The first major civilization in the region of Greece arose on Crete, an island in the Aegean Sea, about 3000 B.C. It is known as the Minoan culture after King Minos, the legendary ruler of Crete. The Minoans were expert sailors, and they grew wealthy from trade. The remains of luxurious palaces provide evidence of the Minoan's prosperity and building skills. The Minoans had a system of writing. Scholars do not know what language they spoke, except that it was not Greek.
The development of Greek civilization began about 2000 B.C., when small farming villages were set up by people who came to Greece from somewhere to the north. By about 1600 B.C., they had built fortified towns, each centered on a palace, in the major valleys. The culture that developed on the mainland is called Mycenaean after the large and powerful town of Mycenae in the Peloponnesus, the southern part of the mainland.
The Minoans dominated the Aegean world until about 1450 B.C., when the Mycenaeans took control of the region. The Mycenaeans adopted features of the Minoan culture. For example, they adapted the Minoan writing system to Greek. Historians beleive Mycenae won a war against Troy, in Asia Minor (now Turkey), in the mid-1200's B.C. This war inspired many major works of classical literature.
Mycenae and most other settlements in the Peloponesus were destroyed shortly after 1200 B.C. Historians do not know why Mycenae fell. Soon afterward, the Dorians from northern Greece moved into the region. Many Mycenaeans fled to Asia Minor. Greece entered a period known as the Dark Age, which lasted until about 800's B.C. During this time, the people again lived in isolated villages. Knowledge of writing was lost. Memories of past glories were kept alive in songs and oral poetry. The Greeks began to write again after 800 B.C. Their alphabet was based on that of the Phoenicians. Some of their oral poetry was then composed into two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which are attributed to the poet Homer.
Development of the Greek City-State
The Development of the Greek City-State began during the Dark Age. At times, neighboring city-states joined together to form a larger state. However, most city-states tried to keep their independence at any cost. At first, kings ruled the city states, with advice from wealthy nobles. But by about 750 B.C., the nobles in most city-states had overthrown the kings and become rulers. The nobility owned the best land and totally controlled the government.
Meanwhile, ancient Greece faced the problem of too many people and too little farmland. As a result, neighboring city-states often fought over borderlands. Some city-states grew at the expense of others. For example, Sparta became powerful by conquering neighboring peoples. Many of the conquered peoples had to work the land for their Spartan masters.
The land shortage forced numerous Greeks to leave their city-states. From the 700's B.C. to the 500's B.C., Greek colonists founded new city-states along the shores of the Mediterranean and Black seas. The largest settlements developed in southern Italy and Sicily, which became known as Magna Graecia (Great Greece).
Most Greek farmers worked small plots and had to borrow money to survive between harvests. In times of poor harvests, farmers could not repay their loans. They then lost their land and were forced into slavery. Other groups were also discontent. For example, merchants and manufacturers wanted a greater voice in government. But the nobility refused to share any power.
New Forms of Government
The growing unrest brought tyrants to power in many Greek city-states as a result of revolutions. The Greeks used the term tyrant to describe a leader who seized total power by force. Many tyrants achieved some of the goals of their followers. For example, they destributed farmland to the landless and put people to work on large public building projects. But eventually tyrants grew more concerned with keeping their power than with serving the people.
Most tyrants were soon replaced by an oligarchy in which a few wealthy citizens, rather than the nobility, ran the government. However, a number of city-states moved toward a democratic government. In 594 B.C., Athenians gave a statesman named Solon authority to reform the laws. Solon ended the practice of enslaving debtors. He divided citizens into classes by wealth and defined the rights and duties of each class. He also drew up a code of law. Shortly after Solon left office, civil war broke out. In 560 B.C., a tyrant seized power.
In 508 B.C., another Athenian statesman, Cleisthenes, proposed a constitution that made Athens a democracy. Cleisthenes extended voting rights in the assembly to all free adult men. He created a council of 500 members, which was open to any citizen. His reforms thus gave every citizen a chance to serve in the government.
The Persian Wars
During the 500's B.C., the Persian empire expanded rapidly and conquered the Greek city-states in Asia Minor. From 499 to 494 B.C., these city-states rebelled against their Persian rulers. King Darius I of Persia crushed the revolt and sent his army to punish Athens, which had aided the rebels. The Athenian army was outnumbered by the Persians, but it defeated the Persian army at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.
In 480 B.C., King Xerxes I, the son of Darius, led
a massive Persian invasion of Greece. Many of the
Greek city-states united under Sparta's leadership
to fight the invaders. The Persians overwhelmed a
tiny Greek force at Thermopylae, north of Athens,
and went on to take Athens. The Greek navy followed
a plan of the Athenian statesman Themistocles and
withdrew to the Bay of Salamis. There, it thoroughly
defeated the Persians and sank about half their fleet.
Xerxes returned to Persia with many of his troops.
The Greeks defeated the remaining Persina forces in
The Greeks regarded their victory over the Persians as their finest hour. It showed what they could do when they set aside their differences and united.
The Rivalry Between Athens and Sparta
The cooperation achieved by the Greek city-states during the Persian wars did not last long. In 477 B.C., Athens organized an alliance called the Delian League. It consisted mainly of city-states in Asia Minor and on Aegean islands. Sparta led the Peloponnesian League, an alliance of city-states in the Peloponnesus. Athens was the strongest naval power in ancient Greece, and Sparta was the strongest land-based power. The two rivals struggled for dominance of the Greek world during the middle and late 400's B.C.
During the 400's B.C., Athens reached its height of power and prosperity and was the center of culture in the Greek world. Pericles was the leading Athenian statesman from 461 to 429 B.C. His career spanned most of the Golden Age, a period that began in 477 B.C. and that became famous for its remarkable literary and artistic accomplishments. During the Golden Age, the Greek dramatists Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote many of their masterpieces. The leading Greek architects and sculptors built the Parthenon on the Acropolis.
The Golden Age ended with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. This ruinous war between Athens and Sparta lasted until 404 B.C. and left Athens exhausted. In 430 B.C., a severe plague struck Athens. It killed about a third of the people, including Pericles. Athens lacked able leaders during the rest of the war and finally surrendered.
Sparta dominated the Greek world only a short time. Fighting among the city-states resumed, and Thebes defeated Sparta in 371 B.C. The quality of life declined as a result of the continuing warfare. Economic conditions worsened, and violent clashes between rich and poor became frequent. People grew less public-spirited and more self-centered. The city-states lost their vitality.
Macedonia, a region in the northern Greece, was becoming stronger as the city-states grew weaker. In 353 B.C., Philip II, king of Macedonia, set out to conquer the other Greek city-states. Philip finall won in 338 B.C., in the Battle of Chaeronea. Philip planned to lead a Greek and army against against Persia. But he was killed by a Macedonian in 336 B.C.
The Hellenistic Age
Alexander the Great, Philip's son, succeeded his father at the age of 20. In 334 B.C., Alexander carried out Philip's plan to invade Persia. In a brilliant campaign, Alexander conquered the entire Persian empire in less than 10 years. His empire extended from Greece to India. Alexander's conquests furthered the spread of Greek ideas and the Greek way of life to Egypt and the Near East. Alexander died in 323 B.C.. His generals divided his empire into successor states.
The period of Greek history following Alexander's death is known as the Hellenistic Age. The period lasted until 146 B.C. in Greece, when the Romans took control of Greece. During that time, Greek culture continued to influence the lands Alexander had conquered, and Eastern ideas reached Greece. Greece suffered from frequent warfare and widespread destruction during the 200's B.C. The city-states formed two associations to fight for independence. But Macedonian kings kept control of all Greece, and the two associations fought each other.
Through conquests, Rome had become one of the most powerful countries in the western Mediterranean by the 200's B.C. The Romans then began to expand in the East. In the 140's B.C., they took control of Greece. Under Roman rule, the Greek city-states had no important military or political role. But trade, agriculture, industry, and intellectual activities flourished. The Romans borrowed art, religion, philosophy, and way of life of the ancient Greeks, and they spread Greek culture throughout their empire.
The Roman Empire was divided in A.D. 395, and Greece became part of the East Roman Empire. The West Roman empire collapsed in A.D. 476. The East Roman Empire survived as the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when it fell to the Turks. Greek was the official language of the Byzantine Empire, and Greek culture formed the basis of Byzantine institutions.
The Greek Heritage
The ancient Greeks laid the foundations of Western civilization. Modern democracies owe a debt to Greek beliefs in government by the people, trial by jury, and equality under the law. The ancient Greeks pioneered in many fields that rely on systematic thought, including biology, geometry, history, philosophy, and physics. They introduced and perfected such important literary forms as epic and lyric poetry, history, tragedy, and comedy. In their pursuit of order the proportion, the Greeks created an ideal of beauty that strongly influenced Western art.
Learning About Ancient Greece
The writings of the ancient Greeks provide much of our information about the Greek world. For example, Thucydides wrote about a major event in Greek history in his brilliant Histroy of the Peloponnesian War. Aristotle's writings summarized and analyzed much of the knowledge of his time. Greek poets and playwrights expressed the attitudes and beliefs of the ancient Greeks.
The remains of Greek settlements and shrines also add to our knowledge of ancient Greece. Archaeologists study buildings and such objects as pottery, tools, and weapons to learn about trade and colonization, technology, art, and everyday life in ancient Greece.
In the 1870's, Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist, uncovered the buried city of Troy. Before then many people doubted that Troy, made famous in the Iliad and the Odyssey, had existed. Schliemann also made major discoveries at Mycenae. In the early 1900's, Sir Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist, located the palace at Knossos on Crete. Evans thus established the existence of Minoan civilization. These discoveries spurred further excavations.
Greek Civilization developed chiefly in small city-states. A city- state consisted of a city or town and the surrounding villages and farmland. The Greeks city-states were fiercely independent and often quarreled among themselves. But their small size and constant rivalry had certain advantages. Citizens of a city-state were strongly patriotic, and many citizens took part in public affairs. The most advanced city-states established the world's first democratic governments. The best-known city-states were Athens and Sparta.
The ancient Greek city-states never became united into a nation. However, a common language, religion, and culture bound the people together. The Greeks called themselves Hellenes and their land Hellas They thought of themselves as different from all other peoples, whom they called Barbarians.
The ancient Greeks prized their freedom and way of life. This way of life stressed the importance of the individual and encouraged creative thought. Greek thinkers laid the foundations of science and philosophy by seeking logical explanations for what happened in the world around them. Greek writers created new forms of expression, which explored human personalities and emotions. Greek civilization reached its height in Athens during the mid-400's B.C., a period of outstanding achievement known as the Golden Age.
Ancient Greece made lasting contributions to Western civilization. Greek ideas about the Arts, government, philosophy, mathematics, and athletics still influence our lives. Many of the most glorious Greek achievements occurred from 477 to 431B.C., a period called the Golden Age.
The Government of Athens was headed by Pericles, for most of the Golden Age. Athens, then at the height of its power and prosperity, had the most advanced democracy in Greece. An assembly of all male citizens, passed the laws.
The city-state took shape in ancient Greece by the 700's B.C. Most citizens of a city-state claimed a common ancestry, spoke the same Greek dialect, and followed the same customs and religious practices. A city-state gave its members a sense of belonging because they were like one large family.
A small group of wealthy men governed most city-states of ancient Greece. This form of government, in which a few powerful people rule, is called an oligarchy. During the 500's B.C., some city-states began to move toward democracy. They granted all citizens the right to vote on government policies, hold political office, and serve on a jury. However, many poor citizens could not afford the time from making a living to participate in democratic government. In addition, women and slaves had no political rights, even in the democracies.
Athens became the most successful democracy of ancient Greece during the 400's B.C. Every male Athenian citizen had the right to serve permanently in an assembly, which passed laws and determined government policies. The assembly also elected Athenian generals. Each year, the citizens drew lots to select a council of 500 men. This council ran the day-to-day business of government and prepared the bills that the assembly debated and voted on. Jurors were also chosen by lot.
Some wealthy Athenians disliked their system of government. They felt that the poor dominated the government and took advantage of the rich. Most Athenians, however, cherished their democracy.
Sparta was the most powerful oligarchy in ancient Greece. Citizens made up only about 10 per cent of the population. Most people were serfs who farmed the land. Two kings, who inherited their thrones, headed the army. Sparta was governed by 5 officials, called ephors, and the gerousia, a council made up of 28 elders and the kings. Citizens elected ephors to one-year terms and members of the gerousia to life terms. Sparta had a citizen assembly. But citizens could not propose issues for debate in the assembly.
Among the Greek city-states, only Sparta had a standing army. Most city- states trained young men in the art of warfare and required all able-bodied male citizens to take up arms in time of war. Athens had the largest navy, which included hundreds of large warships powered by nearly 200 oarsmen.
A battle formation known as a phalanx dominated Greek warfare from the 600's to the 300's B.C. To form a phalanx, armed foot soldiers lined up shoulder to shoulder eight rows deep. On the battlefield, two opposing phalanxes marched toward each other. Combat with spears and swords followed. The battle was won when one side encircled the other or broke through its center.