About Classical Mythology

When I started Timeless Myths on April, 1999, the first thing I worked on was the Greek mythology, beginning with the Olympians, Trojan War, Perseus and part the life of Heracles (Hercules). Since then, this section had grown considerably over the years.

In September of 2000, I had added references to the Roman deities and some Roman legends about Aeneas (The Aeneid) and the Roman kings (in the Tales of Rome). It wasn’t until the February of 2001 that I had changed this section from “Greek Mythology” to “Classical Mythology”, mainly because a number of my sources come from Roman authors. And since some of the myths told by the Romans were the same as those told by the Greeks, it was necessary to make this change. The mixture of Greek and Roman sources justify the need to change the name to “Classical Mythology”.

However, this very page, titled About Classical Myths, had not been updated since I first wrote this page. So I thought it was time to modify this page.

Please note that when I started on Timeless Myths, I had relied on reading translation of ancient sources (for the Classical Mythology). There are a number of medieval or Renaissance authors as well, who wrote on classical subjects. Please forgive me if I had ignored these medieval authors for the classical myths. (Note also that I did use medieval writers for my Norse, Celtic and Arthurian pages.)


Of all the myths in the world, none had enjoyed status and heights that Greek mythology had reached. Other cultures were greatly influences by the enormous numbers of tales found in Greek myths.

Throughout history, authors having been going back to Greek myths, time after time. Many Roman writers had gone back to Greek sources and written down their own versions of the myths, as well inventing their own myths. Without the Romans, however, some of the more obscure Greek myths would have remained lost.

The great masterpieces, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were the earliest poems we have from ancient Greece. It was said to be written by Homer in the 8th century BC. Both Greek and Roman authors had used these two works as the inspiration of writing fine literature. Such were the quality of these two that we still continue to enjoy them today.

Roman mythology enjoyed popularity during the early period of the Roman Empire (1st century BC – 2nd century AD). Some of them were based on their obscure historical figures, such as the Romulus, their first king. Much of the early Roman history during the time of kingship in Rome (c. 753-510 BC), before the Roman Republic, were legendary than historically accurate. Not only that, Roman history of this period wasn’t written until 2nd and 1st centuries BC. So much of Roman earliest history was invention or at least legend, and Roman propaganda. The Roman poet, Vergil, had written the best Latin masterpiece, titled the Aeneid, which is based on the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who after the Fall of Troy, tried to settle with the survivors in Latium, Italy.

Similarly, in medieval Europe, authors had tried to write their own version of the “Fall of Troy”, or some other stories of Greek heroes and heroines. But these classical stories that were written by the medieval authors, did not achieve the same status as those of the Greeks and Romans. This is probably due to the fact that they tried to place Christian ideas and values into the pagan myths.

Classical mythology still continued to fascinate people today.


Below, you will find some background about the Greek and Roman societies at the time when the mythology was written. If you are interested in a short history of Greece and Rome, then you can read on. (eg. Who were the Greeks? and Who were the Romans?)

If not, then you may want to read the role of mythology in Greek and Roman religions.


Who were the Greeks?
Who were the Romans?
Roles of mythology in religions
Writings of Classical Mythology




Who were the Greeks?

The Greeks were people who migrated to Greece at two different stages. During the Bronze Age civilisations (c. 2000-1050 BC, and later by Hellenic Greeks from the Dorian Invasion at the beginning of the Iron Age.

The Bronze Age Greeks, which I called pre-Hellenic Greeks, occupied Greece around the beginning of Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000 BC), displacing the originally inhabitants, who spoke a non-Greek language. Greek writers had called these people Pelasgi (Pelasgians). What languages that were spoken before the first Greek had settled in this land are unknown. The names of some cities had survived the Greek occupation, such as Tiryns and Corinth on the mainland, and Cnossus on the island of Crete.

The Dorian Invasion (c. 1200-1050 BC) had brought the Hellenic people that spoke three different Greek dialects, Aeolian, Dorian and Ionian. These Hellenic Greeks were the true ancestors of the people living in modern Greece today. The proper name for the Greek people is Hellenes.

In Greek mythology, the Hellenes were descendants of Hellen, the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha, survivors of the Deluge. The Aeolians, Dorians and Ionians were descendants of Hellen’s sons, Aeolus and Dorus, and Hellen’s grandson Ion.

In the Iliad, Homer often called the Greek forces at Troy as Argives, Danaäns and Achaeans. Though the Achaeans geographically referred either to Achaea, the northern region of Peloponneses, or to Achaea southern region of Thessaly, which is sometimes called Phthiotis. Both Argives and Danaäns more precisely referred to the people of Argolid or the city Argos.

So at least in mythology, the Hellenes were already living in Greece during the Bronze Age, which is of course not possible. This is only justification or propaganda of the Hellenes having always lived in Greece.

Before I began talk more about the Hellenic people, I would like to turn your attention to pre-Hellenic civilisation.


Pre-Hellenic Greeks

Inhabitants were known to have live in Greece since the Neolithic period (sometimes as Late Stone Age, between 7000 and 3000 BC). I won’t go through too much detail about this period, except to say that these primitive people had brought farming settlements, through agriculture and domestication of animals to Greece. They also created pottery, so with mass production of food, they can support larger group of people in one settlement. These Neolithic people were different from the Palaeolithic people living during the Ice Age (before 10,000 years BC), who were basically hunters and gatherers, living a life like the nomadic people. Agriculture was more important method of food production when the ice melted and the temperature was more mild. The Neolithic period arrived later in Greece than in the East, perhaps about 7000 BC. The earliest settlements were found in Franchthi Cave in Argolid and at Nea Nikomedia in Macedonia, where the pottery were dated from around 6500 BC. Settlement was the size of a small village. Houses were built; they were simple in design. The Neolithic stone tools were more refined and some tools were suitable for use in farming.

After Neolithic period, the people lifestyle had changed dramatically when they could make tools out of copper and bronze. Metallurgy was introduced from the East. Civilisations were created in Greece with the arrival of the Bronze Age, around 2880 BC to 1050 BC.

Bronze Age in the Aegean can be divided into three as Early, Middle and Late. In Crete and some Aegean islands (the Cyclades), the Bronze divisions were more or less contemporary to Egypt and the Middle East. For the Aegean, each period can be further divided into phases. Archaeologists had used pottery for these further classifications of the phases, by designating a number, eg. Middle Minoan III (1700-1550 BC), Late Minoan IA (1550-1500 BC) or Late Helladic IIIB (1300-1200 BC). They distinguished each phase by the style, shape and decoration of the pottery, as well as by carbon dating.

Below, is a table of Bronze Age in the Aegean. Please note that I have left out the subdivisions.

Years Crete Cyclades Greece Periods
3000-2200 BC Early Minoan Early Cycladic Early Helladic
Early Minyan (2200-2000 BC)
Early Bronze Age
2200-1550 BC Middle Minoan
Early Palace (2200-1700 BC)
Middle Cycladic
Volcanic eruption of Thera (c. 1700 BC)
Middle Helladic
Middle Minyan (2000-1600 BC)
Middle Bronze Age
1500-1050 BC Late Minoan
Late Palace (1700-1450 BC)
Mycenaeans in Crete (c. 1450 BC)
Late Cycladic Late Helladic
Grave Shaft period (1600-1450 BC)
Mycenaean period (1550-1050 BC)
Fall of Troy (1184 BC)
Late Bronze Age
1200-900 BC Dark Ages
1000-30 BC Iron Age

The early Bronze Age civilisation (3000-2000 BC) in Greece and Crete were most likely to be inhabited by non-Greeks thay may have spoken Anatolian languages. Crete was centre of Bronze Age civilisation, with prosperous trades and building complex palaces, particularly in Cnossus and Phaestus. These palaces began building around 2000 BC, and were destroyed several times by fire, earthquake or by raiders. Crete had influences on the mainland and the Cycladic islands (Cyclades). Because of the elaborate palaces, archaeologists and historians had called the flourishing period of Crete as the “Minoan civilisation”, after the mythical Cretan king – Minos.

The Cyclades were probably originally inhabited by the Carians (who spoke the Anatolian language), but were driven out by the Minoans from Crete. The Carians fled to south-west Asia Minor. The Cyclade islands were enjoying trades with Crete, creating their own styles of bronze tools and pottery.

Mainland Greece (sometimes known as Helladic periods) were less developed than those found in Crete during the Early Bronze Age. Their knowledge of metallurgy had come from Crete.

It is in Bronze Age Greece that the people were called pre-Hellenic Greeks, who probably arrived in the early 2nd millennium BC. Before their arrival, Greece was occupied by non-Greeks. Who they were, we are not certain. What we do know is that some of the cities had survived after the arrival of the pre-Helladic Greeks; mainly because of the names of the cities, such as Corinth and Tiryns.

However, there was already a Greek civilisations established in Greece and on the Greek islands, long before the arrivals of the Hellenic people. Evidences of pre-Hellenic people had being founded in sites on the mainland, such as Orchomenus and Thebes in Boeotia, Athens in Attica, Corinth on the isthmus, Lerna, Argos, Tiryns and Mycenae in Argolis, Pylos in Messenia.

Writing did existed in Bronze Age civilisations of Mycenae and Crete, known as Linear B, usually written on clay tablets. An earlier writing system had existed in Crete, called Linear A, but the language of the Linear A is uncertain. Most of the clay tablets were found in Crete and in Pylos. However, these writing contained accounting of inventories in the palace, not historical records or literature. See Greek World about the Linear B.

The people, who wrote about heroes such as Heracles, Achilles and Odysseus, or rulers such as Atreus and Oedipus, were supposed to have live in the time of the Bronze Age.


Dorian Invasion

As I said before the Dorian Invasion brought three groups of people to Greece at the end of the Bronze Age, which had destroyed Mycenaean civilisation. All three groups had settled in different part of Greece, as well as settling on the Aegean islands, before migrating further, east and west of the Mediterranean.

The main concentration of the Dorians were in the regions of Isthmus of Corinth, Argolis, Laconia, Messenia, south-west of Epeirus, and on islands such as Crete, and the southern Sporades, including Cos and Rhodes. On Asia Minor, they occupied only in a small area in the south-western coast, surrounded by the Lycians. Syracuse (founded in 734 BC) was the main Dorian city in the west; this city was located on the eastern coast of Sicily.

On the mainland, the Aeolians had mixed with people who spoke North-West Greek dialect in Boeotia and Thessaly. The main concentration of people who spoke purely Aeolian dialect were on the island of Lesbos, and the north west coast of Asia Minor, including Troy, surrounded by the Phrygians and Mysians.

The Ionians were main concentrated in Attica on the mainland, as well as the Thracian peninsula of Chalcide and the Thracian coastline. They occupied the island of Euboea, much of the Cyclades and on the Sporades (from Chios to Leros).

According to Greek mythology, a Thessalian ruler, named Hellen, was eponym of the Hellenes or Hellenic Greeks. The three tribes of the Hellenic people (Aeolians, Dorians and Ionians) were descendants of Hellen. Hellen’s sons, Aeolus and Dorus, were eponyms for the Aeolians and Dorians. While Ion was the son of Apollo and an Athenian princess, Creusa, who was married to Xuthus. Xuthus was another son of Hellen. Ion was eponym of the Ionians. In Greek myths, the Dorians invasion of Greece had also coincided with the return of the Heraclids. Heraclids were descendants of the hero Heracles. The Heraclids settled in Argolis, Elis, Laconia and Messenia.

I had mentioned that Dorian Invasion had brought three different people and their languages (or dialects). However, there are two other different dialects.

First, there is the Arcado-Cypriot dialect, spoken in the mountainous region of Peloponnese, called Arcadia, and on the island of Cyprus. The Hellenic Greeks, such as the Dorians and Aeolians, had never invaded Arcadia, so they managed to preserve the tongue spoken by the Mycenaean dialect, though they didn’t preserved the writing. However they failed to preserve the Mycenaean scripts, called Linear B. Linear B or Mycenaean scripts had fell out of use in the 12th century BC, when the palaces of the Mycenaean centres were destroyed. So the Mycenaean legacy was only partly saved.

The North-West dialect that I had already mentioned concerning the Thessaly and Boeotia, where it was mixed with the Aeolian dialect. The North-West Greek can also be found in Achaea and Elis in the Peloponnese, Aetolia, Phocis and Locris. They also occupied a few of the Ionian Islands, such as Cephallenia, Ithaca and Zacynthos.

Since the Hellenic Greeks had settled in many different regions, both within and without Greece, a new and different dialects developed so they are changed from their root dialect. Such as the Athenian or Attic dialect was derived from the Ionian dialect.

The history of Greece during ancient time only existed between the migration period of the Hellenic people and before the fall of Rome. No written literature or history existed before the time until the Greek alphabets were invented shortly after the settlement in Greece was completed.

So between the time of the destruction of Mycenaean centres and the invention of the Greek alphabets, the new of Greece were actually illiterate. This is one of the reasons why this chaotic period was called the Dark Ages.

It was shortly after the invention of the Greek alphabets that the poet Homer composed the epic poem Iliad in the 8th century BC. It was the oldest literature in Greece that had survived, but it had inspired other poets to developed other forms of writing and subjects. Homer had also written the Odyssey, centering on the hero, Odysseus, after the Trojan War. Writing helped preserve the oral traditions, but it also sparked different field of study, such as history, philosophy and science.

Hesiod wrote the Works and Days, as well as Theogony, were concern about the creation of gods and mankind.

See Greek World about the Greek Alphabets.

It was some time near the end of the Dark Ages in Greece that the Hellenic Greek began a new expansion, mainly east and west (10th-7th century BC). In the East, they colonising much of the western coast of Asia Minor by 950 BC. I have already mentioned them colonising the islands and Asia Minor. They had even ventured into Black Sea. In the south, they founded the city of Cyrene in Libya.

In the west, they colonised the eastern half of Sicily, and from southern Italy to all the way to Cyme (Cumae) in Campania. They had also founded the city of Massalia (Marseilles) in southern Gaul (France), c. 600. They had colonised Sardinia, but lost the island to the Carthaginians. They had even reached Spain, where the king of Tartessus had let the Greeks to settled in their city, mixing with the locals.


Sparta and Athens

After the Dark Ages, the period between Mycenaean period and the Classical period was called Archaic period. The Archaic period (9th-6th century BC) was time when Greece was undergoing formative stages of experimenting in writing, philosophy, science, art, economy, politics and military.

Traditionally, the Olympic Games were said to have started in 776 BC.

The Archaic period saw many city-states (polis) developing new forms of government that were different form the monarchy. There were aristocracy, tyranny and oligarchy.

Two city-states rose into power from the Archaic period, Sparta and Athens. Sparta was nothing more than warlike people who fought and subdue their neighbours, first in Messenia, then in Arcadia and Argos, gaining hegemony in the Peloponnese. Sparta was governed by the oligarchic systems, with two kings sharing power, five ephors or magistrates that wielded great powers and influences upon the kings, and the gerousia, which is assembly of elders.

In the late 6th century BC, a new government arose, when the citizens of Athens overthrew the tyrant Hippias. A man named Cleisthenines had created democracy, where each citizen, excluding women, non-citizens and slaves, could annually vote ten magistrates or generals, known as the strategos. Any Athenian citizen could reach hold this office, such as the historian Thucydides and the playwright Sophocles.

However, Athens interferences in the Persian control of Asia Minor, resulted in a war between the mighty Persian Empire, ruled by Darius I, and that of the small city-state Athens. Remarkably the Athenians won a decisive battle at Marathon, in 490 BC. Ten years later, Xerxes, Darius’ son, sought to avenge their defeat by marshalling the largest army of that time. In 480 BC Spartan king (Leonidas) with a small mercenary forces, held the Persian army at bay, in the narrow pass of Thermopylae, in Thessaly, for three days, before they were crushed. This gave the Athenians enough time to evacuate their city and flee to the island of Salamis and the Peloponnese. Persians forced the Thessalians and Boeotians (including Thebes) to serve in their army. Athens was easily captured, but most of the Athenians had already fled to the island of Salamis. Athens under the leadership of Themistocles.

It was the Athenian general Themistocles who forced Sparta and her allies to face the Persian mighty fleet in Salamis. A great naval battle was fought in the Saronic Gulf, where the Greeks had successfully rammed and sank the confused Persian fleet. Xerxes left Greece with the remaining fleet, while his general seek to defeated the Greek army on land, which was commanded by the Sparta general Pausanias. In 479 BC, the Persians were defeated at Plataea, and Xerxes’ finest general, Mardonius, was killed in the fighting.

Much of the victory in Plataea lay with the courage, discipline and athleticism of the Greek men, as well as their heavy armoured hoplites and their phalanx tactics.

The Athenians returned to their city and began rebuilding. They developed a strong navy, and developed the Delian League, where most of the Aegean islands had either provided war galleys or tributes. At first it was Athens’ strategy to attack the Persian Empire, but their strategy changed. The treasury of Delian League was held on the island of Delos, but when Pericles, the great Athenian statesman and general, came to power, it was moved to Athens. Athens became the greatest naval power in Greece, had decided to abolish the Delian League and created an Athenian Empire.

Wealth from trades allowed Athens to flourish in the mid-5th century BC. Arts and architecture reached new heights, when Pericles had the great Parthenon built on the Acropolis, in honour of their great patron goddess, Athena. This perfect temple symbolised the greatness of Athens. Athens was not only a place of wealth and power, it was also a centre of learning. Other fields had reached new heights, such as medicine, science, philosophy and literature. There were many geniuses in Athens that was not to be seen again until the Italian Renaissance. Phidias in arts, Ictinus and Callicrates in architecture. Sophocles and Euripides were great tragedians, while Aristophanes wrote his comedy, ridiculing the Athenian politicians and the heroes of the past. In philosophy, Socrates taught people through asking questions that made people think.

However war broke between Sparta and Athens, which modern scholars labelled it as the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), because Athens in arrogance at the height of its power, thought that they can attack the sphere of interests of Corinth and Thebes, Sparta’s allies. The fortunes of war were mixed. Though, Athens won many small victories, they had lost many people to a plague on their besieged city, included Pericles.

Athens began to decline, when they also lost in the battles in Thrace (423 BC), and at the siege of Syracuse (414-413 BC), which had seriously weakened Athens’ position. Athens lost most of its fleet in the naval battles at Notion (406 BC) and Aegospotami (405 BC), to a Spartan admiral, Lysander. Usually, Sparta was hopeless in naval warfare, but the Persian Empire had financed Sparta’s fleet and Lysander was a commander of higher calibre. Athens was now besieged, and they were forced to surrender in 404 BC.

The 4th century BC, Sparta became the supreme power in Greece with Athens’ surrender. At first, it concentrated on invading the Persian Empire. However, Sparta tried to impose his rule on her allies, Corinth and Thebes. They were making the same mistakes as Athens had done in the previous century. There was major the shift of power from Sparta to Thebes, when Sparta was defeated in battles at Leuctra (371 BC) and Mantinea (362 BC), through the generalship of Epaminondas, but he had died in this last battle.

Thebes’ supremacy was short-lived without Epaminondas. This allowed Philip II of Macedonia to conquered Greece, using the tactics of Epaminondas. Philip won control over Greece after a series of battles with his neighbours (Thracians and Thessalians), then the rest of Greece, that culminated at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC).

The 4th century BC, witnessed the geniuses of Plato and Aristotle in philosophy and Praxiteles in art. However, very little was written concerning mythology at this period.


Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age

Philip’s son, Alexander (356-323 BC), known to us as Alexander the Great, proved that he was as brave as any hero of legend, when he led the charge of cavalry at the battle of Chaeronea. When Philip was assassinated in 336 BC, Alexander III want to carry out his father’s plan of conquering the Persian Empire, ruled by Darius III. At first, Alexander was confronted by rebellion from Thrace, Illyria and Thebes in Boeotia, with the rest of Greece also stirring. Alexander was quick to respond to the threats, defeating the Thracians and Illyrians in quick raids. With Thebes, Alexander was ruthless, capturing and razing the city and enslaving the entire city population. Only the house of Pindar, the early 5th century BC poet, was spared from the destruction in Thebes. This quelled any thoughts of rebellions from the other city-states, including Athens.

With a mixture of Macedonian forces and Greek mercenaries, Alexander entered the Persian Empire. Alexander crossed the Hellespont with his army, and made a pilgrim to Troy. Alexander claimed to be a direct descendant of Achilles through Neoptolemus. Alexander then confronted the Persian massive army at Granicus, which he decisively defeated, but received a wound. Most satrapies (or provinces) in Asia Minor submitted to Alexander, because they hailed him as Liberator, but the Macedonian army had to lay siege to Miletus. Instead of defeating the Persian fleet in naval battles, Alexander’s strategy was to capture the cities with harbours, so that the Persian had no base.

From Cilica, the Macedonian army entered into Syria, where a new battle was fought at Issus, in 333 BC. This time, Darius himself commanded the Persian army. Unlike Alexander, Darius didn’t take part in the fighting. So when Darius sensed that he was facing defeat, the Great King abandoned his army and took flight. Among those captured, were Darius’ mother, wife and children, whom Alexander treated with utmost respect of a royal family.

Most of Syria submitted to Alexander, except for two cities, the Phoenican city of Tyre, and further south in Palestine, called Gaza. These two cities were captured after ruthless sieges. Alexander then moved to Egypt, where he was welcomed. Here, Alexander founded a new city, called Alexandria (332 BC), north west coast of Egypt. Not only that the Egyptian priests had hailed him as the son of the god Ammon!

Alexander spent the winter in Egypt before heading east. In 331 BC, Alexander defeated the Persian army in the Battle of Gaugamela. Babylonia and Persia submitted to Alexander. Darius had again escaped and fled further east, into Bactria in Central Asia, with Alexander in hot pursuit, and the Persian emperor sought refuge with Bessus, Darius governor. Instead Bessus had Darius assassinated, where the Great King was stabbed to death. Alexander then pursued and captured Bessus, whom Alexander had executed, for murdering Darius III.

The Macedonian army then campaign in harsh landscape of Central Asia, against Scythia (Causcasus), Bactria and Sogdiana (modern Afghanistan). When he captured the fortress on Sogdian Rock in a hazardous rock climbing at night, he met Roxane, daughter of Oxyartes, whom he married. Some Macedonians, including his officers, were resentful when Alexander adopted the Oriental customs of Eastern despot among the Persian ministers.

However, at the same time, Alexander had brought with him Greek civilisation and culture to the East, including the Greek language. A new Greek dialect was developed, known as Koine, where it was universally used in the later Hellenistic kingdoms and it had outlast these kingdoms. Koine continued to be used when the Romans annexed the kingdoms in the East into their empire.

The Macedonian army then moved to the Hindu-Kush, before descending down to Indian great river, Indus. Alexander’s campaign in India, climaxed with the Battle of the Hydaspes (326 BC). No long, after the battle, Alexander’s men refused to advance eastward. So Alexander was forced to undertake a long trek back to Babylon. Alexander sailed part of the way along the southern coast, but made the rest of journey on foot, while his admiral Nearchus sailed up the Persian Gulf.

Back at Babylon in 323 BC, Alexander was preparing another expedition, this time to Arabian peninsula, but fell seriously ill. Alexander the Great died on June 13, 323 BC.

Some of his generals, like Ptolemy and Artistobulus, wrote memoirs of Alexander’s campaigns. They were the main sources for later historians. Some of Alexander’s adventure became romanticised, and was more legendary than historically true.


With Alexander’s death, his empire didn’t last. The empire was fractured into several large kingdoms, which included Macedonia (Cassander), Thrace (Lysimachus), the kingdom of Antigonus, which included Asia Minor and Syria, the kingdom of Selecus (Babylon, Persia and the entire kingdoms), and Ptolemy ruled Egypt and Libya. The Successors to Alexander’s empire fought one another over the succeeding generations.

In Greece, two leagues were formed to oppose the Macedonian overlordship – Aetolian League and Achaean League (with its capital in Corinth).

In Egypt, Alexandria was Egypt’s new capital, where Ptolemy and his successors ruled. A great library was built in Alexandria, at the beginning of 3rd century BC. Alexandria became a new centre of learning. Apollonius of Rhodes had worked in this library, and he wrote Jason’s quest of the Golden Fleece, which was titled Argonautica. The Bible’s Old Testament, was translated to Greek, known as Septuagint.

Macedonia and Greece fell to the Romans in early 2nd century BC, with the Roman army sacking Corinth in 146 BC. Greece and Macedonia became Roman provinces. Rome then proceeded to conquer other Hellenistic kingdoms. Egypt was the last great kingdom to fall to Rome. Her last ruler was Cleopatra, who committed suicide after losing control to the Roman general Octavian in 31 BC, who would later become Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.

Despite the warfare, literature in Greek continued to be written, and the Greek language continued to be used in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. When Roman Empire was in declined during the 4th century AD, the empire of Rome was divided into East and West (AD 394). The West was governed by Rome (and then later in Ravenna), but the capital in the East was at Constantiople, the old Greek city of Byzantium. Around 5th century AD, the Eastern empire ceased to be called a Roman Empire, and was generally referred to Byzantine Empire (or as a Greek empire), which outlasted Rome, and survived for a 1000 years. Constantiople finally fell to Ottoman Turks in 1453.




Who were the Romans?

The Romans were obviously the inhabitants of the great city, Rome. Rome began with small number of villages on the hills of Palatine and Aventine. Romulus was said to be the first king of Rome, its foundation was traditionally dated in 753 BC. According to the legend, Romulus was descendant of the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who had migrated to Latium after the Fall of Troy.

Since the legend of Aeneas and Romulus (and the early history of Rome) are already told in the Aeneid and the Tales of Rome, I will not repeat it here. Let’s just say that Rome were ruled by seven kings, before the last king was overthrown, and the Roman Republic was established as a new form of government in 510 BC. The last three kings comes from Etruscan royal house from Etruria (modern Tuscany). At the time, Etruria was the most powerful and influential people. The Romans are indebted to the Etruscans, because they had taught them to develop writing, science, engineering, art and religion.

I will however tried to briefly write about the history of the Roman Republic and later the Empire.

Rome had won series of wars with both allies and enemies within Latium, before it later conquered most of Italian peninsula in the 3rd century BC. Taras (later Tartentum) asked Pyrrhus of Epeirus to liberate the Greek cities in Italy (281-275 BC). Pyrrhus won a couple of victories in battles, but at a great cost to his own side (ie Pyrrhic Victory). Later, Rome defeated the Greeks in the Battle of Beneventum (275 BC), and Pyrrhus was driven out of Italy.

At the time of Pyrrhus’ campaign in Italy and Sicily, Carthage was an ally of Rome, because Pyrrhus had attacked Carthaginian cities in Sicily. However, when Rome spread its interests in Spain and the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, the Carthaginians who had colonised these regions confronted Rome, with their mercenaries of mixed nationalities. The First Punic War (264-241 BC), forced the city of Carthage to a treaty.

It was the 2nd Punic War (218-201 BC) that interested most historians, because of the great generalship of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general. Hannibal brought the war to Rome, where the battlegrounds were fought in Italy. Hannibal employed surprise attacks and ambushes that crushing defeat of the Roman legions, at Trebia River (218 BC) and at Lake Trasimene (217 BC). The Battle of Cannae was a classical example of a great victory. While Hannibal held the Romans at bay in the centre, his forces encircled the Roman army, cutting off escape, by attacking the flanks and rear. Both Roman consuls and two ex-consuls were killed in battle.

Rome was devastated with this defeat, but they did not yield to Hannibal. Instead they appointed the Roman general, Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator, as dictator. Fabius’ strategy was simple: follow and harass the Carthaginian army, but refused to offer battle. This was a typical strategy of guerilla warfare. At the same time, Rome send the two elder Scipio brothers to destroy Carthaginian bases in Spain, but they were killed in 211 BC. The younger Scipio (known later as Scipio Africanus) captured Carthage Nova (New Carthage) in Spain, defeated and drove out Hasdrubal Barca (Hannibal’s brother) out of Spain. Hasdrubal attempted to join his brother in Italy, but was intercepted. Hasdrubal was defeated at the Battle of Metaurus (207 BC). With Carthage’s presence gone from Spain, Scipio turned his attention to Africa. Hannibal had no choice but to leave Rome in possession of Italy, while he shipped his army to Carthage.

A large battle was fought at Zama, in 202 BC. Neither general had encountered the other before, but Scipio had learned Hannibal’s strategy and tactics. This time, Rome had a superior number of cavalry and Scipio used Hannibal’s own strategy of encirclement; the Roman and Scipio’s African allies sent cavalry to attack Hannibal’s rear.

Peace with Carthage didn’t stop Rome from searching for new campaigns and expanding their territories outside of Italy. Rome turned it attention to Macedonia, because Philip V had supported the Carthaginian campaign in Italy. Philip V was defeated in the battle of Cynosephalae (197 BC). Philip’s ally, Antioclus of Syria and Asia Minor, was also attacked and defeated. Another war with Macedonia was fought, this time with Perseus, son of Philip V, at Pydna in 168 BC. Rome then annexed Macedonia as a Roman province. Carthage and Corinth was sacked in 146 BC, when they tried to revolt. Africa and Greece were also made into Roman provinces.

The 1st century BC, saw civil strife in Rome itself, where the Roman generals (they were also served as provincial governors) fought one another for power. In 49 BC, a new civil war erupted between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magus. After his victories over Pompey and his allies, Caesar returned to Rome where he made some political and social reforms before he was assassinated in 44 BC. A temporary alliance was formed by Octivian, Caesar’s great nephew, and Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), one of Caesar’s officer. They shared power in Rome, with Octavian administering the Western provinces, while Antony looked after interests in the East (such as Greece and Syria). Antony fell into charm of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and Caesar’s former mistress. When Antony divorced Octavian’s sister and married Cleopatra, civil war had once troubled the empire. Octavian defeated Antony in the naval battle of Actium (western Greece), in 31 BC. Antony committed suicided in Egypt and Cleopatra followed suit, when she failed to charm Octavian.

With Octavian in sole power, the Senate decided to appoint him as their emperor (30 BC). In 27 BC, Octavian finally returned to Rome, and began a new reform to both government and in the provinces. His name was also changed to Augustus Caesar. Rome was finally healing after the long internal strife. Writings by Vergil (author of Aeneid) and Ovid had flourished at this period.

It should be noticed that during the civil wars in Rome, the Romans had began to give Roman citizenship to the Italian allies, after the Social War (91-89 BC). By the time of Julius Caesar, citizenship were granted to non-Italians, to the Gauls, and in the Roman Empire, to anyone who living in Roman provinces (1st century AD and onward). One notable Roman citizen was the Jew Saul, who later apostle Paul, in the New Testament of the Bible.

Many of the emperors were born elsewhere, other than from Rome. Perhaps, the only qualification to being an emperor is that each of them was a Roman citizen. The Senate sometimes appointed and elected someone to the highest imperial office, but sometimes the candidates were proclaimed by the Roman armies from one of the imperial provinces.

Augustus established a dynasty in Rome when he died in AD 14. It was followed by reigns of Tiberius (AD 14-37), Caligula (AD 37-41), Claudius (AD 41-54) and Nero (AD 54-68). The dynasty ended with Nero Caesar in AD 68, when he committed suicide when his people turned against him.

In AD 69, the Roman governor Vespasian (AD 69-79) gained power after 3 successive short-lived emperors after Nero. Vespasian established a new dynasty, where he was followed by his sons: Titus (AD 79-81) and Domitian (AD 81-96).

The Roman Empire reached new heights and stability with the reigns of Trajan (AD 98-117), Hadrian (AD 117-138) and Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161). Marcus Aurelius (AD 161-180) had to fight a series of wars against barbarians on the frontier, and he was followed by his mad son, Commodius, who was later assassinated in AD 192. The 3rd century AD was a period of internal turmoil and civil wars, which caused the collapse of the economy.

The emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305) and his colleague Maximian restored some resemblance of order in the empire, but their successors fell into contention. Diocletian’s successor was Constantius, who was the father of Constantine the Great (AD 312-337). It was Constantine was the one who moved the capital to Byzantium, which he renamed to Constantiople. Constantine was also the first to favour Christianity, but he had only accepted baptism at his deathbed.

The 4th century AD, saw increasing pressure on its frontiers by barbarians, mainly of Germanic origin. The Roman empire was permanently divided into East and West (AD 394), by the two sons of Emperor Theodosius, with Honorius in the West and Arcadius in the East. Two groups of Gothic people had done the most damage to Rome, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. The Visigoths, led by Alaric, sacked Rome in AD 410. With this, Honorius pulled out his legions from Britain, telling this abandoned province to arrange for their own defence. The West was further troubled by Attila the Huns, whose people come from Central Asia. Attila was defeated at the Battle of Chalons in France, in AD 451. Attila died a couple years later in AD 453, but not before destroying Aquileia, in northern Italy in the previous year.

It was the Ostrogoths had killed off the empire, where Odoacer crowned himself King of Italy, when he deposed Romulus Augustus in AD 476. Before I complete this history lesson, another Ostrogoth, named Theodoric the Great invaded Italy in AD 489 and founded the kingdom in northern Italy (AD 493). Theodoric’s reign ended in AD 526, but his legend survived. Theodoric became Germanic hero, Dietrich of Verona (or Theodoric of Bern, as he was known in Norwegian saga).

Though, Rome had being sacked, some of its legacies didn’t die. When other European kingdoms or empires was established, they often tried to imitate Rome, such as Charlemagne (flourished in 8th-9th century AD), the French Revolution (late 18th century) and Napoleon Bonaparte.




Roles of mythology in religions

Greek Religion

Knowledge of Bronze Age religion in Greece and the islands are scarce. Apart from a few references of deities in the inscription and in the Linear B clay tablets, it is too few to speculate on. So most of what we know of religion come from archaeological evidences, such as from statues, statuettes, figurines and wall paintings. Even with these evidences, there is no certainty of identification of god or goddess with that of deities that are known to us in the Greek mythology.

Although, in the cities of Cnossos, Phaestus and Mallia have elaborate palaces built, there were no temples for public worshipping. The sanctuaries found were small, and tend to be held either outdoors on the hills or in caves, instead of temples on the large scale found during classical period. These sanctuaries would have small shrines, where images of their deities were kept.

What is clear in the Minoan civilisation (2000-1400 BC) in Crete and islands (Cyclades) nearby, is that the predominant artworks found shows that societies were mostly worshipping goddesses. There are abundance of statuettes and figurines of female divinities. The idols were usually made of wood, stone or clay. There were earth goddess, snake goddess and mistress of animals. Some experts believed that these archaeological evidences are not the worship of the goddesses, but of the Goddess.

The theory is that one Great Goddess, who may have many names and many different attributes. The snake goddess and the earth mother goddess are different aspects of the same goddess. Whether this theory is correct or not, it would remain in the realm of academic since there are no writing of religious nature that exist at the time, to either confirm or refute the theory.

The Mycenaean civilisation (1600-1050 BC) seemed to preferred the warlike gods than the Minoan Crete. Poseidon is mentioned in Mycenaean centres on Linear B tablets. The names of Ares, Artemis, Athena, Hermes, Poseidon, Zeus, and Dionysus were found in scattered clay tablets, though we don’t know for certain if their Mycenaean/Minoan names actually correlate with the Greek deities in Greek mythology.

The Hellenic Greeks arriving after the Dorian Invasion, was generally patriarchal religion, where gods such as Zeus, the all-powerful father of gods and men, became more prevalence. So the earth and fertility goddesses of the Bronze Age were shoved back into the background.

Unlike the Judaic and Christian religions, Greek religion have no creed. Writing on Greek religion was mainly found in mythology, not in holy book like the Bible. The closest thing we have on Greek religion is the Homeric Hymns, which was compiled from the period of 7th century to 6th century BC, and some scattered Orphic poems from the 6th century BC onwards. Yet, even this is mainly mythological in contents. Each hymns either give an account of the gods’ lives or a simple description of the deities. It is not a work on rituals.

There are many customs and festival of the religious natures, but they varied from city to city. Festivals in Attica and Boeotia are better documented than the other cities. Various activities may be involved with festivals, such as sacrifice, fasting, procession, athletic and music contests. See Greek Festivals and the Panhellenic Games.

With Greek cults, anyone could participate. It was usually the rulers or nobles who make sacrifices to the gods, not the priests. Priests seemed to be caretaker of the temple or sanctuary, but it was left with others who decided on any offerings to the gods.

It wasn’t until after the Dorian Invasions that we can clearly recognise that the Greeks have built temples for their gods and goddesses. The most valuable sources about the temples and sanctuaries come from the Greek geographer, Pausanias. Pausanias often mixed details about a particular site with some local myth.

Also around these times (Iron Age), some cults have emerged, because some people were unsatisified with the official religions. These cults had developed their own belief, teaching and rituals. Only the initiated of these cults could understand their rituals, which were kept secret from the public. These secret religious cults were called Mystery Religions. See Mysteries for more information about the mystery cults.


Roman Religion

Rome didn’t exist in the Bronze Age, though settlements were found on the site. The settlement was the size of a small village, situated on several of the hills. As to the customs and religions of the Bronze Age settlement, nothing is known. Iron Age had already existed in Italy, when Rome was founded on the traditional date of 753 BC.

During the late monarchy, Rome was under the rule of Etruscan kings. Etruria was Rome’s powerful north-western neighbour that had greatly influenced the Romans with their knowledge and skills. The Etruscans had taught the Romans about writing (eg. Etruscan alphabets), science and art, engineering and town planning, calendar and religion.

Before the Romans became interested in Greek mythology, it was the Etruscan religion that had influenced early Roman religion, particularly in their own beliefs, customs and rites.

Religion was more of the domain of the priests in Roman society, unlike those of Greek religion. Whereas anyone could make offering and sacrifices to the gods in Greek cults, with the Romans the priests or priestesses were employed for these duties.

Though, gods and goddesses existed in early Roman period (during the kingship and early republic), Roman mythology on Roman deities were similarly non-existence, until they came into contact with Greek religion and mythology in Italy. Mythology was not written down until the 1st century BC. Mythology on Roman deities weren’t written down until the 1st century BC.

To the early Roman people, their deities were simply natural forces that they worshipped. In Roman religion, they made offerings and sacrifices. The gods were at first impersonal. It was the Greek mythology that had personalised their deities. Though, the Greek gods were immortal and have great powers over the world, the gods exhibited human nature and human weaknesses. The Greek gods have emotion of human, such as anger, hatred and jealousy.

The personalisation of Roman deities happened slowly however, where their deities inherited similar attributes and behaviours of their Greek counterparts.




Writings of Classical Mythology

Tales of gods and heroes in mythology have already been developed, before the Greek alphabets was developed and perhaps long before Homer had first written the Iliad (8th century BC). Greek myths were developed and refined by bards through oral traditions.

Writing did exist in the Bronze Age at Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece before the Dorian Invasion, known as Linear A and Linear B scripts, but this form of writing had fallen in disuse during the Dark Ages. The Linear B was not used for writing of literature; it was used for accounting of inventory within the palaces/temples.

The Hellenic newcomers (Greeks), such as the Aeolians, Dorians and Ionians were illiterate. They were illiterate for at least a couple of centuries (12th-9th century BC) during the new Iron Age.

So it was the bards who kept alive the myths, by memorising verses, as each bard sang the tale or song in front of audience. Their audiences were usually ruler or nobles and their court. It wasn’t until the Greeks began to write again, that the myths and legends were recorded.

Two early writers had greatly influences on writings of later authors. Homer was the earliest and the greatest. Homer wrote two masterpieces, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”. It is uncertain if Homer wrote both works, since modern scholars debated that the styles of writing were different. Which ever was the case, Homer was the first to tell of these tales. These tales existed before it was written down, and was transmitted between bard and his apprentice, from generation to generation. When Homer had written them down, the two epic poems had already flowered, and much of the songs of Achilles and Odysseus were already developed. Homer, himself may have few details here and there.

The Iliad was epic poetry, set in the last stage of the Trojan War, which centred on the heroes – Achilles and Hector. While the Odyssey take place after the war, concerning the fabulous voyage and homecoming of the hero Odysseus. Throughout both books, Homer alluded to other tales, such as Seven Against Thebes, the battle between Lapiths and Centaurs, and the infidelity of Aphrodite with her lover Ares.

The influences of these works had other writers trying to fill in the scene before and after the Iliad. These collection of works were called Epic Cycles. Unfortunately many of these are lost or only fragments remained.

Another work, once ascribed to Homer, was the “Homeric Hymns”, however spanned several centuries and composed by different writers (7th-6th century BC). They were hymns that were dedicated to various gods and goddesses. The largest of these hymns were contained stories of Demeter, Apollo, Hermes, Aphrodite and Dionysus. The rest were shorter in lengths.

The other great writer of Homer’s period was Hesiod (perhaps a bit later than Homer). Hesiod wrote two great works, but there are many smaller works that were also ascribed to him. The “Works and Days” and the “Theogony” were the only genuine works of Hesiod. They tell us of the creation of the world, the war between gods and the Deluge (Greek version of Flood).

There are many great writers that followed centuries later, such as the lyric poet Pindar from Thebes (c. 522-438 BC); there was also the three great tragedy playwrights from Athens – Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Apollonius of Rhodes (3rd century BC) was the best-known writer on the theme of Jason and the Argonauts.

The best mythographers were Apollodorus (2nd century AD) and the Roman writer Ovid (1st century BC). Another Roman writer, Vergil (Virgil) wrote “The Aeneid”, an epic of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who was supposedly an ancestor of the Roman people.

Mythology and legend wasn’t just in poetry and plays. They were sometimes recorded in historical account. The historian Herodotus, author of the Persian Wars, also wrote of local legends, particular in relation to the cities in Asia Minor and the Greek islands. The Greek geographer and traveller, Pausanias wrote a sort of travel book, called the Description of Greece (Periegesis Hellados), AD 176. Pausanias wrote of various myths and legends associated with regions and cities throughout the Greek world. Though his main interests were concerned with arts and architectures.

There is also Diodorus Siculus, in Library of History, who wrote the history of the beginning to the time of Julius Caesar. Diodorus had the irritating habit of trying to explain away the supernatural phenomena that are found in myths. And the Roman writer Hyginus, author of the Fabulae and Poetica Astronomy, often give confusing accounts. Both writers have the habits of inventing new stories, but they also give details on myths that are not found elsewhere.

There are many other authors, but if you wanting to read about Greek myths, these are probably the best ones to begin with.

If you wish to read some of the translations yourself, then please see Bibliography of classical myths.