Chapter III - Greece and the Greeks (Part I)

"The Present moves attended
With all of brave and excellent and fair,
That made the Old Time splendid."

You remember the name of the old geographer and traveller, Pytheas, in the fourth century B.C. It is from what he wrote that we get a dim idea of what life was like in Britain and Gaul in those far-off times.

Let us follow Pytheas home. No doubt it was rough in the bay--it often is-- and Pytheas, in his small boat, may have thought that the sight of the barbarians--the "unintelligible people," whose speech sounded like "bar-bar" to his Greek ear--had been scarcely interesting enough to make the expedition worth while.

However, once round the west of Spain, past the high rock that the traveller little thought would belong two thousand years later to dwellers in the foggy island he had just left, he felt safe once more in the familiar waters of the blue Mediterranean on the way to his home at Massilia (now Marseilles). There the old [pg 45] sailor could spin his yarns about the round huts, wicker boats, and great stone circles that he had seen.

Massilia was only one of a number of colonies planted on the shores and islands of the Great Sea by a country much further east.

If you imagine Pytheas' boat going on from Massilia to the Mother Country, it will pass more colonies on the south of Sicily and Italy on the way to Crete. Then, still going towards the rising sun, it will come to the see of many islands--giant's stepping-stones, they are, to the fringe of colonies at the edge of Asia Minor. Turning back a little, the ship will at last reach the wonderful little Mother Country herself. It is Hellas, the land of the Hellenes; or, as we say, following the Romans, Greece of the Greeks.

Now call to mind all that you have ever seen that is beautiful, actually or in pictures, in Cornwall, Wales, or Scotland, and then let your fancy see the blue sea gently lapping the yellow-white sand on the shores of Greece and the Archipelago. There are dark rocks and deep waters too, where the mountains seem to plunge into the sea, to raise their heads later as gay little islands.

And those solemn mountains, some rugged and bare and snow-capped, some clothed with dark woods; they seem to guard--as in truth they did--the smiling valleys between, full of flowers and fertile fields. Imagine, if you can, the warm sunshine, the clear, crisp air, and the blue sky. The people who lived in such an inspiring country--no larger than Scotland [pg 46]--have had the greatest influence throughout the centuries on all that is noble in art and literature.

Even a hurried walk round the rooms--shout twenty of them--that contain treasures from Greece will show wherein this influence lies. Those graceful forms caught in lasting marble, those perfect temples, that wonderful picture gallery of the vases, together with the treasures in the Bronze, Coin, Gem, and Terracotta Rooms, show us what the Greeks were--how they lived and thought.

We will not begin at the beginning, but will turn to the century before Pytheas, the fifth century B.C.

It opens with the clash of arms, with the trampling of huge armies, and with deeds of brave daring. You know the stories of the Field of Fennel, of the Hot Gates, of the Land-locked Bay, of the Retreat of the Ivory Throne.

Remember the great names of Marathon, Thermopyle, Salamia, Plates; your history will tell you of the Persians and how the Greeks met them, and how the message of the gods came true, and fire and sword destroyed Athens and the temples.

Standing before the model of the Acropolis in the Elgin Room, let us throw ourselves into the heart of Athens; remembering that, though Sparta was brave, Thebes dogged, and other states that went to make up the whole were fine too, yet it was really Athens that was the life and soul of Greece, and the centre of an ever-widening influence.

You see a hill, flat at the top, which is twice as long as it is broad, with steep sides as high as the cliffs at [pg 47] Dover, rising from the rocky plain on which Athens was built. You mount by the Gate Temple, and, while resting, turn to look at the glorious view; the shining sea some four or five miles off, the misty hills in the distance, the dark ones nearer, the slow, shallow streams hidden with olive groves. You will notice other hills in the town, crowned with buildings and trees.

If you dig down some little way below the surface of the Acropolis you come upon a layer of blackened and broken remains; they tell the story of the sack of Athens by the Persians.

Sad as it was, it gave an opportunity for rebuilding, and, fortunately for Greece, and the world, there were great men to make the most of it.

Close beside us is the bust of Pericles, one of the greatest rulers of Athens, who organized the work of rebuilding, and found the necessary money; there were architects too, able to plan great temples, and Pheidias, the finest sculptor the world has ever seen, to adorn the buildings with his own work and that of the pupils he inspired.

Let us move on to the model of the Parthenon, the greatest of these temples. You can see its position on the Acropolis, near its south edge, high above the great Theatre of Dionysius, from the model of the "hill of the citadel."

Walk round it slowly, notice its plan, twice as long as it is broad; the central chamber, the cella or temple itself, surrounded by massive simple columns, two rows of them at each end; above these the triangular [pg 48] gables or pediments; then, peering inside, notice the division into two large halls, and the spot where stood the great statue of Athene; there is nothing left of it now; but the small statute close by is supposed to be a Roman copy, and to give some idea of the original.

Think of it: a statute forty feet high (seven tall men standing one above the other); the face, arms, and feet of ivory; the garments, shield, and helmet of gold; the image of Victory, six feet high, standing on the outstretched hand with a golden wreath. It must have had a solemn and magnificent effect when seen in the splendid temple built to contain it.

The steps and passage round the cella seem to invite one to come thus near to the temple, to study its beauties. Look up: under the shadow of the columns and the roof they support is a continuous band of sculpture in low relief. A great part of this hand--the frieze--has been brought to England, and is arranged round the walls of this Elgin Room.

Now stand outside, and see the square blocks of sculptured stone filling up the spaces between the beams (represented in stone). These are the metopes; many of these, too, are on the walls above the frieze. In the pediments of the model are shown the remnants of the sculpture in the round, which once adorned them in their perfect beauty.

Let us take each of these three different classes of sculpture which belonged to the Parthenon, the work of Pheidias and his school, and find out enough about them to make us want to know more, and then come [pg 49] back to our model, to bring it as far as we can to our minds in its first glory, when finished, about the middle of the fifth century B.C.

Athene was worshipped in her temple for a thousand years; then Christianity was accepted in Greece--about the time when Christian missionaries from Ireland and Rome were preaching to our English forefathers--and the Parthenon was turned into a church.

Athens was then taken by the Turks in the year that Elizabeth came to the throne; and the Parthenon became a mosque. Some two hundred years later came a great calamity. The Venetians, bombarding the town, set fire to the powder kept in the chamber, where once the great mysterious statute was honoured, and there was an explosion which threw down the walls and roof as you see them in the model.

Perhaps the pediment sculptures suffered the most. You see those that have been brought to England set out on marble plinths each side of the long room; weather-worn and broken as they are, they are considered the finest series of sculptures in the world.

Take the East Pediment first: it was the one over the chief entrance farthest away from the Gate Temple, which led up to the Acropolis. You will notice first the top of one of the columns, of the simple and grand Doric order, which is placed between the two halves of the marble plinths.

Above this is a copy of a drawing made a few years before the explosion, and by its help we are able to form some idea, though by no means an exact one, [pg 50] of how the broken and prostrate figures were originally set up.

Pausanias, and old traveller, who loved old buildings and old stories, and who lived in the middle of the second century A.D., tells us that the subject of the East Pediment sculptures was the story of how the goddess Athene sprang fully armed from the head of the great Zeus, her father; so we can try to imagine the lost central group--Zeus, his daughter, and Hephaestus, who split open the god's head with his axe.

Of the various gods and goddesses grouped about them, perhaps the slight figure with the floating drapery was the beautiful messenger, Iris, the rainbow, flying to take the wonderful news to the world.

Perhaps the grand figure easily reclining on a rock is Theseus, a hero-king of oldest Athens, to whom was raised a beautiful temple below the Acropolis, standing almost perfect to this day.

The horses of Helios, the sun-god, are on the left, rising with fiery impatience above the rippling waves. Those holes show where metal bridle and trappings were once fastened.

On the other end is the downward bent head of one of the horses of the moon-goddess, Selene, about to sink below the horizon. This head, with its swelling neck and nostrils, is the finest ever sculptured.

You notice the sunrise on the left; moon-set on the right.

The West Pediment takes us back to the story of the founding of Athens, and again the drawings of the artist Carrey help us to reconstruct the groups. The [pg 51] story runs that Athene and Poseidon, god of the sea, disputed as to the possession of Attica; it was about the size of Cornwall. The gods decided that it should belong to the one who gave the best gift to the country.

So Poseidon struck the ground with his trident (Father Thames has taken the pattern of this) and a salt spring bubbled up (some say a horse appeared). Athene, the wise, stooped down and planted a seed-stone which grew and grew, as the silent company watched, to a beautiful olive tree; for long, long years the spring, the marks of the trident, and the olive tree, were shown in the Temple of Erechtheus, on the north side of the Acropolis.

The gods judged Athene's gift the best, and so the city became Athens, after its chief goddess and protector, and the olive trees spread slowly by the river banks, giving the oil of their fruit to increase the riches of the country.

It is supposed that the figures on each side of the two principal ones are gods and heroes of Attica, and sea and river gods, sympathizing with Athene or Poseidon.

Now for the metopes. You will notice how far the figures of the Centaurs, half-men, half-horses, and the men they are fighting--the Lapiths--stand out from the background. This sculpture is in the highest relief possible.

The reason for the fight is said to have been the bad behaviour of the Centaurs at a wedding-feast, where they tried to run off with a Lapith bride. You will notice the fine modelling, the expression on the faces, [pg 52] the grouping and strong section of it all, before turning to study the frieze.

One needs to go round the room many times, and slowly, to take in the spirit and feeling of this wonderful frieze. You see that it represents a procession, the great procession that once every four years assembled in the outer Potters' field and wound its way round the base of the Acropolis, up through the beautiful Gate Temple, to present a new garment to drape the little olive wood statue of Athene (believed to have fallen from heaven), or, as some say, the gold-and-ivory statue made by Pheidias.

But this procession must not remain in marble to us; we must see the colour: the white, purple, blue, crimson garments; the golden ornaments and vessels sparkling in the sun; the dazzling armour; the animated faces and shining eyes. We must hear, too, the joyful shouts as the victors in the games pass by; the strains of music and song; the trampling of the horses; the lowing and bleating of the victims for the sacrifices; and with it all is borne the smell of the fruit and flowers, sweet spices and cakes, carried in baskets and trays, through the warm, soft air and sunshine. It was a religious festival that stirred their deepest feelings; their goddess had to be honoured and propitiated with sacrifices by her own people, colonists as well as those who lived under the protecting shadow of her mighty uplifted sword. Imagine her great bronze figure, not far from the Gate Temple, forty feet high; the sailors out at sea could see the tip of that sword and the crest of the helmet. [pg 53]

If the light be good, you can find on the model the place where the procession is supposed to start, and trace it round the cella.

Examine the details: the horsemen getting ready, fastening sandals and garments, soothing the horses (one animal is licking his foreleg), the speed gradually increasing, marshals hurrying them up, and getting all in order, holding back the chariot coming on too fast; then the modest dignified girls, and the lovely folds of their simple garments!

A record has been found, belonging to the end of the first century B.C., saying that girls such as these "had performed all their duties, and had walked in the procession in the manner ordained with the utmost beauty and grace." They had also subscribed for a silver cup to be dedicated to Athene and placed in the treasury of the Parthenon.

The old men with branches, and the magistrates, belong to the quieter part of the procession, and lead up to the most important, and perhaps the most beautiful, part of it, and here we touch fable again.

There is a seated row of gods and goddesses--if it were a picture they would be in a semicircle in the background--waiting to receive the bearers of the peplos, that wondrously embroidered robe of saffron and purple wrought by the young maidens of Athens.

These figures are marvels of grace, and make us realize what fine models Pheidias, the master sculptor, must have had before his eyes, in these Greeks of the fifth century B.C.

And now, let us go back to the temple model. [pg 54]

Imagine those round pediment sculptures lifted to their place, and the metopes in position. Imagine, too, the frieze round the north and south sides of the cella, and round the band at the top of the inner row of columns, in front of the east and west entrances.

Besides all this, think of the lions' heads (there is one on the wall behind the Caryatid) fixed at each end of the pediments, and the smaller adornments along the edge of the roof, and the gleaming gold shields below the metopes and beam ends. Remember, too, that the marble now grey with age was dazzling in its pale cream colour when fresh from the quarries near by; also that a great deal of the sculpture was picked out with colour, and relieved with metal trappings and weapons.

But the Parthenon is not the only temple represented in the Museum.

Look at that beautiful strong figure, the Caryatid, one of the six supports in the south porch of the Temple of Erechtheus, where the sacred little olive-wood statue had its home, and where the trident marks, salt spring, and olive tree were shown. Perhaps you have noticed a copy of this figure in St. Pancras Church, Euston Road? You will see the difference between the Ionic columns from the eastern porch and the Doric one of the Parthenon.

In the Phigaleian Room is an interesting picture of the Temple of Apollo, built by Ictinos, the architect of the Parthenon; and some of the metopes belonging to each end, and the frieze--an inside decoration in this temple--are on the walls of the room. Here we get [pg 55] Centaurs and Lapiths again, and the battles of Greeks and the warlike Amazon women.

We next wend our way to the Mausoleum Room to find the remains of the Tomb of Mausolus, Prince of Caria, one of the Greek colonies in Asia Minor. This was built in the middle of the fourth century B.C., just a hundred years later than the work of Ictinos. It was ranked among the Seven Wonders of the World.

The two colossal figures in the middle of the room are Mausolus and his wife, Artemisia, who showed her love and sorrow by raising this most wonderful tomb to his memory. It was so ruined when discovered that no one is sure of its construction, though many scholars suppose that the royal pair stood in a chariot drawn by four horses on the top of a pyramid of steps, which was supported by columns on a high base, richly sculptured. All was highly colored and, further, ornamented with lions and marble groups.

A few minutes from the Museum is St. George's Church, at the top of which is an imitation of the Mausoleum pyramid, surmounted by George II in a Roman toga!

Up the steps from the Mausoleum Room we come to the Nereid Room with the beautiful Nereid Monument, found also in Asia Minor, in Lycia, destroyed by an earthquake. The model helps one to reconstruct it and see where the friezes and figures fitted in; the sea maidens, who give their name to the monument, give a delightful sense of easy motion, "scudding along the surface of the waves." This belongs, too, to the fifth century. [pg 56]

Look into the Ephesus Room and see the sculptured columns, the Ionic capital, and other fragments of the great temple of Artemis (Diana) at Ephesus. It was probably finished near the end of the fourth century B.C., so was already four hundred years old when St. Paul was at Ephesus.

Read about this in Acts XIX. Notice in a group of portrait heads one of Pericles, and one of Alexander the Great. It is said that the first temple at Ephesus was burnt down the night of Alexander's birth, 356 B.C., and this one was building while he was pursuing his mad career of conquest across Asia. [pg 57]

(typed by Mary Harshbarger)

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