Name: Date: Ancient Greece – Lesson 2 The Rise of Greek Cities

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Ancient Greece – Lesson 2

The Rise of Greek Cities

The Acropolis in Athens is the best known of the many acropolises built in Greece.

By 1100 B.C. both Egypt’s New Kingdom empire and China’s Shang dynasty had lost their power. Historians know little about how people in Greece lived during this period or during the next 400 years. Very few artifacts from Greece at this time have been found. However, many artifacts dating from about 700 B.C. onward have been found. They show that life had changed greatly since the earliest days of ancient Greece. In many cities, groups of powerful men worked together to make decisions for their communities. Each community usually revolved around one city. The Greek word for this kind of city-state was polis.

A Greek Polis

Most city-states were laid out according to a similar plan. Most were built around an acropolis. An acropolis was a large hill where city residents could seek shelter and safety in times of war. In a nearby clearing farmers would gather to trade with each other and with craftworkers. The clearing, called an agora, often served both as a marketplace and as a meeting place.

Developing Governments

Although city-states often looked similar, each one had a different type of government. In each type, however, leaders had to be citizens of their polis. Today a citizen is a person who has certain rights and responsibilities in his or her country or community. In ancient Greece, though, only men could be citizens. Women and slaves were not allowed to be citizens and had few rights. Slaves, or helots, in ancient Greece were usually conquered neighbors. Slavery was common throughout ancient Greece. Being a citizen did not automatically give men a role in their government. In many city-states a small group of the richest, most powerful citizens controlled decision making. This type of government is called an oligarchy. By 600 B.C. the Greek city-state of Athens was governed by an oligarchy. One Athenian said: Oligarchy is a government resting on the value of property, in which the rich have power and the poor have none. Before the oligarchy Athens had another form of government. Like other Greek city-states, it was ruled by one ruler, or king. This type of government is called monarchy. In fact the word monarchy comes from two Greek words meaning “rule by one.”

Question Time: Answer the following questions based on what you just read above.

1. What is a city state, and what did the Greeks call it?

2. What was an acropolis and what was its role?

3. What was the agora and what role did it play?

4. How did citizenship in ancient Greece differ from citizenship in modern countries?

5. Did all free men have an equal opportunity to be part of the government? Explain.

Two Greek Cities

Of Greece’s many city-states, historians know most about Athens and Sparta. Many documents and artifacts from those cities have been preserved. Like all Greek city-states, they had much in common. The way people lived in the two powerful city-states from day to day, however, differed a great deal.


In 700 B.C. Sparta covered much of the southern Peloponnesus and was Greece’s largest city-state. Dozens of villages belonged to this polis. Sparta’s central “city” was a cluster of villages that lay almost 30 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. A low mountain nearby formed Sparta’s acropolis. Near its base lay the polis agora, or meeting place. Here Sparta’s leaders made the decisions that shaped life in this polis. As in other city-states, farmers gathered at Sparta’s agora to do business. Most of Sparta’s farm workers, however, were slaves. Sparta had many more slaves than other city-states. At some times, there were as many as seven slaves for every one Spartan.

The Spartan Military

Around 600 B.C. Sparta’s slaves revolted. The Spartans, however, managed to overpower their slaves. Polis leaders then set out to make Sparta the strongest military power in Greece. They wanted to make sure that neither slaves nor another polis could ever gain control of Sparta. Sparta’s people dedicated much of their lives to making their polis strong. Spartan children, too, were expected to do their part for the polis. At about age seven, boys and girls began training. Although they spent some time learning to read and write, boys spent even more time training to be soldiers. Girls practiced running, throwing spears called javelins, and playing ball games. In Sparta, girls trained not to become soldiers but rather to be strong mothers of strong children.


Life for girls and boys was very different in the city of Athens. Athens lay on the peninsula of Attica, northeast of Sparta. Athenian girls did not practice sports. Rather, they were told to “see little, hear little, and ask no more questions than are absolutely necessary.” Girls stayed at home to help their mothers. They carried out such duties as weaving cloth from sheep’s wool. Girls who lived on farms helped in the fields at harvest time. Many Athenian boys worked each day with their fathers in the fields, or in pottery or stone working shops. If their parents could afford to send them to school, boys studied reading and writing. After classes they would practice wrestling or boxing at a local gymnasium before returning home.

Government in Athens

Life in Athens was different from that in Sparta. Athenians did not spend as much time and energy building a strong army. Yet Athens had challenges of its own. Remember, Athens’ government around 600 B.C. was an oligarchy. Most of Athens’ early leaders belonged to noble families that were both rich and powerful. In time the poorer citizens of Athens demanded to have more say in how their government was run. The nobles were forced to share some of their power with other citizens.

Power to the People

The developing new government featured large meetings where all the citizens could take part in making decisions for the polis. This form of government is today called a democracy. The word democracy combines two Greek words meaning “rule by the people.” It means that citizens vote to make government decisions. The beginnings of democracy marked an important time in world history. Some historians, in fact, trace our own ideas of democracy back to ancient Greece. In the next lesson you will read about further developments in Greece’s new democratic system.

Question Time: Answer the following questions based on what you just read above.

6. What effects did slavery have on life in Sparta?

7. How was militarism reflected in the education of boys? In the education of girls?

8. What was the biggest difference between the training of Athenian girls and boys?

9. How did government change in Athens?

10. What was this new form of government called and how did it foreshadow our government today?

Progression of Forms of Government in Athens

(Fill in the blanks)

Shared Culture

The citizens of Athens did not meet to discuss government policies every day. Like the people of the other Greek cities, Athenians reserved a few days of every month for religious celebrations to honor gods and goddesses. Ancient Greeks believed that many gods and goddesses ruled the world. The most powerful were said to live on Mount OIympus. Mount Olympus is a mountain in northern Greece.

Special Festivals

Each polis honored at least one god or goddess as its special protector and provider. In Athens people worshiped Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Every summer they held a huge festival in her honor. After singing and dancing all night, Athenians walked to the top of the city’s acropolis. There, as the sun rose in the sky, priests killed cattle in honor of Athena. People from all over Greece also gathered at temples to worship Zeus, the most powerful god in the ancient Greek religion. The city-states also came together to compete in athletic competitions. You will read more about the most well known of these games, the Olympics, later in the chapter. At the Olympic Games crowds cheered athletes from many city-states.

A Greek Poet

People in all city-states loved to hear the stories of the poet Homer. Many of these stories described Greece’s past. Homer is thought to have lived sometime between 800 and 700 B.C. His most famous epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, tell stories of war and adventure. The Iliad describes what happened when a prince from Troy, and ancient city in what is today Turkey, kidnapped Helen, a Greek queen. The poem also describes how the gods created Greek cities. How does Homer describe the Greek army?

Excerpt from the Iliad, by Homer, c. 700 B.C.

As when, at the edge of the sounding sea, wave after wave comes up under the driving of the West Wind – out on the deep it lifts its crest and is broken on the land with a noise like thunder, and far over the headlands shoots its salt foam – so did the Greek lines then go into battle. Each chief gave his men their orders, but the rest said not a word. You would not have thought that all that great army had a voice among them, in such silence they all went through fear of their chiefs. And as they moved, the armor upon their bodies flashed in the sun.

Beyond Greece

Not long after the Greek festivals and Olympics were begun, athletes from faraway Greek colonies came to participate. The colonies were made up of groups of people who lived apart from, but kept ties with, Greece. Colonies were founded by Greeks in the 700s B.C. Many colonies became important trading partners because they grew grains that were much in demand in Greece. Greek ships also traveled south to Egypt’s Nile Delta. By 500 B.C. Greek city-states ringed the Mediterranean “like frogs around a pond,” as a teacher named Plato put it. Some of Greece’s eastern territories, however, were being taken over by a growing empire that was already vastly larger than Greece. At its height this empire of Persia – based in what is today Iran – was bigger than any that had yet existed in the world. It included all lands from Egypt and the western edge of the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus Valley.

Why it Matters

The city-states of ancient Greece had their differences and valued their independence. Many of the Greek cities even had different types of government. One of these cities, Athens, began to develop a new kind of government called democracy. The idea of democracy is important in the United States. Despite their differences, the cities of ancient Greece shared many cultural ties. In 499 B.C. a Greek colony on the edge of what is today Turkey wanted to break free from Persian control. People of the colony asked the Greek city-states for help. Athens, Sparta, and other city-states joined together to fight Persia. The war that followed would change Greece forever.

Main Ideas

  • Life in most of the Greek city-states revolted around an agora and an acropolis.

  • Spartans spent much of their time working to strengthen their bodies and their army. In Athens free women and girls worked at home. Boys and men worked, went to school, or took part in government.

Question Time: Answer the following questions based on what you just read above.

11. What form did Greek festivals take and whom did they honor?

12. What is a colony?

13. Around what two main features was a Greek polis built?

14. Compare and contrast life for the young people of Sparta and Athens.

Final Lesson 2 Activities: (pick 1)

  • Draw a diagram of what Sparta’s center must have looked like. Be sure to include Sparta’s acropolis and agora.

  • Write a brief article for a travel magazine in which you contrast a visit o Sparta with a visit to Athens.

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