Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
The Physical Configuration of Greece
By George Grote (17941871)
From History of Greece
THE CONFIGURATION of the Grecian territory, so like in many respects to that of Switzerland, produced two effects of great moment upon the character and history of the people. In the first place, it materially strengthened their powers of defence; it shut up the country against those invasions from the interior, which successively subjugated all their continental colonies, and it at the same time rendered each fraction more difficult to be attacked by the rest, so as to exercise a certain conservative influence in assuring the tenure of actual possessorsfor the pass of Thermopylæ between Thessaly and Phokis, that of Kitharon between Botia and Attica or the mountainous range of Oneion and Geraneia along the Isthmus of Corinth, were positions which an inferior number of brave men could hold against a much greater force of assailants. But, in the next place, while it tended to protect each section of Greeks from being conquered, it also kept them politically disunited and perpetuated their separate autonomy. It fostered that powerful principle of repulsion, which disposed even the smallest township to constitute itself a political unit apart from the rest, and to resist all idea of coalescence with others, either amicable or compulsory. To a modern reader, accustomed to large political aggregations, and securities for good government through the representative system, it requires a certain mental effort to transport himself back to a time when even the smallest town clung so tenaciously to its right of self-legislation. Nevertheless, such was the general habit and feeling of the ancient world, throughout Italy, Sicily, Spain, and Gaul. Among the Hellenes it stands out more conspicuously for several reasonsfirst, because they seem to have pushed the multiplication of autonomous units to an extreme point, seeing that even islands not larger than Peparethos and Amorgos had two or three separate city communities; secondly, because they produced, for the first time in the history of mankind, acute systematic thinkers on matters of government, amongst all of whom the idea of the autonomous city was accepted as the indispensable basis of political speculation; thirdly, because this incurable subdivision proved finally the cause of their ruin, in spite of pronounced intellectual superiority over their conquerors; and lastly, because incapacity of political coalescence did not preclude a powerful and extensive sympathy between the inhabitants of all the separate cities, with a constant tendency to fraternise for numerous purposes, social, religious, recreative, intellectual, and æsthetical. For these reasons, the indefinite multiplication of self-governing towns, though in truth a phenomenon common to ancient Europe as contrasted with the large monarchies of Asia, appears more marked among the ancient Greeks than elsewhere; and there cannot be any doubt that they owe it, in a considerable degree, to the multitude of insulating boundaries which the configuration of their country presented.
Nor is it rash to suppose that the same causes may have tended to promote that unborrowed intellectual development for which they stand so conspicuous. General propositions respecting the working of climate and physical agencies upon character are indeed treacherous; for our knowledge of the globe is now sufficient to teach us that heat and cold, mountain and plain, sea and land, moist and dry atmosphere, are all consistent with the greatest diversities of resident men; moreover, the contrast between the population of Greece itself, for the seven centuries preceding the Christian era, and the Greeks of more modern times, is alone enough to inculcate reserve in such speculations. Nevertheless, we may venture to note certain improving influences connected with their geographical position, at a time when they had no books to study, and no more advanced predecessors to imitate. We may remark, first, that their position made them at once mountaineers and mariners, thus supplying them with great variety of objects, sensations, and adventures; next, that each petty community nestled apart amidst its own rocks was sufficiently severed from the rest to possess an individual life and attributes of its own, yet not so far as to subtract it from the sympathies of the remainder, so that an observant Greek, commercing with a great diversity of half countrymen, whose language he understood, and whose idiosyncracies he could appreciate, had access to a larger mass of social and political experience than any other man in so unadvanced an age could personally obtain. The Phnician, superior to the Greek on ship-board, traversed wider distances and saw a greater number of strangers, but had not the same means of intimate communion with a multiplicity of fellows in blood and language. His relations, confined to purchase and sale, did not comprise that mutuality of action and reaction which pervaded the crowd at a Grecian festival. The scene which here presented itself was a mixture of uniformity and variety highly stimulating to the observant faculties of a man of genius, who, at the same time, if he sought to communicate his own impressions or to act upon this mingled and diverse audience, was forced to shake off what was peculiar to his own town or community, and to put forth matter in harmony with the feelings of all. It is thus that we may explain in part that penetrating apprehension of human life and character, and that power of touching sympathies common to all ages and nations which surprises us so much in the unlettered authors of the old epic. Such periodical intercommunion of brethren habitually isolated from each other was the only means then open of procuring for the bard a diversified range of experience and a many-coloured audience, and it was to a great degree the result of geographical causes. Perhaps among other nations such facilitating causes might have been found, yet without producing any result comparable to the Iliad and Odyssey. But Homer was nevertheless dependent upon the conditions of his age, and we can at least point out those peculiarities in early Grecian society without which Homeric excellence would never have existed,the geographical position is one, the language another.