History of Greece: Classical Greece

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History of Greece: Classical Greece

The flurry of development and expansion of the Archaic Era was followed by the period of maturity we came to know as “Classical Greece”. Between 480 and until 323 BCE Athens and Sparta dominated the Hellenic world with their cultural and military achievements. These two cities, with the involvement of the other Hellenic states, rose to power through alliances, reforms, and a series of victories against the invading Persian armies. They eventually resolved their rivalry in a long, and particularly nasty war that concluded with the demise of Athens first, Sparta second, and the emergence of Macedonia as the dominant power of Greece. Other city-states like Miletus, Thebes, Corinth, and Syracuse among many others played a major role in the cultural achievements of this period we came to call Classical Greece.

Athens and Sparta coexisted peacefully through their underlying suspicion of each other until the middle of the 5th c. BCE. The political and cultural disposition of the two city-states occupied the opposite ends of the spectrum. Sparta was a closed society governed by an oligarchic government led by two kings, and occupying the harsh southern end of the Peloponnesus, organized its affairs around a powerful military that protected the Spartan citizens from both external invasion and internal revolt of the helots. Athens on the other hand grew to an adventurous, open society, governed by a Democratic government that drew its power from commercial activity. The period of Perikles’ leadership in Athens is described as the “Golden Age”. It was during this period that the massive building project, that included the Acropolis, was undertaken.


Bronze helmet of Miltiades. Dedicated at Olympia, now at the Olympia museum.

The Athenian adventurous spirit, and their loyalty to their Ionian kin led them to come to the aid of the Asia Minor colonies that were feuding with the powerful Persian Empire. To aid the Ionian Revolt, led by Miletus, the Athenians landed a small garrison in Ionia to fight against the Persians and to spread the revolt. The Greek forces burned the capital of Lydia, Sardis in 498 enraging the Persians, before they were finally defeated in 494 BCE. The sacking of Sardis invoked the wrath of Darius who vowed revenge. In 490 BCE, he landed his forces twenty miles north of Athens, at Marathon. While the Spartans were occupied with a religious festival, the outnumbered Athenians under the leadership of Miltiades mounted a surprise attack and routed the dumbfounded Persians at Marathon to preserve Greek independence for the time being.

It took ten years, but the Persian king Xerxes, determined to succeed in his second attempt, amassed what Herodotus described as the greatest army ever put together in order to attack Greece again. The Athenians, expecting a full attack from the Persians, under the leadership of Themistokles cashed the silver extracted from the newly dug mines of Lavrion, and built a formidable navy of triremes. Xerxes crossed the Hellespont in 480 BCE with his massive army and began annexing Greece through land and sea. The first line of defense for the Greek alliance of city-states was at the narrow passage of Thermopylae where Leonidas with 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians held back the mighty Persian army for three days before they fell to a man through deceit. At the same time the Athenian ships fought the Persian navy to a stalemate at nearby Artemision before it withdrew to the straights of Salamina.

The Athenians vacated the entire non-combat population from their city, so when the Persians arrived they met no resistance. They took vengeance on the buildings and temples of Athens by burning them to the ground, and anchored their fleet at Faliron in pursuit of the Greek navy that was sheltered at nearby Salamina Island. While the joint leadership of the Hellenes argued in typical Greek fashion if they should withdraw to the Peloponnese and where to engage the Pesians next, Themistokles, seeking an advantageous quick battle, invoked the Persian fleet into attacking as the Greek ships faked an early morning escape from Salamina. As the Persians pursued what they thought was a fleeing foe, the Greck triremes turned and engaged the surprised Persians inflicting massive casualties and decimating the Persian navy. With his navy destroyed, Xerxes feared that the Greek triremes would rush to the Hellespont to cut off his only way home, so he withdrew back to Asia leaving his able general Mardonious to fight the Greeks. The next year, in 479 BCE, this Persian army was defeated at Plataea by the alliance of Greek states under the leadership of the Spartan general Pausanias, putting a permanent end to further Persian ambitions to annex Greece.http://www.ancient-greece.org/images/graphics/trireme.jpg

The victory of the Greek forces at Marathon and Salamis are hailed as pivotal points in the development of western civilization. The reason being that, if the Persians were victorious all the achievements of Greece (and especially Athens) that followed immediately after and what is widely consider to be the foundation of western civilization, would not have transpired. Following the successful defense of their homeland, the Greek states entered a state of high development. Athens especially emerged as a major superpower that led a host of other Greek city-states (some willing, some unwilling, and some reluctant) in a defensive alliance, the Delian League, against the Persians. The tributes collected by the allies helped Athens expand and maintain a formidable, yet difficult, empire in the Aegean world. At the same time, Sparta led the Peloponnesian League, an alliance of states mostly from the Peloponnese that acted as a counter-balance against the perceived Athenian hegemony of Greece.

The competitive spirit, suspicion, and animosity toward each other that characterized all Greek cities re-emerged once the external danger of the Persians threat subsided, and with the two dominant empires occupying opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum, it was not long before the underlying differences and mistrust spilled over in a particularly long and nasty conflict: the Peloponnesian War. While Sparta and Athens were the primary adversaries, just about every other Greek city took part at one time or another. With Sparta possessing the stronger land forces, and Athens dominating at sea with its navy of triremes, the war lasted for from 431 until 404 BCE with the Peace of Nicias interrupting it briefly in 421-418 BCE. After surviving a decimating plague in 430/9 BCE and a devastating defeat in Sicily by Syracuse in 413 BCE, Athens drained of resources finally capitulated to the Spartans in 404 BCE.http://www.ancient-greece.org/images/graphics/ostrako.jpg

The Classical Period produced remarkable cultural and scientific achievements. The city of Athens introduced to the world a direct Democracy the likes of which had never been seen hitherto, or subsequently, with western governments like Great Britain, France, and USA emulating it a thousand years later. The rational approach to exploring and explaining the world as reflected in Classical Art, Philosophy, and Literature became the well-grounded springboard that western culture used to leap forward, beginning with the subsequent Hellenistic Age. The thinkers of the Classical Greek era have since dominated thought for thousands of years, and have remained relevant to our day. The teachings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle among others, either directly, in opposition, or mutation, have been used as reference point of countless western thinkers in the last two thousand years. Hippocrates became the “Father of modern medicine”, and the Hippocratic oath is still used today. The dramas of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes are considered among the masterpieces of western culture.

The art of Classical Greece began the trend towards a more naturalistic (even in its early idealistic state) depiction of the world, thus reflecting a shift in philosophy from the abstract and supernatural to more immediate earthly concerns. Artists stopped merely “suggesting” the human form and began “describing” it with accuracy. Man became the focus, and “measure of all things” in daily life through Democratic politics, and in cultural representations. Rational thinking and Logic became the driving force behind this cultural revolution at the expense of emotion and impulse. The most striking illustration of this “Logic over Emotion” approach is frozen on the faces of the statues of the temple of Zeus west pediment at Olympia. In the complex array of sculptures, it is easy to know who is a “Barbarian” and who is a “civilized Hellene” through the expression of their faces. Barbarian Centaurs exhibit an excess of emotion, while Lapithae women and Apollo remain collected and emotionless even in the direst of situations (photo on the right).http://www.ancient-greece.org/images/graphics/centaur2.jpg

Even after its defeat at the Peloponnesian war, Athens remained a guiding light for the rest of Greece for a long time, but this light that shone so bright, began to slowly fade. Sparta won the Peloponnesian war and emerged as the dominant power in Greece, but her political prowess failed to match her military reputation. While Sparta fought against other city-states all over Greece, Athens reconstructed her empire after rebuilding her walls, her navy and army. Sparta’s power and military might were eventually diminished, especially after two crashing defeats at the hands of the Thebans first in Leuctra in 371 BCE, and again nine years later at Mantinea. This power vacuum was quickly filled however by the Macedonians who under the leadership of Philip II emerged as the only major military authority of Greece after their victory at Chaeronea against the Athenians in 338 BCE.

Through diplomacy and might, Philip II who became king in 359 BCE, managed to consolidate the areas around northern Greece under his power, and until his assassination in 336 BCE had added central and southern Greece to his hegemony. The pretext for his military expeditions to southern Greece was the protection of the Delphi Oracle from the Phoceans, but his sight was fixed beyond the borders of Greece. His ambition was to lead a military expedition of united Greece against the Persian Empire to avenge the Persian incursions of Greece.  This ambition was fulfilled by his son Alexander the Great who became king after his fathers assassination.

With a copy of the Iliad and a dagger in his hand, Alexander continued the centuries-old conflict between East and West by leading a united Greek army into Asia. His success on the battlefield and the amount of land he conquered became legendary and earned him the epithet “the Great”. Besides brilliant military tactics, Alexander possessed leadership skills and charisma that made his army unbeatable in numerous battles against more numerous opponents, pushing the Greeks all the way to Egypt, India and Bactria (today Afghanistan). Alexander led his army in battle always placing his own self at the point of attack, partaking in the common soldier’s jeopardy, and thus won a series of major battles that obliterated all opposition in its path. In the process he amassed the largest empire hitherto known and altered the composition of the ancient world.http://www.ancient-greece.org/images/graphics/alexander.jpg

In 334 BCE, Alexander led his army across the Hellespond into Asia and scored successive wins against the Persian Empire. His fist success came at Granicus River in northwest Asia Minor where his Calvary routed the outnumbered Persian mercenaries who fought under the leadership of Memnon of Rhodes. In 333 BCE Alexander’s outnumbered army defeated the Persians at Issus and forced king Darius to flee for his life. The subsequent conquest of Miletus, Tyre (332 BCE), and Egypt (331 BCE) gave the Greeks control of the entire eastern shore of the Mediterranean, and allowed Alexander to move inland towards the heart of the Persian Empire. In Egypt Alexander was proclaimed to be the son of god Ammon (the equivalent of the Greek Zeus), and he proclaimed himself King of Asia after his victory at the battle at Gaugamela in 331 BCE, which sealed the fate of the Persian Empire.

From Babylon, Alexander led his army towards the heart of south Asia, subduing all resistance and establishing cities along the way. Despite the objections of his officers, he incorporated into his army forces from the conquered lands, adopted local customs, and married a Bactrian woman, Roxane. His march eastward eventually stopped on the edge of India partly due to the objections of his fatigued army. He returned from the frontier to Babylon to plan his next expedition southward, towards Arabia, but in 323 BCE his sudden death of a fever at the age of 32 put an end to a brilliant military career, and left his vast conquered land without an apparent heir. 

The conquests of Alexander the Great changed the course of Ancient history. The center of gravity of the Greek world moved from the self-containment of city-states to a more vast territory that spanned the entire coast of Eastern Mediterranean and reached far into Asia. Alexander’s conquests placed a plethora of diverse cultures under common hegemony and Greek influence around the Mediterranean and southern Asia, paving the way for the distinct Hellenistic culture that followed his death.

Ancient Greece.org

Excerpted from History of Classical Era Ancient Greece


History of Greece: Hellenistic

The Hellenistic Age marks the transformation of Greek society from the localized and introverted city-states to an open, cosmopolitan, and at times exuberant culture that permeated the entire eastern Mediterranean, and Southwest Asia. While the Hellenistic world incorporated a number of different people, Greek thinking, mores, and way of life dominated the public affairs of the time. All aspects of culture took a Greek hue, with the Greek language being established as the official language of the Hellenistic world. The art and literature of the era were transformed accordingly. Instead of the previous preoccupation with the Ideal, Hellenistic art focused on the Real. Depictions of man in both art and literature revolved around exuberant, and often amusing themes that for the most part explored the daily life and the emotional world of humans, gods, and heroes alike. http://www.ancient-greece.org/images/graphics/alexander-coin.jpg

The autonomy of individual cities of the Classical era gave way to the will of the large kingdoms that were led by one ruler. As Alexander left no apparent heir, his generals controlled the empire. They fought common enemies and against each other as they attempted to establish their power, and eventually, three major kingdoms emerged through the strife that followed the death of Alexander in 323 BCE and persisted for the most part over the next three hundred years.

Egypt and parts of the Middle East came under the rule of Ptolemy, Seleucus controlled Syria and the remnants of the Persian Empire, while Macedonia, Thrace, and parts of northern Asia Minor came under the hegemony of Antigonus and his son Demetrius. Several smaller kingdoms were established at various times, in Hellenistic Greece. Notably, the Attalid kingdom was formed around Pergamum in eastern Asia Minor, and the independent kingdom of Bactria was created after Diodotos led a rebellion of Greeks there against Seleucid rule. Most of the classical Greek cities south of Thessaly and on the southern shores of the Black Sea remained independent.

Several Greek cities became dominant in the Hellenistic era. City-states of the classical Greece like Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Miletus, and Syracuse continued to flourish, while others emerged as major centers throughout the kingdoms. Pergamum, Ephesus, Antioch, Damascus, and Trapezus are few of the cities whose reputations have survived to our day.  None were more influential than Alexandria of Egypt however. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great himself in 331 BCE and very quickly became the center of commerce and culture of the Hellenistic world under the Ptolemies. Alexandria hosted the tomb of Alexander the Great, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the faros (lighthouse) of Alexandria, and the famed Library of Alexandria that aspired to host the entire knowledge of the known world.

Many famous thinkers and artists of the Hellenistic era created works that remained influential for centuries. Schools of thought like the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Epicurians continued the substantial philosophical tradition of Greece, while art, literature, and poetry reached new heights of innovation and development through the work of Kalimachus, Apollonious of Rhodes, Menander, and Theocritos. The sculptures and canons of Polykleitos remained influential and were copied throughout the Hellenistic and Roman Eras, and even centuries later during the Italian Renaissance. Great works of art were created during the Hellenistic Era. In Architecture, the classical styles were further refined and augmented with new ideas like the Corinthian order which was first used on the exterior of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens. Public buildings and monuments were constructed on larger scale in more ambitious configuration and complexity. The Mausoleum of Pergamum, merged architectural space and sculpture by the placement of heroic sculptures in the close proximity of a grand staircase.http://www.ancient-greece.org/images/graphics/venus-de-milo.jpg

Hellenistic Greece became a time of substantial maturity of the sciences. In geometry, Euclid’s elements became the standard all the way up to the 20th c. CE., and the work of Archimedes on mathematics along with his practical inventions became influential and legendary. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth within 1500 miles by simultaneously measuring the shadow of two vertical sticks placed one in Alexandria and one in Syene. The fact that the earth was a sphere was common knowledge in the Hellenistic world.

The Hellenistic age was by no means free of conflict, even after the major kingdoms were established. Challenges to the Hellenistic kingdoms appeared from internal conflict and new external enemies. The size of the empire made securing it next to impossible, and life outside the orderly large cities was filled with danger from bandits and pirates. Internal strife and revolutions caused the borders of the kingdoms to be shifted several times as the rulers of the major and minor kingdoms engaged in continuous conflict. At the same time serious threats to the Hellenistic world came from external threats. A Celtic people, the Gauls invaded Macedonia and reached southern Greece in 279 BCE attempting to plunder the treasure of Delphi, which was miraculously saved (Pausanias, 20). Eventually, Attalus defeated the Gauls after they crossed into Asia Minor.

At the time of Hellenistic Era, Rome had risen to a formidable power and by 200 BCE occupied not only Italy, but also the entire coastal Adriatic Sea and Illyria. During the second Punic War (218 - 201 BCE) when Hannibal of Carthage managed to establish a successful campaign against the Romans in Italy, Philip V of Macedon allied with him and annexed Illyria, starting thus a series of wars with Rome that led to the eventual annexation of Greece by the Romans. In the end, large part of the Hellenistic kingdoms disintegrated by constant incursions by tribes of the fringes, many parts were simply given to Rome through the will of deceased rulers, and others won brief independence by revolution. In 31 BCE Octavian (later Augustus) defeated the rulers of Egypt Anthony and Cleopatra in the naval battle of Actium, and completed the demise of the Hellenistic Era.

The battle of Actium is considered the pivotal moment that defines the end of Ancient Greece. After the battle of Actium, the entire Hellenic world became subject to Rome. Greece in the next two thousand years was to undergo a series of conquests that made its people subjects of numerous powers and did not gain its self-determination until the 19th C. CE.

Ancient Greece.org

Excerpted from History of Hellenistic Era Ancient Greece


History of Greece: Bronze Age

The Bronze Age, a period that lasted roughly three thousand years, saw major advances in social, economic, and technological advances that made Greece the hub of activity in the Mediterranean. Historians have identified three distinct civilizations to identify the people of the time. These civilizations overlap in time and coincide with the major geographic regions of the Greece. The Cycladic civilization developed in the islands of the Aegean, and more specifically around the Cyclades, while the Minoans occupied the large island of Crete. At the same time, the civilization of the Greek mainland is classified as “Helladic”. The Mycenaean era describes Helladic civilization towards the end of the 11th c. BCE and is also the called “Age of Heroes” because it is the source of the mythological heroes and epics like Hercules, the Iliad and the Odyssey.http://www.ancient-greece.org/images/graphics/tusk-helmet.jpg

All three civilizations of the Bronze Age had many characteristics in common, while at the same time were distinct in their culture and disposition. The Minoans are considered to be the first advanced civilization of Europe, while Mycenaean culture had a great deal of influence with its legends and Greek language on what later became the splendor of Classical Greece.

“The Mycenaeans are the first ‘Greeks’” (Martin, Ancient Greece 16).

 Either by fortune or force, the Mycenaeans outlasted both the people of Cyclades and the Minoans, and by the end of the 10th c. BCE expanded their influence over the Greek mainland, the islands of the Aegean and Ionian seas, Crete, and the coast of Asia Minor. However, after 1100 BCE Mycenaean civilization ceased either through internal strife, or outside invasions (the Dorian invasions have been proposed as a possible explanation), or through a combination of the two, it is not known for sure.

What is known is that the extensive damage done to the Mycenaean civilization took three hundred years to reverse. We call this period “the Dark Ages” partly because the people of Greece fell into a period of basic sustenance with no significant evidence of cultural development, and partly because the incomplete historical record renders our own view of the era rather incomplete.

History of Greece: The Dark Ages

During the Dark Ages of Greece the old major settlements were abandoned (with the notable exception of Athens), and the population dropped dramatically in numbers. Within these three hundred years, the people of Greece lived in small groups that moved constantly in accordance with their new pastoral lifestyle and livestock needs, while they left no written record behind leading to the conclusion that they were illiterate. Later in the Dark Ages (between 950 and 750 BCE), Greeks relearned how to write once again, but this time instead of using the Linear B script used by the Mycenaeans, they adopted the alphabet used by the Phoenicians “innovating in a fundamental way by introducing vowels as letters. The Greek version of the alphabet eventually formed the base of the alphabet used for English today.” (Martin, 43)centaur

Life was undoubtedly harsh for the Greeks of the Dark ages. However, in retrospect we can identify one major benefit of the period. The deconstruction of the old Mycenaean economic and social structures with the strict class hierarchy and hereditary rule were forgotten, and eventually replaced with new socio-political institutions that eventually allowed for the rise of Democracy in 5th c. BCE Athens. Notable events from this period include the occurrence of the first Olympics in 776, and the writing of the Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey.

History of Greece: Archaic

The next period of Greek History is described as Archaic and lasted for about two hundred years from (700 – 480 BCE). During this epoch Greek population recovered and organized politically in city-states (Polis) comprised of citizens, foreign residents, and slaves. This kind of complex social organization required the development of an advanced legal structure that ensured the smooth coexistence of different classes and the equality of the citizens irrespective of their economic status. This was a required precursor for the Democratic principles that we see developed two hundred years later in Athens.http://www.ancient-greece.org/images/graphics/kroisos.jpg

Greek city-states of the Archaic epoch spread throughout the Mediterranean basin through vigorous colonization. As the major city-states grew in size they spawn a plethora of coastal towns in the Aegean, the Ionian, Anatolia (today’s Turkey), Phoenicia (the Middle East), Libya, Southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and as far as southern France, Spain, and the Black Sea. These states, settlements, and trading posts numbered in the hundreds, and became part of an extensive commercial network that involved all the advanced civilizations of the time. As a consequence, Greece came into contact and aided in the exchange of goods and ideas throughout ancient Africa, Asia, and Europe. Through domination of commerce in the Mediterranean, aggressive expansion abroad, and competition at home, several very strong city-states began emerging as dominant cultural centers, most notably Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Syracuse, Miletus, Halicarnassus among other.

Ancient Greece.org

Excerpted from History of Hellenistic Era Ancient Greece


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