"The glory that was Greece, " in the words of Edgar Allan Poe,
was short-lived and confined to a very small geographic area. Yet it has
influenced the growth of Western civilization far out of proportion to
its size and duration. The Greece that Poe praised was primarily Athens
during its golden age in the 5th century BC.
Strictly speaking, the state was Attica; Athens was its heart. The
English poet John Milton called Athens "the eye of Greece, mother
of arts and eloquence." Athens was the city-state in which the
arts, philosophy, and democracy flourished. At least it was the city
that attracted those who wanted to work, speak, and think in an
environment of freedom. In the rarefied atmosphere of Athens were born
ideas about human nature and political society that are fundamental to
the Western world today.
Athens was not all of Greece, however. Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and
Thessalonica were but a few of the many other city-states that existed
on the rocky and mountainous peninsula at the southern end of the
Balkans. Each city-state was an independent political unit, and each
vied with the others for power and wealth. These city-states planted
Greek colonies in Asia Minor, on many islands in the Aegean Sea, and in
southern Italy and Sicily.
The Beginnings of Ancient Greece
The story of ancient Greece began between 1900 and 1600 BC.
At that time the Greeks--or Hellenes, as they called themselves--were
simple nomadic herdsmen. Their language shows that they were a branch of
the Indo-European-speaking peoples (see Language
). They came from the grasslands east of the Caspian Sea, driving their
flocks and herds before them. They entered the peninsula from the north,
one small group after another.
The first invaders were the fair-haired Achaeans of whom Homer wrote.
The Dorians came perhaps three or four centuries later and subjugated
their Achaean kinsmen. Other tribes, the Aeolians and the Ionians, found
homes chiefly on the islands in the Aegean Sea and on the coast of Asia
The land that these tribes invaded-- the Aegean Basin--was the site
of a well-developed civilization. The people who lived there had cities
and palaces. They used gold and bronze and made pottery and paintings (see
The Greek invaders were still in the barbarian stage. They plundered
and destroyed the Aegean cities. Gradually, as they settled and
intermarried with the people they conquered, they absorbed some of the
Life of the Early Wanderers
Little is known of the earliest stages of Greek settlement. The
invaders probably moved southward from their pasturelands along the
Danube, bringing their families and primitive goods in rough oxcarts.
Along the way they grazed their herds. In the spring they stopped long
enough to plant and harvest a single crop. Gradually they settled down
to form communities ruled by kings and elders.
The background of the two great Greek epics--the `Iliad' and the
`Odyssey'--is the background of the Age of Kings (see Homeric
Legend ). These epics depict the simple, warlike life of the early
Greeks. The Achaeans had excellent weapons and sang stirring songs. Such
luxuries as they possessed, however-- gorgeous robes, jewelry, elaborate
metalwork --they bought from the Phoenician traders (see Phoenicians
The Greek City-States and Their Colonies
The `Iliad' tells how Greeks from many city-states-- among them,
Sparta, Athens, Thebes, and Argos-- joined forces to fight their common
foe Troy in Asia Minor (see Trojan
War ). In historical times the Greek city-states were again able to
combine when the power of Persia threatened them. However, ancient
Greece never became a nation. The only patriotism the ancient Greek knew
was loyalty to his city. This seems particularly strange today, as the
cities were very small. Athens was probably the only Greek city-state
with more than 20,000 citizens.
Just as Europe, unlike North America, is divided into many small
nations rather than a few large political units, so ancient Greece was
divided into many small city-states. Sometimes the Greek city-states
were separated by mountain ranges. Often, however, a single plain
contained several city-states, each surrounding its acropolis, or
citadel. These flattopped, inaccessible rocks or mounds are
characteristic of Greece and were first used as places of refuge. From
the Corinthian isthmus rose the lofty acrocorinthus, from Attica the
Acropolis of Athens, from the plain of Argolis the mound of Tiryns, and,
loftier still, the Larissa of Argos. On these rocks the Greek cities
built their temples and their king's palace, and their houses clustered
about the base.
Only in a few cases did a city-state push its holdings beyond very
narrow limits. Athens held the whole plain of Attica, and most of the
Attic villagers were Athenian citizens. Argos conquered the plain of
Argolis. Sparta made a conquest of Laconia and part of the fertile plain
of Messenia. The conquered people were subjects, not citizens. Thebes
attempted to be the ruling city of Boeotia but never quite succeeded (see
Similar city-states were found all over the Greek world, which had
early flung its outposts throughout the Aegean Basin and even beyond.
There were Greeks in all the islands of the Aegean. Among these islands
was Thasos, famous for its gold mines. Samothrace, Imbros, and Lemnos
were long occupied by Athenian colonists. Other Aegean islands colonized
by Greeks included Lesbos, the home of the poet Sappho; Scyros, the
island of Achilles; and Chios, Samos, and Rhodes. Also settled by Greeks
were the nearer-lying Cyclades--so called (from the Greek word for
"circle") because they encircled the sacred island of
Delos--and the southern island of Crete.
The western shores of Asia Minor were fringed with Greek colonies,
reaching out past the Propontis (Sea of Marmara) and the Bosporus to the
northern and southern shores of the Euxine, or Black, Sea. In Africa
there were, among others, the colony of Cyrene, now the site of a town
in Libya, and the trading post of Naucratis in Egypt. Sicily too was
colonized by the Greeks, and there and in southern Italy so many
colonies were planted that this region came to be known as Magna Graecia
(Great Greece). Pressing farther still, the Greeks founded the city of
Massilia, now Marseilles, France.
Separated by barriers of sea and mountain, by local pride and
jealousy, the various independent city-states never conceived the idea
of uniting the Greekspeaking world into a single political unit. They
formed alliances only when some powerful city-state embarked on a career
of conquest and attempted to make itself mistress of the rest. Many
influences made for unity--a common language, a common religion, a
common literature, similar customs, the religious leagues and festivals,
the Olympic Games--but even in time of foreign invasion it was difficult
to induce the cities to act together.
Various Types of Government
The government of many city-states, notably Athens, passed through
four stages from the time of Homer to historical times. During the 8th
and 7th centuries BC the kings disappeared.
Monarchy gave way to oligarchy--that is, rule by a few. The oligarchic
successors of the kings were the wealthy landowning nobles, the "
eupatridae," or wellborn. However, the rivalry among these nobles
and the discontent of the oppressed masses was so great that soon a
third stage appeared.
The third type of government was known as tyranny. Some eupatrid
would seize absolute power, usually by promising the people to right the
wrongs inflicted upon them by the other landholding eupatridae. He was
known as a "tyrant." Among the Greeks this was not a term of
reproach but merely meant one who had seized kingly power without the
qualification of royal descent. The tyrants of the 7th century were a
stepping-stone to democracy, or the rule of the people, which was
established nearly everywhere in the 6th and 5th centuries. It was the
tyrants who taught the people their rights and power.
By the beginning of the 5th century BC, Athens
had gone through these stages and emerged as the first democracy in the
history of the world. Between two and three centuries before this, the
Athenian kings had made way for officials called "archons,"
elected by the nobles. Thus an aristocratic form of government was
About 621 BC an important step in the
direction of democracy was taken, when the first written laws in Greece
were compiled from the existing traditional laws. This reform was forced
by the peasants to relieve them from the oppression of the nobles. The
new code was so severe that the adjective "draconic," derived
from the name of its compiler, Draco, is still a synonym for
"harsh." Unfortunately, Draco 's code did not give the
peasants sufficient relief. A revolution was averted only by the wise
reforms of Solon, about a generation later (see Solon
). Solon's reforms only delayed the overthrow of the aristocracy, and
about 561 BC Pisistratus, supported by the
discontented populace, made himself tyrant. With two interruptions,
Pisistratus ruled for more than 30 years, fostering commerce,
agriculture, and the arts and laying the foundation for much of Athens'
future greatness. His sons Hippias and Hipparchus attempted to continue
their father's power. One of them was slain by two youths, Harmodius and
Aristogiton, who lived on in Greek tradition as themes for sculptors and
poets. By the reforms of Clisthenes, about 509 BC,
the rule of the people was firmly established.
Very different was the course of events in Sparta, which by this time
had established itself as the most powerful military state in Greece (see
). Under the strict laws of Lycurgus it had maintained its primitive
monarchical form of government with little change (see Lycurgus
). Nearly the whole of the Peloponnesus had been brought under its iron
heel, and it was now jealously eyeing the rising power of its democratic
rival in central Greece.
During this period the intellectual and artistic culture of the
Greeks centered among the Ionions of Asia Minor. Thales, called
"the first Greek philosopher," was a citizen of Miletus. He
became famous for predicting an eclipse of the sun in 585 BC.
Suddenly there loomed in the east a power that threatened to sweep
away the whole promising structure of the new European civilization.
Persia, the great Asian empire of the day, had been awakened to the
existence of the free peoples of Greece by the aid which the Athenians
had sent to their oppressed kinsmen in Asia Minor. The Persian empire
mobilized its gigantic resources in an effort to conquer the Greek
city-states. The scanty forces of the Greeks succeeded in driving out
the invaders (see Persian
Athens' Rise to Power
From this momentous conflict Athens emerged a blackened ruin yet the
richest and most powerful state in Greece. It owed this position chiefly
to the shrewd policies of the statesman Themistocles, who had seen that
naval strength, not land strength, would in the future be the key to
power. "Whoso can hold the sea has command of the situation,"
he said. He persuaded his fellow Athenians to build a strong
fleet--larger than the combined fleets of all the rest of Greece--and to
fortify the harbor at Piraeus.
The Athenian fleet became the instrument by which the Persians were
finally defeated, at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC.
The fleet also enabled Athens to dominate the Aegean area. Within three
years after Salamis, Athens had united the Greek cities of the Asian
coast and of the Aegean islands into a confederacy (called the Delian
League because the treasury was at first on the island of Delos) for
defense against Persia. In another generation this confederacy became an
Almost at a stride Athens was transformed from a provincial city into
an imperial capital. Wealth beyond the dreams of any other Greek state
flowed into its coffers--tribute from subject and allied states, customs
duties on the flood of commerce that poured through Piraeus, and
revenues from the Attic silver mines. The population increased fourfold
or more, as foreigners streamed in to share in the prosperity. The
learning that had been the creation of a few "wise men"
throughout the Greek world now became fashionable. Painters and
sculptors vied in beautifying Athens with the works of their genius.
Even today, battered and defaced by time and man, these art treasures
remain among the greatest surviving achievements of human skill. The
period in which Athens flourished, one of the most remarkable and
brilliant in the world's history, reached its culmination in the age of
Pericles, 460-430 BC (see Pericles
). Under the stimulus of wealth and power, with abundant leisure and
free institutions, the citizen body of Athens attained a higher average
of intellectual interests than any other society before or since.
Slavery in Ancient Greece
It must be remembered, however, that a very large part of the
population was not free, that the Athenian state rested on a foundation
of slavery. Two fifths (some authorities say four fifths) of the
population were slaves. Slave labor produced much of the wealth that
gave the citizens of Athens time and money to pursue art and learning
and to serve the state.
Slavery in Greece was a peculiar institution. When a city was
conquered, its inhabitants were often sold as slaves. Kidnapping boys
and men in "barbarian," or non-Greek, lands and even in other
Greek states was another steady source of supply. If a slave was well
educated or could be trained to a craft, he was in great demand.
An Athenian slave often had a chance to obtain his freedom, for quite
frequently he was paid for his work, and this gave him a chance to save
money. After he had bought his freedom or had been set free by a
grateful master, he became a "metic"-- a resident alien. Many
of the slaves, however, had a miserable lot. They were sent in gangs to
the silver mines at Laurium, working in narrow underground corridors by
the dim light of little lamps.
Daily Life in the Age of Pericles
Although slavery freed the Athenians from drudgery, they led simple
lives. They ate two meals a day, usually consisting of bread, vegetable
broth, fruit, and wine. Olives, olive oil, and honey were common foods.
Cheese was often eaten in place of meat. Fish was a delicacy.
The two-story houses of the Athenians were made of sun-dried brick
and stood on narrow, winding streets. Even in the cold months the houses
were heated only with a brazier, or dish, of burning charcoal. The
houses had no chimneys, only a hole in the roof to let out the smoke
from the stove in the tiny kitchen. There were no windows on the first
floor, but in the center of the house was a broad, open court, such as
is found in Spanish and Oriental homes today. Clustered about the court
were the men's apartment, the women's apartment, and tiny bedrooms.
There was no plumbing. Refuse was thrown in the streets.
The real life of the city went on outdoors. The men spent their time
talking politics and philosophy in the agora, or marketplace. They
exercised in the athletic fields, performed military duty, and took part
in state festivals. Some sat in the Assembly or the Council of 500 or
served on juries. There were 6,000 jurors on call at all times in
Athens, for the allied cities were forced to bring cases to Athens for
trial. Daily salaries were paid for jury service and service on the
Council. These made up a considerable part of the income of the poorer
The women stayed at home, spinning and weaving and doing household
chores. They never acted as hostesses when their husbands had parties
and were seen in public only at the theater--where they might attend
tragedy but not comedy--and at certain religious festivals.
The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC)
The growth of Athenian power aroused the jealousy of Sparta and other
independent Greek states and the discontent of Athens ' subject states.
The result was a war that put an end to the power of Athens. The long
struggle, called the Peloponnesian War, began in 431 BC.
It was a contest between a great sea power, Athens and its empire, and a
great land power, Sparta and the Peloponnesian League.
The plan of Pericles in the beginning was not to fight at all, but to
let Corinth and Sparta spend their money and energies while Athens
conserved both. He had all the inhabitants of Attica come inside the
walls of Athens and let their enemies ravage the plain year after year,
while Athens, without losses, harried their lands by sea. However, the
bubonic plague broke out in besieged and overcrowded Athens. It killed
one fourth of the population, including Pericles, and left the rest
without spirit and without a leader. The first phase of the
Peloponnesian War ended with the outcome undecided.
Almost before they knew it, the Athenians were whirled by the
unscrupulous demagogue Alcibiades, a nephew of Pericles, into the second
phase of the war (414-404 BC). Wishing for a
brilliant military career, Alcibiades persuaded Athens to undertake a
large-scale expedition against Syracuse, a Corinthian colony in Sicily.
The Athenian armada was destroyed in 413 BC , and
the captives were sold into slavery.
This disaster sealed the fate of Athens. The allied Aegean cities
that had remained faithful now deserted to Sparta, and the Spartan
armies laid Athens under siege. In 405 BC the
whole remaining Athenian fleet of 180 triremes was captured in the
Hellespont at the battle of Aegospotami. Besieged by land and powerless
by sea, Athens could neither raise grain nor import it, and in 404 BC
its empire came to an end. The fortifications and long walls connecting
Athens with Piraeus were destroyed, and Athens became a vassal of
The End of the Greek City-States
Sparta tried to maintain its supremacy by keeping garrisons in many
of the Greek cities. This custom, together with Sparta 's hatred of
democracy, made its domination unpopular. At the battle of Leuctra, in
371 BC, the Thebans under their gifted commander
Epaminondas put an end to the power of Sparta. Theban leadership was
short-lived, however, for it depended on the skill of Epaminondas. When
he was killed in the battle of Mantinea, in 362 BC,
Thebes had really suffered a defeat in spite of its apparent victory.
The age of the powerful city-states was at an end, and a prostrated
Greece had become easy prey for a would-be conqueror.
Such a conqueror was found in the young and strong country of
Macedon, which lay just to the north of classical Greece. Its King
Philip, who came into power in 360 BC, had had a
Greek education. Seeing the weakness of the disunited cities, he made up
his mind to take possession of the Greek world. Demosthenes saw the
danger that threatened and by a series of fiery speeches against Philip
sought to unite the Greeks as they had once been united against Persia (see
The military might of Philip proved too strong for the disunited
city-states, and at the battle of Chaeronea (338 BC)
he established his leadership over Greece. Before he could carry his
conquests to Asia Minor, however, he was killed and his power fell to
his son Alexander, then not quite 20 years old. Alexander firmly
entrenched his rule throughout Greece and then overthrew the vast power
of Persia, building up an empire that embraced nearly the entire known
world (see Alexander
the Great ).
The Hellenistic Age and Roman Conquest
The three centuries that followed the death of Alexander are known as
the Hellenistic Age, for their products were no longer pure Greek, but
Greek plus the characteristics of the conquered nations. The age was a
time of great wealth and splendor. Art, science, and letters flourished
and developed. The private citizen no longer lived crudely, but in a
beautiful and comfortable house, and many cities adorned themselves with
fine public buildings and sculptures.
The Hellenistic Age came to an end with another conquest--that of
Rome. On the field of Cynoscephalae ("dogs' heads"), in
Thessaly, the Romans defeated Macedonia in 197 BC and
gave the Greek cities their freedom as allies. The Greeks caused Rome a
great deal of trouble, and in 146 BC Corinth was
burned. The Greeks became vassals of Rome. Athens alone was revered and
given some freedom. To its schools went many Romans, Cicero among them.
When the seat of the Roman Empire was transferred to the east,
Constantinople became the center of culture and learning and Athens sank
to the position of an unimportant country town (see Byzantine
Empire ). In the 4th century AD Greece was
devastated by the Visigoths under Alaric; in the 6th century it was
overrun by the Slavs; and in the 10th century it was raided by the
Bulgars. In 1453 the Turks seized Constantinople, and within a few years
practically all Greece was in their hands. Only in the 19th century,
after a protracted struggle against their foreign rulers, did the Greeks
finally regain their independence (see Greece
The Heritage of the Ancient Greeks
The glorious culture of the Greeks had its beginnings before the rise
of the city-states to wealth and power and survived long after the
Greeks had lost their independence. The men of genius who left their
stamp on the golden age of Greece seemed to live a life apart from the
tumultuous politics and wars of their era. They sprang up everywhere, in
scattered colonies as well as on the Greek peninsula. When the great
creative age had passed its peak, Greek artists and philosophers were
sought as teachers in other lands, where they spread the wisdom of their
What were these ideas for which the world reached out so eagerly?
First was the determination to be guided by reason, to follow the truth
wherever it led. In their sculpture and architecture, in their
literature and philosophy, the Greeks were above all else reasonable.
"Nothing to excess" (meden agan) was their central
doctrine, a doctrine that the Roman poet Horace later interpreted as
" the golden mean."
The art of the Greeks was singularly free from exaggeration. Virtue
was for them a path between two extremes--only by temperance, they
believed, could mankind attain happiness. Since this belief included
maintaining a balanced life of the mind and body, they provided time for
play as well as work (see Olympic
Games ; Athletic Games).
From Homer to Aristotle
This many-sided culture seemed to spring into being almost
full-grown. Before the rise of the Greek city-states, Babylon had made
contributions to astronomy, and the rudiments of geometry and medicine
had been developed in Egypt. The genius of the Greeks, however, owed
little to these ancient civilizations. Greek culture had its beginnings
in the settlements on the coast of Asia Minor. Here Homer sang of a
joyous, conquering people and of their gods, who, far from being aloof
and forbidding, were always ready to come down from Mount Olympus to
play a part in the absorbing life of the people (see Homeric
Legend ; Mythology
War ). Philosophy was also born in Asia Minor, where in the 6th and
5th centuries BC such men as Thales, Heraclitus,
and Democritus speculated on the makeup of the world (see Philosophy
). Thales also contributed to the science of geometry, which was further
advanced by the teacher and mathematician Pythagoras in the distant
colony of Croton in southern Italy (see Pythagoras
In the 5th century BC, with the rise of Athens
as a wealthy democratic state, the center of Greek culture passed to the
peninsula. Here the Greeks reached the peak of their extraordinary
creative energy. This was the great period of Greek literature,
architecture, and sculpture, a period that reached its culmination in
the age of Pericles (see Pericles
; Greek and
Roman Art ; Greek
Literature ). Philosophers now turned their thoughts from the study
of matter to the study of mankind.
Toward the end of the century Socrates ushered in what is considered
to be the most brilliant period of Greek philosophy, passing on his
wisdom to his pupil Plato. Plato in turn handed it on to "the
master of those who know," the great Aristotle (see Socrates
The Progress of Science in the Hellenistic Age
Alexander died in 323 BC. The spread of Greek
learning that resulted from his conquests, however, laid the foundation
for much of the cultural progress of the Hellenistic Age. Alexandria,
the city founded by Alexander at the mouth of the Nile, became the
intellectual capital of the world and a center of Greek scholarship. Its
famous library, founded by Ptolemy I, was said to have contained 700,000
rolls of papyrus manuscripts (see Alexandria
In literature and art the Hellenistic Age was imitative, looking to
the masterpieces of earlier days for inspiration. In science, however,
much brilliant and original work was done. Archimedes put mechanics on a
sound footing, and Euclid established geometry as a science (see Archimedes
). Eratosthenes made maps and calculated the Earth's circumference (see
Aristarchus put forward the hypothesis that the Earth revolves around
the sun. Ptolemy, or Claudius Ptolemaeus, believed all the heavenly
bodies circled the Earth, and his views prevailed throughout the Middle
How Greek Culture Survived
The Hellenistic Age ended with the establishment of the Roman Empire
in 31 BC. The Romans borrowed from the art and
science of the Greeks and drew upon their philosophy of Stoicism. As
Christianity grew and spread, it was profoundly influenced by Greek
thought. Throughout the period of the barbarian invasions, Greek
learning was preserved by Christians in Constantinople and by Muslims in
Cairo. Its light shone again in the Middle Ages with the founding of the
great universities in Italy, France, and England. During the Renaissance
it provided an impetus for the rebirth of art and literature (see
). Modern science rests on the Greek idea of mankind's capacity to solve
problems by rational methods. In almost every phase of life the
quickening impulse of Greek thought can be seen among the peoples who
inherited this priceless legacy. (See also Ancient
Civilization ; City-State