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- Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book I. - 3/29 -


and long the master-race of the fairest lands of Italy,--they have passed away amid the revolutions of the elder earth, their ancestry and their descendants alike unknown;--yet not indeed the last, if my conclusions are rightly drawn: if the primitive population of Greece-- themselves Greek--founding the language, and kindred with the blood, of the later and more illustrious Hellenes--they still made the great bulk of the people in the various states, and through their most dazzling age: Enslaved in Laconia--but free in Athens--it was their posterity that fought the Mede at Marathon and Plataea,--whom Miltiades led,--for whom Solon legislated,--for whom Plato thought,-- whom Demosthenes harangued. Not less in Italy than in Greece the parents of an imperishable tongue, and, in part, the progenitors of a glorious race, we may still find the dim track of their existence wherever the classic civilization flourished,--the classic genius breathed. If in the Latin, if in the Grecian tongue, are yet the indelible traces of the language of the Pelasgi, the literature of the ancient, almost of the modern world, is their true descendant!

V. Despite a vague belief (referred to by Plato) of a remote and perished era of civilization, the most popular tradition asserts the Pelasgic inhabitants of Attica to have been sunk into the deepest ignorance of the elements of social life, when, either from Sais, an Egyptian city, as is commonly supposed, or from Sais a province in Upper Egypt, an Egyptian characterized to posterity by the name of Cecrops is said to have passed into Attica with a band of adventurous emigrants.

The tradition of this Egyptian immigration into Attica was long implicitly received. Recently the bold skepticism of German scholars --always erudite--if sometimes rash--has sufficed to convince us of the danger we incur in drawing historical conclusions from times to which no historical researches can ascend. The proofs upon which rest the reputed arrival of Egyptian colonizers, under Cecrops, in Attica, have been shown to be slender--the authorities for the assertion to be comparatively modern--the arguments against the probability of such an immigration in such an age, to be at least plausible and important. Not satisfied, however, with reducing to the uncertainty of conjecture what incautiously had been acknowledged as fact, the assailants of the Egyptian origin of Cecrops presume too much upon their victory, when they demand us to accept as a counter fact, what can be, after all, but a counter conjecture. To me, impartially weighing the arguments and assertions on either side, the popular tradition of Cecrops and his colony appears one that can neither be tacitly accepted as history, nor contemptuously dismissed as invention. It would be, however, a frivolous dispute, whether Cecrops were Egyptian or Attican, since no erudition can ascertain that Cecrops ever existed, were it not connected with a controversy of some philosophical importance, viz., whether the early civilizers of Greece were foreigners or Greeks, and whether the Egyptians more especially assisted to instruct the ancestors of a race that have become the teachers and models of the world, in the elements of religion, of polity, and the arts.

Without entering into vain and futile reasonings, derived from the scattered passages of some early writers, from the ambiguous silence of others--and, above all, from the dreams of etymological analogy or mythological fable, I believe the earliest civilizers of Greece to have been foreign settlers; deducing my belief from the observations of common sense rather than from obscure and unsatisfactory research. I believe it,

First--Because, what is more probable than that at very early periods the more advanced nations of the East obtained communication with the Grecian continent and isles? What more probable than that the maritime and roving Phoenicians entered the seas of Greece, and were tempted by the plains, which promised abundance, and the mountains, which afforded a fastness? Possessed of a superior civilization to the hordes they found, they would meet rather with veneration than resistance, and thus a settlement would be obtained by an inconsiderable number, more in right of intelligence than of conquest.

But, though this may be conceded with respect to the Phoenicians, it is asserted that the Egyptians at least were not a maritime or colonizing people: and we are gravely assured, that in those distant times no Egyptian vessel had entered the Grecian seas. But of the remotest ages of Egyptian civilization we know but little. On their earliest monuments (now their books!) we find depicted naval as well as military battles, in which the vessels are evidently those employed at sea. According to their own traditions, they colonized in a remote age. They themselves laid claim to Danaus: and the mythus of the expedition of Osiris is not improbably construed into a figurative representation of the spread of Egyptian civilization by the means of colonies. Besides, Egypt was subjected to more than one revolution, by which a large portion of her population was expelled the land, and scattered over the neighbouring regions [13]. And even granting that Egyptians fitted out no maritime expedition--they could easily have transplanted themselves in Phoenician vessels, or Grecian rafts--from Asia into Greece. Nor can we forget that Egypt [14] for a time was the habitation, and Thebes the dominion, of the Phoenicians, and that hence, perhaps, the origin of the dispute whether certain of the first foreign civilizers of Greece were Phoenicians or Egyptians: The settlers might come from Egypt, and be by extraction Phoenicians: or Egyptian emigrators might well have accompanied the Phoenician. [15]

2dly. By the evidence of all history, savage tribes appear to owe their first enlightenment to foreigners: to be civilized, they conquer or are conquered--visit or are visited. For a fact which contains so striking a mystery, I do not attempt to account. I find in the history of every other part of the world, that it is by the colonizer or the conqueror that a tribe neither colonizing nor conquering is redeemed from a savage state, and I do not reject so probable an hypothesis for Greece.

3dly. I look to the various arguments of a local or special nature, by which these general probabilities may be supported, and I find them unusually strong: I cast my eyes on the map of Greece, and I see that it is almost invariably on the eastern side that these eastern colonies are said to have been founded: I turn to chronology, and I find the revolutions in the East coincide in point of accredited date with the traditional immigrations into Greece: I look to the history of the Greeks, and I find the Greeks themselves (a people above all others vain of aboriginal descent, and contemptuous of foreign races) agreed in according a general belief to the accounts of their obligations to foreign settlers; and therefore (without additional but doubtful arguments from any imaginary traces of Eastern, Egyptian, Phoenician rites and fables in the religion or the legends of Greece in her remoter age) I see sufficient ground for inclining to the less modern, but mere popular belief, which ascribes a foreign extraction to the early civilizers of Greece: nor am I convinced by the reasonings of those who exclude the Egyptians from the list of these primitive benefactors.

It being conceded that no hypothesis is more probable than that the earliest civilizers of Greece were foreign, and might be Egyptian, I do not recognise sufficient authority for rejecting the Attic traditions claiming Egyptian civilizers for the Attic soil, in arguments, whether grounded upon the fact that such traditions, unreferred to by the more ancient, were collected by the more modern, of Grecian writers--or upon plausible surmises as to the habits of the Egyptians in that early age. Whether Cecrops were the first--whether he were even one--of these civilizers, is a dispute unworthy of philosophical inquirers [16]. But as to the time of Cecrops are referred, both by those who contend for his Egyptian, and those who assert his Attic origin, certain advances from barbarism, and certain innovations in custom, which would have been natural to a foreigner, and almost miraculous in a native, I doubt whether it would not be our wiser and more cautious policy to leave undisturbed a long accredited conjecture, rather than to subscribe to arguments which, however startling and ingenious, not only substitute no unanswerable hypothesis, but conduce to no important result. [17]

VI. If Cecrops were really the leader of an Egyptian colony, it is more than probable that he obtained the possession of Attica by other means than those of force. To savage and barbarous tribes, the first appearance of men, whose mechanical inventions, whose superior knowledge of the arts of life--nay, whose exterior advantages of garb and mien [18] indicate intellectual eminence, till then neither known nor imagined, presents a something preternatural and divine. The imagination of the wild inhabitants is seduced, their superstitions aroused, and they yield to a teacher--not succumb to an invader. It was probably thus, then, that Cecrops with his colonists would have occupied the Attic plain--conciliated rather than subdued the inhabitants, and united in himself the twofold authority exercised by primeval chiefs--the dignity of the legislator, and the sanctity of the priest. It is evident that none of the foreign settlers brought with them a numerous band. The traditions speak of them with gratitude as civilizers, not with hatred as conquerors. And they did not leave any traces in the establishment of their language:--a proof of the paucity of their numbers, and the gentle nature of their influence--the Phoenician Cadmus, the Egyptian Cecrops, the Phrygian Pelops, introduced no separate and alien tongue. Assisting to civilize the Greeks, they then became Greeks; their posterity merged and lost amid the native population.

VII. Perhaps, in all countries, the first step to social improvement is in the institution of marriage, and the second is the formation of cities. As Menes in Egypt, as Fohi in China, so Cecrops at Athens is said first to have reduced into sacred limits the irregular intercourse of the sexes [19], and reclaimed his barbarous subjects from a wandering and unprovidential life, subsisting on the spontaneous produce of no abundant soil. High above the plain, and fronting the sea, which, about three miles distant on that side, sweeps into a bay peculiarly adapted for the maritime enterprises of an earlier age, we still behold a cragged and nearly perpendicular rock. In length its superficies is about eight hundred, in breadth about four hundred, feet [20]. Below, on either side, flow the immortal streams of the Ilissus and Cephisus. From its summit you may survey, here, the mountains of Hymettus, Pentelicus, and, far away, "the silver-bearing Laurium;" below, the wide plain of Attica, broken by rocky hills--there, the islands of Salamis and Aegina, with the opposite shores of Argolis, rising above the waters of the Saronic Bay. On this rock the supposed Egyptian is said to have built a fortress, and founded a city [21]; the fortress was in later times styled the Acropolis, and the place itself, when the buildings of Athens spread far and wide beneath its base, was still designated polis, or the CITY. By degrees we are told that he extended, from this impregnable castle and its adjacent plain, the limit of his realm, until it included the whole of Attica, and perhaps Boeotia [22]. It is also related that he established eleven other towns or hamlets, and divided his people into twelve tribes, to each of which one of the towns was apportioned--a fortress against foreign invasion, and a court of justice in civil disputes.

If we may trust to the glimmering light which, resting for a moment, uncertain and confused, upon the reign of Cecrops, is swallowed up in all the darkness of fable during those of his reputed successors,--it is to this apocryphal personage that we must refer the elements both of agriculture and law. He is said to have instructed the Athenians to till the land, and to watch the produce of the seasons; to have imported from Egypt the olive-tree, for which the Attic soil was


Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book I. - 3/29

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