Ancient Greece

Greek civilization from c. 1200 BC to c. 600 AD

Ancient Greek civilization, also commonly called Ancient Greece, was a large area, mostly along the northeast shore of the Mediterranean Sea, where people spoke the Greek language. The area was much larger than today's country of Greece. The Greek civilization thrived from the archaic period of the 8th to the 6th centuries BC to 146 BC. The period ended with the Roman conquest of Greece at the Battle of Corinth.

Greek cities and their spread across the Mediterranean
The Parthenon is a temple dedicated to Athena, located on the Acropolis in Athens.[1] It is a symbol of the culture and sophistication of the ancient Greeks.

For most of the time, the Greeks did not have one government or ruler although they had a common language and culture.[2][3] Greek is an Indo-European language.[4]

There were many city-states, each with its own constitution. Athens, Sparta and Corinth were powerful city-states. Some had kings, and others, like Athens, had a form of democracy. As time went on, the most powerful city-states collected others into groups known as "leagues". That applied to many of the Greek colonies in Asia Minor, most of which had close ties to one or to another of the three biggest cities.

In the middle of the period, Classical Greece flourished during the 5th to 4th centuries BC. Athenian leadership repelled the threat of Persian invasion during the Greco-Persian Wars. The Athenian Golden Age ended with the defeat of Athens at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War in 345 BC.

In the last period, Greece was unified by the conquests of Alexander the Great. The city-states continued under the overall influence of Macedonia during the Hellenistic Period.

Greek culture had some influence on the Roman Empire, the main power of the Ancient World. That made classical Greece part of the foundation of Western civilization. Greek was also the language of the Byzantine Empire.[5]

Timeline of Greek history

Alexander the Great

The history of Ancient Greece went through several stages:[6]

  • Mycenaean culture (c.1600–c.1100 BC) was an early Greek culture during the Bronze Age on the Greek mainland and on Crete.
  • The Bronze Age collapse, or the Greek Dark Ages (c.1100–c.750 BC).
  • The Archaic period (c.750–c.500 BC) had Artists make larger free-standing sculptures in stiff poses with the dreamlike "archaic smile". The period ends with the overthrow of the last tyrant of Athens in 510 BC.
  • The Classical period (c.500–323 BC) had an artistic style that was considered by later observers to be an outstanding example such as the Parthenon. Politically, the classical period was dominated by Athens and the Delian League during the 5th century. They were displaced by Spartan hegemony during the early 4th century. Finally, there was the League of Corinth, which was led by Macedon.
The conquests of Alexander stretched as far as the Himalayas

Early history




In the 8th century B.C., the Greeks learned how to read and write a second time. They had lost literacy at the end of the Mycenaean culture, as the Mediterranean world fell into the Dark Ages. The Greek Dark Ages (~1100 BC–750 BC), also called the Bronze Age collapse, is a period in the history of Ancient Greece and Anatolia for which there are no written records and few archaeological remains.

The Greeks learned about the alphabet from another ancient people, the Phoenicians. They made some adjustments to it. In particular, the Greeks introduced regular letters for vowels, which were more important in their language. Their alphabet was, in turn, modified by the Etruscans and then the Romans, and much of the world now uses the Roman alphabet.

Political structure


Ancient Greece had one language and culture but was not unified until 337 BC, when Macedonia defeated Athens and Thebes. That marked the end of the Classical period and the start of the Hellenistic period. Even then, the conquered cities were merely joined to Philip II of Macedon's Corinthian League, were not occupied and ruled themselves.

City-states in Ancient Greece


Ancient Greece consisted of several hundred more or less independent city states. That was different from other societies, which were either tribal or kingdoms that ruled over relatively large territories.

The geography of Greece, which is divided and sub-divided by hills, mountains and rivers, certainly contributed to the nature of ancient Greece. On the one hand, the ancient Greeks had no doubt that they were "one people" since they had the same religion, same basic culture, and same language. However, each city-state, or polis, was independent; unification was something rarely discussed by the ancient Greeks. Even during the second Persian invasion of Greece, although a group of city-states allied themselves to defend Greece, most poleis remained neutral, and after the Persian defeat, the allies quickly returned to infighting.[7]

The major features of the Ancient Greek political system were:

  1. Its fragmentary nature since there was not one country but many little countries, called city-states.
  2. The focus on cities in tiny states.
  3. The colonies that they set up around the Mediterranean were independent of the founding city but were sympathetic to their mother city.
  4. Conquest or direct rule by another city-state was quite rare.
  5. The cities grouped themselves into leagues, and members sometimes quit one league and joined another.

Later, during the Classical period, the leagues were fewer and larger, and dominated by one city (particularly Athens, Sparta and Thebes). Often cities would be forced to join under threat of war or as part of a peace treaty. After Philip II had conquered the heartlands of ancient Greece, he did not try to annex the territory or unify it into a new province. However, he forced most of the cities to join his own Corinthian League.



Some city-states were democratic, some were aristocratic and some were monarchies. Some had many revolutions in which one kind of government replaced another. One famous Greek kingdom is Macedon, which became briefly the largest empire that the world had seen at the time by conquering the Persian Empire (including ancient Egypt) and reaching India. Other famous kingdoms are Epirus and Thessaly.

Monarchies in ancient Greece were not absolute because there was usually a council of older citizens (the Senate or, in Macedonia, the Congress) who gave advice to the King. These men were not elected or chosen in a lottery, unlike in the democratic city-states.



Citizens who could participate in government in ancient Greece were usually men who were free-born in that city. Women, slaves and (usually) residents who were born elsewhere did not have the right to vote. The details differed by city-state.

For example, in Athens, the residents of Athens were of three groups: citizens, metics (resident aliens) and slaves.[8] Citizens were residents whose ancestors had been Athenians for three generations. Male citizens had the rights of free men and could be chosen to fulfill any official state position. "Of the estimated 150,000 residents of the city-state of Attica, only about one fifth held the privilege of citizenship".[9] Women who were citizens in Athens could not participate in political offices, but in Sparta they could.


The ruins of Sparta

The number of Greeks grew, and soon, not enough food could be grown for all of the people. When that happened, a city-state would send people off to start a new one, known as a colony.

Because the terrain was rough, most travel was by sea. For that reason, many new cities were established along the coastline. First new cities were started in Anatolia (Asia Minor) and later along the Black Sea, in Cyprus, in southern Italy, in Sicily and around what is now Benghazi in Libya. They even started a city, Naucratis, on the river Nile, in Egypt. Today's Syracuse, Naples, Marseille and Istanbul started as the Greek cities Syracusa, Neapolis, Massilia and Byzantium.

The big four


By the 6th century BC, some city-states became much more important than the others: Corinth, Thebes, Sparta and Athens.

The Spartans were very well-disciplined soldiers. They defeated the people who lived near them, who had to farm the land for the Spartans. These helots had to give the Spartans part of the food that they grew and so the Spartans did not have to work. Instead, they learned how to be better soldiers. There were not many Spartans, but there were many helots. Spartan military strength controlled the helots. The Spartans had two hereditary kings who led them in war. At home they were also ruled by a group of old men, called the Gerousia (Senate).

Athens became a democracy in 510 BC. The men came to a place in the centre of the city and decided what to do. It was the first place in the world in which the people decided what their country should do. They would talk and then vote on what to do at the Boule (Council). However, the women and the slaves did not vote. The slaves were owned by their masters and could be sold to someone else. The Athenian slaves were less free than the Spartan helots were. Every year, Athenian citizens elected eight strategoi (generals), who led them in war.

Greco-Persian Wars

The Persian invasion of Greece

In 499 BC, the Greek city-states in Anatolia rebelled because did not want Persia to rule them anymore. Athens sent 20 ships to fight the Persians on the sea. The Greeks in Anatolia were defeated. Persian King Darius I decided to punish Athens. He sent soldiers and ships to fight Athens.

Athens asked for help from Sparta, which was unable to because it then had a religious festival. Athens sent its own soldiers against the Persian soldiers and at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) defeated the Persians. Help from Sparta then came.

At the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans were led by Leonidas and resisted the huge Persian army. After a couple of days, a traitor, Ephialtes, led the Persians around the pass behind the Greek army. Realising that defeat was inevitable, Leonidas released many of his men. Those who stayed knew that it would be a fight to the death. Leonides kept elite hoplites (foot soldiers) who had living sons at home.[10] Some Thespians and Thebans who volunteered to stay.

On the third day, Leonidas led his 300 Spartan hoplites and their allies against Xerxes I and his mighty army. The Spartan-led forces fought the Persian force to their deaths to block the pass long enough to keep Xerxes and his army occupied while the rest of the Greek army escaped.

After Thermopylae, many Greeks wanted to go south to the Peloponnese. Because the Isthmus of Corinth, the way into the Peloponnese, is very narrow, many of them wanted to fight the Persians there.

Athens is north of Corinth and had a navy. The Athenian leader Themistocles wanted to fight the Persians by the island of Salamis. Xerxes decided to send his fleet against the Greek fleet before the Greek ships could go to the Peloponnese. The Greek fleet defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis. Xerxes then went home with many of his soldiers, but a Persian army stayed in Greece. It was defeated at the Battle of Platea in 479 BC.

Peloponnesian War


After the Persians' defeat at Platea, the Spartans did very little. However, Persia was still dangerous. Athens asked the Greek city-states on the islands in the Aegean and in Anatolia to join it. They agreed because they were afraid of Persia and formed the Delian League and Athens was their leader. Many of the city-states of the Delian League had to pay Athens tribute money. Athens used it to build many ships and the Parthenon. During the Peloponnesian War, Sparta was still strong on land, but Athens was stronger on the sea. Several times, there was war between Athens and Sparta. Athens then decided to send many ships to Sicily to Syracuse. Sparta sent help to Syracuse, and Athens was defeated. None of the Athenian ships came back.

Sparta now wanted to build ships to fight Athens. It took a long time for Sparta to defeat Athens, but at the Battle of Aegospotami, the Spartans destroyed most of Athens's ships. The Athenians used advanced ships, called triremes, which had their combat systems and were propelled by oarsmen. On the front of the trireme was a large bronze battering ram. The oarsmen would row the trireme at an enemy boat and ram a hole into its hull. This was the most effective way for the trireme to destroy other boats. The hoplites on the trireme would board the enemy ship and capture it. However, the Athenian fleet of triremes was destroyed in a battle in 405 BC. Athens surrendered the following year and the war was over.[11] Athens never recovered its previous domination.

Daily life


Men, when they were not working, fighting or discussing politics, could at festive times go to watch dramas, comedies or tragedies. Ancient Greek theatre often involved politics and the gods of Greek mythology. Women were not allowed to perform in the theatre and so male actors played female roles.

Women did domestic work, such as spinning, weaving, cleaning and cooking. They were not involved in public life or politics. Those from rich families, however, had slaves to carry out domestic work for them.



The ecumene (US) or oecumene (UK) is an ancient Greek term for the known world. In antiquity, it was the parts of the world known to Greek geographers, which was basically the Mediterranean world. Europe, Asia and Africa (north of the Atlas mountains and Egypt). The Greeks were well aware of the Persian Empire, and Alexander the Great's army got as far as parts of what is now Pakistan.

Under the Roman Empire, the term came to mean civilisation itself, which was wider than the Greeks had supposed.

The famous Olympic Games were held at Olympia every four years. They were for men only, and women were not allowed to attend, even as spectators. The sports included running, javelin throwing, discus throwing and wrestling. The games were unusual because the athletes could come from any Greek city-state.

Another competition, the Heraean Games, was held for women and was also held at Olympus at a different time from the men's event.[12]

The rules for girls in Sparta were different from other city-states. They were trained in the same events as boys because Spartans believed that strong women would produce strong babies, who would become future warriors. Their girl athletes were unmarried and competed while they were nude or wore short dresses. Boys were allowed to watch the athletes in the hope of creating marriages and offspring.

Later, during the classical period, girls could compete in the same festivals as males.[13]

  1. Maynard, Christopher (1996). Greek Times (Little Histories). Kingfisher. p. 12. ISBN 0753400707.
  2. Christidis, Anastasios-Phoibos, ed. 2007. A history of Ancient Greek: from the beginnings to late antiquity. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Easterling P and Handley C. 2001. Greek scripts: an illustrated introduction. London: Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies. ISBN 0-902984-17-9
  4. Fortson, Benjamin W. 2010. Indo-European language and culture: an introduction. 2d ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  5. Horrocks, Geoffrey. 2010. Greek: a history of the language and its speakers, 2d ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  6. Pomeroy, Sarah B. (1999). Ancient Greece: a political, social, and cultural history. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195097429.
  7. Holland, T. Persian fire, Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1
  8. "Gill N.S. Metic.". Archived from the original on 2012-09-25. Retrieved 2013-06-09.
  9. Ewbank N. 2009.The nature of Athenian democracy Archived 2011-12-17 at the Wayback Machine Clio.
  10. Because their family line would continue after their death.
  11. Hanson, Victor Davis 2005. A war like no other: how the Athenians and Spartans fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House (hardcover ISBN 1-4000-6095-8; paperback ISBN 0-8129-6970-7.
  12. "THE HERAIA". History of the Olympic Games. Retrieved February 18, 2006.
  13. Scanlon, Thomas F. "Games for girls". Ancient Olympics Guide. Retrieved February 18, 2006.

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