Ancient Greece was a large area in the north-west of the Mediterranean where people spoke Greek. It was much bigger than the Greece we know today. It was the civilization of Greece from the Archaic period of the 8th/6th centuries BC to 146 BC. The period ended with the Roman conquest of Greece in the Battle of Corinth.
For most of this time the Greeks did not have a single government or ruler. There were a number of city states, each of which had its own constitution. Athens, Sparta and Corinth are examples. Some had kings, and some, like Athens had a form of democracy.
In the middle of this period was Classical Greece, which flourished during the 5th to 4th centuries BC. Athenian leadership successfully repelled the threat of Persian invasion in the Greco-Persian Wars. The Athenian Golden Age ends with the defeat of Athens at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC.
Greek culture had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire, which carried a version of it to many parts of the Mediterranean region and Europe. In this way, Classical Greece was part of the foundation of Western civilization. Greek was also the language, and partly the culture, of the Byzantine Empire.
Classical Antiquity in Greece is preceded by the Mycenaean culture, and then by the Greek Dark Ages (c.1100-c.750 BC). The history of Greece during this time may be split into the following periods:
- The Archaic period (c.750-c.500 BC). Artists made larger free-standing sculptures in stiff, poses with the dreamlike 'archaic smile'. The Archaic period ends with the overthrow of the last tyrant of Athens in 510 BC.
- The Classical period (c.500-323 BC) is characterised by a style which was considered by later observers to be exemplary (i.e. 'classical')—for instance 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 BC. Finally there was the League of Corinth, which was led by Macedon.
- The Hellenistic period (323-146 BC) is when Greek culture and power expanded into the near and Middle East. This period begins with the death of Alexander and ends with the Roman conquest.
- Roman Greece. This is the period between the Roman victory at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BC and the establishment of Byzantium by Constantine as the capital of the Roman Empire in 330 AD.
- The final phase of Antiquity is the period of Christianization during the later 4th to early 6th centuries, ending with the closure of the later version of Plato's Academy by Justinian I in 529 AD.
Early history [change]
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), or Bronze Age collapse, is a period in the history of Ancient Greece and Anatolia from which there are no 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 was necessary for their language. Their alphabet was, in turn, copied by the Romans, and much of the world now uses the Roman alphabet.
Political structure [change]
Ancient Greece had a single language and culture, but was not unified until 337 BC, when Macedonia defeated Athens and Thebes. That marked the end of the Ancient period, and the start of the Hellenistic period. Even then, the conquered cities were merely joined to the Corinthian League; they were not occupied but ruled themselves.
City states [change]
Ancient Greece consisted of several hundred more-or-less independent city states. This was different from other societies, which were tribal, or kingdoms ruling over relatively large territories.
Undoubtedly the geography of Greece—divided and sub-divided by hills, mountains and rivers—contributed to the nature of ancient Greece. On the one hand, the ancient Greeks had no doubt that they were 'one people'; they had the same religion, same basic culture, and same language. Yet the city states were independent; unification was something rarely discussed by the ancient Greeks.
Even when, during the second Persian invasion of Greece, a group of city-states allied themselves to defend Greece, the most poleis remained neutral, and after the Persian defeat, the allies quickly returned to infighting.
Thus, the major peculiarities of the Ancient Greek political system were; firstly, its fragmentary nature; and secondly the focus on urban centres within otherwise tiny states. There was not one country, but many little countries called "city states".
The colonies they set up throughout the Mediterranean, though they counted a Greek polis as their 'mother' (and remain sympathetic to her), were completely independent of the founding city.
Conquest or direct rule by another city state appears to have been quite rare. Instead the poleis grouped themselves into leagues, membership of which was in a constant state of flux. Later in the Classical period, the leagues would become fewer and larger, be dominated by one city (particularly Athens, Sparta and Thebes).
Often cities would be compelled to join under threat of war (or as part of a peace treaty). Even after Philip II of Macedon 'conquered' the heartlands of ancient Greece, he did not attempt to annex the territory, or unify it into a new province, but simply compelled most of the poleis to join his own Corinthian League.
In ancient times, not all of Greece was democratic. Democratic city-states like Athens or semi-democratic (democracy only for the wealthy) city-states like Sparta were just a few examples of the states that together formed Greece. The most famous Greek kingdom is Macedon, which became the largest empire the world had seen at the time and conquered Egypt and Persia until it reached modern-day India. Other famous kingdoms are Epirus and Thessaly.
Monarchies in ancient Greece were not entirely absolute because there was a council of old people (the senate, or in Macedonia the congress) who gave advice to the King. These people were not elected like they were in the Greek city-states.
The number of Greeks grew and soon they could not grow enough food for all the people. When this happened, a city would send people off to start a new city.
Because the terrain was rough, most travel was by the sea. For this reason, many new cities were established along the coastline. First new cities were started in Anatolia (Asia Minor) and then in the Black sea, in Cyprus, in southern Italy and in Sicily, by the sea in what today is Libya. They even started a city, Naucratis, on the river Nile in Egypt. The cities of today, Syracuse, Naples, Marseilles, and Istanbul started as the Greek cities Syracusa, Neapolis, Massilia and Byzantium.
The big four [change]
The Spartans were very good soldiers. They defeated the people who lived near them and those people had to farm the land for the Spartans. These people called helots had to give the Spartans part of the food 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. "What if the helots rebel?", thought the Spartans. They were afraid of that. To stop the helots rebelling they sometimes did bad things to the helots. The Spartans wanted the helots to be afraid of them so that the helots would not rebel and fight to be free. The Spartans had two kings who led them in war. They were also ruled by a group of old men called the Gerousia (the senate).
Athens became a democracy in 510 BC. The men came to a place in the center of the city and decided what to do. It was the first place in the world where the people decided what their country should do. They would talk and then vote on what to do at the Boule or the Bouleutirion (the parliament). But the women did not vote. They did not have helots like Sparta but they had slaves. These slaves were owned by their masters and could be sold to someone else. The Athenian slaves were less free than the Spartan helots but the Athenians were not afraid of their slaves. Every year, they elected 8 generals who led them in war.
Greco-Persian Wars [change]
In 499 BC, the Greek cities in Anatolia rebelled. They 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. The Persian King, Darius decided to punish Athens. He sent soldiers and ships to fight Athens.
Athens asked for help from Sparta. Sparta wanted to help but could not; they had a religious festival at that time. Athens sent her soldiers against the Persian soldiers: at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) they defeated the Persians. Then the help from Sparta came.
Unfortunately for Leonidas, after a couple of days, a traitor called Ephialtes led the Persians around the pass behind the Greek army at Thermopylae. Realising that defeat was inevitable, Leonidas sent away most of the amassed troops.
On the third day, Leonidas led his 300 Spartan hoplites (elite troops selected because they had living sons back home) plus the allied Thespians and Thebans against Xerxes and his army of "100,000 Immortals." The Spartan-led forces fought this unstoppable Persian force to their deaths in order 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 of the sea the way into the Peloponnese is very narrow. Many wanted to fight the Persians where it is very narrow, by the city of Corinth.
Athens was north of Corinth and she had many ships. Athens' 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. This army was defeated at the Battle of Platea in 479 BC.
Athens against Sparta [change]
After the Persians were defeated at Platea, the Spartans did very little. However Persia sent its ships across the sea to help Greek cities in Anatolia fight for their freedom. Athens asked the Greek cities on the islands in the Aegean and in Anatolia to join her. These cities agreed because they were afraid of Persia. These cities formed the Delian League and Athens was their leader. Many of the cities had to pay Athens money. Athens used the money to build many ships. Sparta was still strong on land, but Athens was stronger on the sea. Several times there was war between Athens and Sparta. Then Athens decided to send many ships to Sicily to fight against the city Syracuse. Sparta sent help to Syracuse, and Athens was defeated. None of the Athenian ships came back. Now Sparta decided to build ships to fight Athens. It took a long time for Sparta to defeat Athens but then at the Battle of Aegospotami the Spartans destroyed most of Athens's ships. The Athenians used a highly advanced type of ship known only as triremes. These highly advanced battle craft were equipped with sophisticated combat systems, and were propelled by an armada of extremely buff men. On the front of the trireme was a large bronze ram. The trireme would row itself at an enemy boat very fast, and ram a hole into its hull. This was the most effective way for the trireme to destroy other boats. Sometimes, the soldiers (called hoplites) on the trireme would board the ship and keep it for their own.
Daily Life [change]
Men, if not farming, fighting or discussing politics, could be at the Ancient Greek theatre watching dramas, comedies or tragedies. These often involved politics and gods. Women were not allowed to perform at the theatre: male actors played female roles.
Women were doing domestic work like spinning and weaving. They were not involved in public life or politics.
Greek Games [change]
Boys liked playing games like hockey. They usually played games naked, so girls were forbidden to watch. They also played non physical activity games like marbles, dice, checkers and knucklebones.
- Maynard, Christopher (1996). Greek Times (Little Histories). Kingfisher. p. 12. ISBN 0753400707.
- See Bronze Age collapse.
- Pomeroy, Sarah B. (1999). Ancient Greece: a political, social, and cultural history. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195097429. http://books.google.com/?id=INUT5sZku1UC.
- Holland, T. Persian fire, Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-11717-1
More reading [change]
Other websites [change]
- Ancient Greece — links for Middle School students from Courtenay Middle School
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