Arete2.jpg (7010 bytes)

The Characters

Pericles, Athenian Leader
Socrates, Philosopher
Plato, Philosopher
Aristotle, Philosopher
Alexander, Global Conqueror

Sophocles, Playwright
Pythagoras, Mathematician
Phidias, Scultor
Solon, Tyrant
Protagoras, Sophist

Leonidas, Spartan king
Xerxes, Persian king
Homer, Epic poet
Herodotus, Historian
Hippocrates, Physician

   The most articulated value in Greek culture is areté. Translated as "virtue," the word actually means something closer to "being the best you can be," or "reaching your highest human potential." The term from Homeric times onwards is not gender specific. The man or woman of areté is a person of the highest effectiveness; they use all their faculties: strength, bravery, wit, and deceptiveness, to achieve real results. The concept implies a human-centered universe in which human actions are of paramount importance; the world is a place of conflict and difficulty, and human value and meaning is measured against individual effectiveness in the world.

    In this project, you will take on the role of one of 15 characters. Interacting with others, you will gather information regarding how the Greeks put the concept of Arete into practice. What beliefs reflected arete? What practices or activities reinforced it? Who, through what they did, lived it?

    Your goal will be to gather enough specific information to design the 8th Wonder of the World: A monument to the Ancient Greeks, a civilization whose shadow extends well beyond the limited time they culturally ruled the world. You will be responsible for completing the following:
  • A visual representation of your monument that includes your rationale for why you designed the structure the way you did (one blank page artistic, one typed page description/rationale - see 4 Things at bottom);
  • Author an inscription that will be displayed somewhere on your monument. Submit your inscription separately, typed. It must be at least one page in length and reflect your knowledge of the Greek meaning and practice of arete. Also, you must include a one-page document, typed, indicating the basis for your inscription (Specifically, who and what the inscription is based on.); and,
  • You take on the role of your character during the time set aside to do so. You must provide some type of prop or keepsake that clearly identifies or represents you.

    Your conversations with other members of the group must focus around the idea of arete and how it was revealed through the accomplishments and beliefs of the Greek people

 Four Things You Need to Know:

1. Who has value in a society? 2. How were those values reflected?
3. How should those values be honored? 4. How were those values put into practice by the  Greeks?

The Biographies (Alphabetical)

Copy and Paste to a word processing program to print.


Alexander the Great was born in 356 B.C. in the city of Pella, Greek Macedonia. He was a very strong and clever boy. When he was a child, he tamed a wild horse by figuring out that the horse was only scared of his shadow. So Alexander made the horse face the sun, got on him and started to ride. His father and his friends could not believe that Alexander tamed the horse because they had not been able to train that horse. His father let him keep the horse.

Aristotle (who was taught by Plato) taught Alexander. Alexander’s father, Philip II, died when Alexander was twenty years old, having been killed by one of his own men.

Alexander became King of both Macedonia and Greece in 336 B.C. He went ahead with his father’s plans to conquer Persia. Persia had invaded Alexander’s country one hundred and fifty years before, so Alexander thought the time had come to retaliate.

Alexander visited a temple in one town that contained a rope tied into a very famous knot called the Gordian Knot. The knot is famous because an oracle had said that whoever should undo this knot would conquer Persia. Alexander soon undid the knot, after he heard about the knot and using his sword cut it in two. Alexander eventually overthrew the Persian Empire, and carried the Macedonian arms to India. He mastered his competitors and won many great battles.

Alexander took over western Asia Minor in the winter of 334 to 333 B.C. He increased his hold on the Mediterranean coast and conquered Egypt from 332 to 331 B.C. To celebrate after conquering Egypt Alexander founded a town near the mouth of the Nile River and named it Alexandria. Here established a great library in which there were five hundred thousand books, and it was the largest library of ancient times. All of the books in the library were written by hand on long sheets of papyrus paper.

Alexander and his men kept on conquering until they reached far-off India. All of Alexander’s men had been very loyal by staying with him for ten years, but now they were very homesick. So they turned around and started on their journey home. Alexander was thirty when people started to call him Alexander the Great. At that time he was ruler of most of the world that was known to be inhabited by civilized people. Later when they reached Babylon, Alexander became sick with a fever. He celebrated his return with a big feast, and during all of the feasting and drinking, he died suddenly at age 33 in 323 B.C. After Alexander died, the men sent his body to Greece, but it was diverted to Egypt and there he was placed in a golden coffin in Alexandria.

He governed the largest territory under the rule of just one man, and still kept his hope of uniting the world. Alexander taught so many things to so many people as he was conquering them he would teach them to read in a different language. He trained a lot of the people just like the Greeks train for their Olympic Games.

Alexander had married a beautiful Persian Princess named Roxana, but their son was not born until after the death of Alexander the Great. After Alexander’s death, many of the generals fought to see who would rule next. When the numbers were down to three people, they decided to split the empire three ways. When they did that, Ptomely I kept Egypt as his share, but the other two quickly lost control of empires. Alexander’s empire grew quickly, and then all of a sudden, it was gone.


The name Aristotle often provokes hushed whispers even from highly educated people. For all this reputation, though, Aristotle is actually quite an easy read, for the man thought with an incredible clarity and wrote with superhuman precision. It really is not possible to talk about Western culture (or modern, global culture) without coming to terms with this often difficult and often inspiring philosopher who didn't get along with his famous teacher, Plato, and, in fact, didn't get along with just about everybody (no-one likes a know-it-all).

We can say without exaggeration that we live in an Aristotelean world; wherever you see modern, Western science dominating a culture in any meaningful way (which is just about everywhere), Aristotle is there in some form.

Aristotle was born at Stagira, in Thrace, in 384 BC. His father was a physician to the King Philip of Macedon, so science was in his background. At the age of seventeen, he went to Athens and joined Plato's school, where he stayed until Plato's death in 347. A few years later, he became the tutor to the young prince of Macedon, Alexander the Great. Although Alexander was a stellar pupil, Aristotle returned to Athens three years later, founded his own school, the Lyceum, and taught and studied there for twelve years. Because Alexander began conquering all of the known world, Macedonians became somewhat unwelcome in

Athens and Aristotle was accordingly shown the door in 323. He died a year later. Although he studied under Plato, Aristotle fundamentally disagreed with his teacher on just about everything. He could not bring himself to think of the world in abstract terms the way Plato did; above all else, Aristotle believed that the world could be understood at a fundamental level through the detailed observation and cataloging of phenomenon. As a result of this belief, Aristotle literally wrote about everything: poetics, rhetoric, ethics, politics, meteorology, embryology, physics, mathematics, metaphysics, anatomy, physiology, logic, dreams, and so forth. We aren't certain if he wrote these works directly or if they represent his or somebody else's notes on his classes; what we can say for certain is that the words, "I don't know," never came out of his mouth. In addition to studying everything, Aristotle was the first person to really think out the problem of evidence. When he approached a problem, he would examine a.) what people had previously written or said on the subject, b.) the general consensus of opinion on the subject, c.) and a systematic study of everything else that is part of or related to the subject. This is called inductive reasoning:observing as many examples as possible and then working out the underlying principles. Inductive reasoning is the foundation of the Western scientific method.

Unlike Plato and Socrates, Aristotle did not demand certainty in everything. One cannot expect the same level of certainty in politics or ethics that one can demand in geometry or logic. In Ethics I.3, Aristotle defines the difference in the following way, "we must be satisfied to indicate the truth with a rough and general sketch: when the subject and the basis of a discussion consist of matters which hold good only as a general rule, but not always, the conclusions reached must be of the same order. . . . For a well-schooled man is one who searches for that degree of precision in each kind of study which the nature of the subject at hand admits: it is obviously just as foolish to accept arguments of probability from a mathematician as to demand strict demonstrations from an orator."


Sophists were not the only thinkers to emerge with new ideas in the mid-fifth century. In historical writing, for example, Hecataeus of Miletus, born in the later sixth century B.C., had earlier opened the way to a broader and more critical vision of the past. He wrote both an extensive guide book to illustrate his map of the world as he knew it and a treatise criticizing mythological traditions of the past. Most Greek historians who came after him concentrated on the histories of their local areas and wrote in a spare, chronicle-like style that made history into little more than a list of events and geographical facts.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c. 485-425 B.C.), however, building on the foundations laid by Hecataeus, made his Histories a ground-breaking work in its wide geographical scope, its critical approach to historical evidence, and its lively narrative. To describe and explain the clash between East and West represented by the wars between Persians and Greeks in the early fifth century, Herodotus searched for the origins of the conflict both by delving deep into the past and by examining the cultural traditions of all the peoples involved. His interest in ethnography recognized the importance and the delight of studying the cultures of others as a component of historical investigation.

His great work, The Histories, is the story of the war between the huge Persian empire and the much smaller Greek city-states. In itself it is an exciting story, but the work is important for a number of reasons. Herodotus was not the first historian, but he was the first to make investigation the key to history. The word "history" comes from a Greek word which means "inquiry" or "investigation." He wanted to find what actually happened, so he traveled extensively in the Eastern Mediterranean, including visits to Egypt and Persia. He talked to many people, including people who actually witnessed the events he wrote about. While people today might criticize him for his tendency to include inaccurate and often implausible information, he nevertheless established the notion that history must begin with research.

His book is also significant for its scope. While its focus is the Persian Wars, the book covers the entire Eastern Mediterranean world from the time of the Lydian Empire (ca. 672 BC) to the defeat of Xerxes in 479 BC. In the course of telling this story and reflecting this sense of inquiry, he also takes time to tell us about the customs of the Egyptian, the Hittites, and most of the peoples the Greeks would have come into contact with. The result is not a tightly reasoned argument about the Persian War, but rather a kind of loosely organized encyclopedia of the Ancient Mediterranean. Much of what we know about many of the ancient peoples comes to us only from Herodotus.

The theme of The Histories is the struggle between The East and The West. The East, represented by the Persian Empire, signifies tyranny and oppression. The West, represented by the Greek city-states, signifies freedom. Thus as Herodotus interprets the Persian Wars we have the beginnings of Western Civilization and the association of that tradition with freedom.


The central historical figure in Greek medicine is Hippocrates. The events of his life are shrouded in uncertainty, yet tales of his ingenuity, patriotism and compassion made him a legend. He provided an example of the ideal physician after which others centuries after him patterned their existence.

Hippocrates first gave the physician an independent standing, separating him from the cosmological speculator, or nature philosopher. Hippocrates confined the medical man to medicine. At the same time that he assigned the physician his post, Hippocrates would not let him regard the post as sacrosanct. He was opposed to the spirit of trade-unionism in medicine. His concern was rather with the physician’s duties than his "rights". Hence the greatest legacy of Hippocrates: the Hippocratic Oath.

Portraits of Hippocrates represent the physician with a noble face and impressive body to match his intellectual attributes. Various dignified ancient busts have been said to represent Hippocrates, yet no original Greek portraits have survived; hence, our evidence comes from Roman copies.

The so-called Hippocratic Oath was unquestionably the exemplar for medical etiquette for centuries, and it endures in modified form to this day. Yet uncertainty still prevails concerning the date the oath was composed, the purpose for which it was intended, and the historical forces which shaped the document. The date of composition in modern debate varies from the sixth century BC to the fourth century AD. In antiquity it was generally not considered a violation of medical ethics to do what the Oath forbade. An ancient doctor who accepted the rules laid down by "Hippocrates" was by no means in agreement with the opinion of all his fellow physicians; on the contrary, he adhered to a dogma which was much stricter than that embraced by many, if not by most, of his colleagues.

I swear by Apollo the Physician and Asclepius and Hygeia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment this oath and this covenant: To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parent and to live my life in partnership with him, and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine, and to regard his offspring as equal to my brothers in male lineage and to teach them this art--if they desire to learn it--without fee and covenant; to give share of precepts and oral instruction and all other learning to my sons and to the sons of him who has instructed me and to pupils who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, but to no one else. I will apply dietetic measure for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice. I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. In purity and in holiness I will guard my life and my art. I will not use the knife, not even on sufferers from stone, but will withdraw in favor of such men as are engaged in this work. Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, remaining free of all intentional injustice, of all mischief and in particular of sexual relations with both female and male persons, be they free or slaves. What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of the treatment in regard to the life of men, which on no account one must spread abroad, I will keep to myself holding such things shameful to be spoken about. If I fulfill this oath and do not violate it, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and art, being honored with fame among all men for all time to come; if I transgress it and swear falsely, may the opposite be my lot.


No other texts in the Western imagination occupy as central a position in the self-definition of Western culture as the two epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey . They both concern the great defining moment of Greek culture, the Trojan War. Whether or not this war really occurred, or occurred as the Greeks narrate it, is a relatively unanswerable question. We know that such a war did take place around a city that quite likely was Troy, that Troy was destroyed utterly, but beyond that it's all speculation. This war, however, fired the imaginations of the Greeks and became the defining cultural moment in their history.

If the Greeks regarded the Trojan War as the defining moment of their culture, they did so because of the poetry of Homer. It would not be unfair to regard the Homeric poems as the single most important texts in Greek culture. While the Greeks all gained their collective identity from the Trojan War, that collective identity was concentrated in the values, ethics, and narrative of Homer's epic poems. Just as the Greeks were obsessed about the Trojan War, they were equally obsessed about the Homeric poems, returning to them over and over again, particularly in times of cultural crisis. The Greeks didn't believe that the Homeric poems were sacred in any way, or even flawless history. For most of Greek history, Homer comes under fire for his unflattering portrayal of Greek gods. The Greeks understood that the poems were poetry, and in the Hellenistic period came to the understanding that the poems had been deeply corrupted over the ages. So unlike most ancient cultures which rooted collective identity in religious texts of some sort, the Greeks turned to literature.

As the Trojan War was the product of Mycenean culture, the Homeric poems were the product of the Greek Dark Ages. Whatever happened at Troy, the events were probably so captivating, that the Greeks continued to narrate the stories long after they had abandoned their cities and abandoned writing. The history of the war was preserved from mouth to mouth, from person to person; it may be that the stories of the Trojan War were the dominant cultural artifact of the Greek Dark Ages. The Greeks in general regard Homer's two epics as the highest cultural achievement of their people, the defining moment in Greek culture which set the basic Greek character in stone. Throughout antiquity, both in Greece and Rome, everything tended to be compared to these two works; events in history made sense when put in the light of the events narrated in these two works. As a result, then, these two epics are the focal point of Greek values and the Greek world view despite all its evolution and permutations through the centuries following their composition.

There are two very important words repeatedly used throughout the Homeric epics: honor (timé ) and virtue or greatness (areté ). The latter term is perhaps the most reiterated cultural and moral value in Ancient Greece and means something like achieving, morally and otherwise, your greatest potential as a human being. The reward for great honor and virtue is fame (kleos ), which is what guarantees meaning and value to one's life. Dying without fame (akleos ) is generally considered a disaster, and the warriors of the Homeric epics commit the most outrageous deeds to avoid dying in obscurity or infamy.


In 480 BC, Xerxes, son of Darius, King of Persia, was in full preparation to invade Greece. At this time, Athens, the leader of the Greek City states, manifested the whole Western civilization through her architecture, drama, poetry, sculpture, philosophy and more. This was the prize that Xerxes sought to gain. Sparta, another city-state, yet Greek by blood, was absolutely a militaristic society. She personified DUTY-HONOR-COUNTRY. Mothers would tell their sons "bring your shield home or be on it." King Leonidas, a Spartan, had agreed to help stop the invading Persians, and took 300 hand picked troops plus 1000 helots (citizen soldiers) and marched to Thermopylae on the North coast of Greece.

Leonidas would have taken far more soldiers except for a religious holiday that apparently was more important. On the way to Thermopylae he picked-up about 7000 more troops as had been preplanned. Thermopylae was the best of three possible defensive areas in which Xerxe's invading army had to advance. This mountain gap along the coast was about 60 feet wide, and was the best location for a blocking action. The word was "stand and die," but this was only meaningful to the 300 Spartans. After three days of fighting and having killed countless numbers of Xerxe's elite troops, they were finally overrun and the 300 Spartans were killed to the man, including King Leonidas. The other 7000 either departed or surrendered.

King Leonidas and his troops gave the rest of Greece more time to mobilize and increased their morale. Xerxe's invasion timetable was completely thrown off and he eventually withdrew. When Leonidas was preparing to make his stand, a Persian envoy arrived. The envoy explained to Leonidas the futility of trying to resist the advance of the huge Persian army.

"Our archers are so numerous," said the envoy, "that the flight of their arrows darkens the sun."

"So much the better," replied Leonidas, "for we shall fight them in the shade."

The pass at Thermopylae was a superb place to withstand an attack. Because it was so narrow, even with an army as large as the Persians had, only a small number could actually fight at any one time. This enables very few men to hold off enormous armies for long amounts of time.

The Greek army was about 10,000 strong and already in position when Xerxes and his army arrived. The Greek army was being led by the Spartan king. The Persian Army attacked, but the Greeks held fast, and the Persian army suffered heavy losses. Time and time again the Persians attacked, but were turned away by the Greeks.

All seemed favorable for the Greeks, until a Greek traitor by the name of Ephialtes told Xerxes of an alternate route around the pass. This route, known to Leonidas, was only guarded by 1000 volunteering Phocaeans. The Greeks heard about the betrayal and about the Persian army that would soon surround them from the back. They decided to retreat, but Leonidas would stay with 300 other Spartans to hold the pass long enough to make an organized retreat. The last battle at Thermopylae ended with every last Spartan fighting until they were killed.


The great Athenian leader of this age, Pericles, was swept into power in a popular democratic movement. A member of a noble and venerable family, Pericles led the Athenians against Cimon for harboring autocratic intentions. Pericles had been the leader of the democratic faction of Athenian politics since 462 BC. Ephialtes was the Athenian leader who had finally divested the Areopagus of all its power; Athens was now solely governed by the council and the democratic Assembly. Pericles quickly brought forward legislation that let anyone serve as the archon (one of the nine central leaders of the country) despite birth or wealth. Pericles also changed the rules of citizenship: before the ascendancy of Pericles, anyone born of a single Athenian parent was an Athenian citizen; Pericles instituted laws which demanded that both parents be Athenian citizens. So, in reality, the great democracy of Periclean Athens was in reality only a very small minority of the people living in Athens. It was, however, the closest human culture has come to an unadulterated democracy. The Assembly was given unprecedented power over the selections of officials; elected officials, such as military generals, were not chosen by the Assembly, but the Assembly did hire and fire all other public officials

One figure towers over this new democratic state: Pericles. This Age of Athens, which begins either in 462 or 450 or 445 BC and lasts until 408 BC, when Athens is defeated by Sparta, is called the Athenian Age, the Classical Age, or, after its most important political figure, the Age of Pericles. Just about everything that you associate with Greek culture is squeezed into this half century of wealth, energy, creativity, and chauvinism in Athens. All the great works of Greek tragedy and comedy, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, were written in this time in the city of Athens. Most of the monumental works of architecture, built off of the wealth that literally poured into Athens from her imperial possessions, were built at this time: the Acropolis, the rebuilding of the Agora. Flush with wealth and at peace with Persia and Sparta, the Athenians had nothing better to do with this wealth then invest it in a massive cultural flowering of art poetry, philosophy, and architecture.

And still there remains the figure of Pericles himself. There is no question that the democratic reforms of the Age of Pericles owe their existence to the energy of this political figure. He was a man of immense persuasiveness and an orator of great power. Although he was eventually ostracized by the Athenians (he later returned), he dominated the democratic government of Athens with his formidable capacity to speak and to persuade. He had two central policies: democratic reform and the maintenance of the empire. Sparta, however, growing increasinly wary of Athenian prosperity, would soon find itself entangled once again with its old rival. The thirty-year peace managed to hang on for only fourteen years before hostilities broke out again. In 431, a second war broke out, called simply The Peloponnesian War; this war would see the death of Pericles in its second year, but eventually witness the foolish destruction of the Athenian navy, the defeat of Athens, and the end of Athenian democracy


The Athenian sculptor, Phidias, son of Charmides, was considered the greatest artist of classical antiquity. Greek and Latin authors lauded his skill as a maker of divine images, and, although a few sophisticated Romans of the second century after Christ might have claimed to prefer other of his works, there can be no doubt that his lasting fame rests upon the success of two in particular: the monumental chryselephantine images of Athena Parthenos and Zeus Olympios.[1] Neither of these magnificent gold and ivory temple statues survives (nor indeed do any of the works ascribed to the fifth-century master). In fact, the only unequivocal remains of these famed originals are workshop debris, fragmentary base blocks, and cuttings in temple floors.[2] Scholars, nonetheless, have long labored to recover these lost masterpieces from numerous descriptions and passing comments recorded in ancient texts.

Phidias was placed by Pericles in charge of the sculpture of the Parthenon. The most famous artist of his time, Phidias acted as supervisor of all architectural and artistic works for the Acropolis in Athens. All of the exterior sculpture was produced under his direction, and the enormous statue of Athena which resided within the temple was his work alone. Although much of the building and its decoration have survived, none of Phidias's personal contributions remain.

Aristotle mentions him in his Nicomachean Ethics, saying "Wisdom in the arts we ascribe to their most finished exponents, e.g. to Phidias as a sculptor and to Polyclitus as a maker of portrait-statues, and here we mean nothing by wisdom except excellence in art . . ."


    The most famous of Socrates’ pupils was an aristocratic young man named Plato. After the death of Socrates, Plato carried on much of his former teacher's work and eventually founded his own school, the Academy, in 385. The Academy would become in its time the most famous school in the classical world, and its most famous pupil was Aristotle.

    We know much about Plato's teachings, because he wrote dialogues between Socrates and others that would explore philosophical issues. These dialogues would be used in his school as starting points for discussion; these discussions and Plato's final word on the dialogues have all been lost to us. The Platonic dialogues consist of Socrates asking questions of  another and proving, through these questions, that the other person has the wrong idea on the subject. Initially, Plato seems to have carried on the philosophy of Socrates, concentrating on the dialectical examination of basic ethical issues: what is friendship? what is virtue? can virtue be taught? In these early Platonic dialogues, Socrates questions another person and proves, through these questions, that the other person has the wrong idea on the subject. These dialogues never answer the questions they begin with.

    However, Plato later began to develop his own philosophy and the Socrates of the later dialogues does more teaching than he does questioning. The fundamental aspect of Plato's thought is the theory of "ideas" or "forms." The most famous of Plato's dialogues is an immense dialogue called The Republic , and, next to his account of Socrates's trial, The Apology , The Republic is one of the single most influential works in Western philosophy. Essentially, it deals with the central problem of how to live a good life; this inquiry is shaped into the parallel questions (a) what is justice in the State, or what would an ideal State be like, and (b) what is a just individual? Naturally these questions also encompass many others, such as how the citizens of a state should be educated, what kinds of arts should be encouraged, what form its government should take, who should do the governing and for what rewards, what is the nature of the soul, and finally what (if any) divine sanctions and afterlife should be thought to exist.


Protagoras is the earliest known sophist of ancient Greece. He was born at Abdera, in Thrace, probably about 480 BCE. It is said that Protagoras was once a poor porter carrying large bundles of wood on his shoulders.

He attracted the attention of Democritus who took a liking toward him and instructed him in philosophy. This well-known story, however, appears to have arisen from the statement of Aristotle that Protagoras invented a sort of porter’s knot for the more convenient carrying of burdens. In addition to this, Protagoras was about twenty years older than Democritus.

Protagoras was the first who called himself a Sophist, and taught for pay; and he practiced his profession for forty years. Pericles debated moral problems with him, and he was employed to draw up a code of laws for the Athenian colony of Thurii in 445 BCE. Thus he arrived in Athens at least by that year. We are not informed about whether he accompanied the colonists to Thurii, but at the time of the plague (430) we find him again in Athens. Between his first and second visit to Athens he had spent some time in Sicily, where he had acquired fame. He brought with him to Athens many admirers from other Greek cities through which he had passed. His instructions were so highly valued that he sometimes received 100 minae from a pupil; Plato says that Protagoras made more money than Phidias and ten other sculptors. Protagoras wrote a large number of works, of which the most important were entitled Truth (Alethia) and On the Gods (Peritheon). The first contained the theory refuted by Plato in the Theaetetus. In 411 he was accused of impiety by Pythodorus, one of the Four Hundred. The charges were based on his book On the Gods, which began with the statement, "Respecting the gods, I am unable to know whether they exist or do not exist" (Diog. Laert. ix. 52). The impeachment was followed by his banishment, or, as others affirm, only by the burning of his book. His doctrine was, in fact, a sort of agnosticism based upon the impossibility of attaining any absolute criterion of truth. Plato gives a vivid picture of the teaching of Protagoras in the dialogue that bears his name. Protagoras was especially celebrated for his skill in the rhetorical art. By way of practice in the art he was accustomed to make his pupils discuss theses (communes loci), an exercise which is also recommended by Cicero. He also directed his attention to language, and tried to explain difficult passages in the poets.

Protagoras was the author of the famous saying, "Man is the measure of all things; of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not." This saying puts in a nutshell the whole teaching of Protagoras. Indeed, it contains the essence of the entire thought of the sophists. By "man" he did not mean humankind at large. He meant the individual person. By "measure of all things," he meant the standard of the truth of all things. Each individual person is the standard of what is true to himself. There is no truth except the sensations and impressions of each person. The earlier Greek philosophers made a clear distinction between sense and thought, between perception and reason, and had believed that the truth is to be found, not by the senses, but by reason. The teaching of Protagoras rests on denying this distinction


Pythagoras must have been one of the world’s greatest men, but he wrote nothing, and it is hard to say how much of the doctrine we know as Pythagorean is due to the founder of the society and how much is later development. It is also hard to say how much of what we are told about the life of Pythagoras is trustworthy; for a mass of legend gathered around his name at an early date. Sometimes he is represented as a man of science, and sometimes as a preacher of mystic doctrines, and we might be tempted to regard one or other of those characters as alone historical. The truth is that there is no need to reject either of the traditional views. The union of mathematical genius and mysticism is commonly enough

The great problem of Pythogoras’ was the duplication of the square, a problem which gave rise to the theorem of the square on the hypotenuse, commonly known still as the Pythagorean. If we were right in assuming that Thales worked with the old 3:4:5 triangle, the connection is obvious. Pythagoras argued that there are three kinds of men, just as there are three classes of strangers who come to the Olympic Games. The lowest consists of those who come to buy and sell, and next above them are those who come to compete. Best of all are those who simply come to look on. Men may be classified accordingly as lovers of wisdom, lovers of honor, and lovers of gain. That seems to imply the doctrine of the tripartite soul, which is also attributed to the early Pythagoreans on good authority, though it is common now to ascribe it to Plato. There are, however, clear references to it before his time, and it agrees much better with the general outlook of the Pythagoreans. The comparison of human life to a gathering like the Games was often repeated in later days. Pythagoras also taught the doctrine of Rebirth or transmigration, which we may have learned from the contemporary Orphics.

There is more difficulty about the cosmology of Pythagoras. Hardly any school ever professed such reverence for its founder’s authority as the Pythagoreans. ‘The Master said so’ was their watchword. On the other hand, few schools have shown so much capacity for progress and for adapting themselves to new conditions.

It may be taken as certain that Pythagoras himself discovered the numerical ratios which determine the concordant intervals of the musical scale. Similar to musical intervals, in medicine there are opposites, such as the hot and the cold, the wet and the dry, and it is the business of the physician to produce a proper ‘blend’ of these in the human body. In a well-known passage of Plato’s Phaedo (86 b) we are told by Simmias that the Pythagoreans held the body to be strung like an instrument to a certain pitch, hot and cold, wet and dry taking the place of high and low in music. Musical tuning and health are alike means arising from the application of Limit to the Unlimited. It was natural for Pythagoras to look for something of the same kind in the world at large. Briefly stated, the doctrine of Pythagoras was that all things are numbers. In certain fundamental cases, the early Pythagoreans represented numbers and explained their properties by means of dots arranged in certain ‘figures’ or patterns.


Socrates (469-399), despite his foundational place in the history of ideas, actually wrote nothing. Most of our knowledge of him comes from the works of Plato (427-347), and since Plato had other concerns in mind than simple historical accuracy it is usually impossible to determine how much of his thinking actually derives from Socrates.

The most accurate of Plato’s writings on Socrates is probably the The Apology. It is Plato’s account of Socrates’s defense at his trial in 399 BC (the word "apology" comes from the Greek word for "defense-speech" and does not mean what we would think of as an apology). It is clear, however, that Plato dressed up Socrates’s speech to turn it into a justification for Socrates’s life and his death. In it, Plato outlines some of Socrates’s most famous philosophical ideas: the necessity of doing what one thinks is right even in the face of universal opposition, and the need to pursue knowledge even when opposed.

Socrates wrote nothing because he felt that knowledge was a living, interactive thing. Socrates’ method of philosophical inquiry consisted in questioning people on the positions they asserted and working them through questions into a contradiction, thus proving to them that their original assertion was wrong. Socrates himself never takes a position; in The Apology he radically and skeptically claims to know nothing at all except that he knows nothing. Socrates and Plato refer to this method of questioning as elenchus , which means something like "cross-examination" The Socratic elenchus eventually gave rise to dialectic, the idea that truth needs to be pursued by modifying one’s position through questioning and conflict with opposing ideas. It is this idea of the truth being pursued, rather than discovered, that characterizes Socratic thought and much of our world view today. The Western notion of dialectic is somewhat Socratic in nature in that it is conceived of as an ongoing process. Although Socrates in The Apology claims to have discovered no other truth than that he knows no truth, the Socrates of Plato’s other earlier dialogues is of the opinion that truth is somehow attainable through this process of elenchus .

The Athenians, with the exception of Plato, thought of Socrates as a Sophist, a designation he seems to have bitterly resented. He was, however, very similar in thought to the Sophists. Like the Sophists, he was unconcerned with physical or metaphysical questions; the issue of primary importance was ethics, living a good life. He appeared to be a sophist because he seems to tear down every ethical position he’s confronted with; he never offers alternatives after he’s torn down other people’s ideas.

He doesn’t seem to be a radical skeptic, though. Scholars generally believe that the Socratic paradox is actually Socratic rather than an invention of Plato. The one positive statement that Socrates seems to have made is a definition of areté: "virtue is knowledge." If one knows the good, one will always do the good. It follows, then, that anyone who does anything wrong doesn’t really know what the good is. This, for Socrates, justifies tearing down people’s moral positions, for if they have the wrong ideas about virtue, morality, love, or any other ethical idea, they can’t be trusted to do the right thing.


When you hear the word tyrant, what does it make you think of? Maybe it makes you think of a leader who is very bad at his job and who doesn't respect the people he leads. He probably wouldn't be a leader

at all if the people under his power had a choice -- something like a dictator. But in ancient Greece, tyrant was more a word for a kind of leader, and tyrants were not always bad leaders. However, many of them were bad enough to give tyrants the bad reputation they have today.

To the ancient Greeks, a tyrant was somebody who took control of a government by force. He didn't care about the old kind of government. The tyrant gave himself absolute power. How fairly the tyrant used his

new power depended on his character. Often the poor people of the land supported the tyrant. They helped him to take power from the rich people who used to rule. They thought he would treat them more fairly than the rich people. Because of this, rich people did not like tyrants; this is one reason that we think of this word as meaning something bad today.

In 594 BC Athens appointed a man named Solon as the archon and lawgiver of Athens.

His job as lawgiver was to make a constitution, or a set of laws, for the people of Athens to follow. He tried very hard to make a set of laws that the people could understand and that made sense. Solon had a lot of power as lawgiver, but he did not want to take over Athens and become a tyrant. In fact, one of the reasons that he tried to make his laws so clear was to make sure that Athens would never have a tyrant.

Around 600 BC many Athenians were losing their freedom, and were being enslaved through debt bondage. This movement of power continued for some time and wealthy families were gaining political power as they grew richer. Had this trend continued, a rebellion would have been unavoidable. Fortunately, Solon, the Archon at the time (594 BC) realized the severity of the situation and enacted laws that not only protected Athenians from being enslaved or arrested for debt, but also gave them more rights. For the first time the decisions of archons and officials could be challenged. As a result of Solon's political reforms, the population of Athens was divided into four political groups based on their agricultural output.

Solon brought about many more changes in Athens, including changes in the polis which enabled more people to participate in the government. He created the Council of 400 which consisted of a hundred members from each political class. The purpose of this council was to screen business going before the assembly. Although the formation of the Council of 400 allowed for more participation, the protection of public order remained in the hands of the Areopagus, the council of aristocrats.3 Solon was also responsible for a new law which permitted the lowest class to serve as jurors during trials. To justify and explain his actions he wrote:

"I have given the common people sufficient power to assure them of dignity, and I have protected those of great wealth and influence. I took a firm stand, holding my stout shield over both classes, so that neither should win any unfair advantage."

Solon was one of the founding fathers of democracy. He accomplished many things in a short period of time. Some of his reforms didn't last long, but others laid the foundations for democracy.


Of the three most famous fifth century tragic playwrights, Sophocles seems to have been by far the most successful in his own time. In the fourth century, Aristotle singled out Sophocles, as the most prominent strong central characters, the so-called "Sophoclean heroes," dominate six of the plays of Sophocles that we now possess.

Sophocles’ tragedies explore, among many other themes, a problem that had assumed a new importance in the evolving democracy at Athens. Where individuals had traditionally identified themselves through their families and the myriad social groups to which they belonged, democratic society began to focus on the individual as the basic unit. The fifth-century male Athenian, was to an unprecedented degree compelled to define himself through what he was and had himself done. Several of the most admired speeches in Sophocles take place when the heroes utterly cut themselves loose from their previous situation and choose to pursue their own goals.

The most striking fifth-century analogue to the Sophoclean hero shows up in prose rather than poetry. It has often been suggested that the Athenian statesman Pericles may have provided a model for Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus: both lead cities, conspicuously rely upon their intelligence and ability to gauge what will happen in the future. In both cases, plague strikes the city and the great leaders fall, Oedipus because the plague leads to an investigation which brings out the truth of his origin, Pericles because he himself falls victim to the plague at Athens. Whether or not Sophocles had Pericles and the great plague at Athens in mind when he composed the Oedipus Tyrannos, the portrayal of Pericles in Thucydides bears many resemblances to the Sophoclean hero. In the first and last speeches which Thucydides attributes to Pericles, the statesman presents himself as an unswerving figure of tremendous vision. His determination and his ability to stand alone in his beliefs strongly recall the self-willed stance taken by heroes in Sophocles. In his most famous speech, however, Pericles outlines a vision of Athenian society in which the interests of the individual and of the community operate together in a state of constructive tension and reinforce one another. It is as if Thucydides were trying to portray Pericles as a Sophoclean hero who is self-defining and unswerving, yet fully engaged and integrated into his society.


When Xerxes became King of the Persians and the Medes, he spent his first royal year putting down the Egyptian revolt. Xerxes inflicted more severe treatment than his predecessors had there and also in Babylon after their satrap Zopyrus was killed in a revolt in 482 BC that was ruthlessly defeated. Not only were the Babylonian fortifications demolished and the temples destroyed, but the great, solid-gold statue of Marduk was removed and melted down. No longer could anyone take the hand of Bel to show their divine-approved rulership at the Babylonian New Year's festival. Babylon was incorporated into the Assyrian satrapy, which had to provide a thousand talents of silver. Even the name Babylonian was banned, and after this time they were known as Chaldeans.

Xerxes amassed a huge army formed from 46 nations and commanded by 29 Persian generals to launch an attack against Greece. Gold raiment marked the 10,000 immortals, elite Persian and Median soldiers allowed to bring their servants on the march. The navy of 1200 ships was mostly furnished by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Anatolians, and by Dorian, Aeolian, and Ionian Greeks. Half of the Persian imperial army was used -- about 180,000 men. So confident were they that when they caught three men in Sardis spying for the Greek allies, they showed them the vast army and let them go make their report.

The Greeks heard of Xerxes' army amassing and were better prepared for the invasion than in the first Persian War. Athenians and Spartans combined with about 29 other city-states, under the leadership of Sparta to oppose this powerful army, and the Athenians contributed a fleet of 200 triremes for their navy.  Themistocles, an Athenian general, urged the army to stop the invasion as far north as they could. Finally, a place was chosen for the first defense of Greece. This place was Thermopylae, a pass where it was only 60 feet wide!

This is only wide enough so that a single chariot could fit though the pass. The Persian army arrived at Thermopylae and the Greeks were there waiting. This battle is known as The Battle at Thermopylae. The Persians suffered losses when they met determined resistance from 300 Spartans at the Thermopylae pass, though eventually the Spartans were killed, and the Thebans surrendered and were branded. The army of Xerxes then burned the deserted cities of Plataea and Thespiae before entering Athens and burning the acropolis.

In the major naval battle at Salamis the imperial navy lost 200 ships, the Greek allies only 40. Xerxes reacted by executing the Phoenician captains, causing the Phoenicians and Egyptians to go home. Xerxes then went back to Sardis, leaving Mardonius in command. Xerxes used bribery and diplomacy to try to win over the Greeks, who formed the Delian league led by Athens which attacked Thrace in 476 BC, driving Persian imperialism out of Europe except at Doriscus.

In 465 BC Xerxes was assassinated in his royal chamber by a conspirator.