serbia's side because the people of Serbia were Slavic just like Russia and the Slavic countries had agreed to help each other if they were attacked. Since the Russian Empire was a large country it had to move soldiers closer to the war, but Germany feared that Russia's soldiers would also attack Germany. Russia did not like Germany because of things Germany had done in the past to become stronger. Germany declared war on Russia, and began to carry out a plan created long before to fight a war in Europe. Because Germany is in the middle of Europe, Germany could not attack to the east towards Russia without weakening itself in the west, towards France. Germany's plan involved quickly defeating France in the west before Russia was ready to fight, and then moving her armies to the east to face Russia. Germany could not quickly invade France directly, because France had put a lot of forts on the border, so Germany invaded the neighboring country of Belgium to then invade France through the undefended French/Belgian border. Great Britain then joined the war, saying they wanted to protect Belgium. Some historians think that even if Germany had stayed out of Belgium, the British would have still joined the war to help France.

Soon most of Europe became involved. The Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) joined the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It is not clear why they entered or chose to fight on their side, but they had become friendly to Germany. Although Italy was allied with German and Austria-Hungary, they had only agreed to fight if those countries were attacked first. Italy said that because Austria-Hungary had attacked Serbia first, they did not need to fight. They also had started to dislike Austria-Hungary, so in 1915, Italy joined the war on the Allied Powers' side.

Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary. Russia was allied with Serbia. The German government was afraid that because Austria-Hungary had attacked Serbia, Russia would attack Austria-Hungary to help Serbia. Because of this, Germany felt it had to help Austria-Hungary by attacking Russia first, before it could attack Austria-Hungary.

The problem was that Russia was also friends with France, and the Germans thought the French might attack them to help Russia. So the Germans decided that they could win the war if they attacked France first, and quickly. They could mobilize very quickly. They had a list of all the men who had to join the army, and where those men had to go, and the times of every train that would carry those men to where they would have to fight. France was doing the same thing, but could not do it as quickly. The Germans thought that if they attacked France first, they could 'knock France' out of the war before Russia could attack them.

Russia had a big army, but Germany thought that it would take six weeks to mobilize and a long time before they could attack the Central Powers. That wasn't true, because the Russian Army mobilized in ten days. Also, the Russians drove deep into Austria.

Britain was allied with Belgium, and became quickly involved in the war. Britain had promised to protect Belgian neutrality. Germany passed through Belgium to reach Paris before Russia could mobilize and open up a second front against them. On August 4, 1914, Britain declared war against Germany in support of Belgium. Britain had the biggest empire (it ruled over a quarter of the world). If Germany conquered France, it might take Britain and France's colonies and become the most powerful and biggest empire in the world.

Britain was also worried about Germany's growing military power. Germany was developing its large army into one of the most powerful in the world. The British Army was quite small. The British Royal Navy was the largest and best in the world, and in the 19th century that was enough to keep other naval powers from attacking. Germany was a land power, and Britain was a sea power. But now the Germans were building a large navy. This was seen as a threat to Britain. However, the decision to declare war was taken under its alliance with Belgium in the Treaty of London (1839). The Government might have decided differently. No-one foresaw how long the war would last, and what the terrible costs would be.

The Ottoman Empire (Turkey) went into the war because it was secretly allied to Germany and two Turkish warships manned by German Navy personnel bombarded Russian towns.

Britain also fought against Turkey because the Ottoman Empire was supporting Germany. Britain did not have any animosity towards the Turks. [10] However, by fighting the Turks in the Mesopotamia region (in what is now called Iraq), in the Arabian Peninsula and other places, Britain was able to defeat them with help from the British Indian Army. [11] Later, after the War ended, Britain was able to get some areas from the old Turkish empire which was breaking up, and to add them to the British Empire. [11]

Greece went into the war because its leader supported the Allied cause. Greece and Serbia had become independent, but many Greeks still lived in lands that were once Greek but were now in the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Having recently won the Balkan Wars, the Greeks especially wanted to control other land to the north that was under Bulgarian and Turkish rule, so they declared war. Turkey killed most of the Greek army as the Greeks tried to regain parts of Turkey. Another war started when the Greeks bombed a train. Turkey swept Greece back into their own territory. From then on the Greeks never again declared war, while Turkey had one of the biggest armies in the world.

Bulgaria, like Greece and Serbia, was owned by Turkey before Bulgaria broke away from Turkey. Bulgaria claimed a lot of Turkish land as belonging to Bulgaria. The Serbians and Greeks felt cheated because they felt the land belonged to Greece or Serbia. The Greeks and Serbians took back the land which angered Bulgaria and led to the country becoming allies with Turkey. They declared war on Serbia and Greece, but Bulgaria lost this war.

The Russian Revolution makes Russia fight Germany and the Bolsheviks at the same time. Russia surrendered to Germany due to the fact that the Russians were fighting against the Soviets as well. It needed to get out of the war, so they payed Germany lots of German marks to make them stop fighting between them so they could focus on fighting the Soviets.

Most people thought the war would be short. They thought the armies would move around quickly to attack each other and one would defeat the other without too many people getting killed. They thought the war would be about brave soldiers — they did not understand how war had changed. Only a few people, for example Lord Kitchener said that the war would take a long time.

In the beginning of the war, Italy was in the Central Powers. But then Italy changed the side of the Entente Powers because they had promised land across the Adriatic sea.

Germany's generals had decided that the best way to defeat France was to go through Belgium using a plan called the Schlieffen Plan. This was invented by the German Army Chief of Staff, Alfred Von Schlieffen. They could then attack the French army at the north side and the south side at the same time. The German Army went into Belgium on August the 4th. On the same day, Great Britain started a war on Germany, because Britain was a friend of Belgium. The British had said some time before, in 1839, that they would not let anyone control Belgium, and they kept their promise.

When the Germans got to the Belgian city of Liège, the Belgians fought very hard to stop them from coming into the city. The Germans did finally push the Belgians out of the city, but it had taken longer than the German generals had planned. Then the Germans attacked the north side of the French army. The French and the British moved men up to fight the Germans. They could do this because the Belgians had fought so long at Liège. But the Germans pushed the French back at the frontiers, and the British held the Germans back at Mons, but afterwards they also fell back to join up with the retreating French army, until they were stopped at the river Marne. This was the First Battle of the Marne or Miracle of the Marne.

In the East, the Russians had attacked the Germans. The Russians pushed back the Germans, but then the Germans defeated the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg.

Trench warfare killed great numbers of soldiers. New weapons, such as machine guns, and long-range artillery had an increased rate of fire that cut down huge numbers of soldiers during mass charges, a tactic leftover from older warfare. The men on both sides took spades and dug holes, because they did not want to be killed. The holes joined up into trenches, until the lines of trenches went all the way from Switzerland to the North Sea. In front of the trenches, there was barbed wire that cut anyone who tried to climb over it, and land mines that blew up anyone who tried to cross. Late in the war, poison gas was also an important weapon.

The new machine guns, artillery, trenches and mines made it very difficult to attack. The generals had fought many wars without these, so they ordered their armies to attack in the old style of marching in rows- allowing the enemy to shoot them down easily. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916 60,000 British men died in a single day. It was one of the bloodiest days in the history of the British army. Late in the war the British and French invented tanks and used them to attack entrenched Germans but could not make enough of them to make a big difference. The Germans invented special Sturmabteilung tactics to infiltrate enemy positions, but they also were too little, too late.

The British used whistles to communicate to other soldiers, so before they shelled the German trenches, they would sound the whistle. However, the Germans caught on to this tactic after a while, so after the shelling, when the British soldiers came to finish off the German soldiers, the Germans were ready with their machine guns, because they knew the British were coming.

Airplanes were first used extensively in World War I. Airplanes were not used very much in fighting before World War I. It was the first war to use airplanes as weapons. Airplanes were first used for reconnaissance, to take pictures of enemy land and to direct artillery. Generals, military leaders, were using airplanes as an important part of their attack plans at the end of the war. World War I showed that airplanes could be important war weapons.

Airplanes in World War I were made of wood and canvas, a type of rough cloth. They did not last for a long time. They could not fly very fast at the beginning of the war. They could only fly up to 116 kilometers per hour, or 72 miles per hour. At the end of the war they could fly up to 222 kilometres per hour (138 miles per hour). But they could not fly as fast as planes today. Guns were put on planes for the first time during the war. Pilots, people who fly the plane, used the guns to shoot enemy planes. One pilot used metal sheets, pieces of metal, to armor his airplane. Other pilots began using metal sheets, too. Pilots also made their airplanes better with machine guns, guns that shoot bullets much faster. Machine guns made fighting harder and more dangerous between airplanes.

Pilots had to wear certain clothes when flying an airplane in World War I because they flew high where the air is cold. The pilot's clothes kept them warm and protected them from the wind and cold. Pilots wore a leather coat to protect their bodies. They wore a padded helmet and goggles, large glasses with special lenses, to protect their head and face. They wore a scarf around their neck. The scarf kept the wind from blowing against their neck when they turned their head.

The German leaders decided to use submarines. These submarines were named U-boats, from the German word Unterseeboot (meaning underwater boat). The U-boats attacked passenger ships such as RMS Lusitania carrying civilians to the United Kingdom. They did not follow the laws of war, because the British would be able to easily destroy them if they did. America was selling weapons to Germany's enemies but not to Germany, thus not being neutral ("neutral" means to not take a side during a conflict). Many American and British noncombatants were killed by the submarines.

Germany also wrote a secret telegram note to Mexico in code suggesting that the two countries work together to attack the United States. This note is called the Zimmerman Telegram because it was sent by Arthur Zimmerman. It offered Mexico land in the southwestern United States that the United States took in previous wars. Spies from the United Kingdom found out about the note and told the United States. American people became angry and many decided that they wanted their country to enter the war against Germany. For the Zimmermann Telegram as well as the sinking of American ships by German U-boats, on April 6, 1917 the United States declared war against Germany and joined the Allies. [12]

The defeat of Russia on the Eastern Front caused unrest inside the Empire.

The First Russian Revolution Edit

In 1917, there was a revolution in Russia. The Tsar Nicholas II had to say he would not be Tsar any more, and that the people should have power. At first it was thought that Russia would fight harder now that the Tsar was gone. However, the Russian people did not want to fight anymore, because there was not sufficient food, appropriate armament, or adequate roads to supply its army. The war had been putting burdens on them, and many of them were poor and hungry. They began to hate their new government because it would not stop the war.

The Second Russian Revolution Edit

Then, there was the October Revolution. Two factions fought to rule over Russia. The Mensheviks lost against the Bolsheviks. The leader of the Bolsheviks was Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) a Communist who followed the ideas of Karl Marx. The new government asked the Germans for peace and signed a peace treaty called Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers in March 1918 at the city of Brest-Litovsk. The Germans and Russians stopped fighting. This gave Germany land in Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea including the Baltics, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. Finland also gained independence during the treaty.

After the war, the Germans had to agree to the Treaty of Versailles. Germany had to pay approximately $31.5 billion [13] in reparations. They also had to take responsibility for the war. Part of the treaty said the countries of the world should come together to make an international organization to stop wars from happening. This organization was called the League of Nations. The United States Senate did not agree with this, even though it was the idea of the US president, Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson tried to tell the American people that they should agree, but the United States never joined the League of Nations. Problems with the Treaty in Germany would later lead to the World War II.

New bailout plan

2012 February - Against a background of violent protests on the streets of Athens, the Greek parliament approves a new package of tough austerity measures agreed with the EU as the price of a 130bn euro bailout.

2012 March - Greece reaches a "debt swap" deal with its private-sector lenders, enabling it to halve its massive debt load.

2012 May - Early parliamentary elections see support for coalition parties New Democracy and Pasok slump, with a increase in support for anti-austerity parties of the far left and right. The three top-ranking parties fail to form a working coalition and President Papoulias calls fresh elections for 17 June.

2012 June - Further parliamentary elections boost New Democracy, albeit leaving it without a majority. Leader Antonis Samaras assembles a coalition with third-placed Pasok and smaller groups to pursue the austerity programme.


Something extraordinary in the history of humanity occurred 2500 years ago in Athens—much of our cultural heritage, for better and worse, descends from a very small population of landowners, farmers and sailors during a surprisingly short space of time. They organized themselves into a radically democratic government. They held as a high ideal the dignity and freedom of an individual free man. They produced sculpture and architecture which set the standards by which these arts are still measured, and they laid the foundations of our philosophy, mathematics and sciences.

… My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’…. Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

Students are often astonished when they read for the first time the literature of classical Athens. It seems so much more familiar than, say, Dante’s Inferno, although this was written almost 2000 years later in a language much closer to our own. Greek plays were unlike anything the world had seen before. They are gory, horrific, passionate and heart breaking, their characters display human nature at its best and at its worst.

It is the Greek method of thinking that the Western world has inherited. The rediscovery of Greek science and philosophy in Medieval Europe kindled the Renaissance. To come to an appreciation of our Greek heritage is in some way similar to a fish coming to an appreciation of water. How we study this legacy is itself a product of that legacy. We separate our search for knowledge into Greek categories, such as politics, philosophy, history, and the individual sciences. Even the words we use for these disciplines are typically taken from the words used by the Greeks – technology, economics, logic, even our word “school”, taken from the Greek schole.

By the beginning of the sixth century BCE, Athens was disrupted by the same social unrest that had affected many of the poleis (city-states). Farmers, many of whom were Hoplite soldiers, banded against the aristocrats and civil war seemed unavoidable. Additional tensions were caused by the lack of written laws. To the Greeks, justice as part of a cosmic order ruled even the gods, but in fact the aristocrats controlled the laws and could change them at will. In 594 BCE they tried to forestall the civil war by electing the poet Solon as Archon, with a mandate to reform the constitution.

Solon (638–558 BCE)

Solon was certainly one of the first Greek Axial thinkers we know of he traveled widely in Greece, visiting Croesus in Lydia, and Thales in Miletus. According to Plutarch, Solon was “not an admirer of wealth,” but a “lover of wisdom” (Philosophia). Like Thales, he spent time in Egypt, where, according to Plato, he heard the story of Atlantis from Egyptian priests.

Solon told the Athenians that their unstable political situation could not be blamed on a divine cause but was the result of human selfishness. All citizens, he said, should accept responsibility for this dysnomia (disorder). In his view the solution lay in their hands, and only a collaborative political effort could restore Eunomia – good order and stability. Eunomia was about balance. It meant that no one sector of society should dominate the others.

He set about reforms that strengthened the rule of law and set Athens on the road to democracy. For example, he abolished debts incurred mostly by farmers and debt slavery, and formalized the rights and privileges of each class of Athenian society according to wealth. Wealth not birth would be the criterion for access to public office. He created a series of census ratings according to which each adult citizen would have his wealth recorded and thus have access to offices. Under Solon a comprehensive code of law was spelt out and made available on tablets, so that citizens could see how they were governed and what their rights were.

Solon set a new standard as an ideal citizen when he refused stay on to establish a tyranny in Athens to enforce these reforms: he had served the people without personal reward and as their equal. However, his reforms and ideas were not immediately accepted, and after his departure, Athens lapsed again into factional fighting and anarchy. Notwithstanding, the Greek world was impressed and put Athens at the forefront. In addition, the idea of Eunomia would influence not only political development but the development of early Greek science and philosophy.

In 561 BCE, Pisistratus made his first attempt to become tyrant of Athens (a term that meant simply ambitious men who seized power), but failed. On his third attempt, fifteen years later, he entered Athens with not only his private army, but accompanied by a six foot tall Athenian girl representing the Goddess Athena. This time he was successful.

Pisistratus maintained Solon’s laws and allowed elections to take place every year. Among his beneficial actions to Athens was the appointment of rural magistrates enabling all farmers to have access to legal redress. His foreign policy added to the city’s prosperity, and he developed peaceful relations with other Greek tyrants. Pisistratus was responsible for the cultural transformation of Athens including the annexation of the island of Delos, which gave Athens control of the prestigious sanctuary of Apollo. He embarked on a building program that included the construction of a temple to Athena on the Acropolis and the temple of Olympian Zeus. He instituted competitive musical and athletic festivals such as the Dionysia and Panathenaia that made Athens an important cultural center of the Greek world.

From now on there is a strong sense of a government, rule of law and regularity in Athens, which leads the way to its eventual democratic development.

Pisistratus’s son Hippias ruled oppressively and was driven out of Athens with help from the Spartans, who then put a garrison of 700 soldiers in the Acropolis.

Cleisthenes drove them out and in one year in office (508–507), offered and gave democracy to the Athenian people. He completely reformed society, mixing people from different tribes and from the different factions of the Hill, the Shore and the Plain. He broke up old loyalties, redesigned and enlarged the Council and made the popular assembly the main legislative body. Even though nobility still governed the city, the Council and People’s Assembly could now challenge any abuse of power.

The Classical Period (Circa 500–300 BCE)

This period is sometimes described as “the Golden Age” yet it was a time of almost constant strife. It began in 490 BCE with the Persian Wars which Athens was instrumental in winning, and it ended with the Peloponnesian War which pitted Athens and her allies against Sparta and her allies, and which Athens lost in 404 BCE. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, this turmoil, it was an extraordinarily creative time when Axial Greece came into its own, and the great monuments, the art, philosophy, architecture, democracy and literature that we now value as the beginnings of our own Western civilization came into existence.

During this time, Athenian democracy became a model and their reforms reverberated throughout the Greek world. The middle classes now participated in council debates along with the nobles and Greek intelligentsia. A new system, which the Athenians called isonomia (equal order), now energized the Greeks and encouraged other poleis to try similar experiments.

Uncooperative states were seized and their lands given to Athenian colonists, (cleruchs,) thus Athenian territory expanded. In addition, Athens became a haven for political exiles from other parts of Greece, people who brought their wealth and expertise, and who set up business ventures in the Athenian state.

Under Pericles (495–429 BCE) the authority of the Assembly and the Heliaea (people’s courts) was made absolute, the Parthenon, Prophylaea and Erectheum were constructed, and the Athenian Empire emerged.

Democracy and Slavery

Citizens were dependent upon the ubiquitous slaves. We know from the poems of Homer and Hesiod that slaves were part of Greek culture since the earliest times, before 700 BCE. In the later Classical period, even the poorest Athenian citizen would own a slave, and not owning one meant that you were practically destitute. Slaves worked businesses, assisted the citizen women, who were virtually confined to their private homes yet in charge of domestic issues, and performed tasks for the State. Their work included performing clerical jobs, removing refuse and dung from the streets, and dangerous tasks like silver mining in Laurium. Their work provided invaluable wealth to the citizens and the state.

Ownership of land was still commended, and farming one of the most desirable sources of wealth, but the labor it required was not valued and where possible was performed by slaves.

In summary, Greek democracy and culture depended on the ownership of slaves and Greek citizens found a way to justify it. The obligations of citizenship and the regular activities of schole where the free man cultivated his mind, soul and physical excellence, proved his superiority. Conversely, those who labored and did not cultivate their mind were inferior. They were fit only for work and deserved to be slaves.

Thucydides and the Beginnings of History (Circa 460–395 BCE)

By the second half of the fifth century Athens and Sparta emerged as the two most powerful states in Greece. But now without a common enemy, tensions grew between them, and in 431 BCE they confronted one another, with most of the Greek states joining in support of either state. This Peloponnesian War was a long and merciless civil slaughter that, over twenty-seven years, produced suffering on a scale previously unknown to the Greeks. By 404 BCE Spartans had destroyed the Athenian navy, dissolved the entire empire, marched into Athens, and a pro-Spartan oligarchy ruled the Athenians. Athenian democracy was suspended and a pro-Spartan oligarchy – the Thirty – was installed.

Almost the entire war was witnessed by Thucydides (465–395 BCE), a well educated member of the Athenian elite and one of the most important and influential historians, whose writings are still studied and discussed in military colleges today.

Before Thucydides, Herodotus had written history as one would then tell a good story: with a focus on notable events that included heavenly and cosmic intervention.

Thucydides saw that human behavior, not the Gods, was responsible for these events. He attempted to analyze events in a way that would help people understand that they were not a result of the gods’ favor or disfavor, but of the actions of individuals. We are all subject to passions, desires and appetites more often than not, we go to war for irrational reasons, war is a “Harsh master and a harsh teacher,” it destroys our better natures which are nurtured by law and custom. Duress brings out our worst characteristics, and these are evident as war becomes protracted. Fathers kill their sons, neighbors their neighbor, his family and livestock.

He felt that the power of Athens had alarmed the Spartans enough to be a major cause of the war, and looked for the underlying causes of disastrous events in wartime, such as fear, pride, bad calculations, or indecision. His accounts illustrated the way human affairs always follow the same patterns, among them: that power always seeks to increase that necessity is the engine of history that leaders must impose their will on those they lead, and that weakness invites the domination of the stronger entity.

Thucydides felt human nature was predictable and education, religion, government and family were ways to help us rise above our natural selves. People will behave in the same way under the same circumstances unless it is shown to them that such a course, in other days, ended disastrously. Athenians lost because they were incompetently led by people who, hungry for power and unscrupulous, misunderstood the strength of the Persian influence, and were undermined by their own greed and hubris.

Internal Wars and Philip of Macedon (338 BCE)

This endless strife continued to be the backdrop to cultural innovation and activity in the polis (city state).

The Pre-Socratic Philosophers

Just as questions, debate and reasoned solutions were part of political discussions in the Greek polis, these men focused on speculative questions, discussions, debate and reasoned conclusions with regard to the nature of the world. They thought of themselves as philosophers (literally “lovers of wisdom”).

Rather than rely on supernatural answers, they sought the natural elements that were involved in the world’s formation (physis), and to identify the Eunomia (balance) of the universe and the principles governing it. Their questions fell into areas that we now categorize as science, philosophy and spirituality. They used prose not poetry as their language of inquiry, and gradually prose became associated with the language of investigation, and logos to stand for what we would call scientific inquiry. From this sense of the word we get “logic” – rational thinking.

In the first half of the sixth century, the Ionian city of Miletus was a rich trading center with numerous colonies, possibly the most powerful Greek city on the coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Its citizens were audacious sailors whose travels took them to the cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt and who lived close to the rich city-state of Lydia.

Thales of Miletus (Circa 624–547 BCE)

It was the Ionian mathematician and astronomer Thales, whom Aristotle called ‘the founder of natural philosophy’, who set up the Milesian school and so launched the beginning of philosophy and science. Thales was from a wealthy family in Miletus whose father may have been of Phoenician ancestry. He was a contemporary of Solon and had also traveled and studied in Egypt, where he may well have learned some of the mathematical discoveries with which he is credited. Thales was widely believed to have predicted the solar eclipse in 585 BCE. He was a highly successful businessman and statesman, as well as a mathematician who is said to have claimed his only interest in business was to demonstrate the practical advantages of clear thinking.

Never before had someone put forward general ideas and explanations about the nature of the world without recourse to religion or myths. For the first time there was a conviction that there were natural laws controlling nature, and that these laws were discoverable. The world is made of material, and it is governed by the laws of material motion. Thales did not break entirely with religious explanations but he did attempt to give rational explanations for physical phenomena, claiming that behind the phenomena was not a catalogue of deities, but one single, first principle, which he called an archê, “cause”. He identified this first principle as water.

Anaximander (Circa 611–547 BCE)

Another Milesian, Anaximenes (ca 585–525 BCE), said the primary element was air.

Pythagoras (Circa 582–504 BCE)

He was active in southern Italy towards the end of the 6th Century. He coined the term “lovers of wisdom” (philo-sophia) saying that some people seek wealth, some power and admiration, and some fame, but the wisest are those who pursue knowledge: the philosophers. He wrote nothing down and apparently discouraged writing, so we have no original documentation. Nevertheless, his ideas reflect the vision of Axial Age thinkers in other parts of the world. In other words, it appears that he and his pupils’ primary quest was for spiritual enlightenment.

Pythagoras was well-traveled. As a young man he studied with both Anaximander and Thales of Miletus. He was said to have been initiated into the ancient mysteries of the Phoenicians studying in the temples of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos in modern day Lebanon, and to have visited Haifa and the temple on Mount Carmel in Israel. He spent time studying in Egypt, and when the Persian Empire expanding westward, invaded that country, he was captured along with members of the Egyptian priesthood and taken to Babylon. In Babylon he would have found himself at the center of a convergence of religious and philosophical ideas, and in a culture that, like Egypt, was also at the forefront of mathematics and astronomy. Zoroastrianism was in its early days, the Magi (Zoroastrian priests) were establishing the ethical teachings, rituals and monotheism of their religion in contrast to the multiple gods and rigid social hierarchy that was already part of Babylonian culture. Here Pythagoras may well have studied the importance of numbers and of the interaction of contraries or opposites good/evil positive/negative light/dark right/wrong etc.

After twelve years in Babylon, he was allowed to return to his birthplace, Samos in Ionia. Leaving Babylon, he may well have traveled through Persia into India to continue his education where some sources say he is referred to as Yavanacharya, the “Ionian Teacher”. He could well have obtained his Karmic ideas directly from India, although similar ideas were also known in Egypt, plus, in Greece, the Orphic cult was heavily influenced by Eastern belief, particularly on the transmigration of the soul.

He intended to set up a community in Samos but corruption, neglect and tyrannical oppression made it unsuitable. He journeyed to Croton on the east of Italy, where he founded the Pythagorean society of philosophy, mathematics, and natural sciences. People from different classes – and even women – came to his school to hear his lectures and become part of his community. He recommended modesty, austerity, patience, equality and self-control.

Pythagoras’s famous saying “All is number” refers to his understanding that beyond the world of appearances there lies an abstract harmonious world of number. For the first time he demonstrated that the structure of nature is translatable into numbers and geometric forms which can describe its fundamental laws.

Heraclitus of Ephesus (Circa 535–475 BCE)

He was a student of Pythagoras. He wrote that “all is flux,” that truth lies in constant change, in the impermanence of nature as illustrated by the saying attributed to him: “No man steps into the same river twice”. You could not rely on the evidence of your senses, you needed to go deeper in order to find unity. At the foundation of this perpetual flux experienced by both human beings and nature was the ruling principle – logos.

Xenophanes (Circa 560–480 BCE)

Parmenides of Elea (Circa 520–450 BCE)

He was a student of Xenophanes. He taught that reality was one complete, eternal, quintessential Being beyond time and change, and that the changing world registered by our senses was an illusion.

Anaxagoras of Athens (Circa 500–428 BCE)

Leucippus (5th century) and Democritus (Circa 460–370 BCE)

Epicurus (341–270 BCE)

Like Democritus, Epicurus also taught that the universe was made of tiny indivisible units, or atoms, moving in infinite space. Everything that occurs is the result of these atoms colliding, rebounding and joining with each other, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. Plants, animals and humans evolved randomly over ages, some forming species that survive for a time, but nothing lasts forever. Only atoms are immortal, so every phenomenon is the result of natural causes. The atoms in the void, obey the law of their own natures, falling downwards because of their weight, meeting and clashing, forming molecules and larger masses, and, ultimately, building up the whole universe of worlds in infinite space.

In this view then, there is no need of gods, who are similarly created but are unconcerned with human affairs, so should not be feared. Neither should death be feared since it is just the dissolving of the atoms that make up the body and soul.

However, Epicurus’ philosophy differed from the earlier atomism of Democritus in that he believed that our senses are infallible and, through them, we know that we have free will. If man’s will is free, it cannot be by special exemption to the natural laws of atomic materialism, but because of some inherent principle: some element of unconscious spontaneity in the atoms’ behavior. Epicurus conclusion was that they randomly swerved. It is the ‘swerve’ then which enables the atoms to meet in their downward fall, it is the ‘swerve’ which preserves in inorganic nature that curious element of spontaneity which we call chance, and it is the ‘swerve’, become conscious in the sensitive aggregate of the atoms of the mind, which secures man’s freedom of action and makes it possible to urge on him a theory of conduct.” Titus Lucretius Carus, Lucretius On the Nature of Things, trans. Cyril Bailey.

This conduct should be guided by each individual’s perception of pleasure and pain, experienced in both body and soul. Pain is the dislocation of atomic arrangements and motions, pleasure their readjustment and equilibrium. Epicurus’ objective was to attain a balanced, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain. Pleasure to Epicurus was attained when one is free from either want or pain: when both have been removed.

His extensive writings were mostly lost and suppressed by Christian and Jewish theologians to the extent that the English definition of Epicurean means indulgence in sensual pleasures, especially eating and drinking, and his name is one of the words for heresy in Hebrew. His works survived mostly because of a 7,400 line poem about them, On the Nature of Things by the Roman poet Lucretius.

Some of Epicurus’ teachings include:

“Death is nothing to us. When you are dead you will not care, because you will not exist.”

“All organized religions are superstitious delusions rooted in longings, fears, and ignorance.”

“The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain it is delusion. The enemies of human happiness are inordinate desire—the fantasy of attaining something that exceeds what the finite mortal world allows—and gnawing fear.”

The Sophists

Greek Drama

By the end of the sixth century, Athens had become the home of a tradition of drama that strengthened the bonds of the entire community. The City Dionysia, was held in March each year to welcome the spring. Dionysus, among other things, was the God of tragic art, and some scholars believe that these events were part of the religious festival in his honor. Others that they were added to the religious festival since the “audience” had already gathered for that event. Nevertheless, gods are always present in the plots, at least in the background, and sometimes as characters on the stage. They are often invoked, or challenged by the human heroes who are frequently their helpless pawns.

The plays took place in a stadium that seated about 20,000 people and were held on three specific and consecutive days each year, from sun up to sun down.

Each day one poet alone would present a trilogy, followed by a burlesque satyr play, which was shorter and often connected thematically to the plays that preceded it. In the Greek agonistic spirit — (from the Greek agōnistikos, from the word agōn meaning contest) — these plays were part of a competition between three tragedians selected for the event by the Archon responsible for organizing it all. In addition, more frequently than not, the main characters in every play were in conflict with each other.

Tragoidia is a formal term that refers not to the subject matter but to the form, and its meaning was more like our word “play” than our word “tragedy.” According to Aristotle, “The plot of a Tragoidia needed to be serious.” Nevertheless, those that survived are almost all tragedies in our sense of the word.

Actors were generic figures: they wore heavy masks, hiding any expression, their robes were heavy and indistinguishable from each other, their movements ritualized. To move the audience, they relied entirely on the quality of their voices, dance-like movements, and on the poetry they spoke and sang. Sophocles, for example, avoided performing in his plays because his voice was too weak.

The plots were almost always drawn from traditional Greek mythology and tended to focus on conflict within a great family from the remote and heroic past. So the broad outline of the story and the main characters would be known to the audience. But the play’s details were modified, and minor characters often invented in order to refocus the story to highlight whatever angles the writer wanted, putting whatever words he wanted into the character’s mouths. Thus the tragedy commented on wider contemporary social themes, like justice, the tension between public and private duty, the dangers of political power, and the balance of power between the sexes.

Greek audiences would already be accustomed to listen attentively for a long time in public assemblies, and in the law courts, consequently the spoken word would have been easier for them to listen to and retain than this format would be for us today.

Aspects, perspectives and the relevance of the trilogies would be discussed by citizens, since tragedy not only validated traditional values, reinforcing group cohesion, but also exposed weaknesses, conflicts and doubts in both the individual and the state. Athenian democracy was new and the transition from traditional blood or tribal loyalty to loyalty to the state, although intellectually welcomed, would likely have been more difficult for individuals to internalize. Athenians applied what they learned in the theatre to other aspects of their lives, to difficult civic issues, to their deliberations in the Assembly and to their judgments in the courts.

The plays told stories that dealt ruthlessly and relentlessly with human passions, conflicts and suffering at the same time expressing Greek ideals. They were open to all citizens, possibly even women and slaves. Over at least three days, then, Athenians had the opportunity and space to experience and think about those aspects of humanity that threatened the wellbeing and eunomia (balance) of their society, both in the oikos (family) and in the polis (state.)

Here in open-air theatres the public could watch as every transgression—even the most horrific of human drives and passions—was acted out and released in a very controlled setting. It provided a cathartic experience (or cleansing) for everyone here suffering was experienced and accepted, and empathy fostered. Greek Classical Theatre was a safety valve for the society where every year, passions and concerns were revealed and then could be controlled.

Karen Armstrong writes in The Great Transformation, “Tragedy taught the Athenians to project themselves toward the ‘other’ and to include within their sympathies those whose assumptions differed markedly from their own. … Above all, tragedy put suffering on stage. It did not allow the audience to forget that life was ‘dukkha,’ painful, unsatisfactory, and awry. By placing a tortured individual in front of the polis, analyzing that person’s pain, and helping the audience to empathize with him or her, the fifth-century tragedians – Aeschylus (ca 525 – 456), Sophocles (ca 496 – 405), and Euripides (ca 484 – 406) – had arrived at the heart of Axial Age spirituality. The Greeks firmly believed that the sharing of grief and tears created a valuable bond between people. Enemies discovered their common humanity …”

Socrates (470–399 BCE)

Karl Jaspers writes in The Great Philosophers, Vol. 1, “His mission was only to search in the company of men, himself a man among men. To question unrelentingly, to expose every hiding place. To demand no faith in anything or in himself, but to demand thought, questioning, testing and so refer man to his own self. But since man’s self resides solely in the knowledge of the true and the good, only the man who takes such thinking seriously, who is determined to be guided by the truth, is truly himself.”

Let it be clear to you that my relationship to philosophy is a spiritual one.” Socrates says at his trial. His teaching method, known as elenchus (cross-examination), is often thought to be designed to draw out the pupil’s innate knowledge through a series of meticulous, rational, questions and answers. This describes the process but its purpose was more than a search for innate knowledge as we generally understand it. It is more likely that the objectives of this rigorous, lengthy and relentless dialogue were to demonstrate the limits of a student’s – or anyone’s – ability to arrive at real knowledge in this manner, and to expose the student’s assumptions, opinions and false beliefs in order that that he or she might eventually realize that there was no right answer. Through this confusion the individual would see that he or she really knew nothing at all, at which point the search for truth could begin. Finally, by questioning their most fundamental assumptions, and through unrelenting questions and answers, individuals would be able to access an intuitive ability – a change in consciousness – and perceive ultimate good.

In Theaetetus Socrates describes himself as a midwife, guiding each student to discover within himself a level of intuitive understanding and self-knowledge that was synonymous with virtue.

Like Pythagoras, the Buddha, and many other teachers, Socrates wrote nothing down, resisted formulating a coherent philosophical path and had no dogma. He was aware that some students, at least initially, were merely entertained by practicing his method, but he knew otherwise: “They enjoy hearing men cross-examined who think they are wise but they are not. But I maintain that I have been commanded by the God to do this through oracles, through dreams, and in every way in which some divine influence or other has ever commanded man to do anything.” writes Plato in The Apology.

In 399 BCE Socrates was accused of two violations of Athenian law: blasphemy by teaching about new gods not recognized by the Athenians, and corrupting the youth of Athens. He was accused of teaching young men idleness and encouraging cultish behavior. But perhaps above all – when the great Athenian Empire was losing to the Spartans towards the end of the Peloponnesian War – he was, in a sense, a scapegoat for their shame, disliked because he numbered among his friends and students men who were perceived as enemies of the Athenian State, such as Alcibiades and Critias. (Alcibiades had, on several occasions, changed sides, and Critias became part of the pro-Spartan oligarchy installed after Athens lost the war in 404 BCE.) In addition, his dialectic method – whereby through rigorous questioning he lead people to see the fallacy and limits of their thinking – made many conclude that he was merely intent on making them feel inferior.

Even in defending himself at his trial, Socrates revealed that first and foremost he was a teacher. “I shall never cease from the practice of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet and saying to him after my manner: You, my friend … are you not ashamed … to care so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?” Instead of offering a defense that would assure his release, he refused to compromise and used the opportunity to expose the shallow emotionally-driven thinking of the members of the judiciary: “For if you kill me, you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the city by God … [But] you may feel out of temper like a person suddenly awakened from sleep and might suddenly strike me dead … and then sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care for you sends someone to take my place.”

When the possibility of escaping from jail was presented to him, Socrates used this as an opportunity to teach Crito to observe the effect and consider the consequences of one’s actions, thoughts and feelings. In this instance such an action would in a sense destroy the Athenian state, whose laws had permitted his birth, upbringing and education and of which he willingly chose to be a citizen, obedient, therefore, to its laws. Socrates, in a lengthy dialogue, takes the part of the state and determines that if he did not stand by this agreement now, he would be dishonored, and his friends suffer by association.

Socrates had no fear of death: “You are mistaken, my friend, if you think that a man who is worth anything ought to spend his time weighing up the prospects of life and death. He has only one thing to consider in performing any action – that is, whether he is acting rightly or wrongly… . No one knows with regard to death whether it is not really the greatest blessing that can happen to man, but people dread it as though they were certain that it is the greatest evil, and this ignorance, which thinks that it knows what it does not, must surely be ignorance most culpable.”

So he drank the hemlock and was put to death as the State required. “Such, Echecrates, was the end of our friend, who was, we may fairly say, of all those whom we knew in our time, the bravest and also the wisest and most upright man.” says Crito at the end
of Phaedo.

Years: c. 600 BCE - c. 500 BCE Subject: History, Ancient history (non-classical to 500 CE)
Publisher: HistoryWorld Online Publication Date: 2012
Current online version: 2012 eISBN: 9780191735387

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