Report from Resolfen History Society’s March Meting

This month’s speaker was Mr John Richards of Neath, who has visited the Society many times. This year he took the Ancient Greeks as his topic. He admitted at the outset that this was a massive topic and he would only be able to scratch its surface. In essence, his talk might be summarised as “what the ancient Greeks left to us”. Indeed, it was remarkable how much of our speech, culture, politics architecture and even entertainment wend their way back to the early Greek city states.

Mr Richards began by looking at how the Greeks themselves were very nearly subsumed by the Asiatic Persian culture almost before they began. He asked the audience, who they would assume was the most important Greek of ancient times, several candidates were suggested from Plato to Aristotle, yet it was the little known Themistocles who had Mr Richards’s approval. The answer was simple since Themistocles had literally saved Greece. Following the successful triumph at Marathon against the Persians, Xerxes returned some decade later in 480 BC with an army of a million men. They quickly took and sacked Athens, and the Greeks fled to the island of Salamis. Themistocles realised that the size of the Persian army was also its weakness since the supply chain on land across the Hellespont was too long. The army, which could metaphorically drink a river dry, would have to be supplied by sea. Themistocles managed to get an informer to tell Xerxes that the Greeks were in a very weak position, yet the subsequent sea battle destroyed the Persian fleet.

Following Salamis, there flowered a Greek civilisation and cultural explosion in medicine (Hippocratic oath) , sport ( Olympic games) , mathematics, astrology, steam engines, architecture ( neo classical designs in modern buildings) and entertainment. These were later adopted and developed by the Romans, and even the customs of the churches owe a lot to the Greek theatre. Mr Richards went on to describe Greek religion which was not worship as we would know it, but instead a trade off by means of sacrifice in order to gain advantage in life from the gods. The word tragoedia which is supposedly reminiscent of a goat being taken to sacrifice, gives us the word ‘tragedy’. The sacrifice would take place at an altar or Thespis and the dramatic gestures of the priest gives us the word ‘thespian’, to describe an actor.

The Greeks were not averse to adopting other cultures’ gods and Dionysus an Asiatic god was readily accepted. Dionysus is known as Bacchus by the Romans.  Dionysus was the god of fertility and wine, later considered a patron of the arts. He reputedly created wine and spread the art of viticulture, so it is hardly surprising that he was a popular god with his festival around April time synonymous with phallic symbols and merrymaking. The three plays in massive outdoor theatres associated with Dionysus included mainly tragedies by authors such as Sophocles and Euripides. The plots were usually ghastly and gory and stimulated both fear and pity, much as a modern horror movie. The antithesis was the fourth play a comedy by Aristophanes involved a degree of lewd merriment. The plots involved discussions, logos before prologos and epilogos which are easily identifiable words in modern English. Mr Richards concluded his talk by showing slides of Greek architecture. The Acropolis and Parthenon were explained and the Greek theatres shape gave us orchestra , odeon and palladium.


 Mr Trefor Jones thanked Mr. Richards for a very enjoyable and illuminating talk