The Human Journey
The Axial Age

The Axial Age


Pages 12345


Stepping from a plane in Memphis in 1968, Robert Kennedy was informed that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. In an impromptu moment that has become famous,
he responded:

… 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.

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.

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 (for more on Atlantis see PBS video).

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.

The Areopagus, as viewed from the Acropolis
The Areopagus, as viewed from the Acropolis, is a monolith
where Athenian aristocrats decided important matters of
state during Solon’s time.

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, they impressed the Greek world 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 actions of benefit 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 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 (~ 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.

Click here for a map or the Athenian Empire in 431 BCE

Athenians were now loyal to Athens above all and were committed to her survival and prosperity. They used their prestige and economic power to build a navy with which to fight Persia (490 - 479 BCE), and, when finally triumphant, they took command of a new alliance of Greek States and formed the Delian League in 478 BCE. Smaller allied states paid contributions in silver that enabled Athens to expand their shipbuilding and arsenals, and led to her domination of Greek trade. 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

Classical Greek Democracy depended on the participation of the greatest number of citizens. Citizens had obligations to the State: to be part of judicial and political assemblies, to be on jury service, to attend religious festivals and other state activities. Even in their free time they were expected to play the prescribed part of the free citizen and to pursue activities called schole (from which we get our word school).  Schole involved regular exercise at the gymnasium, attending philosophy lectures and poetry recitals, all of which helped to establish the free citizen’s superiority. In this way the citizen proved himself fitted to rule.

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.

Bust of Thucydides
Bust of Thucydides residing in the
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

Thucydides (c. 460 - c. 395 BCE) and the
beginnings of History

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)
During the fourth century, after the defeat of Athens by Sparta, the Greek states remained mired in wars, supported in part by Persian satraps (regional governors) interested in destabilizing Sparta. Resentment against Spartan hegemony united former enemies and even allies. Eventually in 379 BCE Athens resumed its position as the leading Aegean power by calling on allies and additional formally pro-Spartan states, and reviving the Athenian League.  In 371 BCE the Spartans were defeated at Leuctra in Thebes, which then became the dominant state, but not for long. States allied themselves against Thebes, and from then on continually disputed among themselves until they were overshadowed by the foreign invasion of Philip of Macedon in 338 BCE.

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

Pages 12345 TOP