This week I’ve been discussing the alternative idea that the world goes through gold, silver, bronze, and iron ages corresponding to declining moral perfection. This idea derives most explicitly from Hesiod in the Works and Days, which alternative authors like Walter Cruttenden cite as their source. I thought it was worth pointing out that what Hesiod wrote bares very little resemblance to alternative authors’ presentation of it. Let’s begin by looking at Hesiod’s rather lengthy discussion in a standard translation:
There are a few points to note. First, and most importantly, although the gold, silver, and bronze races represented decay, Hesiod was quite clear that the fourth generation—the demigods—were more noble than the preceding race, and, indeed, share much with the golden race, in contradistinction to the brutal and terrible men of bronze. From the noble heroes, the iron race (ours) degenerated. Note that alternative theorists elide the heroic race of demigods because (a) they are not assigned a metal, messing up the scheme; and (b) they are not degenerate, calling into question the linear decline of humanity from gold to iron.
Second, the ancients were unclear what Hesiod meant in assigning metals to the races. Were they represented by the metals, or made from them? In myth, Talos was ascribed the role of the last of the bronze men. Some authors thought this meant he was the last giant from the Bronze Age, while others thought he was actually made of bronze, complete with rivets and markings from the lost-wax casting technique. So great was the confusion that it fell to Plato to decide that Hesiod meant it as a metaphor. In Cratylus (397e), he has Socrates say “I suppose that he [Hesiod] means by the golden men, not men literally made of gold, but good and noble; and I am convinced of this, because he further says that we are the iron race.” But if we are meant to take the ancients literally, how can we distinguish between the two competing schools, of apparently equal antiquity?
Note: The Bronze Age angry giants were destroyed by the Great Flood when Zeus destroyed the bronze race for its hubris. These violent giants are therefore the same as the giants, the “mighty men which were of old, men of renown” from Genesis 6:4, otherwise known as the sons of the fallen angels whose sinfulness led to Noah’s Flood. This demonstrates the Near Eastern influence on Greece during this period, which is confirmed by Hesiod’s adoption of a parallel to the Hittite succession of the gods in his Theogony.
So, in sum, Hesiod’s Ages of Man fails to support the linear decline model because one of its five ages notably improves upon those which preceded it. Instead, alternative authors unwittingly follow Ovid, who in Metamorphoses 1.89-150 gives the Ages of Man only in metals, omitting the noble heroic race. His version is much more linear in its contrast between moral decline and technological advancement. This declining version of history became widespread in the Middle Ages because it was in Latin in an age that could no longer read Greek. Dante echoes it in The Divine Comedy (Inferno 14.103-116), adapting Daniel 2:31-45, where King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a statue: “The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay.” Daniel interprets this dream as referencing a succession of kingdoms, each stronger than the last but increasingly coarse and blunt, until God destroys them all with a kingdom of stone. A similar dream appears in Persian literature with a tree of four metals.
Scholars debate the mutual influences among Persian, Hebrew, and Greek sources, but the consensus is that the various versions are not independent developments.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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