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The Athenians

MARVILLE has given this pleasing account of the Athenians—

“The Greeks were so polished a nation, that they treated others as rude and barbarous; but, of all the Greeks, the Athenians possessed a more refined delicacy in the politer arts, and an exquisite taste for eloquence. The excellent orators who arose amongst them had familiarized them with the most perfect beauties of composition.
“Pericles, whose eloquence they compared to lightnings and thunders, had so accustomed their minds to suffer nothing but what was pure, elegant, and finished, that those who had to speak in public, looked upon the lowest of the people as so many censurers of what they were going to say. But, if the genius of this people had become so delicate by the attic eloquence of their orators, the native haughtiness of the Greeks was much increased by their servile adulation; so that it required a wonderful dexterity to stretch the empire of Persuasion over men who always would be treated like masters.
“The establishment of the singular law of Ostracism, which was occasioned by the tyranny of Pisistratus, caused a double increase of pride to this people, who were already so presumptuous. Thus runs the sentence of this famous law—‘Let no one of us excel the others; and, if there should be one found of this description, let him go and excel elsewhere.’ By this law, those whose great merit and high reputation gave umbrage to their citizens, were banished for ten years.
“It was, in its commencement, observed with so much rigour, that Aristides, who was surnamed The Just, and who had performed so many great actions for the glory of his country, was condemned to banishment: and, although this severity had greatly abated of its rigour under Alcibiades, and that it was abolished in the course of time; there remained, in the manners and minds of the Athenians a great jealousy of those who had distinguished themselves by some extraordinary merit; and a rigorous severity towards their orators, which constrained them to be very circumspect. The rules they had imposed on them went so far as to prohibit their displaying ornaments too elaborate, which might disguise their real sentiments—images and motions, capable of affecting and softening their auditors—for they regarded the first as false lights, that might mislead their reason; and the latter, as attempts to encroach on their liberty, by swaying their passions. It is to this we must attribute that coldness and austerity which pervade the discourses of these orators, and which rather proceeded from the restraint laid on them than from the qualities of their genius.
“Besides that the Athenians were haughty, jealous of their power, and austere towards their orators, they had an impatience, and a volatility of disposition, which occasioned them frequently to pass from one extreme to another, by sudden and unexpected resolutions, and often broke all the measures and schemes of those who attempted to gain them over to their sentiments.
“A hand raised, or a loud cry from some factious person, in an assembly, was often the signal for an advice that was to be disclosed, or of a counsel which was to be taken: and as it happens, that those who are the most insolent when they command, are the most supple when they obey; the Athenians, who had been so haughty during the prosperity of their republic, were the most abject slaves to the successors of Alexander; and afterwards to the Romans, when they became their masters. This feeble people had, in the bottom of their hearts, a fund of meanness and timidity, which made them constrain their orators to conform themselves to their manners and their genius. To succeed with them, it became necessary to appear to respect them, whilst they taught them to fear; to flatter and to censure them at the same time—a policy which Demosthenes, who well knew this people, with great success so skilfully applied.
“This people has, however, produced great men, and in great numbers; but they had so seldom a share in the public resolutions, that their merit, of which they have left so many illustrious testimonies, cannot, however, make a general rule to judge of the character of this people.”

To this ingenious discrimination of the character of the Athenians, I cannot forbear transcribing an animated description of their luxuries, carried to such an excess of refinement, and opulent elegance, that those who are fond of censuring our modern dissipations, may be reminded, that we have never yet approached those of the Grecians or the Romans. It is extracted from Dr. Gillies’s History of Greece.

“Instead of the bread, herbs, and simple fare, recommended by the laws of Solon, the Athenians, soon after the 80th Olympiad, availed themselves of their extensive commerce, to import the delicacies of distant countries, which were prepared by all the refinements of cookery. The wines of Cyprus were cooled with snow in summer; in winter, the most delightful flowers adorned the tables and persons of the wealthy Athenians. Nor was it sufficient to be crowned with roses, unless they were likewise anointed with the most precious perfumes. Parasites, dancers, and buffoons, were an usual appendage of every entertainment. Among the weaker sex, the passion for delicate birds, distinguished by their voice or plumage, was carried to such an excess, as merited the name of madness. The bodies of such youths as were not addicted to hunting and horses, which began to be a prevailing taste, were corrupted by a commerce of harlots, who had reduced their profession into system, while their minds were still more polluted by the licentious philosophy of the Sophists. It is unnecessary to croud the picture; vices and extravagance took root in Athens in an administration the most splendid and prosperous.”

Perhaps, this last observation is cleared up by the remarks of Marville; for it appears that, although at the helm of administration sat such illustrious characters, they had little or no share in the administration, since the haughtiness and volatility of the Athenians were such, that they would not even bear the reprimands of their Orators.

It has been observed, that even the Mechanics in Athens possessed a classic taste, and a niceness of ear, which could only be the effect of a general diffusion of national elegance. This may serve as an anecdote of their boasted Atticism.

Philip of Macedon, in the present age, would have merited the title of a Classical Scholar. I have already given the noble letter he wrote to Aristotle on the birth of his son. The present anecdote will prove, that he must have been—like the late Frederic—not less partial to the contemplative Minerva, than to the armed Pallas. To give a proof of his generosity, he made a present to the vanquished Athenians of five thousand measures of wheat; but this was not to be given by him without accompanying it by an oration. While he was holding his discourse to the people, he committed a solecism in language, which the attic ear of an Athenian immediately catching, he boldly reproved him. “For this,” the Classic Monarch continued, “I grant you five thousand more.”