Xenophanes, Aeschylus, and the doctrine of primeval brutishness

Classical Quarterly 35 (02):264- (1985)
The belief that primitive men lived like beasts and that civilisation developed out of these brutal origins is found in numerous ancient authors, both Greek and Latin. It forms part of certain theories about the beginnings of culture current in late antiquity. These are notoriously difficult to trace to their sources, but they already existed in some form in the fifth century b.c. One idea common to these theories is that of progress, and for this reason a fragment of Xenophanes is sometimes cited as their remote prototype: ‘The gods did not reveal all things to men from the beginning; instead, by seeking, men discover what is better in time’. Mainly on the strength of this fragment, Ludwig Edelstein devoted the first chapter of his book The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity to Xenophanes, and W. K. C. Guthrie has even declared that there is good reason to attribute to him a fuller account of progress, one that would include details found in later authors who speak of the early life of mankind. One of these details is the statement that the life of primitive men was ‘brutal’ or ‘beastlike’ . In these authors the implication of that term varies from ‘unschooled in the basic crafts’ to ‘inhumanly violent and bloodthirsty’. In one sense or the other it is repeatedly encountered in ancient references to this subject. Accounts of primitive brutishness which make use of the word θηριώδης (or θηριωδς can be found in the Suppliants of Euripides, in the Hippocratic treatise On Ancient Medicine, in three passages of Diodorus, one of which is thought by some to contain Democritean doctrine, in four passages of Isocrates, in a fragment from a satyr-play Sisyphus which the ancient sources attribute variously to Euripides and to Critias, in a fragment of Athenion, in a second-century inscription, in Plutarch, in Tatian, in Themistius, and in a scholion to Euripides
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DOI 10.1017/S0009838800040167
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