Introduction to Ancient Greece

Greece, Ancient. The civilization of the ancient Greeks grew up around the Aegean Sea and spread through the Greek mainland. At its height it extended to Sicily and Italy on the west, and through Asia Minor and around the end of the Mediterranean Sea to the east and south. The Greek world, called Hellas by the Greeks, was united culturally, but never politically. It was not brought under a single government until it became part of the Roman Empire in the second century B.C.

Greek civilizationGreek civilization arose along the shores of the Aegean and Ionian seas. Ancient Greece consisted chiefly of a peninsula that separated the two seas, nearby islands, and the coast of Asia Minor (now part of Turkey).

Greek civilization developed later than that of the Euphrates and Nile valleys, but earlier than that of Rome. Ancient Greece reached its highest point of achievement in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., but its influence remained strong throughout the era of Roman supremacy.

The Greeks are the most celebrated people of antiquity because their accomplishments form the basis of Western civilization. Vigorous, adventuresome, and freedom-loving, of strong practicality and great intellectual capacity, they produced art, architecture, literature, drama, and philosophic concepts that have never been surpassed. The Greeks developed the political institution of democracy, established freedom of speech and religion, and founded a system of law defining the rights of citizens. They made major discoveries in astronomy, physics, mathematics, and medicine. The first experimental scientists were Greeks.

The Greeks worshipped many gods and goddesses, each representing either some part of the universe (such as the sea or the underworld) or some aspect of human life (such as love or war). They believed that these gods frequently intervened in human affairs, and they turned to the gods for aid and revelations. Many Greek myths tell of adventures of the gods and their dealings with humans. The names of the Greek gods and many of the legends about them have survived to become part of Western tradition.

The Making of Ancient Greece

Greece, with its innumerable harbors, bays, gulfs, and chains of islands, was from the beginning a land of seafarers. The early civilization that grew up around the Aegean Sea, possibly from Phoenician colonization, benefited from contact with the older cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations

The earliest Aegean civilization had its center in the island of Crete and is called Minoan for Minos, a legendary Cretan king. Minoan civilization developed about 2500 B.C. and dominated the Aegean world by the middle of the 16th century B.C. Its most important city was Knossos. The Minoans colonized many Aegean islands and established cities on the east coast of Asia Minor and in Greece.

On the Greek mainland another civilization developed when, between 2000 and 1700 B.C., the Achaeans, a Greek-speaking people, migrated from the north and settled. Their civilization became known as the Mycenaean after the name of their principal city, Mycenae. Historians also often refer to the Achaeans as Mycenaeans. Sometime in the 1400's the Minoan civilization disappeared, possibly destroyed by an invasion of Achaeans. Much of the culture, however, having been adopted by the Achaeans, survived.

The Heroic, Or Homeric, Age

By 1200 B.C., trade was flourishing between the Achaeans and other peoples in the Mediterranean. One of the cities with which they traded was Troy (or Ilium) in Asia Minor. A dispute developed about 1194 B.C., and the Achaeans laid siege to Troy, which fell after 10 years. Centuries later, the Trojan War was the subject of two epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, attributed to Homer. These epics provide a record of the heroes, places, customs, and beliefs of the last stage of Mycenaean civilization.

TroyTroy was an ancient city in Asia Minor (now part of Turkey). Ruins of Troy have yielded historical relics that are about 5,000 years old.

The Achaean language eventually evolved into three dialects—Aeolian, Ionian, and Arcadian. The inhabitants of Greece came to be identified by the dialect they used. The Aeolians lived in Thessaly and central Greece; the Ionians in Boeotia, Attica, and Euboea; and the Arcadians in the Peloponnesus.

Dorian Conquest

Another great wave of Indo-Europeans swept into the Greek peninsula around 1100 B.C. These were the Dorians, barbarians who destroyed everything in their path. Mycenae was burned, and the last traces of the old Minoan culture were wiped out. Much of the Achaean population fled to the Aegean islands and Asia Minor. The Aeolians settled in the northern section of the islands and coastline, the Ionians in the center. The Dorians themselves occupied the south. Attica was the only division on the mainland bypassed by the Dorian invasion.

The next 300 years or so are often referred to as the Dark Age. It was a time of warfare and migrations. There is almost no record of events of this period. However, one development of supreme importance was the introduction of the Phoenician alphabet. The Greeks improved it and eventually passed it on, by way of Rome, to the Western world. Of importance also was the gradual blending of various population elements into one nationality. The Greeks—or Hellenes, as they called themselves—who emerged in history from the seventh century B.C. onward shared a common language, religion, and body of legend.

Growth of the City-States

Greece is a country of numerous small valleys. As cities grew up, each became a city-state, a pocket of population surrounded by a limited area of farmland confined by a wall of mountains. Among the early city-states were Athens, Corinth, Argos, Sparta, and Thebes.

At first a city-state was ruled by a king, assisted by a council. By the end of the Dark Age, monarchy had given way in most places to group rule by the aristocracy. Sometimes one man would seize power and rule alone. He would be known as a tyrant , meaning dictator. Some tyrants were excellent rulers, beloved by their people.

Era of Colonization

The stony soil of Greece and Asia Minor could not long support a growing population. In the eighth century B.C., the Greeks began establishing colonies in unsettled areas. Each colony was sponsored by a city-state, but was permitted to govern itself.

Greek colonies were founded in Macedonia and Thrace along the northern shore of the Aegean, around the Sea of Marmara, and along the southern shore of the Black Sea; on the African coast in Libya; in Sicily and Italy as far north as the Bay of Naples; and on Sardinia, Corsica, and the coasts of France and Spain. Istanbul (called Byzantium by the Greeks), Benghazi (Berenice), Naples (Neapolis), and Marseille (Massalia) began as Greek colonies. The economy at home was so strengthened by the colonies that soon Greek cities were doing a brisk trade with Egypt, Phoenicia, Lydia, and Mesopotamia, as well as with Italians, Etruscans, Gauls, and Iberians.

Ionian Culture

In Asia Minor, Ionia (the region in which the Ionians had settled) was especially well located for commerce. Not only did the Ionian city-states prosper, but through their close contact with their neighbors they introduced into Greek life cultural developments from neighboring countries. These included writing, from Phoenicia; coinage, from Lydia; a system of weights and measures, from Babylonia; and improved methods of metalworking and weaving, and knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, from Egypt.

Western philosophy began in Ionia with Thales, a scholar born in the mid-seventh century B.C. Important advances in mathematics and astronomy were made by Ionian philosophers. Art, sculpture, and literature flourished. In the middle of the sixth century Ionia was conquered by Croesus, king of Lydia.

Sparta and Athens

Sparta, in the Peloponnesus, was the main city of Laconia, where the native population had been reduced to slavery by the Dorian conquest. The Spartans extended their rule over neighboring Messenia. To keep their subject peoples under control, Spartan men spent most of their lives as soldiers. Sparta contributed little to Greek artistic and intellectual development, but it became the largest and strongest of the city-states.

SpartaSparta was the most powerful city-state of ancient Greece, and the capital of Laconia. By 500 B.C., Sparta had forced nearby city-states to enter the Peloponnesian League. The map on the left shows the location of Sparta in ancient Greece. The detailed map on the right shows Sparta and the Peloponnesian League.

Athens, the principal city of the district of Attica, developed slowly. About 594 B.C. the soldier-poet Solon was given the powers of a tyrant. He reformed the laws, increased the rights of the people, and established an economy based on industry and commerce. Social reforms were continued under the tyrant Pisistratus. With Ionian culture as inspiration, drama, poetry, and art began to flourish. Trade made Athens prosperous. A system of democratic government was established under Cleisthenes about 507 B.C. Athens became the leading city of Greece in political, intellectual, and artistic development.

The Athenian Age

Although the Greek city-states frequently fought among themselves, they joined in athletic and religious festivities, such as the Olympic Games. Neighboring states would form a council, called an amphictyony , to arrange such activities.

The Persian Wars

(490–479 B.C.). In the middle of the sixth century B. C., Cyrus the Great of Persia seized Lydia and Ionia. The advance of his son-in-law, Darius the Great, into Thrace led to the Persian Wars.

In their first invasion of Greece, the Persians were defeated by the Athenians under Miltiades at Marathon (490 B.C.). Anticipating further conflict, the Athenian leader Themistocles started construction of a great navy. A second Persian invasion in 480 was led by Darius' son Xerxes. At the mountain pass of Thermopylae a vastly outnumbered force from Sparta, Thespiae, and Thebes made a heroic but futile stand against the Persians, who captured and burned Athens.

The Greek fleet took refuge at the island of Salamis, where it won a decisive victory over the Persian fleet (480 B.C.). The remaining Persians were defeated by forces under the Spartan commander Pausanias and the Athenians Xanthippus and Aristides. The historian Herodotus devoted his major work to an account of the Persian Wars.

Pericles and the Athenian Empire

The statesman and orator Pericles became head of the Athenian democratic party about 460 B.C. Although he was virtual ruler of Athens for the next 30 years, Athens was a democracy; his authority rested on popular election and his program was carried out by act of the general assembly. Sparta, firmly under aristocratic rule, saw this democracy as a threat to its own system.

In foreign policy Athens was imperialistic and autocratic. It dominated the Delian League, an alliance of Aegean cities formed for mutual protection, and forced the members to pay tribute. Athens began expanding—to the east by sea, bringing it into conflict with Persia; and to the west on land, where it clashed with the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. Members of the Delian League revolted. Athens became involved in almost ceaseless war, but was able to win most of the battles. In 448 B.C., a peace treaty was signed with Persia and in 445 a truce was made with Sparta. The warfare ended in 443, when Pericles reorganized the defeated Delian League and turned it into the Athenian Empire.

Pericles now turned his attention to making Athens the most beautiful city in Greece. The Parthenon and other temples were erected on the Acropolis. Under his rule, sculpture, drama, poetry, and philosophy flourished. Performances of the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were attended by virtually the entire population.

(For details about Athenian life,

Peloponnesian War

(431–404 B.C.). Fear of an expanding Athens was shared by all major Greek cities. Fighting started in 433 between Athens and Corinth. In 431 Thebes tried to seize Plataea, a city long allied with Athens, and all Greece erupted in war, with Sparta as Athens' major foe. During the first year, Athens fought vigorously under Pericles, but in the second year plague in the city took many lives. Pericles himself was a victim.

Athens and SpartaAthens and Sparta organized rival alliances in the 400's B.C. The Delian Leaague included Athens and other city-states on the Aegean coast and on islands in the Aegean Sea. The Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta, included most of the Peloponnesus peninsula and Macedonia. The rivalry between the two city-states erupted in the Peloponnesian War, which Sparta won.

In 421 Nicias, an Athenian leader, negotiated a peace intended to create a 50-year alliance between Athens and Sparta. Instead, Alcibiades, an unscrupulous rival of Nicias, succeeded in leading Athens into resuming the war. Athens launched a tremendous attack against Sicily; it ended in disaster. Revolution broke out and one government after another came to power. Persia took this opportunity to aid Sparta.

The Athenians in the last years of the war were able to win a few victories, but in 405 B.C. their navy, led by Alcibiades, was destroyed by the Spartan navy, led by Lysander. The city was blockaded; starved into submission, it surrendered the following year. The Athenian Empire was dissolved, and Sparta named a group of aristocrats, called the Thirty Tyrants, to rule Athens. Thucydides, an Athenian general, wrote the classic history of the Peloponnesian War.

Final Years of Greek Independence

The Thirty Tyrants were overthrown within a year, but Sparta made no further attempts to dominate the Athenian government. A Spartan campaign against the Persian Empire ended in 387 B.C. with a peace agreement that surrendered all the Greek cities in Asia Minor to Persian rule. Sparta's tyranny on the Greek mainland caused many uprisings. In 371 B.C. Thebes defeated Sparta at Leuctra, permanently ending Spartan dominance. Thebes then extended its power into Thessaly, Macedonia, and the Peloponnesus. The Spartans were again defeated at Mantinea in 362, but the great Theban general, Epaminondas, who led the Thebans in all their victories, perished in the battle. With his death, Theban supremacy was ended.

Fighting among Greek city-statesFighting among Greek city-states continued after the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). The three biggest city-states were Athens, Sparta, and Thebes. Athens and its allies extended along the Aegean coast and to some Aegean islands. Sparta and its allies lay in the northern and southern areas of the Peloponnesus peninsula. Lands allied with Thebes covered most of present-day Greece, part of the Peloponnesus peninsula, and some coastal areas of Asia Minor. Macedonia and the island of Crete contained smaller city-states. Sparta's domination ended in 371 B.C., after which time Thebes briefly held power.

Athens regained much of its vigor and its commerce. Although no longer politically dominant, it still led Greece in culture and learning. The great philosopher Socrates lived during this time, and the era that followed his-death in 399 B.C. continued in brilliant philosophical achievement under first Plato and later his pupil Aristotle. The historian Xenophon, like Plato a pupil of Socrates, wrote a history of this period.

Dionysius the Elder, ruler of Syracuse, went to war against the Carthaginians, and gained control of most of Sicily and part of Italy. His empire became the largest and strongest in Europe. In his third war with Carthage (383–378 B.C.) he lost much territory, and his death in 367 ended the imperial ambitions of Syracuse.

Philip and Alexander of Macedon

To the north of Greece were the Macedonians, a warlike people. Under their king, Philip II, who came to the throne in 359 B.C., they seized Greek coastal colonies and began a southward advance. In 351 the Athenian orator Demosthenes delivered the first of his warnings (called Philippics ) against Philip, but most Athenians did not yet see Philip as a significant threat.

In 356 the Sacred War among several Greek city-states began after the desecration of the temple at Delphi by the Phocians. In 346 Philip intervened in the war to defeat the Phocians, thereby earning the praise of many Greeks and securing for himself a seat on the Amphictyonic Council (the assembly of leaders of several neighboring Greek city-states). Athenians continued to ignore the threat of his territorial ambitions until 338, when he began a march on Thebes. Athens joined Thebes and other cities to resist Philip's advance, but the allied forces were defeated and the entire Greek peninsula was brought under his control. Philip then united the Greek city-states in the League of Corinth, and in 337 made plans for a campaign against Persia. Before the attack could be launched, Philip was assassinated.

Philip's son Alexander (later called “the Great”) combined the Greek and Macedonian armies into a massive fighting force and in 334 crossed into Asia Minor. In the next 10 years he conquered the entire Persian Empire, which included eastern Mediterranean countries as far as Egypt and extended inland as far as India. After Alexander died in 323 B.C. his empire was divided—but he had planted Hellenistic culture throughout the eastern Mediterranean region.

The Hellenistic Age

Alexander's empire became three major Hellenistic kingdoms—Egypt under the Ptolemies (323–30 B.C.), Syria under the Seleucids (312–64 B.C.), and Macedonia and Greece under the Antigonids (276–168 B.C.). Greek culture flourished in the new Hellenistic cities such as Antioch in Syria, and Alexandria in Egypt.

In Greece itself the cities gradually aligned themselves in two federations—the Aetolian League in the north and the Achaean League in the Peloponnesus. Athens and Sparta remained independent of the leagues.

In Italy Rome had become the leading power. It conquered Greek cities of the Italian mainland and went on to take Sicily. In Syracuse the scientist Archimedes invented several war machines for the defense of his city, but it fell to the Romans in 211 B.C. After becoming entangled in three major wars involving Macedonia and the Greek city-states, Rome formed most of the Greek states into a protectorate in 167 B.C. After another war, Rome turned the protectorate into a province in 146 B.C.

Greece Under the Roman Empire

Corinth was destroyed in the final campaign of Roman conquest in 146 B.C., and Thebes' lands were confiscated. Athens and Sparta, however, were left independent. To Romans, Athens was still the center of learning and culture. In intellectual and artistic matters, Greek leadership was acknowledged and sought by the Romans. Greek slaves were used as teachers, and Greek philosophy was embraced by the Roman aristocracy.

In the first century B.C. the Parthian king Mithridates VI seized most of Asia Minor from Rome and encouraged Greece to rise in revolt. The Roman general Sulla captured Athens in 86 B.C. and pacified the rest of the country. Rome, then in its period of empire building, continued eastward and soon was in control of the entire Hellenistic world.

Greece was at peace for the first time in its history. The country, devastated and poverty-stricken, was slowly built up by the Romans. The Greek cities of Asia Minor recovered prosperity much more quickly. In 286 A.D. Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two parts for administrative purposes. Greece lay in the eastern part, later known as the Byzantine Empire.

For later history,