Ancient world

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The Golden Age ( Joachim Wtewael , 1605)

The ancient world goes back to a myth passed down by Hesiod in his poem Works and Days , according to which five human sexes followed one another in the history of the world, namely:

  1. Golden gender
  2. Silver gender
  3. Bronze (or brazen) sex
  4. Heroic gender
  5. Iron sex

The age of the golden sex is a paradisiacal original state and the Iron Age corresponding to the present is a state of total decline and decay. The latter was made by Aratos von Soloi in the 3rd century BC. Chr. In his astronomical didactic poem Phainomena expanded to an independent myth, but already understood as an age of bronze; he does not know any further ages.

This fundamental development from good to bad contrasts with the hope of a return to the Golden Age, which was expressed above all in the political and literary propaganda of the Augustan age .

The design of the myth in Ovid's Metamorphoses was particularly important here . Ovid was the first to coined the term Golden Age for an ideal (to be restored) original state (and accordingly the Silver Age for the time of an impending decline, etc.). Also, no Age of Heroes appears in Ovid, so there are four ages in Ovid.

The ages

Golden age

The Golden Age ( Lucas Cranach the Elder )

Hesiod describes the blessed life of the golden human race under the rule of Kronos / Saturnus as follows:

These now lived like gods, the mind freed from worries,
Far from toil and far from tribulation; burdensome age
Never met her; always the same on hands and feet,
If they were happy at feasts, they were always removed from all evil.
As if conquered by slumber; none of the goods
Did they miss; The food-giving seedlands gave them fruit

After their death, the golden people became daimons , similar to the guardian angels of Judeo-Christian mythology, who invisibly help people, observe their deeds and sometimes exercise their prerogative to donate wealth.

With Ovid, too, the golden age ( aurea aetas ) appears as an idyll of eternal spring, a timeless, pre-legal state:

Only now did the family sprout from gold, that without guard
Willingly and without law exercised justice and fidelity.
Punishment and fear were far away; they did not read threatening words
Not on stapled ore, nor stood a pleading heap
Bang in front of the judge's face: they had protection without the judge .

Silver Age

The End of the Silver Age ( Lucas Cranach the Elder , National Gallery, London)
Silver Age ( Virgil Solis , 1581)

The childhood of the silver people lasted a whole century, the lifespan of adults was relatively short. However, this second generation was soon destroyed again by Zeus , as they lacked piety. They were wanton towards one another and had no respect for the gods. After their end, the silver people became blessed dead in the underworld .

The silver age at Ovid is characterized by the fact that there is no longer eternal spring and that everything no longer grows by itself. The change of the seasons begins, at some point the winter comes with its coldness, warming apartments and clothes are needed, what is to be harvested has to be grown first and with that the hardship of the work begins.

Bronze Age

The following bronze human race is fully dedicated to war, strength and violence. Everything is made of bronze, both the guns and the houses. But all strength and violence brings neither duration nor fame and the slain sink down into gloomy Hades .

Heroic Age

The race of heroes following this warrior race is distinguished by nobility and bravery. These heroes and demigods are deeds of which the great epics tell, above all of course Homer's poems . But they all soon become victims of their heroism. After their death, under the reign of Kronos, they inhabit the Blessed Islands on the edge of the Ocean , where "fruits like honey" ripen three times a year and the heroes who have departed lead a life free from worry.

It has been suggested that the sex of the heroes was inserted into a pre-existing scheme of four sexes and four corresponding metals by Hesiod. For this speaks z. B. that in Ovid no age of heroes appears.

Iron Age

Iron Age
Astraia's Farewell to the Shepherds ( Salvator Rosa )

The last, the iron sex, lives in the presence of the poet and this age is the most miserable and depraved of all five ages:

Soon they also disregard the producers, the age-bent,
Even revile the poor, reproach them with insulting speech,
Injustice and never remember the judgment of the gods; they are worth it
Never well the parents, the aging, care of childhood;
Law of the thumb prevails; one wants to devastate the city to another.
Fleeing far from the bustle of men to the tribe of the eternal,
Shame and shyness [Αἰδὼς καὶ Νέμεσις]; mortal people will remain
Gloomy misery, and help nowhere to show itself in misery.

While Hesiod recognizes the depravity of this sex above all in the fact that the fundamental obligations (to the parents, the host, the superior) are no longer respected and the right itself to be a means of attack by perjury and false accusation is perverted, Ovid emphasizes more economic ones and technical changes that bring ruin or make possible: shipbuilding, which makes piracy possible, land surveying, with which the former common property is measured and divided, mining, through which iron for weapons and gold as an incentive to greed from the earth is fetched.

Finally, characteristic of this age is that one last power and representation of the divine that remained on earth is finally withdrawn. Here at Hesiod there is nemesis ( Νέμεσις , just retribution) and Aidos (Αἰδώς, fear of injustice and sacrilege). In the Phainomena of Aratos of Soloi it is the Dike ( Δίκη , justice), which is driven from the earth by the lawlessness of the people, as the constellation of the virgin in heaven. Both myths appear together in the myth of Astraia / Astraea , the divine virgin who is the last to leave the earth and whose reappearance would indicate the dawn of a new golden age. At Ovid this means:

Respectful shyness is gone, and from blood-moistened countries
Returned the virgin, Astraia, the last of heaven.

Derivation of the ages

The sequence of the bronze, heroic and iron ages essentially corresponds to the division of history, which is still used today, according to the level of metalworking in the bronze age and iron age . The Greek legends, such as the Trojan War, took place towards the end of the Bronze Age. The sequence of the golden, silver and bronze ages is based on the idea of paradise .

Cyclical world ages

In ancient philosophy, unlike in poetry, the idea of ​​world ages repeating in cycles was widespread. This is how Philo describes in On the Eternity of the World the view of the Stoics , according to which our world would be reshaped in periodic world fires. Likewise, Anaximander , Anaximenes , Heraklit , Diogenes of Apollonia , Plato , Aristarchus of Samos or Ovid report on recurring world destruction and subsequent new ages.

Biblical parallel

Daniel interprets a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar , in which he foresees the following kingdoms of the earth, as gold, silver, bronze, iron and clay ( Dan 2.31  EU ). Nebuchadnezzar II lived around 600 BC. Chr.

Medieval chronicles

Medieval chronicles such as the Schedelsche Weltchronik divided the history of the world into seven 'world ages'


  • Joseph Eddy Fontenrose : Work, Justice, and Hesiod's Five Ages. In: Classical Philology. Vol. 69, No. 1, 1974, pp. 1-16.
  • Bodo Gatz: Age of the world, golden age and related ideas. Olms, Hildesheim 1967.
  • John Gwyn Griffiths: Archeology and Hesiod's Five Ages. In: Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 17, No. 1, 1956, pp. 109-119.
  • Hartwig Heckel: Age. In: The New Pauly (DNP). Volume 12, Metzler, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-476-01470-3 , Sp. 706-709.
  • Glenn W. Most: Hesiod's Myth of the Five (or Three or Four) Races. In: Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society. Vol. 43, 1998, pp. 104-127.

Web links

Commons : World Age  - collection of images, videos, and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Hesiod, Werke und Tage 106–201.
  2. Aratos by Soloi Phainomena 96-136
  3. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1, 89-150.
  4. Hesiod, Works and Days 112–117. Translation after Heinrich Gebhardt edited by Egon Gottwein.
  5. Hesiod, Werke und Tage 106–126.
  6. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 1, 89-93. Translation after Reinhard Suchier, edited by Egon Gottwein.
  7. Hesiod, Works and Days 127–142.
  8. Ovid, Metamorphoses 113–124.
  9. Hesiod, Werke und Tage 143–155.
  10. Hesiod, Werke und Tage 156-173.
  11. ^ Frederick A. Paley: The Epics of Hesiod. Wittaker, London 1887, p. 27, note 162 ( digitized version ).
  12. Hesiod, Works and Days 185–201. Translation after Heinrich Gebhardt edited by Egon Gottwein.
  13. Hesiod, Works and Days 174–201.
  14. Aratos, Phainomena 96 ff.
  15. ^ Frances Yates : Astraea: The Imperial Theme in the Sixteenth Century. Routledge, London 2000.
  16. Ovid, Metamorphosen 1, 149 f. Translation after Reinhard Suchier, edited by Egon Gottwein.