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Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece is the term used to describe the Greek-speaking world in ancient times. It refers not only to the territory of the present Greek state, but also to those areas settled in ancient times by Greeks: Cyprus, the Aegean coast of Turkey (then known as Ionia), Sicily and southern Italy (known as Great Greece), and the scattered Greek settlements on the coasts of what are now Albania, Bulgaria, Egypt, France, Libya, Spain, and Ukraine.

There are no fixed or universally agreed dates for the beginning or the end of the Ancient Greek period. In common usage it refers to all Greek history before the Roman Empire, but historians use the term more precisely. Some writers include the periods of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations (from about 1600 BC to about 1100 BC), while others argue that these civilizations, while Greek-speaking, were so different from later Greek cultures that they should be classed separately.

Traditionally, the Ancient Greek period was taken to begin with the date of the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, but most historians now extend the term back to about 1000 BC. The traditional date for the end of the Ancient Greek period is the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. The following period is classed Hellenistic.

These dates are historians' conventions and some writers treat the Ancient Greek civilization as a continuum running until the advent of Christianity in the third century AD.

Ancient Greece is considered by most historians to be the foundational culture of Western Civilization. Greek culture was a powerful influence in the Roman Empire, which carried a version of it to many parts of Europe. Ancient Greek civilization has been immensely influential on the language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, art and architecture of the modern world, particularly during the Renaissance in Western Europe and again during various neo-Classical revivals in 18th and 19th century Europe and The Americas.



The Greeks are believed to have migrated southward into the Greek peninsula in several waves beginning in the late 3rd millennium BC, the last being the Dorian invasion. The period from 1600 to about 1100 is described in History of Mycenaean Greece known for the reign of King Agamemnon and the wars against Troy as narrated in the epics of Homer. The period from 1100 to the 8th century BC is a "dark age" from which no records, and only scant archaeological evidence, survive. The history of Ancient Greece is taken to end with the reign of Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BC. Subsequent events are described in History of Hellenistic Greece.

Any history of Ancient Greece requires a cautionary note on sources. Those Greek historians and political writers whose works have survived, notably Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Plato and Aristotle, were mostly either Athenian or pro-Athenian, and all were political conservatives. That is why we know far more about the history and politics of Athens than of any other city, and why we know almost nothing about some cities' histories. These writers, furthermore, concentrate almost wholly on political, military and diplomatic history, and ignore economic and social history. All histories of Ancient Greece have to contend with these biases in their sources.

The rise of Hellas

In the 8th century BC Greece began to emerge from the Dark Ages which followed the fall of the Mycenaean civilisation. Literacy had been lost and the Mycenaean script forgotten, but the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to Greek and from about 800 BC a written record begins to appear. Greece was divided into many small self-governing communities, a pattern dictated by Greek geography, where every island, valley and plain is cut off from its neighbours by the sea or mountain ranges.

As Greece recovered economically, its population grew beyond the capacity of its limited arable land, and from about 750 BC the Greeks began 250 years of expansion, settling colonies in all directions. To the east, the Aegean coast of Asia Minor was colonised first, followed by Cyprus and the coasts of Thrace, the Sea of Marmara and south coast of the Black Sea. Eventually Greek colonisation reached as far north-east as Ukraine. To the west the coasts of Albania, Sicily and southern Italy were settled, followed by the south coast of France, Corsica, and even northeastern Spain. Greek colonies were also founded in Egypt and Libya. Modern Syracuse, Naples, Marseilles and Istanbul had their beginnings as the Greek colonies Syracusa, Neapolis, Massilia and Byzantium.

By the 6th century BC Hellas had become a cultural and linguistic area much larger than the geographical area of Greece. Greek colonies were not politically controlled by their founding cities, although they often retained religious and commercial links with them. The Greeks both at home and abroad organised themselves into independent communities, and the city (polis) became the basic unit of Greek government.

As colonization was bound to exhaust the supply of desirable territory, first Crete, then in short order the other Greek city-states, adopted the formal practice of pederasty, in an effort to find a permanent solution to the problem of overpopulation. From its ritual roots in Indo-European prehistory, the practice was elevated to prominence, influencing pedagogy, warfare and social life, and becoming a central feature of Hellenic culture for the next thousand years.

Social and political conflict

The Greek cities were originally monarchies, although many of them were very small and the term "King" for their rulers is misleadingly grand. In a country always short of farmland, power rested with a small class of landowners, who formed a warrior aristocracy fighting frequent petty inter-city wars over land. But the rise of a mercantile class (shown by the introduction of coinage in about 680) introduced class conflict into the larger cities. From 650 onwards, the aristocracies were overthrown and replaced by populist leaders called tyrants (tyrranoi), a word which did not necessarily have the modern meaning of oppressive dictators.

By the 6th century several cities had emerged as dominant in Greek affairs: Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes. Each of them had brought the surrounding rural areas and smaller towns under their control, and Athens and Corinth had became major maritime and mercantile powers as well. Athens and Sparta developed a rivalry that dominated Greek politics for generations.

In Sparta, the landed artistocracy retained their power, and the constitution of Lycurgus (about 650) entrenched their power and gave Sparta a permanent militarist regime under a dual monarchy. Sparta dominated the other cities of the Peloponnese, and formed alliances with Corinth and Thebes.

In Athens, by contrast, the monarchy was abolished in 683, and reforms of Solon established a semi-constitutional system of aristocratic government. The aristocrats were followed by the tyranny of Pisistratus and his sons, who made the city a great naval and commercial power. When the Pisistratids were overthrown, Cleisthenes established the world's first "democracy" (500), with power being held by an assembly of all the male citizens.

The Persian Wars


In Ionia (the modern Aegean coast of Turkey) the Greek cities, which included great centres such as Miletus and Halicarnassus, were unable to maintain their independence and came under the rule of the Persian Empire in the mid 6th century. In 499 the Greeks rose in the Ionian Revolt, and Athens and some other Greek cities went to their aid.

In 490 the Persian Great King, Darius I, having suppressed the Ionian cities, sent a fleet to punish the Greeks. The Persians landed in Attica, but were defeated at the Battle of Marathon by a Greek army led by the Athenian general Miltiades. The burial mound of the Athenian dead can still be seen at Marathon.

Ten years later Darius's successor, Xerxes I, sent a much more powerful force by land. After being delayed by the Spartan King Leonidas I at Thermopylae, Xerxes advanced into Attica, where he captured and burned Athens. But the Athenians had evacuated the city by sea, and under Themistocles they defeated the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis. A year later the Greeks under the Spartan Pausanius defeated the Persian army at Plataea.

The Athenian fleet then turned to chasing the Persians out of the Aegean Sea, and in 478 they captured Byzantium. In the course of doing so Athens enrolled all the island states and some mainland allies into an alliance, called the Delian League because its treasury was kept on the sacred island of Delos. The Spartans, although they had taken part in the war, withdrew into isolation after it, allowing Athens to establish unchallenged naval and commercial power.

The dominance of Athens


The Persian Wars ushered in a century of Athenian dominance of Greek affairs. Athens was the unchallenged master of the sea, and also the leading commercial power, although Corinth remained a serious rival. The leading statesman of this period was Pericles, who used the tribute paid by the members of the Delian League to build the Parthenon and other great monuments of classical Athens. By the mid 5th century the League had become an Athenian Empire, symbolised by the transfer of the League's treasury from Delos to the Parthenon in 454.

The wealth of Athens attracted talented people from all over Greece, and also created a wealthy leisured class who became patrons of the arts. The Athenian state also sponsored learning and the arts, particularly architecture. Athens became the centre of Greek literature, philosophy (see Greek philosophy) and the arts (see Greek theatre). Some of the greatest names of Western cultural and intellectual history lived in Athens during this period: the dramatists Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles, the philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates, the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, the poet Simonides and the sculptor Pheidias. The city became, in Pericles's words, "the school of Hellas."

The other Greek states at first accepted Athenian leadership in the continuing war against the Persians, but after the fall of the conservative politician Cimon in 461, Athens became an increasingly open imperialist power. After the Greek victory at the Battle of the Eurymedon in 466, the Persians were no longer a threat, and some states, such as Naxos, tried to secede from the League, but were forced to submit. The new Athenian leaders, Pericles and Ephialtes, let relations between Athens and Sparta deteriorate, and in 458 war broke out. After some years of inconclusive war a 30-year peace was signed between the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League (Sparta and her allies). This coincided with the last battle between the Greeks and the Persians, a sea battle off Salamis in Cyprus, followed by the Peace of Callias (450) between the Greeks and Persians.

The Peloponnesian War


In 431 war broke out again between Athens and Sparta and its allies. The immediate cause was a dispute between Corinth and one of its colonies, Corcyra, in which Athens intervened. The real cause was the growing resentment of Sparta and its allies at the dominance of Athens over Greek affairs. The war lasted 27 years, partly because Athens (a naval power) and Sparta (a land-based military power) found it difficult to come to grips with each other.

Sparta's initial strategy was to invade Attica, but the Athenians were able to retreat behind their walls. An outbreak of plague in the city during the siege caused heavy losses, including Pericles. At the same time the Athenian fleet landed troops in the Peloponnese, winning battles at Naupactus (429) and Pylos (425). But these tactics could bring neither side a decisive victory. After several years of inconclusive campaigning, the moderate Athenian leader Nicias concluded the Peace of Nicias (421).

In 418, however, hostility between Sparta and the Athenian ally Argos led to a resumption of fighting. At Mantinea Sparta defeated the combined armies of Athens and her allies. The resumption of fighting brought the radical party, led by Alcibiades, back to power in Athens. In 415 Alcibiades persuaded the Athenian Assembly to launch a major expedition against Syracuse, a Peloponnesian ally in Sicily. The expedition was a complete disaster and the whole expeditionary force was lost. Nicias was captured and Alcibiades went into exile. This was the turning point of the war.

Sparta had now built a fleet to challenge Athenian naval supremacy, and had found a brilliant military leader in Lysander, who seized the strategic initiative by occupying the Hellespont, the source of Athens' grain imports. Threatened with starvation, Athens sent its last remaining fleet to confront Lysander, who decisively defeated them at Aegospotami (405). The loss of her fleet threatened Athens with bankruptcy. In 404 Athens sued for peace, and Sparta dictated a predictably stern settlement: Athens lost her city walls, her fleet, and all of her overseas possessions. The anti-democratic party took power in Athens with Spartan support.

Spartan and Theban dominance

The end of the Peloponnesian War left Sparta the master of Greece, but the narrow outlook of the Spartan warrior elite did not suit them to this role. Within a few years the democratic party regained power in Athens and other cities. In 395 the Spartan rulers removed Lysander from office, and Sparta lost her naval supremacy. In 387 Sparta shocked Greek opinion by concluding a treaty with Persia by which they surrendered the Greek cities of Ionia and Cyprus, thus reversing a hundred years of Greek victories against Persia. Sparta then tried to weaken the power of her former ally Thebes, which led to a war in which Thebes allied herself with the old enemy, Athens. The Theban generals Epaminondas and Pelopidas won a decisive victory at the at Leuctra (371).

The result of this battle was the end of Spartan supremacy and the establishment of Theban dominance, but Athens also recovered much of her former power. The supremacy of Thebes was short-lived. With the death of Epaminondas at Mantinea (362) the city lost its greatest leader, and his successors blundered into an unsuccessful ten-year war with Phocis. In 346 the Thebans appealed to Philip II of Macedon to help them against the Phocians, thus drawing Macedon into Greek affairs for the first time.

The rise of Macedon

Philip II of Macedon
Philip II of Macedon

The Kingdom of Macedon was formed in the 7th century. Some Greeks regarded the Macedonians as barbarians, but whatever their original ethnic origins, they were of Greek language and culture by the 5th century. They played little part in Greek politics before the beginning of the 4th century, but Philip was an ambitious man who had been educated in Thebes and wanted to play a larger role. In particular, he wanted to be accepted as the new leader of Greece in recovering the freedom of the Greek cities of Asia from Persian rule. By seizing the Greek cities of Amphipolis, Methone and Potidaea , he gained control of the gold and silver mines of Macedonia. This gave him the resources to realise his ambitions.

Philip established Macedonian dominance over Thessaly (352) and Thrace, and by 348 he controlled everything north of Thermopylae. He used his great wealth to bribe Greek politicians and create a "Macedonian party" in every Greek city. His intervention in the war between Thebes and Phocis brought him recognition as a Greek leader, and gave him his opportunity to become a power in Greek affairs. But despite his sincere admiration for Athens, the Athenian leader Demosthenes, in a series of famous speeches (philippics) roused the Greek cities to resist his advance.

In 339 Thebes, Athens, Sparta and other Greek states formed an alliance to resist Philip and expel him from the Greek cities he had occupied in the north. But Philip struck first, advancing into Greece and defeating the Greek cities at Chaeronea in 338. This traditionally marks the end of the era of the Greek city-state as an independent political unit, although in fact Athens and other cities survived as independent states until Roman times.

Philip tried to win over Athens by flattery and gifts, but did not really succeed. He organised the cities into the League of Corinth, and announced that he would lead an invasion of Persia to liberate the Greek cities and avenge the Persian invasions of the previous century. But before he could do so he was assassinated (336).

The conquests of Alexander

Philip was succeeded by his 20-year-old son Alexander, who immediately set out to carry out his father's plans. He travelled to Corinth where the assembled Greek cities recognised him as leader of the Greeks, then set off north to assemble his forces. The army with which he invaded the Persian Empire was basically Macedonian, but many idealists from the Greek cities also enlisted. But while Alexander was campaigning in Thrace, he heard that the Greek cities had rebelled. He swept south again, and captured Thebes, razed the city to the ground as a warning to the Greek cities that his power could no longer be resisted.

In 334 Alexander crossed into Asia, and defeated the Persians at the river Granicus. This gave him control of the Ionian coast, and he made a triumphal procession through the liberated Greek cities. After settling affairs in Anatolia, he advanced south through Cilicia into Syria, where he defeated Darius III at Issus (333). He then advanced through Phoenicia to Egypt, which he captured with little resistance, the Egyptians welcoming him as a liberator from Persian oppression.

Darius was now ready to make peace and Alexander could have returned home in triumph, but he was determined to conquer Persia and make himself the ruler of the world. He advanced north-east through Syria and Mesopotamia, and defeated Darius again at Gaugamela (331). Darius fled and was killed by his own followers, and Alexander found himself the master of the Persian Empire, occupying Susa and Persepolis without resistance.

Meanwhile the Greek cities were making renewed efforts to escape from Macedonian control. At Megalopolis in 331, Alexander's regent Antipater defeated the Spartans, who had refused to join the Corinthian League or recognise Macedonian supremacy.

Alexander pressed on, advancing through what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indus river valley, and by 326 he had reached Punjab. He might well have advanced down the Ganges to Bengal had not his army, convinced they were at the end of the world, refused to go any further. Alexander reluctantly turned back, and died of a fever in Babylon in 323.

Alexander's empire broke up soon after his death, but his conquests permanently changed the Greek world. Thousands of Greeks travelled with him or after him to settle in the new Greek cities he had founded as he advanced, the most important being Alexandria in Egypt. Greek-speaking kingdoms in Egypt, Syria, Iran and Bactria were established. The Hellenistic age had begun.

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Last updated: 10-14-2005 17:14:29
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