Proud faith in democracy


In these last weeks a sudden and unexpected wave of optimism, proud patriotism and faith in the power of democracy has moved on and been spreading almost all over the world. The glowing hopes and the great expectations for the time to come seem to have overcome even the most deep rooted scepticism.

Indeed attachment and loyalty to the community had an extraordinary significance especially in the ancient world, it was a sacrosanct duty and certainly had a remarkable influence on citizens and politicians alike. Patriotism was also the most effective means of cohesion, perhaps the true basic proviso able to achieve – or at least to grant the preconditions of – social stability and widespread respect for the laws and institutions.

In truth there are quite several examples in ancient Greek literature of expressions of  the pride to belong to a community and praising its foundations and traditions. Very likely the most famous eulogy to one’s country and frank praise of democracy is Pericles’ speech to commemorate the Athenian soldiers who perished in the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431-430 b.C.). This episode is masterly narrated by Thucydides and, albeit according to his writing style it cannot be considered utterly authentic: meaning not a true and fair journalistic report of the facts, it certainly is a honest artistically well structured and written memoir of this outstanding actual event. During this tribute the supreme στρατεγος took the opportunity not simply to condole the parents, wives and children of the war victims, but also to celebrate the institutions of his πολις, its social and political achievements and its remarkably highly advanced customs and lifestyle: a model for the other Greek πολεις – and, as we have then well learnt, altogether a most refined and enlightened civilisation leadership under whose influence we still live today:

“I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valour… but what was the road by which we reached our position, what the form of government under which our greatness grew, what the national habits out of which it sprang; these are questions which I may try to solve before I proceed to my panegyric upon these men…

Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life… But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

… We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger… And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them.

Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and, instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all. Again, in our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons; although usually decision is the fruit of ignorance, hesitation of reflection. But the palm of courage will surely be adjudged most justly to those, who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger…

In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause.

Not so rarely, even the Greek tragedies of the V century b.C. report plain hints of acclamation towards the achievements of Athens and the nationalistic courage of its citizens and soldiers. In the Persians, written by Aeschylus in 472 b.C., the plot’s background is the naval victory the Greeks (lead by the Athenians) on the Persians in the waters of Salamina in 480 b.C.; Aeschylus places the tragic leverage on showing the events under the perspective of the defeated army and court: Xerses, his mother Queen Atossa and thus the whole dialogues among the Persians aim at amply show the enormous differences between the two contenders:

ATOSSAYou, its first interpreter, have indeed read the meaning of my dream with goodwill, at least, toward my son and house. May the outcome then prove beneficial! When I return to the palace, I will perform for the gods and my dear ones beneath the earth all those rites which you recommend. Meanwhile, my friends, I would like to learn where Athens is located.

CHORUSFar from here, to the west where the last rays of our Lord the Sun set.

ATOSSACan it then really be that my son had the keen desire to make this city his prey?

CHORUSYes, for then all Hellas would be subject to the King.

ATOSSADoes their army have such a multitude of men?

CHORUSYes, it is an army of such magnitude that it has caused great disaster for the Medes.

ATOSSAAnd what else have they besides? Do they have sufficient wealth in their homes?

CHORUSOf silver they possess a veritable fountain, a treasure chest in their soil.

ATOSSAIs the bow-stretching arrow particularly suited to their hands?

CHORUSFar from it; they have lances for close fight and shields that serve them for armour.

ATOSSAAnd who is set over them as shepherd and is master of their host?

CHORUSOf no man are they called the slaves or vassals.

ATOSSAHow then can they withstand the attack of an invading foe?

CHORUSSo well as to have destroyed Darius’ great and courageous host.

ATOSSAIn truth, your words have given the fathers and mothers of those who are now on their way there dire food for thought.

CHORUSNo, rather I think that you will soon learn the truth of the matter. For here comes one who is beyond a doubt a Persian courier. He bears clear tidings of some issue, be it good or bad.

A more accurate praise of Athens democratic foundations and their social and political success in governing the golden πολις, is plainly stated by Euripides in his Suppliants (424 b.C.), where the author compares the institutions of Thebe with the constitution of Athens. Within the plot Theseus, king of Athens, confronts the messenger of Creon (the king of Thebe) explaining to him what were – and still are – most unanimously considered the greatest attainments of Athens’ democracy:

THEBAN HERALDWho is the tyrant of this land? To whom must I announce the message of Creon who rules over the land of Cadmus, since Eteocles was slain by the hand of his brother Polyneices, at the sevenfold gates of Thebes?

THESEUS - You have made a false beginning to your speech, stranger, in seeking a dictator here. For this city is not ruled by one man, but is free. The people rule in succession year by year, allowing no preference to wealth, but the poor man shares equally with the rich.

THEBAN HERALD - You give me here an advantage, as in a game of checkers; for the city from which I come is ruled by one man only, not by the mob; no one there puffs up the citizens with specious words, and for his own advantage twists them this way or that, one moment dear to them and lavish of his favours, the next harmful to all; and yet by fresh calumnies of others he hides his former failures and escapes punishment. Besides, how would the people, if it cannot form true judgments, be able rightly to direct the state? No, it is time, not haste, that affords a better understanding. A poor farmer, even if he were not unschooled, would still be unable from his toil to give his mind to politics. Truly the better sort count it no healthy sign when the worthless man obtains a reputation by beguiling with words the populace, though before he was nothing.

THESEUSThis herald is a clever fellow, a dabbler in the art of talk. But since you have thus entered the contest with me, listen awhile, for it was you that challenged a discussion. Nothing is more hostile to a city than a despot; where he is, there are first no laws common to all, but one man is tyrant, in whose keeping and in his alone the law resides, and in that case equality is at an end. But when the laws are written down, rich and weak alike have equal justice, and it is open to the weaker to use the same language to the prosperous when he is reviled by him, and the weaker prevails over the stronger if he has justice on his side. Freedom’s mark is also seen in this: “Who has wholesome counsel to declare unto the state?” And he who chooses to do so gains renown, while he, who has no wish, remains silent. What greater equality can there be in a city?

Again, where the people are absolute rulers of the land, they rejoice in having a reserve of youthful citizens, while a king counts this a hostile element, and strives to slay the leading men, all such as he thinks discreet, fearing for his power. How then could a city remain stable, where one cuts short all enterprise and mows down the young like meadow-flowers in spring-time? What good is it to acquire wealth and livelihood for children, merely to add to the tyrant’s substance by one’s toil? Why train up daughters virtuously in our homes to gratify a tyrant’s whim, whenever he wishes, and cause tears to those who rear them? May my life end if ever my children are to be wedded by violence! This bolt I launch in answer to your words.

Pride, celebration, self-praise truly characterised those years and, in a more nostalgic nuance, many more to come… Unfortunately Athens’ Golden Age did not last too long, though. Nonetheless it is undeniable that the achievements of the Pentecontaetia still somehow reverberate their fair light onto our world.

“If liberty and equality, as is thought by some are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.” [Aristotle]

Odysseus judge and executioner

In my last post I have been analysing the revenge perpetrated by Odysseus against Penelope’s suers at his return to Ithaca. He showed no mercy to anyone and savagely slain 108 individuals:

“These men here has the fate of the gods destroyed and their own reckless deeds, for they honoured no one of men upon the earth, were he evil or good, whosoever came among them; wherefore by their wanton folly they brought on themselves a shameful death”.

Yet our hero has not fully performed his offended king’s “duties” as loyalty within the oikos needs now to be assessed and punishment to the unfaithful must be performed; thus more blood and pitiless actions will take place under his orders. Nevertheless a totally different approach will lead him in administering justice within the saddened walls of his own palace.

Twelve of his fifty servants, have shown  disrespect to Penelope and Telemachus, and worse of all they have become concubines of the suers, thus violating their oikos duty of sexual fidelity towards their king:

“But come, name thou over to me the women in the halls, which ones dishonour me and which are guiltless.” Then the dear nurse Eurycleia answered him: “Then verily, my child, will I tell thee all the truth. Fifty women servants hast thou in the halls, women that we have taught to do their work, to card the wool and bear the lot of slaves. Of these twelve in all have set their feet in the way of shamelessness, and regard not me nor Penelope herself. And Telemachus is but newly grown to manhood, and his mother would not suffer him to rule over the women servants.”

Odysseus summons the twelve unfaithful women and orders them to move away the slain bodies and clean up the still bleeding hall, floor and furniture; regrettably this is not at all their punishment:

“But when they had set in order all the hall, they led the women forth from the well-built hall to a place between the dome and the goodly fence of the court, and shut them up in a narrow space, whence it was in no wise possible to escape. Then wise Telemachus was the first to speak to the others, saying: “Let it be by no clean death that I take the lives of these women, who on my own head have poured reproaches and on my mother, and were wont to lie with the wooers.”

The disloyal concubines were all hanged to death:

“…tied the cable of a dark-prowed ship to a great pillar and flung it round the dome, stretching it on high that none might reach the ground with her feet. And as when long-winged thrushes or doves fall into a snare that is set in a thicket, as they seek to reach their resting-place, and hateful is the bed that gives them welcome, even so the women held their heads in a row, and round the necks of all nooses were laid, that they might die most piteously. And they writhed a little while with their feet, but not long.”

The maid-servants were not the only people of the oikos who had betrayed and been punished. Melanthius, his goatherd, had been repeatedly helping the suitors, even supplying them with weapons during the feral revenge of Ulysses:

“Then Melanthius, the goatherd, answered him: “It may not be, Agelaus, fostered of Zeus, for terribly near is the fair door of the court, and the mouth of the passage is hard. One man could bar the way for all, so he were valiant. But come, let me bring you from the store-room arms to don, for it is within, methinks, and nowhere else that Odysseus and his glorious son have laid the arms.” So saying, Melanthius, the goatherd, mounted up by the steps of the hall to the store-rooms of Odysseus. Thence he took twelve shields, as many spears, and as many helmets of bronze with thick plumes of horsehair, and went his way, and quickly brought and gave them to the wooers.”

And he was stopped by Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd, who offers to Ulysses to kill him:

“But Melanthius, the goatherd, went again to the store-room to bring beautiful armour; howbeit the goodly swineherd marked him, and straightway said to Odysseus who was near: “Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, yonder again is the pestilent fellow, whom we ourselves suspect, going to the store-room. But do thou tell me truly, shall I slay him, if I prove the better man, or shall I bring him hither to thee, that the fellow may pay for the many crimes that he has planned in thy house?”

Ulysses was still fighting against the suers, therefore it is Eumaeus who is appointed to chase, capture and execute the traitor:

“I and Telemachus will keep the lordly wooers within the hall, how fierce soever they be, but do you two bend behind him his feet and his arms above, and cast him into the store-room, and tie boards behind his back; then make fast to his body a twisted rope, and hoist him up the tall pillar, till you bring him near the roof-beams, that he may keep alive long, and suffer grievous torment.”

Eumaeus, helped by another swineherd, did then perform his duty in full accordance with his master’s instructions and did leave the traitor tied up with a mortal rope:

“then the two sprang upon him and seized him. They dragged him in by the hair, and flung him down on the ground in sore terror, and bound his feet and hands with galling bonds, binding them firmly behind his back, as the son of Laertes bade them, the much enduring, goodly Odysseus; and they made fast to his body a twisted rope, and hoisted him up the tall pillar, till they brought him near the roof-beams.”

It is quite remarkable that the chastisement is in both cases decided by Odysseus, but performed by others. Unlike his “vendetta” – which is carried out personally by Odysseus, when it come to administering justice in his own reign our hero issues his “sentence” and then dispatches servants to summon the culprits and perform the unfaltering punishment.

Furthermore, it is worth noticing that in both cases the tool used for the execution is a “rope” – albeit different kind of chords (a slipknot or tie rope) and used with different method (hanging or fastening). The maid-servants were hanged with a brochos – a noose – which in the Greek world was typical. Women normally chose it (in case of suicide), or were sentenced to death always by hanging. There are numerous examples within the ancient Greek mythology, literature and tragedy that confirm this custom: in a old Rhodian legend reported by Pausania Helen of Troy was hanged as a refugee in Rhodes after Menelaus death in Sparta; Antigone the daughter of the unintentionally incestuous matrimony between King Oedipus of Thebes and his mother Jocasta, took her life by hanging herself in order to prevent her from being buried alive by Creon; and her mother as well, Jocasta who committed suicide once she realised being an incestuous wife:

“And I saw the mother of Oedipodes, fair Epicaste,[Homer version of Jocasta] who wrought a monstrous deed in ignorance of mind, in that she wedded her own son, and he, when he had slain his own father, wedded her, and straightway the gods made these things known among men. Howbeit he abode as lord of the Cadmeans in lovely Thebe, suffering woes through the baneful counsels of the gods, but she went down to the house of Hades, the strong warder. She made fast a noose on high from a lofty beam, overpowered by her sorrow, but for him she left behind woes full many, even all that the Avengers of a mother bring to pass”.

Actually the hanging of a woman was then also considered an aition, a ritual: in Delphi, as Plutarch wrote, every eight years a religious ceremony was performed to commemorate the death of a young girl Charila, who according to the legend had been sacrificed to put an end to a famine in the region; the procession carried a hanged-doll to Charila’s grave; and again Statius in his Thebaid reports of a choir of maidens that, feeling in some kind of danger, decided to escape by hanging themselves:

“cum luderent virgines meditatus ruinam omnis chorus in arborem nucis fugit et in ramo eius pependit”

Another Thessaly ritual, performed on a yearly basis, consisted in several virgins that performed the hanging of a goat. This ritual was linked to the legend of Tartar, a ruthless tyrant of Melitea (a polis of Thessaly) who repeatedly kidnapped and raped young girls from the region, until one of them Aspalis hanged herself to escape his assaults and tortures. Later on her brother, disguised as a maiden, sneaked into the tyrant’s palace and murdered him, thus avenging his sister.

Another rope: this time is the desmos – a strong fastening rope and another punishment is instead arranged for the male-traitor. Unlike the twelve servants, the disloyal goatherd will face a slow and painful death, tied up to a wooden column – the kion. This punishment, which clearly refers to the myths of Sisyphus, Prometheus, Tantalus, and known as apotympanismos, was normally administered to awful criminals being meant to leave them die gradually; and it was widely diffused even in the Pentecontaetian Athens, with the only difference in later days of exposing the sentenced unlawful villains for the public to see and be intimidated. The punishment of women, instead, was and remained along the centuries after Homer a more homely affair, strictly performed and retained within the walls of the oikos – coherently likewise everything referred to Athenian women…

Thus Ulysses, considering his mythological and traditional background, in addition to his well known skills and endowments, within his kingdom seems also a brainy judge, who – although quite briskly – following the unwritten nomoi and his own popular sense of themis – rather not unwisely – administers the justice in Ithaca and dispenses the consequent canonical punishments to the rogues.

Dignified slaves, venerable masters

Slavery in ancient Greece was a significant social and economical feature; this was – likewise anywhere else in the ancient world – undeniably a widespread custom that characterised Hellenic poleis, and further political institutions, during their entire development and history. There were a few actual forms of slavery: mainly chattel slavery, but also there were state-owned-slaves (as the Athens’ Scythians guards) as well as serfdom (the helots in Sparta or the penestaeΠενέσται of Thessaly). Any of all of these forms were generally accepted, deemed ordinary and quite indispensable to the normal course of economy, war and general living as it was deeply analysed by Aristotle in his Politics and by Plato in his Laws as well.

Ancient Greek comedy (and its largely transposed Latin versions as well) has plenty examples of various slave characters: helpful and devote, astute and pitiless and ignorant and stupid, yet always within the unquestioned social framework where they maintained their status of mere personal properties. Nevertheless, in spite of this generalised reduction to very objects – just belongings to fully dispose of – during the end of the classic age, perhaps further to the evolution of the civil thought and maybe under the wave of the spreading Sophistic phenomenon, it is possible to gather examples of a rather modern reappraisal of the slave as human being, albeit to some extent quite lamely and without any legal influence on his/her destiny.

In literature a remarkable example of the consideration that slaves were slightly gaining is for instance palpable during this moving dialogue by Euripides in his tragedy Helen:

MESSENGER: Whoever pays no reverence to his master’s affairs, rejoicing with him and grieving with his troubles, is worthless. Although I was born a servant, let me still be numbered among honest slaves; my mind is free, if not my name. For this is better than to suffer double misery as one man: to have a worthless heart and, being a slave, to owe obedience to any other.

MENELAUS: Come, old man – often by my shield you have had your full share of trouble and hard work now also have a share in my success.

Once again, the same Euripides, in another work – namely Ion – focuses on loyalty and dignity of this servant and solicits a greatly important distinction between social/legal status and actual decorum and humanity:

TUTOR: I wish to help you in this work, and kill the boy, entering the house where he is preparing the feast, and when I have paid back my living to my masters, either to die, or live and see the light.

There is one thing in slavery that brings shame, the name; in all other respects a good slave is no worse than the free-born.

It is striking remarkable though, that these promising examples from the ancient Greek literature do not come only from tragedy. Actually the most significant contributions in terms of what nowadays we would probably call defence of the human rights came from speeches written by logographers (i.e. speechwriters who used to be hired to arrange and write speeches that were meant to be delivered by another person) or rhetors with political and/or legal professional background and skills.

One interesting example is found in a scholiast to Aristotle’s Rhetoric: in the very paragraph where he is trying to define justice and law:

“Let us now classify just and unjust actions generally, starting from what follows. Justice and injustice have been defined in reference to laws and persons in two ways. Now there are two kinds of laws, particular and general. By particular laws I mean those established by each people in reference to themselves, which again are divided into written and unwritten; by general laws I mean those based upon nature. In fact, there is a general idea of just and unjust in accordance with nature, as all men in a manner divine, even if there is neither communication nor agreement between them

where is quoted a fragment of a speech – the Messeniakos – delivered by Alcidamas of Elaea (a scholar of Gorgias the sophist) a renowned orator, in favour of the insurgency of the Messenians against Sparta:

God has left all men free; nature has made none a slave”.

Another famous Athenian rethor, Antiphon, had particularly modern ideas in so far as equality and human dignity are concerned:

“By nature we all equally possess with all respect the same origin, both Greeks and Barbarians”

Nonetheless they all seem quite weak and rather isolated voices, within a strongly consolidated practice and social framework, as Xenophon in his Memorabilia reports within this insightful dialogue:

EUTHERUS “I came home when the war ended, Socrates, and am now living here,” he replied. “Since we have lost our foreign property, and my father left me nothing in Attica, I am forced to settle down here now and work for my living with my hands. I think it’s better than begging, especially as I have no security to offer for a loan.”

SOCRATES “And how long will you have the strength, do you think, to earn your living by your work?”

EUTHERUS “Oh, not long, of course.”

SOCRATES “But remember, when you get old you will have to spend money, and nobody will be willing to pay you for your labour.”


SOCRATES “Then it would be better to take up some kind of work at once that will assure you a competence when you get old, and to go to somebody who is better off and wants an assistant, and get a return for your services by acting as his bailiff, helping to get in his crops and looking after his property.”

EUTHERUS “I shouldn’t like to make myself a slave, Socrates.”

SOCRATES “But surely those who control their cities and take charge of public affairs are thought more respectable, not more slavish on that account.”

EUTHERUS “Briefly, Socrates, I have no inclination to expose myself to any man’s censure.”

SOCRATES – “But, you see, Eutherus, it is by no means easy to find a post in which one is not liable to censure. Whatever one does, it is difficult to avoid mistakes, and it is difficult to escape unfair criticism even if one makes no mistakes. I wonder if you find it easy to avoid complaints entirely even from your peasant employers. You should try, therefore, to have no truck with grumblers and to attach yourself to considerate masters; to undertake such duties as you can perform and beware of any that are too much for you, and, whatever you do, to give of your best and put your heart into the business. In this way, I think, you are most likely to escape censure, find relief from your difficulties, live in ease and security, and obtain an ample competence for old age.”

However, although the question was merely slightly raised in maybe some of the more progressist Athenian intellectual circles, apparently there is no trace of a motion submitted to the attention, discussion or vote of the ecclesia on this matter, hence there is no evidence that an actual political or institutional change took place with reference to slavery whatsoever – well small wonder considering it as such a huge industry, profitable business and strong economic infrastructural backbone.

It is albeit quite impressive that this debate developed concurrently with the descending glory of post-Pericles’ age; a circumstance perhaps more than purely coincidental with Hermann Broch’s epoch: a period (1920/1940) he considered as the sunset of spiritual certainties and the eclipse of what was deemed sacred in Mitteleuropa, entirely swept by the fury of the mass propelled by creed discrepancies and inhuman ethnic pseudo-ideologies. He portrayed, in an extremely thorny style, Virgil on his deathbed dialoguing with his Emperor Caesar Octavian Augustus, and the divine poet – the very same who wrote of Turnus begging for mercy and yet hard-heartedly slain by Aeneas – solicits two acts of kindness of the Emperor, namely to set free his slave and to prove compassion to the subjugated:

be lenient to the conquered and temper your arrogance to that end.

The Pelasgians in the ancient historians’ texts

Profuse – at least in number.. – but rather confusing references we have received from the ancient historians regarding the Pelasgians – Πελασγοί so much as they still remain quite a mysterious pre-Greek population: little is known about their real origin and end, concrete race, actual idiom and uses. As even Herodotus candidly admits:

“ἥντινα δ γλσσαν εσαν ο Πελασγο, οκ χω τρεκως επεν σαν ο Πελασγο βρβαρον γλσσαν ἱέντες”

[What language however the Pelasgians used to speak I am not able with certainty to say… the Pelasgians used to speak a Barbarian language]

They are said to be of Illyrian or Aetolian origins; or according to Ephorus – and also Hesiod – they seem to have Arcadian roots as he maintains Lycaon being the son of Pelasgus and Meliboea (or the nymph Cyllene), and the mythical first king of Arcadia:

The sons born of the divine Lycaon, whom formerly Pelasgus begot.

Homer in Iliad refers them as originally settled in Epirus: centre of the most ancient oracle and cult of Zeus and Rhea (or Gaia):

“Ζε να Δωδωναε Πελασγικ τηλθι ναων”

[Pelasgians Dodonæan Zeus supreme]

According to a more extensive interpretation they apparently also colonised the northern Adriatic sea and could be seemingly also identified with the Tyrrhenians. More audacious versions even want them to derive from northern Indian populations. However according to the various, and unfortunately only rarely coincidental, traditions they seem to have spread all over the insular and peninsular Greece, and almost certainly also on the coasts of the Hellespont – and according to Homer even in Crete, as Odysseus narrates:

λλη δ λλων γλσσα μεμιγμνη· ν μν χαιο,

ν δ τεκρητες μεγαλτορες, ν δ Κδωνες,

Δωριες τε τριχϊκες δο τε Πελασγο.

[Diverse their language is; Achaians some,
And some indigenous are; Cydonians there,
Crest-shaking Dorians, and Pelasgians dwell.]

and also, according to the Poet of Iliad, in the Ionian coast such as Cilices and Troad:

“Ἱππθοος δ γε φλα Πελασγν γχεσιμρων

τν ο Λρισαν ριβλακα ναιετασκον·”

[Hypothecs from Larissa, for her soil
Far-famed, the spear-expert Pelasgians brought.]

Herodotus reports that the Pelasgians were formerly inhabitants of Πελασγιώτιδες – Pelasgiotides, the Greek region then named Thessaly and spread over the northern Ionian coastline:

“… τοσι νν τι οσι Πελασγν τν πρ Τυρσηνν Κρηστνα πλιν οκεντων, ο μουροι κοτ σαν τοσι νν Δωριεσι καλεομνοισι (οκεον δ τηνικατα γν τν νν Θεσσαλιτιν καλεομνην), κα τν Πλακην τε κα Σκυλκην Πελασγν οκησντων ν λλησπντ, ο σνοικοι γνοντο θηναοισι, κα σα λλα Πελασγικ ἐόντα πολσματα τ ονομα μετβαλε· ε τονυν ν κα πν τοιοτο τ Πελασγικν, τ ττικν θνος ἐὸν Πελασγικν μα τ μεταβολ τ ς λληνας κα τν γλσσαν μετμαθε. κα γρ δ οτε ο Κρηστωνιται οδαμοσι τν νν σφας περιοικεντων εσ μγλωσσοι οτε ο Πλακιηνο, σφσι δ μγλωσσοι· δηλοσ τε τι τν νεκαντο γλσσης χαρακτρα μεταβανοντες ς τατα τ χωρα, τοτον χουσι ν φυλακ.”

[… judging by those that still remain of the Pelasgians who dwelt in the city of Creston above the Tyrsenians, and who were once neighbours of the race now called Dorian, dwelling then in the land which is now called Thessaliotis, and also by those that remain of the Pelasgians who settled at Plakia and Skylake in the region of the Hellespont, who before that had been settlers with the Athenians, and of the natives of the various other towns which are really Pelasgian, though they have lost the name…. If therefore all the Pelasgian race was such as these, then the Attic race, being Pelasgian, at the same time when it changed and became Hellenic, unlearnt also its language. For the people of Creston do not speak the same language with any of those who dwell about them, nor yet do the people of Plakia, but they speak the same language one as the other: and by this it is proved that they still keep unchanged the form of language which they brought with them when they migrated to these places.]

Actually the Tyrsenians Herodotus reports are more likely to be the inhabitants of Lemnos rather than the Tyrrhenian (ancient Central-Italian population) – considering that also both Plakia and Skylake were poleis of Propontides, west of Cyzicus, and that his passage is somewhat corroborated by Anticlides who reports that they early colonised Lemnos and Imbros; additional reference is found in Thucydides when he describes the populations settled in the region of Chalcidian peninsula:

“…Brasidas after the capture of Amphipolis marched with his allies against Acte, a promontory running out from the king’s dike with an inward curve, and ending in Athos, a lofty mountain looking towards the Aegean sea. In it are various towns, Sane, an Andrian colony, close to the canal, and facing the sea in the direction of Euboea; the others being Thyssus, Cleone, Acrothoi, Olophyxus, and Dium, inhabited by mixed barbarian races speaking the two languages. There is also a small Chalcidian element; but the greater number are Tyrrheno-Pelasgians once settled in Lemnos and Athens, and Bisaltians, Crestonians, and Edonians; the towns being all small ones.”

Also Euripides, whose opinion on this subject coincides with Aeschylus’, contributes to complicate the matter as in his “Archelaus“, he states:

“Danaus, who was the father of fifty daughters, having arrived in Argos inhabited the city of Inachus, and made a law that those who had before borne the name of Pelasgiotæ throughout Greece should be called Danai.”

Thus even Argolid now… the mystery gets more enticing as even Herodotus, who tries to be as precise as possible, seems to have difficulties in grasping and systematising the matter: he first makes a distinction between Greeks, Dorians and Athenians who all may have Pelasgian origins and explains that the Greeks split from the Pelasgians and afterwards he states that Pelasgians smoothly mingled in and finally the two civilisations Greek and Pelasgian actually blended:

“Then after this he [Crœsus] gave thought to inquire which people of the Hellenes he should esteem the most powerful and gain over to himself as friends. And inquiring he found that the Lacedemonians and the Athenians had the pre-eminence, the first of the Dorian and the others of the Ionian race. For these were the most eminent races in ancient time, the second being a Pelasgian and the first a Hellenic race: and the one never migrated from its place in any direction, while the other was very exceedingly given to wanderings; for in the reign of Deucalion this race dwelt in Pthiotis, and in the time of Doros the son of Hellen in the land lying below Ossa and Olympos, which is called Histiaiotis; and when it was driven from Histiaiotis by the sons of Cadmos, it dwelt in Pindos and was called Makedonian; and thence it moved afterwards to Dryopis, and from Dryopis it came finally to Peloponnesus, and began to be called Dorian.

As for the Hellenic race, it has used ever the same language, as I clearly perceive, since it first took its rise; but since the time when it parted off feeble at first from the Pelasgian race, setting forth from a small beginning it has increased to that great number of races which we see, and chiefly because many Barbarian races have been added to it besides. Moreover it is true, as I think, of the Pelasgian race also, that so far as it remained Barbarian it never made any great increase.”

Herodotus gives some hints and pieces of evidence of the presence of the Pelasgians in early Attic settlements:

“As for the Athenians, in the time when the Pelasgians occupied that which is now called Hellas, they were Pelasgians, being named Cranaoi, and in the time of king Kecrops they came to be called Kecropidai; then when Erechtheus had succeeded to his power, they had their name changed to Athenians; and after Ion the son of Xuthos became commander of the Athenians, they got the name from him of Ionians.”

Herodotus gives another confirmation of Pelasgians influences on Attic when referring to some religious rituals imported from both the Egyptians and the Pelasgians and then transmitted by the latter to the next generations of Greeks. This could be corroborated by Strabo’s theory according to which Pelasgians may have Egyptian roots. Herodotus also specifies that the Athenians were already Greeks when some Pelasgians settlers reached Attic: seemingly these new colonisers were simply joining the present integrated Greek-Pelasgian population:

“These observances then, and others besides these which I shall mention, the Hellenes have adopted from the Egyptians; but to make, as they do, the images of Hermes with the phallos they have learnt not from the Egyptians but from the Pelasgians, the custom having been received by the Athenians first of all the Hellenes and from these by the rest; for just at the time when the Athenians were beginning to rank among the Hellenes, the Pelasgians became dwellers with them in their land, and from this very cause it was that they began to be counted as Hellenes. Whosoever has been initiated in the mysteries of the Cabeiroi, which the Samothrakians perform having received them from the Pelasgians, that man knows the meaning of my speech; for these very Pelasgians who became dwellers with the Athenians used to dwell before that time in Samothrake, and from them the Samothrakians received their mysteries. So then the Athenians were the first of the Hellenes who made the images of Hermes with the phallos, having learnt from the Pelasgians; and the Pelasgians told a sacred story about it, which is set forth in the mysteries in Samothrake.

Now the Pelasgians formerly were wont to make all their sacrifices calling upon the gods in prayer, as I know from that which I heard at Dodona, but they gave no title or name to any of them, for they had not yet heard any, but they called them gods from some such notion as this, that they had set in order all things and so had the distribution of everything. Afterwards, when much time had elapsed, they learnt from Egypt the names of the gods, all except Dionysos, for his name they learnt long afterwards; and after a time the Pelasgians consulted the Oracle at Dodona about the names, for this prophetic seat is accounted to be the most ancient of the Oracles which are among the Hellenes, and at that time it was the only one. So when the Pelasgians asked the Oracle at Dodona whether they should adopt the names which had come from the Barbarians, the Oracle in reply bade them make use of the names. From this time they sacrificed using the names of the gods, and from the Pelasgians the Hellenes afterwards received them”.

Herodotus also reports the episode when the Pelasgians were chased away form Attic by the Athenians. He inserts this event when explaining the conquest of Lemnos by Miltiades – an invasion that the Athenians justified as a revenge against the Pelasgians. In truth this episode is taken from Hecataeus of Miletus’ Periegesis Ges (or Periodos Ges) and it is quite interesting to note that this passage is also a first example of historiographic disputation between the two ancient historians (well actually Hecataeus was a geographer) as whether the reported episode is ethically “just” or “unjust”:

“Now Miltiades son of Kimon had thus taken possession of the Lemnos:–After the Pelasgians had been cast out of Attica by the Athenians, whether justly or unjustly,–for about this I cannot tell except the things reported, which are these:–Hecataois on the one hand, the son of Hegesander, said in his history that it was done unjustly; for he said that when the Athenians saw the land which extends below Hymettos, which they had themselves given them to dwell in, as payment for the wall built round the Acropolis in former times, when the Athenians, I say, saw that this land was made good by cultivation, which before was bad and worthless, they were seized with jealousy and with longing to possess the land, and so drove them out, not alleging any other pretext: but according to the report of the Athenians themselves they drove them out justly; for the Pelasgians being settled under Hymettos made this a starting-point and committed wrong against them as follows: the daughters and sons of the Athenians were wont ever to go for water to the spring of Enneacrunos; for at that time neither they nor the other Hellenes as yet had household servants; and when these girls came, the Pelasgians in wantonness and contempt of the Athenians would offer them violence; and it was not enough for them even to do this, but at last they were found in the act of plotting an attack upon the city: and the narrators say that they herein proved themselves better men than the Pelasgians, inasmuch as when they might have slain the Pelasgians, who had been caught plotting against them, they did not choose to do so, but ordered them merely to depart out of the land: and thus having departed out of the land, the Pelasgians took possession of several older places and especially of Lemnos. The former story is that which was reported by Hecataios, while the latter is that which is told by the Athenians.”

In truth, once again the reports sound more like rumour-oriented and hearsay-based as:

  • the said wall was a Mycenaean construction and used to surround the Acropolis, and it was called either Pelasgic or Pelargic; the former name is clearly referred to the Pelasgians, as to the latter it seems to refer to storks (in ancient Greek Pelargikòn, which is apparently also a credited ethymological explanation of the actual word Pelasgic i.e. migratory/nomadic people) – however the tradition of the early presence of Pelasgians in Attic must have prevailed - hence Pelasgian Wall;

  • the said spring of Enneacrunos was built under the Peisistratids, therefore this reference is surely anachronistic being their tyranny dated 546–510 b.C.

Ultimately most of the said references (Homer, Hellanicus, Herodotus, Thucydides, Ephorus, Pausanias…) – rather scattered and just oblique, sound more like hints and unconfirmed reports that tend to be more slightly descriptive – quite contradictorily, though – and often just in order to provide justifications of root/myths derived from this pre-Hellenic civilisation rather than seeking for their roots and social/demographic development/collapse, whose findings and results still remain inconclusive. Ultimately it can be said that the “Pelasgians” conservatively were in general referred in classic Greece (and afterwards) to pre-Hellenic populations of dubious Greek mainland origins and who spoke several non-Greek languages, who settled down in the Greek terra firma, peninsulas, the Ionian coasts and most of the islands of the Aegean Sea. Most likely, not without resistance, they eventually blended with the Greeks transmitting to them part of their religious rituals and acquiring their language and uses.