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The term “classical Greece” refers to the period between the Persian Wars at the beginning of the fifth century B.C. and the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. The classical period was an era of war and conflict—first between the Greeks and the Persians, then between the Athenians and the Spartans—but it was also an era of unprecedented political and cultural achievement. Besides the Parthenon and Greek tragedy, classical Greece brought us the historian Herodotus, the physician Hippokrates and the philosopher Socrates. It also brought us the political reforms that are ancient Greece’s most enduring contribution to the modern world: the system known as demokratia, or “rule by the people.”
Led by Athens and Sparta, the Greek city-states were engaged in a great war with the Persian Empire at the beginning of the fifth century B.C. In 498 B.C., Greek forces sacked the Persian city of Sardis. In 490 B.C., the Persian king sent a naval expedition across the Aegean to attack Athenian troops in the Battle of Marathon. Despite a resounding Athenian victory there, the Persians did not give up. In 480 B.C., the new Persian king sent a massive army across the Hellespont to Thermopylae, where 60,000 Persian troops defeated 5,000 Greeks in the Battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas of Sparta was famously killed. The year after that, however, the Greeks defeated the Persians for good at the Battle of Salamis.
The Rise of Athens
The defeat of the Persians marked the beginning of Athenian political, economic and cultural dominance. In 507 B.C., the Athenian nobleman Cleisthenes had overthrown the last of the autocratic tyrants and devised a new system of citizen self-governance that he called demokratia. In Cleisthenes’ democratic system, every male citizen older than 18 was eligible to join the ekklesia, or Assembly, the sovereign governing body of Athens. Other legislators were chosen randomly by lot, not by election. And in this early Greek democracy, officials were sworn to act “according to the laws what is best for the people.”
However, demokratia did not mean that Athens approached her relationships with other Greek city-states with anything approaching egalitarianism. To protect far-flung Greek territories from Persian interference, Athens organized a confederacy of allies that it called the Delian League in 478 B.C. Athens was clearly in charge of this coalition; as a result, most Delian League dues wound up in the city-state’s own treasury, where they helped make Athens into a wealthy imperial power.
Athens Under Pericles
In the 450s, the Athenian general Pericles consolidated his own power by using all that tribute money to serve the citizens of Athens, rich and poor. (Generals were among the only public officials in Athens who were elected, not appointed, and who could keep their jobs for more than one year.) For example, Pericles paid modest wages to jurors and members of the ekklesia so that, in theory, everyone who was eligible could afford to participate in the public life of the demokratia.
Art and Architecture
Pericles also used the tribute money to support Athenian artists and thinkers. For instance, he paid to rebuild the parts of Athens that the Persian Wars had destroyed. The result was the magnificent Parthenon, a new temple in honor of the goddess Athena at the Acropolis. (Pericles also oversaw the construction of the temple at Hephaestos, the Odeion concert hall and the temple of Poseidon at Attica.)
READ MORE: How the Ancient Greeks Designed the Parthenon to Impress—And Last
Likewise, Pericles paid for the annual production of comedic and dramatic plays at the Acropolis. (Wealthy people offset some of these costs by paying voluntary taxes called liturgies.) Dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and the comic playwright Aristophanes all won a great deal of renown for their depictions of relationships between men and gods, citizens and polis and fate and justice.
These plays, like the Parthenon, still epitomize the cultural achievements of classical Greece. Along with the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides and the ideas of the physician Hippokrates, they are defined by logic, pattern and order and a faith in humanism above all else. These are the attributes that today are associated with the art, the culture and even the politics of the era.
The Peloponnesian War
Unfortunately, none of these cultural achievements translated into political stability. Athenian imperialism had alienated its partners in the Delian League, particularly Sparta, and this conflict played out in the decades-long Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.).
The eventual Spartan victory in the Peloponnesian War meant that Athens lost its political primacy, but Athenian cultural life—the essence of classical Greece—continued apace in the fourth century B.C.. By the second half of the century, however, disorder reigned within the former Athenian empire. This disorder made possible the conquest of Greece by the Macedonian kings Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great (338–323 B.C.)—a conquest that eventually heralded the end of the classical period and the beginning of Hellenistic one.
…the years of the great Classical period, the time when a very simple but highly sophisticated and superb quality of work was achieved. Greek literature, architecture, and sculpture were particularly fine. This was the case with costume as well, the designs of which can be studied in detail from painted…
During the 6th century bce the rationalist thinking of Ionian philosophers had offered a serious challenge to traditional religion. At the beginning of the 5th century, Heracleitus of Ephesus and Xenophanes of Colophon heaped scorn on cult and gods alike.
During the Classical and subsequent periods, they became commonplace. The birth of Athena was the subject of the east pediment of the Parthenon in Athens, and the legend of Pelops and of the labours of Heracles were the subjects of the corresponding pediment and the metopes (the…
The only significant architectural work of the early Classical period was at Olympia, where a great Temple of Zeus was built in about 460. This temple was the first statement of Classical Doric in its canonical form and…
…history of Athens during the Classical period, for they allowed it to carry the supplies brought in by its powerful fleet in safety to the city, even when enemy forces roamed the Attic countryside.
500 bce ) and Classical (c. 500–c. 323 bce ) Greece. Examples do exist, however, and certain generalizations can be made. In the 7th and 6th centuries bce the jewelry produced in Attica and the Peloponnese shows evidence of strong stylistic influence from southwest Asia, the same influence that contemporary…
The Early Classical period is deemed to have begun after Athens’ double defeat of the Persian invaders in 490 and 479 bc , but a new feeling of self-confidence was already in the air about 500…
…and it ushered in the Classical period as well. There are many classical tombs at Clusium, including the Tomb of the Monkey. This inland city seems to have taken a cultural lead during the 5th century bc certainly it contains competently executed works that made use of the new stylistic…
This brief period is more than a mere transition from Archaic to Classical in the figurative arts a distinctive style developed, in some respects representing as much of a contrast with what came afterward as with what went…
The Lay of the Land - Geography of Greece
Greece, a country in southeastern Europe whose peninsula extends from the Balkans into the Mediterranean Sea, is mountainous, with many gulfs and bays. Some areas of Greece are filled with forests. Much of Greece is stony and suitable only for pasturage, but other areas are suitable for growing wheat, barley, citrus, dates, and olives.
Classical Greece - HISTORY
Greece – The Classical Period (500-336 BC)
From the Persian Wars to the conquests of Philip II of Macedonia
The Classical Period of ancient Greece was a time when the Greeks achieved new heights in art, architecture, theater, and philosophy. Democracy in Athens was refined under the leadership of Pericles. The Classical Period began with the Greek victory over the Persians and a new feeling of self-confidence in the Greek world. This was a war for freedom, and the Greeks would continue on, free from Persian rule. The Persian Wars was one of the rare times that several Greek city-states cooperated for the sake of all Greek people. Not since the Trojan War, 800 years earlier, had the Greeks joined together. Greece would go on to great achievements, especially Athens. One of the most spectacular achievements in Athens during this time was the rebuilding of the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Athena on the Acropolis.
When we talk about the accomplishments of the Greeks in the Classical Period, we are really talking about Athens. The polis of Athens prospered after the defeat of the Persians in 479 BC. As you read in the last chapter, Athens had a fleet of over 200 warships. This large fleet, a result of the Persian Wars, was something new to the Greek world. No polis had ever possessed a navy as large as the Athenian navy. It was the Athenians who contributed most of the Greek warships at the Battle of Salamis.
The Delian League
The Ionian city-states gained their independence after the Persian Wars, however, the threat of a Persian attack was real. The Persian Empire was as large, powerful, and rich as it always had been. Greek city-states in and around the Aegean Sea needed protection, and Athens was the logical protector, with its large navy. Athens also depended on trade routes throughout the Aegean Sea and into the Black Sea for grain to feed its large population. Many Greek city-states in the Aegean islands and Asia Minor joined with Athens to form an alliance in 478-77 BC called the Delian League. The allies, around 150 Greek cities, met on the Island of Delos, the supposed birth-place of Apollo. Athens was made the leader of the league. Each member had to pay money to a common treasury, which was held in a bank on the Island of Delos, or contribute ships and crew to the league navy. The alliance was intended to keep the Greek allies free from Persian rule, and make Persia pay for the damages they caused during the Persian Wars. In 466 BC at the Battle of Eurymedon, off the south coast of Asia Minor, the Athenian navy, led by Cimon, destroyed the Persian fleet. It was now clear that Athens ruled the Aegean Sea. No power, including the Persians, could now challenge Athens' navy.
In 480, Xerxes and the Persian army razed the city of Athens, the temple on top of the Acropolis was robbed and destroyed. After the Persian Wars, the Athenians set out to rebuild their city, including surrounding the city with stone walls. Some of the neighboring Greeks were uncomfortable with the idea of the Athenians building walls, they were concerned that these walls, along with the large Athenian navy, would cause the Athenians to become aggressive. Sparta was one of the concerned city-states. Themistocles went to Sparta and told the Spartans that, yes, the Athenians were building walls, and it was none of Sparta's business. Themistocles warned Sparta to stay out of Athens' business, and that Athens would not interfere with Sparta. This was the beginning of distrust between the two city-states that had fought together during the Persian Wars. Sparta, hesitant to get involved in affairs outside of the Peloponnesus, did not join the Delian league.
Surprisingly, Themistocles, the man who convinced the Athenians to build a navy with their silver, was not rewarded. In a democracy, there was no room for standout personalities like Themistocles, and he was ostracized. Themistocles was forced to leave Athens for ten years. He never returned, and instead went to Persia, were he lived out the rest of life.
In the 460s BC, an earthquake hit Sparta, some Spartans were killed, so the helots, the Spartan slaves, took this opportunity to revolt. Desperate, Sparta asked Athens for help. The Athenian named Cimon led an Athenian army to help Sparta, but when they arrived the Spartans had second thoughts and sent Cimon and the Athenian army back home. Perhaps the Spartans feared the spreading of democratic ideas by these Athenians, as Sparta was not fond of this new way of governing. The Athenians were insulted, and Cimon, on the advice of an Athenian named Pericles, was ostracized.
445-429 BC: The Age of Pericles
Pericles came from a famous family, his father was a hero at the Battle of Mycale, and his uncle was Cleithenes, the father of democracy. So, it is no surprise that Pericles was a believer in democracy. Pericles became a politician in Athens. His first public office was choregos, a person who funds and produces plays. Pericles funded the plays of Aeschylus, one of the famous playwrights of Athens, including his play, Persians in 472 BC. Persians was a play about the Persian Wars and the Greek victory.
Pericles is best known for holding the office of archon, or general. Pericles was first elected to this one-year position in 458 BC, he was re-elected 29 times. As archon, Pericles had the Long Walls built between Athens, and the nearby port city of Piraeus. Piraeus was about five miles from Athens and had three harbors, which were a perfect location for the Athenian navy base.
Pericles planned the rebuilding of the destroyed Acropolis. Pheidias, a friend of Pericles, created a new statue of Athena, sculpted in ivory and gold, on the Acropolis. The Parthenon, a temple that housed the Athena statue, was built to replace the temple destroyed by the Persians. Pericles used Delian League treasury money for this building project. Some historians claim that Pericles was a builder on a scale with Ramses the Great of Egypt.
Pericles made changes to Athenian democracy. In the beginning of the democracy, public positions were filled by the rich. This was because there was no pay for government jobs. Since the poor could not afford to stop working for any long period of time, they could not serve in these jobs. Pericles wanted to make sure all citizens had a chance to fill government jobs, he made these jobs paying positions, so even the poor could serve in the Athenian government. Pericles also granted free admission to the poor who could not afford to go to the theater, these seats were paid for by the government. Pericles made the law that a man's mother and father had to be Athenian for him to be a citizen of Athens.
It was during the Classical Period that Herodotus and Thucydides wrote their history books. Theater flourished as Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles wrote tragedies, while Aristophanes wrote comedies. Hippocrates lived during this period, and is given credit as one of the first doctors. Pythagoras, the famous mathematician, lived into the Classical Period. Socrates, considered the father of philosophy, gathered followers on the streets of Athens during the Classical Period.
Everything was going well for the Greeks until the outbreak of the Peloponnesian Wars, between Athens and Sparta. We will learn more about these wars and their effect on the Greek world in the next chapter.
Ancient Greek Inventions
The ancient Greeks are often credited with building the foundations upon which all western cultures are built, and this impressive accolade stems from their innovative contributions to a wide range of human activities, from sports to medicine, architecture to democracy.
Like any other culture before or since, the Greeks learnt from the past, adapted good ideas they came across when they met other cultures, and developed their own brand new ideas. Here are just some of the ways ancient Greeks inventions have uniquely contributed to world culture, many of which are still going strong today:
- Human Sculpture
- Jury System
- Mechanical Devices
- Mathematical Reasoning
Columns & Stadiums
Just about any city in the western world today has examples of Greek architecture on its streets, especially in its biggest and most important public buildings. Perhaps the most common features invented by the Greeks still around today are the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns which hold up roofs and adorn facades in theatres, courthouses, and government buildings across the globe. The Greeks used these architectural orders primarily for their temples, many of which are still standing today despite earthquake, fire, and cannon shots - the Parthenon, completed in 432 BCE, is the biggest and most famous example. The collonaded stoa to protect walkers from the elements, the gymnasium with baths and training fields, the semi-circular theatre with rising rows of seats, and the banked rectangular stadium for sports, are just some of the features of Greek architecture that any modern city would seem strange indeed without.
HUman Sculpture in Art
Greek innovations in art are perhaps seen most clearly in figure sculpture. Previous and contemporary ancient cultures had represented the human figure in a simple standing and rather static pose so that the people represented often looked as lifeless as the stone from which they were carved. Greek sculptors, though, inched towards a more dynamic result. In the Archaic period the stance becomes a little more relaxed, the elbows a little more bent and both tension and movement are thus suggested. By the Classical period statues have broken away from all convention and become sensuous, writhing figures that seem about to jump off the plinth. Greek sculpture and art, in general, began a preoccupation with proportion, poise, and the idealised perfection of the human body that was continued by the Romans and would go on to influence Renaissance art and many sculptors thereafter.
Democracy & Jury System in Law
One of the big ideas of the Greeks was that ordinary citizens should have an equal say in not just who governed them but also how they governed. Even more importantly, that input was to be direct and in person. Consequently, in some Greek city-states, 5th-4th-century BCE Athens being the most famous example, citizens (defined then as free males over 18) could actively participate in government by attending the public assembly to speak, listen, and vote on issues of the day. The Athenian assembly had a physical capacity of 6,000 people, and one can imagine that on many days only the most enthusiastic of the demos (people) would have turned up but when the big issues were on the table the place was packed. A simple majority vote won the day and was calculated by a show of hands.
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On top of this already startling idea of direct democracy, all citizens could, and indeed were expected to, participate in government by serving as magistrates, jurors, and any official post they were capable of holding. Further, anyone seen to abuse their public position, which was usually only for a temporary term anyway, could be kicked out of the city in the secret vote known as ostracism.
Part and parcel of the democratic apparatus was the jury system - the idea that those accused of crimes were judged by their peers. Nowadays a jury system usually consists of twelve people but in ancient Athens, it was the entire assembly and each member was picked at random using a machine known as the kleroterion. This device randomly dispensed tokens and if you got a black one then you had to do jury service that day. The system made sure that nobody knew who would be the jurors that day and so could not bribe anyone to influence their decision. In a carefully considered system that thought of everything, jurors were even compensated their expenses.
Engineering & Mechanical devices
The Romans might have grabbed all the accolades for best ancient engineers but the Greeks did have their own mechanical devices which allowed them to move massive chunks of marble using the block and tackle, winch, and crane for their huge temples and city walls. They created tunnels in mountains such as the one-kilometre tunnel in Samos, built in the 6th century BCE. Aqueducts was another area the Greeks were not lacking in imagination and design, and so they shifted water to where it was most needed watermills, too, were used to harness nature's power.
Perhaps the area of greatest innovation, though, was in the small-scale production of mechanical devices. The legendary figure of Daedalus, architect of King Minos' labyrinth, was credited with creating life-like automata and all manner of mechanical wonders. Daedalus may never have existed, but the legends around him indicate a Greek love of all-things magically mechanical. Handy Greek devices included the portable sundial of Parmenion made from rings (c. 400-330 BCE), the water alarm clock credited to Plato (c. 428- c. 424 BCE) which used water dropping through various clay vessels which eventually caused air pressure to sound off a whistle-hole, Timosthenes' 3rd-century BCE anemoscope to measure the wind direction, and the 3rd-century BCE hydraulic organ of Ktesibios. Then there was the odometer which measured land distances using a wheel and cogs, the suspended battering ram to provide more punch when breaking down enemy gates, and the flamethrower with a bellows at one end and a cauldron of flammable liquid at the other which the Boeotians used to such good effect in the Peloponnesian War.
Mathematical Reasoning & Geometry
Other cultures had shown a keen interest in mathematics but perhaps the Greeks' unique contribution to the field was the effort to apply the subject to practical and everyday problems. Indeed, for the Greeks, the subject of maths was inseparable from philosophy, geometry, astronomy, and science in general. The great achievement in the field was the emphasis on deductive reasoning, that is forming a logically certain conclusion based on the reasoning of a chain of statements. Thales of Miletus, for example, crunched his numbers to accurately predict the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BCE, and he is credited with calculating the height of the pyramids based on the length of their shadow. Undoubtedly, the most famous Greek mathematician is Pythagoras (c. 571- c. 497 BCE) with his geometric theorem which still carries his name - that in a right triangle the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the squares of the short sides added together.
The early Greeks considered illness a divine punishment, but from the 5th century BCE a more scientific approach was taken, and both diagnosis and cure became a lot more useful to the patient. Symptoms and cures were carefully observed, tested, and recorded. Diet, lifestyle, and constitution were all recognised as contributing factors to disease. Treatises were written, most famously by the 5th-4th-century BCE founder of western medicine Hippocrates. A better understanding of the human body was achieved. Observation of badly wounded soldiers showed, for example, the differences between arteries and veins, although dissection of humans would only come in Hellenistic times. Medicines were perfected using herbs celery was known to have anti-inflammatory properties, egg-white was good for sealing wounds, while opium could provide pain relief or work as an anaesthetic. While it is true that surgery was avoided and there were still many wacky explanations floating about, not to mention a still strong connection to religion, Greek doctors had begun the long road of medical enquiry which is still being pursued to this day.
Sporting competitions had already been seen in the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations of the Bronze Age Aegean, but it was in Archaic Greece that a sporting event would be born which became so popular and so important that it was even used as a reference for the calendar. The first Olympic Games were held in mid-July in 776 BCE at Olympia in honour of the Greek god Zeus. Every four years, thereafter, athletes and spectators gathered from across the Greek world to perform great sporting deeds and win favour with the gods. The last ancient Olympics would be in 393 CE, after an incredible run of 293 consecutive Olympiads.
There was a widely respected truce in all conflicts to allow participants and spectators to travel in safety to Olympia. At first, there was only one event, the stadion - a foot race of one circuit of the stadium (about 192 m) in which some 45,000 all-male spectators gathered to cheer on their favourite. The event got bigger and bigger over the years with longer footraces added to the repertoire and new events held such as the discus, boxing, pentathlon, wrestling, chariot racing, and even competitions for trumpeters and heralds.
Specially trained judges supervised the events and dished out fines to anyone breaking the rules. The winners received a crown of olive leaves, instant glory, perhaps some cash put up by their hometown, and even immortality, especially for the winners of the stadion whose name was given to that particular games. The Olympic Games were revived in 1896 CE and, of course, are still going strong, even if they have another thousand years to go to match the longevity of their ancient version.
The great Greek thinkers attacked all of the questions that have ever puzzled humanity. Figures such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the 5th and 4th century BCE endlessly questioned and debated where we come from, how we have developed, where we are going to, and should we even be bothering to think about it all in the first place. The Greeks had a branch of philosophy to suit all tastes from the grin-and-bear-it Stoics to the live for the minute, live simply and live happily Epicureans. In the 6th century BCE, Anaximander provides the first surviving textual reference of western philosophy and he considered that “the boundless” was responsible for the elements - so we have still not made very much progress since that statement.
Collectively, all of these thinkers illustrate one common factor: the Greek's desire to answer all questions no matter their difficulty. Neither were Greek philosophers limited to theoretical answers as many were also physicists, biologists, astronomers, and mathematicians. Perhaps the Greek approach and contribution to philosophy, in general, is best summarised by Parmenides and his belief that as the senses cannot be trusted, we must apply our minds to cut through the haze of superstition and myth and use whatever tools at our disposal to find the answers we are looking for. We may not have found many more solutions since the Greek thinkers provided theirs but their unbounded spirit of enquiry is perhaps their greatest and most lasting contribution to western thought.
Science & Astronomy
As in the field of philosophy, Greek scientists were keen to find solutions which explained the world around them. All manner of theories were proposed, tested and debated, even rejected by many. That the earth was a globe, that the world revolved around the sun and not vice versa, that the Milky Way was composed of stars, that humanity had evolved from other animals were just some of the ideas the Greek thinkers floated around for contemplation. Archimedes (287-212 BCE) in his bath discovered displacement and cried “Eureka!”, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) developed logic and classified the natural world, and Eratosthenes (276-195 BCE) calculated the circumference of the globe from the shadows cast by objects at two different latitudes. Once again, though, it was not the individual discoveries that were important, it was the general belief that all things can be explained by deductive reasoning and the careful examination of available evidence.
It was the ancient Athenians who invented theatre performance in the 6th century BCE. Perhaps originating from either the recital of epic poems set to music or rituals involving music, dance and masks to honour the god of wine Dionysos, Greek tragedies were first performed at religious festivals, and from these came the spin-off genre of Greek comedy plays. Performed by professional actors in purpose-built open-air theatres, Greek plays were popular and free. Not only a fleeting pastime performance, many of the classic plays were studied as a staple part of the education curriculum.
In the tragedies, people were engrossed in the twists presented on familiar tales from Greek mythology and the no-win situations for the heroic but doomed characters. The cast might have been very limited but the chorus group added some musical oomph to the proceedings. When comedy came along, there was fun in seeing familiar politicians, philosophers, and foreigners lampooned, and playwrights became ever more ambitious in their presentations, with all-singing, all-dancing chorus lines, outlandish costumes, and special effects such as actors dangling from hidden wires above the beautifully crafted sets. As in many other fields, the entertainment industry of today owes a great debt to the ancient Greeks.
Hipparchia of Marneia
Hipparchia of Marneia (c. 325 BCE) moved to Athens with her family, where she met Crates of Thebes, the most notorious Cynic philosopher of the time. Attracted by the simplicity of the Cynic lifestyle, she fell in love with him. Despite her parents’ disapproval, she married Crates and they lived in austerity and poverty on the streets of Athens, according to Cynic beliefs. After his death, Hipparchia is said to have written many works, which unfortunately have been lost. However, she is the sole female philosopher included in Diogenes Laërtius’s work, alongside Plato and Socrates.
Often called the first of the Greek philosophers, Pythagoras was born in 570 BC on the island of Samos off the coast of present-day Turkey. Legend has it that his earliest days were spent as a disciple of some of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers of that time. During this time, he absorbed their secret teachings, taught himself to play the lyre and was able to recite epics by Homer just from memory.
He then went on to travel to the few centers of knowledge and philosophy in the ancient world and armed himself with knowledge from the most powerful contemporary civilizations. Such was his influence that en route to the town of Kroton, he was joined by more than 300 people who formed an insane cult, worshiping him as an incarnation of the god Apollo.
Together with his cult, he went on to create dozens of mathematical and philosophical principles. They proved the Pythagorean theorem for calculating the area of a triangle and even proposed the concept of the earth revolving around the sun almost 2,000 years before it would be proved by the likes of Galileo and Copernicus. For obvious reasons, such activities upset many people in Greece, and he was killed by an angry mob who burnt him to death.
The Dark Ages (circa 1100 – 700 BCE)
During the Dark Ages of Greece the old major settlements were abandoned, the population dropped dramatically in numbers, and no written record was created.
During this period of three hundred years, the people of Greece assumed a pastoral lifestyle and moved often.
Later in the Dark Ages Greeks adopted the alphabet used by the Phoenicians. This alphabet with major improvements became the norm and it’s still in use today in Greece.
Furthermore, the Greek alphabet became the base for Latin, and by extension the base of modern English.
Despite what seems to have been a harsh lifestyle, this period gave us the first Olympics in 776 BCE, Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in written form.
Top Dark Ages Archaeological Site: Eretria
For the next few decades after the end of the Persian Wars, relations between the 2 major poleis 'city-states' deteriorated. The Spartans, who had earlier been the unquestioned leaders of the Greeks, suspected Athens (a new naval power) of trying to take control of all of Greece. Most of the poleis on the Peloponnese allied with Sparta. Athens was at the head of the poleis in the Delian League. Its members were along the coast of the Aegean Sea and on islands in it. The Delian League initially had been formed against the Persian Empire, but finding it lucrative, Athens transformed it into its own empire.
Pericles, the foremost statesman of Athens from 461-429, introduced payment for public offices so more of the population than just the rich could hold them. Pericles initiated the building of the Parthenon, which was supervised by the famed Athenian sculptor Pheidias. Drama and philosophy flourished.
Classical Greece - HISTORY
Chapter 5: The Classical Age of Greece
I. Introduction: The Persian Wars and the Beginning of the Classical Age
Pisistratus, the tyrant of Athens during the last half-century of the Post-Classical period, died shortly after he had instituted the City Dionysia. His sons inherited his power but, not having their father's sense of creating coalitions, were forcibly removed from power soon after 512 BCE. It is not clear what happened next, but it must be in these years of unrest and disorder (510-508 BCE) that democracy first emerged in Athens.
For all the changes that may seem to entail, much remained the same. The rituals and festivals, quite a few of which the tyrant Pisistratus had introduced and promoted, continued on through the chaos of massive governmental reform, the City Dionysia being no exception. By the early days of the fifth century (the 490's BCE), the Athenians had settled into their new type of government where the general populace exerted direct control of the city through assemblies and the enactment of laws, and governmental measures regularly came to reflect the will of the majority.
But this new democratic regime hardly had a chance to catch its breath before it faced the greatest crisis Greece was to confront in the early Classical Age (the fifth century BCE). The massive and powerful Persian Empire attacked Greece, not once but twice. These two so-called Persian Wars (490 BCE 481-479 BCE) are the primary focus of Herodotus' Histories and make some of the most fascinating reading of all time. It is not possible to do the Persian Wars justice here, only to note that, grossly out-numbered and vastly out-armed, the Greeks managed in both wars to push the Persians out of Greece mainly by setting aside traditional internal differences and fighting together for their common independence. It was, no doubt, the finest hour in ancient Greece and just about the only time the Greeks made common cause in antiquity. [Click here for more information about Herodotus and the Persian Wars.]
Athens emerged from the Persian Wars triumphant. Using their navy and merchant marine, the Athenians took control of the seas around Greece. With renewed prosperity and a keen sense of their own importance in international affairs, they set about repairing the damage incurred during the wars and extending the traditions established prior to the Persian invasion, in particular, drama, painting and architecture.
Part of the reason for this surge in the arts was the confidence born of victory and independence. In antiquity, to win a war was to gain the assurance that one's gods were pleased, which meant that the ceremonies and celebrations performed in their honor must be to their liking. From that vantage point, it only makes sense to continue and even extend them.
Thus, the Classical Age was scion and heir of a sense of righteous vigor. Led by Pericles, a man who had to be re-elected to office every year but who was nonetheless firmly in control of Athens for much of his life, the Athenians set about expanding their commercial interests. Wealth soon poured into the city from an alliance called the Delian League which they had formed after the war for the benefit of all Greece, but their own mostly.
This new prosperity fostered many different cultural endeavors. The Parthenon, for instance, rose on the site of an old wooden temple to Athena on the Acropolis, the natural outcropping of rock in the middle of the city. During the Second Persian War, the Persian king Xerxes had burnt the old temple to the ground, a destruction which, devastating as it was, opened the way for a new, more modern and more elaborate shrine to the patron goddess of Athens. [Click here for more information about the Parthenon and other sacred spaces in antiquity.]
On the intellectual front, the best thinkers in the Greek-speaking world also flocked to Athens and imported a new way of looking at life dubbed philosophy ("love of wisdom"). At first these so-called sophists—the term originally meant "craftsmen"—became teachers and popular lecturers and then began to uproot the traditional modes of thought and later morality in Athens. Sophist as a moniker eventually came to be a slur implying "quack" and "charlatan," but there was no denying, at least at the outset, that these "artisans" taught valuable skills which won many a law suit and much political advancement for their students.
Underlying most of the sophists' tenets was a sense of relativism, that there is no fundamental good or bad, a dangerously cynical posture that bordered on atheism and threatened to erode the moral structures on which civil order, especially in a democratic society, depends. One sophist, the most famous, Protagoras, went so far as to say, "Man is the measure of all things." This maxim became the byword of the increasingly humanistic Classical Age.
The challenge presented by these sophists was met by perhaps the greatest team of thinkers in human history, Socrates and Plato. This teacher-and-student duo led the charge to set morality back on a firm foundation of strict philosophical argumentation and to counter the relativism of the sophistic movement. All cynics and sceptics since have had to face up to the dialogues of Socrates in which, as recorded by his student Plato, the master attacks various free-thinkers and debunks their wide-ranging claims that moral absolutes do not exist. It is still not clear which side won, but with this pair, staunch moralists gained a valuable and much-needed ally in the long on-going war between idealism and practicality, conviction and compromise, what ought to be versus what has to be.
III. The Peloponnesian War and the Post-Classical Age
The glory of Athens grew top-heavy by the later decades of the fifth century BCE. Made greedy over time by the wealth they had come to expect, the Athenians started expanding their realm by force. In response, Sparta initiated a war with Athens in 431 BCE in an effort to curb the Athenians' imperialistic designs, a quest for world domination as the Spartans saw it.
This on-and-off conflict is now known as the Peloponnesian War—Sparta is in the Peloponnese (southern Greece) and we today see the war from the Athenians' perspective since their records preserve the history of this conflict—it was essentially a civil war among Greek city-states, ending with Sparta's defeat of Athens in 404 BCE. The ultimate result was even worse. Weakened by incessant in-fighting, all southern Greece fell to a foreign power in the next century. The lesson to be learned about the consequences of a nation's failure to achieve compromise and peaceably resolve its internal disagreements is as yet not fully understood by many world leaders today: "United we stand . . ."
In this so-called Post-Classical Age (the fourth century, i.e. the 300's BCE), the Greeks squabbled among themselves, allowing the expansion of the kingdom to the north of them, Macedon(ia), an area populated by Greek-speakers but ironically considered a "barbarian" nation by their more cultured southern kin. In Greek, barbaros means "foreign," purportedly from the nonsense syllables "bar bar" which is the way non-Greek languages sounded to the Greeks. During the first half of the fourth century, the Macedonians gradually consolidated their power in northern Greece and under the leadership of Philip II, a crafty and ruthless ruler and a general of great skill, began to extend their influence south.
In 338 BCE, Philip succeeded in defeating the combined forces of the southern Greeks—Athens, Thebes, and Sparta all fighting together for the first time since the Persian Wars well over a century before!—and reduced them to a tribute-paying protectorate of his burgeoning empire. He would surely have become one of the best known figures in history, had he not sired a son whose name and glory resound through all time, Alexander the Great. Still barely out of his teens, Alexander not only succeeded Philip as ruler of Greece but over the course of the next decade (333-323 BCE) went on to conquer many lands, including Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Egypt, and Persia, and even made incursions into India. When he died suddenly of a mysterious ailment in 323 BCE, he left behind a very different world.
The period after Alexander's lifetime is called the Hellenistic Age. Alexander had died without siring a legitimate heir, giving his generals carte blanche to seize and divide up his vast realm. These so-called diadochoi ("successors") inaugurated three centuries of internecine conflict in the eastern Mediterranean area. Governed by Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, followed by a long line of his descendants, Egypt was the only of these "successor states" to thrive and enjoy any stability, and indeed a Hellenized ("Greek-ified") Egypt did prosper, becoming a home-away-from-home for many post-Classical Greek authors. The discovery there of thousands of papyri (scraps of "paper") with Greek writing on them, dating to the third century BCE onward, is evidence of the large number of Greek speakers who moved into Egypt in the Hellenistic Age. Thus, the Greeks' business interests continued to expand even after the Macedonian conquest, many becoming very wealthy in the course of their cosmopolitan commercial adventures.
But, if well-fed and secure, they were also lost and unhappy amidst their materialistic bliss. One of the consequences of Alexander's dominion was to show what a small and insignificant place Greece actually was in the larger—the much larger!—world. Ironically, then, as the Greeks' monetary worth rose, their sense of self-importance declined. It grew ever harder, for instance, to believe that the Greek gods who presumably controlled the whole planet—and such an expansive domain it had proven to be!—would choose to live on a cold, medium-sized mountain in northern Greece, especially when it was now widely recognized that they could reside in an excellent vacation spot like Egypt. The Olympian religion, which had already suffered severe setbacks during the intellectual turmoil of the Classical Age, started to falter seriously.
While not wholly discarding their ancestors' religion, many Hellenistic Greeks joined foreign cults in a search for greater meaning and direction in life. Some put religious structures aside altogether and indulged in philosophies, essentially cults based on logical argumentation but in reality belief systems of a sort. Spawned in the wake of Socrates and Plato, these philosophies dictated ways of living that could be deduced through proper reasoning.
The most important of these in the long run was Stoicism, a philosophy centering around the premise that the universe is essentially good and, therefore, suffering exists for the very purpose of building a better tomorrow. The logical response to this situation, the Stoics preached, is to distance oneself from any feelings of pain or remorse, to push aside emotion and understand that things will turn out for the better even if they do not seem that way at the moment. Thus, people should focus on their duty and ignore as much as possible the pain encountered in the passage through life. Stoicism has influenced a wide range of people then and now, from Saint Paul's conception of Christianity to Gene Roddenbery's depiction of Vulcans in Star Trek.
Eventually, the internal conflicts of these Hellenistic kingdoms spelled their doom. Yet another conqueror came along and took them down one by one. Unlike the Greeks, this new regime had for a long time avoided the fatal pitfall of internal bickering and thereby created the most powerful and long-lasting empire yet in Western Civilization. These conquerors were, of course, the Romans who began incorporating the Hellenistic Greek world into their realm around 200 BCE. Henceforth, Roman and Greek civilization would merge to form "Greco-Roman" culture, the hybrid we know as classical antiquity. [Click here for more information about the Hellenistic Literature and the Post-Classical Age.]
The history of Greece is a tale of glory and folly, of inordinate success and incalculable waste. Perhaps because our strengths as humans almost invariably come from the same sources as our weaknesses—to wit, the blindness that leads many to be taken in by others also makes them brave in the face of overwhelming danger—the same things that had fostered the civilization of the ancient Greeks precipitated its fall, their unwavering belief in themselves and the conviction that their ways were the right ways, the best ways, and finally the only ways. In particular, the greed that drove the Peloponnesian War and fomented all its disasters for Athens and Greece alike was part and parcel of the Athenians' determination to improve themselves and their way of life. That is, the fire that sparked the Classical Age also incinerated it.
Likewise, the Greeks' visionary art with all its grandeur and glory is tightly bound up with the egotism that led them early on to trust their own divine instincts but then also to underestimate the power of "barbarians" and eventually fall to beings they looked down upon as inferior. The Parthenon is a perfect example of how this all worked. It is a temple designed to please the human eye, not some god looking down from above. It is a three-dimensional reflection of the humanism that pervaded classical Greek thought, the soul sister of Greek philosophy that saw truth as what appealed to the mind, meaning the human mind. Raised out of the very bedrock of Greece, this magnificent edifice proclaims the greatness of our species and at the same time its ruins today show just how great we really are.
From the thin soil of their homeland, the pre-classical Greeks had built their civilization, a culture outstripping all previous ones in Europe, and then threw it all away fighting amongst themselves over those same dusty stones. In the end, the Greeks' sense of self-worth was both their triumph and their downfall. As that is the theme of so many classical tragedies, it makes sense that drama became one of their most enduring achievements.
Alexander the Great
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