An Age Worse than Iron
The idea that mankind's history is one of regress rather than of progress has been seen as central to the classical outlook on life. Bury and others have gone so far as to state that the idea of Progress in its modern sense could not have even occurred to the Greeks. This is perhaps too extreme, but it does reflect an important point: if regression over time was not the only idea for the Greeks, it was at least the dominant one. No story in classical literature reflects this idea more clearly than the Myth of the Ages. The earliest extant version of the story comes in Hesiod's Works and Days (c. 700 B.C.), after which it appears dozens of times throughout ancient literature. The myth in its standard form tells that the history of mankind takes the form of four ages, each represented by a metal: the first is a happy and virtuous Golden Age; the next is a less perfect Silver Age, followed by a warlike (and even worse) Bronze Age; and the last, the most impious and wretched of all, is the current Iron Age. The early Hesiodic version uses this framework merely as a means to show man that he has fallen from divine favor and is left with a life of hardship that he must deal with through honest work and reverence for the gods. As other authors pick up the myth, alluding to it in genres as diverse as philosophy, theology, humor, and panegyric, the story changes in several ways. Each author of course uses it for his own purposes and alters it accordingly. In addition the Myth of the Ages undergoes an overall change: after Hesiod authors such as Aratus, Ovid, Seneca, and Maximus use the myth as a means to pair material progress with moral regression. These authors do not merely tell a story; they present a model, a simple and pre-civilized way of living that they see as vastly superior to modern “advanced” society. These authors look at the results of technological progress and see only negatives; for them the ship and the sword have brought nothing but greed and violence. They present a simple and virtuous Golden Age that lacks the fruits of civilization and a wretched and bloodied Iron Age that is flooded by them. The implication is clear: mankind has fallen from a life of primeval bliss at its own hands as a direct result of technological and societal advances. This becomes the dominant message of the Myth of the Ages, so much so that by the time of the Romans the myth had become little more than a literary cliché for criticizing civilization.