National Geographic : 2000 Feb
G ods, gore, and heroic acts proved popu lar themes in Greek art. On afrieze at a treasury building in Delphi,a warriorscreams in the grip of a lion while Apollo andArtemis lunge at a foe-part of the myth of how Olym piangods defeated the Giantsfor supremacy. Some interpret this as a tale of Greek triumph over a barbaricworld. 525 B.C . DELPHIARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM ANCIENT GREECE II included inside wells and sanctuaries and outside theaters, and the curses ranged from love spells to spells purchased by potters, tavernkeepers, and shop owners against business rivals. "Most curses we have found are against opponents at law," said Jordan. Then, as now, the democratic principles that fostered individual expression seem also to have led to an overly litigious nature. John Gager, a scholar of ancient magic, observes that "with the possible exception of modern Amer ica, no society has been more notorious for litigation than classical Athens." A typical legal curse: "I inscribe Selinontios and the tongue of Selinontios, twisted to the point of uselessness." Many Athenian festivals offer other striking examples of traditions seem ingly at odds with the city's reputation as a center of enlightenment. In the rural past, agricultural festivals had punctuated the farmer's life, creating welcome occasions for feasting and celebration, along with religious cere monies to the gods who provided the harvest. As life became more urban, these old festivals were brought into the city and made more elaborate. Overseen by the state, they became public statements of civic pride while still preserving old ritual elements. In the Thesmophoria, a three-day festi val promoting fertility, dignified Athenian matrons erected bowers made of branches, where they sat on the ground during a day-long fast. On the third day they brought up the putrefied remains of piglets that had been sacrificed to the goddess Demeter and cast into pits months before. These were solemnly laid on altars along with grain offerings. Enlightened Athenians not only retained old traditions, but their capac ity for openness and innovation was limited. No event illustrates this more dramatically than the fate of the philosopher Socrates at his city's hands. Born in 469 B.C. into a middle-class family, Socrates had demonstrated his patriotism by serving with courage in several significant battles. Early phi losophers of the Archaic Age, such as Thales of Miletos and Herakleitos, had begun to attempt analytical explanations for such mysteries as the nature of the universe, the origin of life, and the nature of the soul, hith erto explained only by myth. Socrates initially followed these lines of philosophical-scientific inquiry but moved on to ethical questions. While Socrates himself left no written record, his younger student Plato did. The dialogues of Plato are reconstructions of Socrates' gently ironic cross-examination of friends and acquaintances on a range of subjects, from the nature of friendship to the ideal organization of a just state. "I have heard Pericles and other great orators, and I thought that they spoke well," says a character in Plato's Symposium. "But ... my soul was not stirred by them, nor was I angry at the thought of my own slavish state.... he [Socrates] makes me confess that I ought not to live as I do, neglecting the wants of my own soul." A reputation for both personal and intellectual integrity, a famous sense of humor, and the novelty of his examinations drew to Socrates a following of wellborn young men interested in public affairs, some of whom had been hostile to Athens's democracy. But the decision to bring Socrates to public trial in 399 B.c. on fuzzy charges of "corrupting the youth" and "worshiping new gods" was probably based on nothing specific. More likely, as Socrates pointed out in his trial, people were threatened by his self-appointed role as "the gadfly of Athens," constantly provoking people to examine conventional wisdom by methodical inquiry, to distinguish truth from mere belief. Found guilty by the jury, which advocated the death penalty, Socrates was invited to suggest an alternative punishment.