The ancient Greeks developed a complex society, with remarkable achievements in the arts, sciences, and government. The achievements of the ancient Greeks continue to influence culture, science, and politics in the world today.
The Land and Early History of Greece
The Greek Peninsula is mountainous, which made travel by land difficult for early settlers. Most of the rocky land also contains poor soil and few large trees, but settlers were able to cultivate the soil to grow olives and grapes. The greatest natural resource of the peninsula is the water that surrounds it. The ancient Greeks depended on these seas for fishing and trade, and they became excellent sailors.
The Formation of City-States
As the ancient Greek population grew, people created city states. A city-state included a central city, called a polis, and surrounding villages. Each ancient Greek city-state had its own laws and form of government. The city-states were united by a common language, shared religious beliefs, and a similar way of life.
The Growth of Colonies
By the mid-eighth century B.C., the Greeks were leaving the peninsula in search of better land and greater opportunities for trade. During the next 200 years, they built dozens of communities on the islands and coastline of the Aegean Sea. Some Greeks settled as far away as modern-day Spain and North Africa. Once established, these distant Greek communities traded with each other and with those communities on the Greek Peninsula. This made a great variety of goods available to the ancient Greeks, including wheat for bread, timber for building boats, and iron ore for making strong tools and weapons.
Individual Forms of Government
Some ancient Greek city-states were oligarchies. An oligarchy is a system in which a few powerful, wealthy individuals rule. The word oligarchy comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “rule by the few.”Other city-states were ruled by a tyrant, a single person who took control of the government against the wishes of the community. Still other ancient Greek city states developed an early form of democracy. The word democracy comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “rule by the people.” In a democracy citizens, take part in the government.
Athens and Sparta
, centrally located on the Greek Peninsula, was one of the largest and most important ancient Greek city-states. By the end of the sixth century B.C., Athens had developed a democratic form of government. Athenian citizens took part in political debates and voted on laws, but not everyone who lived in Athens enjoyed these rights. Participation in government was limited to free
, adult males whose fathers had been citizens of Athens. Women, slaves, and foreign residents could not be citizens and could not take part in government.
Athens’s chief rival among the other Greek city-states was Sparta. Located in the southernmost part of the Greek Peninsula, Sparta was an oligarchy. It was ruled by two kings, who were supported by other officials. Sparta, like Athens, had a powerful army. Each city-state’s army helped protect it from slave rebellions, guard against attack by rival city-states, and defend it from possible foreign invaders.
Learning and the Arts
In 480 B.C., the Persians, who controlled a large empire to the east, tried to conquer the Greek Peninsula. Several Greek city-states, including Athens and Sparta, joined forces to defeat the Persians. In the years following this victory, the ancient Greeks made remarkable achievements in literature, learning, and architecture.
To honor their gods and goddesses, the ancient Greeks created myths and wrote poems and plays. Some of the greatest Greek plays were written during the fifth century B.C. During that time, the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote tragedies, which are serious plays that end unhappily. Many of these stories have been the basis for modern films and operas.
In addition to using the gods as characters, ancient Greek playwrights sometimes poked fun at important citizens, including generals and politicians. Aristophanes was a popular writer of comedies of this type.
Ancient Greece was the birthplace of some of the finest thinkers of the ancient world. Socrates was an important philosopher of the fifth century B.C. A philosopher studies and thinks about why the world is the way it is. Socrates studied and taught about friendship, knowledge, and justice. Another great philosopher, Plato, was a student of Socrates who studied and taught about human behavior, government, mathematics, and astronomy. Many people continue to study and write about the same philosophical questions that these, and other, ancient Greek philosophers explored.
The Spread of Greek Culture
The city-states of ancient Greece were constantly at war with one another. By the fourth century B.C., this fighting had weakened their ability to defend themselves against foreign invaders. In 338 B.C., King Philip II of Macedonia conquered the land. After Philip died, his son, Alexander––who had been taught by Aristotle––took control.
Alexander the Great
was an excellent military leader
, and his armies conquered vast new territories. As Alexander’s empire expanded, Greek culture, language, and ideas were spread throughout the Mediterranean region and as far east as modern-day India. Upon Alexander’s death, however, his leading generals fought for control of his territory and divided it among themselves. This marked the end of one of the great empires of the ancient world.
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