1995-02-08: The Portable Greek Reader

The Portable Greek Reader (1948)

by W. H. Auden, editor (1907-1973)

I found little to like, or at least to like to read, about this volume. The selection and organization seemed somehow odd. However, I enjoyed the editor’s introductory essay.

Auden draws two caricatures of the English view of Classical Greece:

To [one] Greece suggests Reason, the Golden Mean, emotional control, freedom from superstition; to [the other] it suggests Gaiety and Beauty, the life of the senses, freedom from inhibitions.

These opposite views, of course, are more about two kinds of Englishmen than about the Greeks. Their holders are at opposite poles of the Classical/Romantic axis.

Auden notes that the days when Classical studies were the core of higher education have passed. Greek (and Roman) literature are now read only in translation, except by specialists. For this reason, he says, the approach to translation can no longer be the aesthetic one. The modern reader needs a historical and anthropological approach.

Instead of asking, “How good a tragedy is Oedipus?” or “Is such and such an argument of Plato’s true or false?” he will try to see all aspects of Greek activity, their drama, their science, their philosophy, their politics as interrelated parts of one complete and unique culture.

Auden has evidently made his selection an introduction to Greek culture rather than literature. While I think this a laudable goal, I’m not sure he chose well. Perhaps the task was larger than a single volume. He goes on to describe the nature of civilization:

Civilization is a precarious balance between what Professor Whitehead has called barbaric vagueness and trivial order. Barbarism is unified but undifferentiated; triviality is differentiated but lacking in any central unity; the ideal of civilization is the integration into a complete whole and with the minimum strain of the maximum number of distinct activities.

It is impossible to say, for example, of a harvest dance of a primitive tribe whether it is aesthetic play, undertaken for the pleasure it gives the participants in performing it well, or religious ritual, an outward expression of an inward piety towards the powers who control the harvest, or a scientific technique for securing the practical effect of a better harvest: it is indeed foolish to think in such terms at all, since the dancers have not learned to make such distinctions and cannot understand what they mean.

In a society like our own, on the other hand, when a man goes to the ballet, he goes simply to enjoy himself and all he demands is that choreography and performance shall be aesthetically satisfying; when he goes to Mass, he knows that it is irrelevant whether the Mass be well or badly sung, for what matters is the attitude of his will toward God and his neighbor; when he plows a field, he knows that whether the tractor be beautiful or ugly is irrelevant to his success or failure. His problem is quite different from that of the savage; the danger for him is that, instead of being a complete person at every moment, he will be split into three unrelated fragments which are always competing for dominance: the aesthetic fragment which goes to the ballet, the religious which goes to Mass, and the practical which earns its living.

If a civilization be judged by this double standard, the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained, then it is hardly too much to say that the Athenians of the fifth century BC were the most civilized people who have so far existed.

Auden says:

At the beginning of Greek literature stands Homer. If the Iliad and the Odyssey are better than the epics of other nations, this is due not to their content but to their more sophisticated imagination – as if the original material had been worked over into its present form under much more civilized conditions than existed among, say, the Teutonic peoples until their heroic age was too far behind them to seem real. It is difficult, however, to make objective comparisons, since the Teutonic epics had little further history; Homer became, through the Romans, one of the basic inspirations of European literature, without which there would be neither an Aeneid, a Divine Comedy, a Paradise Lost, nor the comic epics of Arisot or Pope or Byron.

The next development after Homer took place largely in Ionia and for the most part in and around the courts of tyrants who were, of course, more like the Medicis than like a modern dictator.

The Ionian scientist and the Ionian lyric poets had one thing in common, a hostility to polytheistic myth. The former saw Nature in terms of law rather than arbitrary volition; the latter saw their feelings as their own, as belonging to a single personality, rather than as visitations from without.

Thales’ guess that all things are made of water was wrong; but the insight behind it, namely, that however many different realms of nature there may be they must all be related was a basic presupposition without which science as we know it would be impossible. Equally influential was the assertion of Pythagoras, as a result of his work in acoustics, that all things are number, i.e. that the “nature” of things, that by virtue of which they are what they are and behave as they do, is not a question of what they are made of but of their structure, which can be described in mathematical terms. …

Greek tragedy returned to myth, but it was no longer the Homeric mythology; the Ionian cosmologists had done their work. The gods are no longer essentially strong and accidentally righteous; their strength is now secondary, the means by which they enforce the laws which they themselves keep and represent. In consequence, the mythology is subjected to strain; for, the more monotheistic it becomes, the greater the importance of Zeus, the less individual, the more allegorical, become the other gods. Furthermore, behind Zeus himself appears the quite unmythological concept of Fate. Now either the personal Zeus and the impersonal Fate must coalesce as the Creator God of the Jews, a step which the Greek religious imagination never took, or, in the end, Zeus becomes a demiurge, an allegorical figure for the order in nature, and Fate becomes the true God, either as Fortune or as an impersonal Idea or First Cause, in which case drama ceases to be the natural vehicle for teaching about the nature of God and is replaced by the science of Theology.

It is partly for such reasons, perhaps, that the development from the piety of Aeschylus to the skepticism of Euripides is so rapid, and the period of Greek tragedy so short. …

The final period of Greek culture, the Hellenist, or Alexandrian, returns to Ionian hedonism and materialism but without its relation to political and social life. The important achievements are technological. The literature, as typified by the Greek Anthology, is highly polished, pretty, but on the whole boring, at least to the present age, because of its immense influence on minor poetry since the Renaissance. To it we owe all the worst “classical” properties, the little rogue of a Cupid, the catalogue of flowers, Celia’s bosom, etc. etc.

Christendom was a product of Jewish historical religious experience and Gentile speculation upon and organization of that experience. The Greek mind is the typically Gentile mind, and it is at odds with the Jewish consciousness. As a Greek the Christian is tempted to a seesaw between worldly frivolity and a falsely spiritual other-worldliness, both of them, au fond, pessimistic; as a Jew he is tempted to the wrong kind of seriousness, to an intolerance which persecutes dissenters as wicked rather than stupid. The Inquisition was a product of a Gentile interest in rationality and a Jewish passion for truth.

Later (section IV):

If there is any reaction to the Greeks which may be called typical of our age as compared with preceding times, it is, I think, a feeling that they were a very odd people indeed, so much so that when we come across something they wrote which seems similar to our own way of thinking, we immediately suspect that we have misunderstood the passage.

Auden provides an interesting analysis of the evolution of the concept of the hero (not only the Greek conceptions): Homeric Hero, Tragic Hero, Erotic Hero, Contemplative Hero, Comic Hero. It is very interesting, but too long to quote here.

Auden provides a chronological outline of Classical Greek civilization, reproduced below.


Births & Deaths



Sack of Knossos

1300-900 (Homeric Age)

1193-1184 Trojan War

1104? Dorian migration to Peloponnesus

100 Beginning of geometric art


Epic poetry


776 First Olympiad

750 Dipylon vases at Athens.  Hesiod

734 Foundation of Syracuse

720 Sparta conquers Messenia


665 Periander b.

700 End of geometric art

670 Archilochus fl.

669 Argives defeat Sparta at Hysiae


640 Thales b.

638 Solon b.

620? Aesop b.

611 Anaxamander b.

650 Callinus of Ephesus, Terpander of Lesbos fl.

Alcman of Sparta

630 Tyrtaeus fl.

Messenian revolt against Sparta

625 Accession of Periander at Corinth

621 Laws of Draco

Lycurgus’ Eunomia


Alcaeus Mimnermus fl.

Rise of: free statuary, Doric and Ionic temple architecture, Attic black-figured pottery, Orphism

600 Foundation of Massilia.

594 Archonate of Solon


585 Periander d.

590 Sappho Stesichorus fl.

585 Accession of Pittacus at Mitylene.

Thales makes the first prediction of a solar eclipse.


572 Anacreon b.

580 Susarion’s “Megarian farces”

575 End of Pittacus’s rule at Mitylene


570 Pythagoras b.

561 Peisastratus’s first tyranny


560 Xenophanes b.

560? Aesop d.

558 Solon d.

556 Simonides b.


547 Anaximander d.

546 Thales d.

544 Heraclitus b.

Theognis Hipponax fl.

Rise of Attic red-figured pottery.

550 Beginings of Peloponnesian League.

541 Beginning of Peisistratus’s last and longest tyranny


540 Epicharmus b.

540 Parmenides b.

524 Thespis’s dramatic performance at Athens

Ibycus fl.


530 Aristeides b.

527 Peisistratus d.

525 Aeschylus b.

522 Polycrates d.


518 Pindar b.

514 Themistocles b.

514 Harmnidius and Aristogeiton assassinate Hipparchus


510 Bacchylides b.

507 Cimon b.

510 Expulsion of Hippias. End of the Peisistratid tyranny in Athens

508 Dithyrambic contests in Athens

507 Reforms of Cleisthenes


500 Pheidias b.

500 Anazagoras b.

500 Zeno of Elea b.

499 Pericles b.

497 Pythagoras d.

496 Sophocles b.

496 Empedocles b.

Hecataeus of Miletus fl.

500 Heraclitus’s book.

499 Beginning of Persian War: Ionian revolt

493 Destruction of Persian fleet off Mount Athos


487 Anacreon d.

484 Herodotus b.

484 Euripides b.

484 Heraclitus d.

483 Gorgias b.

481 Protagoras b.

490 Battle of Marathon

485 Gelon becomes tyrant of Gela

483 Ostracism of Aristeides


480 Antiphon b.

475 Xenophanes d.

480 Thermopylae. Salamis. Sicilians defeat Carthage (Himera).

Aeschylus’s The Supplicants

479 Greeks defeat Persia at Plataea and in Asia Minor (Mycale)

477 Hegemony transferred from Sparta to Athens. Foundation of Delian League

476 First Olympian of Pindar

475 Temple of Aphaea at Aegina

472 Aeschylus’s Persae

471 Ostracism of Themistocles


470 Parmenides d.

469 Socrates b.

468 Aristeides d.

466 Simonides d.

461 Ostracism of Cimon


460 Hippocrates b.

460 Democritus b.

460 Thucydides b.

459 Lysias b.

456 Aeschylus d.

458 Aeschylus’s Oresteia

457 Completion of Temple of Zeus

Outbreak of the Boeotian War.

Archonship thrown open to Zeugitae

455 Polygnotus fl.

454 Removal of the treasury of the Delian League fromDelos to Athens

451 Payment of jurors in Athens.

Pericles’ law of citizenship


450 Aristophanes b.

450 Alcibiades b.

450 Epicharmus d.

450 Themistocles d.

449 Cimon d.

445 Pindar d.

445 Bacchylides d.

441 Antisthenes b.

Myron Sophron fl.

450 Prosecution of Anaxagoras for impiety.

449 End of Persian Wars

446 Pindar’s latest epinician Pythian VIII

445 End of Boeotian War

Leucippus (?) fl.

444 Beginning of Pericles’ government

443 Sophocles’ Antigone

441 Samos revolts against Athens


436 Isocrates b.

435 Empedocles d.

432 Dionysus I of Syracuse b.

440 Pericles’s first funeral oration

439 Crushing of Samian revolt

438 Dedication of Pheidias’s Athena

Euripides’ Alcestis

432 Completion of the Parthenon

431 Euripides’ Medea

Outbreak of Peloponnesian War

Pericles’ second funeral oration


430 Xenophon b.

430 Plague at Athens

430-424 Euripides’ Andromache and Hecuba

429 Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus

428 Euripides’ Hippolytus.

Property tax imposed at Athens

427 Embassy of Gorgias of Leontini to Athens

427-426 Great Plague at Athens

425 Aristophanes’ Acharnians

Athenian jurymen’s pay raised to 3 obols by Cleon

424 The Spartan Brasidas captures Amphipolis

Thucydides exiled

Aristophanes’ Knights

423 Aristophanes’ Clouds

421 Peace of Nicias

Aristophanes’ Peace


420 Isaeus b.

418 Epaminondas b.

411 Protagoras d.

420 Polycleitus’s Hera at Argos

415 Euripides’ Troades

Mutilation of the Hermae

Flight of Alcibiades

Law against using real people’s names in comedy

414 Aristophanes’ Birds

413 Euripides’ Electra

Renewal of war between Sparta and Athens

Failure of Athens’ expedition against Syracuse

411 Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

411-410 The Four Hundred


409 Antiphon d.

408 Eudoxus of Cnidus b.

406 Euripides d.

405 Sophocles d.

404 Alcibiades d.

409 Sophocles’ Philoctetes

409-406 Completion of the Erechtheum

405 Zeuxis fl.

Rise of Dionysus I of Syracuse

Aristophanes’ Frogs

404 End of Peloponnesian War (Aegispotami)

The Thirty Tyrants

403 Lysias’s Against Eratosthenes

401 Production of Sophocles’ Oedipus Coloneus


400 Thucydides d.

399 Socrates d.

400 The Sacred Disease

399 Execution of Socrates

Andocides’ De Mysteriis

395 Corinthinian War breaks out between Sparta and an Athenian-Corinthinian coalition

392 Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae

Gorgias’ Olympiacus


390 Hypereides b.

385 Aristophanes d.

384 Aristotle b.

384 Demosthenes b.

382 Philip of Macedon b.

388 Aristophanes’ Plutus

Lysias’ Olympiacus

386 The Kings Peace: indecisive end of the Corinthian War

385? Symposia


380 Lysias d.

376 Antisthenes d.

375 Georgias d.

372 Theophrastus b.

380 Isocrates’ Panegyricus

375 Xenophon’s Anabasis

371 Theban defeat of Sparta (Leuctra)


370 Democritus d.

367 Dionysus I of Syracuse d.

362 Epaminondas d.

368 Plato’s Theaetetus

366-365 Plato’s visit to Syracuse

362 Theban defeat of Sparta (Mantineia)


356 Alexander the Great b.

355 Hippocrates d.

355 Eudoxus of Cnidas d.

359 Accession of Philip of Macedon

355 Outbreak of the Sacred War between Philip and a Greek coalition.

Xenophon’s last extant work

354 Isocrates Areapagiticus

353 Beginning of work on the Mausoleum

351 Demosthenes’ First Philippic


350 Isaeus d.

347 Plato d.

342 Menander b.

341 Epicurus b.

349 Demosthenes’ Olynthiacs

346 End of the Sacred War.

Isocrates’ Philippus

Philip presides at the Pythian games

344 Demosthenes’ Second Philippic

Aristotle Alexander’s tutor

343 Demosthenes vs. Aeschines’ On the Empbassy

341 Demosthenes’ On the Chersonese and Third Philippic


338 Isocrates d.

336 Philip of Macedon d.

340 Demosthenes’ Fourth Philippic

Athens declares war on Macedon

339 Isocrates’ Panthenaicus

338 Macedonian defeat of Thebes (Chaeronea)

335 Destruction of Thebes

Aristotle settles at Athens

334 Beginning of Alexander’s invasion of Persia

331 Foundation of Alexandria


323 Alexander the Great d.

322 Aristotle d.

322 Demosthenes d.

322 Hypereides d.

330 Lycurgus’s Against Leocrates

Aeschines’ Against Ctesiphon

Demosthenes’ On the Crown

Apelles Lysippis fl.

326 Alexander crosses the Indus

324 Exile of Demosthenes


312 Theocritus b.

314 Zeno the Stoic comes to Athens


310 Callimachus b.

310 Murder of Alexander IV of Macedon. Rise of the Sucessor States: the Seleucids in Asia, the Antigonids in Greece, the Ptolemies in Egypt

306 Epicurus opens a school in Athens


300 Euclid Euhemerus fl.

Foundation of Antioch


290 Menander d.

287 Archimedes b.

287 Theophrastus d.

290 Probable foundation of the Library and Museum at Alxandria

285 Herophilus Erasistratus anatomists fl.


276 Eratosthenes b.

280 Final reorganization of the Achaean League

Aristarchus of Samos fl.

275 Final defeat of Pyrrhus in Italy


270 Epicurus d.

262 Apollonius of Perga b.

270 Herodas’ Mimiambi


260 Theocritus d.


240 Callimachus d.

250 Hegesias of Magnesis fl.


212 Archimedes d.

201 Polybius b.


200 Apollonius of Perga d.

194 Eratosthenes d.

200 Apollonius Rhodius fl.


120 Polybius d.

150 Bion fl.

146 Rome defeats and dissolves the Achaean League

136 Hipparchus fl.


Milesian Tales of Aristeides

Moschus fl.

60 Meleagers Anthologia

End of Roman Republic and establishment of the Principate by Augustus

1-100 AD

46 Plutarch b.

60 Epictetus b.

?4BC-29AD Birth, life and death of Jesus Christ

40 On the Sublime (Longinus)

49? St. Paul preaches in Athens


120 Plutarch d.

121 Marcus Aurelius b.

125 Lucian b.

130 Galen b.

180 Marcus Aurelius d.

190 Lucian d.

135 Ptolemy fl.

165 Pausanias fl.

178 Celsus’s The True Word


200 Galen d.

204 Plotinus b.

233 Porphyry b.

270 Plotinus d.


304 Porphyry d.

331 Julian b.

363 Julian d.

300 Daphnis and Chloe (Longus)

305 Dissolution of the Sacred College

312 Constantine becomes Emperor

313 Edict of Milan

361-363 Attempt by Julian to replace Christianity by Philosophy

529 Justinian closes the schools at Athens

It would be interesting to know what personal biases went into the selection of names and events.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email