Classical Greece

Early inhabitants of the Greek peninsula were influenced by Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Phoenician peoples living in the area. The first evidence of a uniquely Greek sophisticated society was on the island of Crete between 2000 and 1700 B.C.E. The civilization is often called Minoan after Minos, the legendary king of Crete. Although the civilization could also be called Cretan, the name is too easily confused with "Cretin," which means "idiot." The Minoans constructed a series of lavish palaces, primarily in the city of Knossos, which contain frescos of the people working and playing. Following a series of exceptionally destructive earthquakes and volcanoes, the Minoan people rebuilt dwellings with indoor plumbing and drainage systems, some of which had flush toilets. A system of writing known today as Linear A was also developed, which used symbols representing syllables rather than words, ideas, vowels or consonants. The language has not yet been deciphered. By 1600 B.C.E. Minoans established colonies in Cyprus and in the Aegean Sea to mine copper ore and gain access to markets in Western Asia. Their trade often consisted of wine and olive oil. By 1100 B.C.E. however, the wealth of Crete attracted foreign invaders, and Crete fell to foreign domination. Even so, Minoan trade, writing, and construction remained and influenced the nearby Greek people.

Indo-European traveled to the Greek peninsula beginning c. 2200 B.C.E. and began to trade with the Minoans. From them, they learned writing and construction techniques. They adapted Linear A to their own language and from it developed a new script, also syllabic, and known as Linear B. They build imposing stone fortresses and palaces throughout the Southern Greek peninsula known as the Peloponnesus. The protection offered by the fortresses attracted settlers who built agricultural communities in the shadow of the fortresses. This society became known as Mycenaean, after Mycenae, one of the more important settlements. In time, Mycenaean culture dominated Crete and the Greek peninsula as well as Anatolia and Sicily.

Mycenaean society declined following a particularly destructive war with the city-state of Troy in Anatolia, the famous Trojan War preserved in Homer’s Iliad. At the same time, foreign navies invaded the homeland which, together with civil disturbances made stable government impossible. The society fell into chaos and the population declined as people abandoned settlements. With the dispersal of the society, Linear A and Linear B ceased.

The Polis: Classical Greek culture did not have a centralized Empire or state; rather local institutions prevailed; the most important of which was the polis, loosely translated "city-state." (The term does not easily translate into English, although a number of English words, such as politics, policy, politics, metropolis, etc. originate from it. Scholars have said that "city-state" is probably the worst possible translation of a word that is untranslatable.) The poleis were originally fortresses or citadels used for protection during time of war; however over time they became important commercial centers. They soon extended their authority outside their walls to the surrounding regions, levied taxes on these areas, and collected a portion of the agricultural surplus there to feed the city population. By 500 B.C.E., they were walled, and by 800 B.C.E. the poleis were the principal centers of Greek society.

The polis consisted normally of people living in a city (asty) who cultivated the surrounding countryside (chora). Almost each city contained a high point known as the acropolis (literally, the "high place") where temples, altars, and public monuments stood. There was also an area known as the agora (public square or market place) which contained shops, public buildings, etc. and where people often gathered to discuss politics and other matters of mutual concern.

Because they developed independently of each other, the poleis each had their own unique form of government and tradition, largely free of outside influence, although they shared a common language. Some became small monarchies; but most were ruled by local nobility. Some were ruled by generals or politicians known as "tyrants" who often gained power by means other than normal succession. (The term "tyrant" referred to the method by which they came to power, not their ruling policy. Many were in fact quite popular.) The diversity of the poleis is perhaps best illustrated by the two leading City States: Sparta and Athens.

Sparta was situated in a fertile region of the Peloponnesus. As their society grew, they were faced with overpopulation and the need to feed their citizens. They chose to solve this problem by conquering adjacent areas, whereas other Greek poleis did so by forming colonies outside their area. In 735 B.C.E., the Spartans went to war against Messenia in the First Messenian War. They captured Messenian land and forced the people of the region to become helots, literally slaves of the state. The helots were responsible for agricultural labor and keeping Sparta supplied with food. They could marry and live in family units, but could not leave the land. They outnumbered the Spartans considerably; at one point by a ratio of ten to one. The Messenians were prone to revolt, and did so fiercely in the Second Messenian War, which lasted for thirty years. The end result was to turn Sparta into a society constantly ready for war, and its society was transformed such that all its resources were concentrated into building and maintaining a powerful military machine. Under its system, every citizen owed his first allegiance to Sparta. The welfare of the individual was secondary to the needs of the state.

Spartans lived an exceptionally austere lifestyle, thus leading to the verb Spartan to describe a lifestyle devoid of frills and luxuries. The people did not wear jewelry or fancy clothing, and did not accumulate private wealth or luxuries on a large scale. Iron bars were used for money rather than coins made of precious metals. Distinction among citizens was on the basis of military discipline, prowess, and talent rather than by wealth or birth. Its entire educational system was geared toward providing efficient and capable soldiers. The helots were kept in line by secret informers and terrorism tactics.

Preparation for military service began at birth. Newborns with physical defects were abandoned or thrown into the sea. Spartan boys were often raised by slave women who did not shower them with affection; indeed they were often required to steal their food. Should they be detected, they were severely beaten. The lesson to be learned was the ability to survive in hostile conditions which might require stealing food and not being detected. By age twelve, they were sent to live in a military barracks with boys their own age. They slept outside on reed mats and underwent rugged training until age twenty four, when they were sent to the front line. Most young men were "mentored" by an older more experienced soldier who shared both his experiences and his bed with the younger man. (The idea was that the younger soldier should develop a special attachment to the soldier who would fight next to him.) Soldiers were allowed to marry and visit their wives on occasion, but did not live with them until age thirty. In battle, they were expected to stand and die rather than retreat.

The severity of the Spartan regimen is illustrated by the story of a Spartan mother who handed her son his shield as he departed for battle. She told him that he should either return victorious, carrying the shield; or dead, being carried on it.

Spartan women were prohibited from wearing jewelry and also were taught to exercise strenuously as it was believed that a strong woman would produce a healthy child. Although they were forced into a difficult physical regimen, the women of Sparta enjoyed a more active public life than did other Greek women, although they could not hold office. Spartan women considered it a privilege to be the wives of victorious warriors.

Sparta was governed by two kings, usually military leaders and a council of twenty eight elders who decided all foreign and domestic policy. They prepared legislation for the assembly, which consisted of all Spartan citizens. The real power was held by five ephors or overseers who were elected by the people. There was little social mobility, as the polis was typically governed by an aristocratic warrior class.

Unlike Sparta, Athens established a government based on the rule of the people, a true democratic society. Citizenship was not open to everyone within the polis; but only to adult free males. Foreigners, slaves, and women were excluded. Government office could be held by all citizens.

Attendance at civic meetings was mandatory, almost like Jury duty. Slaves were sent through the Agora with ropes dipped in a red dye. Any citizen who was not sitting with the assembly would find himself wrapped in the ropes and a red dye mark on his robe, which held him up to public censure.

Economic pressures created turmoil in Athens during the seventh century B.C.E. Many citizens of the city grew wealthy by reason of trade with its neighbors. Aristocrats who owned most of the land and controlled the government managed to increase their landholdings while small farmers fell into debt and often had to sell their land, or even sell themselves or their children into slavery. The ensuing unrest might have led to civil war, as it did in other areas of Greece; however an Athenian aristocrat, Solon managed to mediate the problem and devise a solution. Under Solon’s solution, the Aristocrats were allowed to keep their land but debts were cancelled and debt slavery was forbidden. Those imprisoned or enslaved for debt were immediately freed. He also provided for representation of the lower classes in the government. Athens thus became a true democracy.

The most important leader of Athens was the statesmen Pericles, an outstanding orator and statesmen. Pericles led Athens to become a sophisticated city with scientists, philosophers, poets, dramatists, artists and architects. He once boasted that Athens was "the education of Greece." His most famous pronouncement was his Funeral Oration for Greek soldiers who died in the Persian Wars (discussed below.) The Funeral Oration is the classic statement of Athenian ideology, containing practically in full the patriotic sentiment felt by most Athenians:


Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.

For the whole Earth is the sepulcher of famous men, and their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth, but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.

All Greeks led a rather simple life and ate a simple diet. Their diet consisted largely of wheat and barley, lentils, olives, figs and grapes. Food was often garnished with onions and garlic, and washed down with wine. Only Spartan soldiers regularly ate meat. They received a small portion together with a hideous concoction known as "black broth," consisting of pork cooked in blood, vinegar, and salt. (One Greek, on tasting the stuff, said he could easily understand why the Spartans were so willing to die.) For the average citizen outside the Spartan military, meat was normally eaten only when an animal had been sacrificed to the gods. The God was given (by burning) the thigh bone, wrapped in fat, considered a delicacy.

Greece and the World: As populations grew in the Greek poleis, many established colonies in other parts of the Mediterranean to relieve population pressures. More than four hundred colonies were established between 750 – 500 B.C.E. Sicily and present day Naples were popular sites for colonization; in fact Naples derives its name from the Greek Neapolis, ("new polis.) Eventually, more Greeks lived in the colonies than lived in Greece itself. Their colonies extended as far as the colony of Massalia (present day Marseilles, France) and Anatolia. Colonies were a source of agricultural products as well as tin, copper, and iron ore. Slaves captured in present day Russia often were for sale also.

The word "slave" is derived from "Slav," the nomadic people of the Eurasian steppes who settled in Russia. Other than those who sold themselves (or were sold) into slavery for debt, all slaves were foreigners whom the Greeks called "barbarians." Because they spoke a tongue which the Greeks considered uncivilized (regardless of which language it was) the Greeks said it sounded like the noise of sheep: "bar-bar." Hence the term.

The Greeks never built a centralized imperial state and colonization was not the work of a central government; but was rather a response of individual poleis to population growth. Quite often, colonies asserted their own independence and ignored guidance from the poleis which had founded them. The colonies created more communication and interaction across the Mediterranean than had ever existed before. Not only trade but the Greek language spread throughout the region. Many Greek colonies became strong independent communities of their own.

War with Persia and between the Poleis: Over time, as Greek colonies spread through the Mediterranean basin, they came into increasing conflict with the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Several colonies were on the coast of Anatolia which was largely under Persian hegemony. The poleis there revolted against Persian rule and Athens sent ships to support the rebellion; however the Persians under Darius put it down in 493 B.C.E. Darius felt the need to punish the Athenians for their interference and prevent further interference in Persian affairs. He therefore sent an army and fleet of ships to attack Athens in 490 B.C.E. Sparta was preoccupied with its own affairs, and refused to join in the conflict; the Athenians were left to fight the Persians alone. The Greeks were outnumbered, but managed to rout the Persian army at the famous battle of Marathon, after which the army returned to Athens in time to defeat the Persian fleet which had attacked there.

According to the famous Greek historian, Herodotus, a runner named Phidippides had ran from Athens to Sparta, a two day trip, to ask for help, but returned empty handed. After the Athenians defeated the Persians, Phidippides ran from the battle field to Athens to report the victory. As soon as he reported the news, he died from exhaustion. His run following the victory thus has been commemorated with the name given to any event of long endurance: the "marathon."

Darius hoped to return for round two, but had to deal with conflict at home, and later was killed in battle. Xerxes, Darius son and successor, sent a huge force, estimated at one hundred thousand men and one thousand ships to avenge the Persian loss and subdue the Greeks permanently. He was joined by troops from all over the Persian Empire, from Ethiopia to India. This was the Second Persian War. During this conflict, the Spartans joined, and led the effort to repulse the Persians. An army of about one thousand Greeks stood against Xerxes’ army (which amazed him) at Thermopylae Pass, a narrow mountain corridor. He demanded surrender for four days before attacking. The Greeks easily routed the few Persians who could get through. Sadly, a traitor named Ephialtes told the Persians of an alternative route. In order to forestall them, the Spartan King, Leonidas and three hundred Spartan soldiers agreed to fight until the death to forestall the Persian assault. All three hundred died, and the Persians attacked and burned Athens. However, the strategy was sufficient to allow the Greek Navy to regroup and smash the Persians at the Battle of Salamis Strait. The Battle marked the end of Persian intrusions into Greek affairs.

According to legend, a young Greek soldier remarked that the Persian arrows were so thick that they blocked out the sun, to which his grizzled mentor replied, "Fine, then we will fight in the shade. A monument to Leonidas stands to this day at Thermopylae with his famous Epitaph: "Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by; that here obedient to our laws we lie." An excellent description of the battle is found in Eric Pressfield’s "Gates of Fire.

The defeat of the Persians had far reaching consequences for the Greeks. Importantly, Western Europe developed free of Eastern or Oriental influences. Greek political institutions and intellectual concepts became the heritage of the West. Additionally, for the first time, the individual poleis thought of Greece as a nation. This was the birth of Greek nationalism, and the period of which the Greeks were the most proud.

The defeat of the Persians left a power vacuum in the Aegean; and any state with a strong navy would be able to turn that sea into a private lake. Athens seized the opportunity by means of the Delian League, named for the island of Delos which was a sacred site. The purpose of the league was to unite the several city-states under Athens’ leadership. Athens, noted for its powerful navy, provided warships and crews and also determined the amount each member of the league should contribute. The Delian League had actually been responsible for waging the war against Persia; with the defeat of the Persians, the Athenians attempted to transform the league into an Athenian Empire. Any member who opposed the Athenians was put down ruthlessly, and tribute was collected by force, if necessary. At times, Athenian policies were so harsh that member states revolted, and the Athenian navy was used to defeat members of its own league.

Athenian ambition alarmed the Spartans and a brief war (449-445 B.C.E.) broke out between the two. At the end of the war, no serious damage was inflicted, and nothing was resolved. Athens continued to repress its allies and came into conflict with Corinth, a leading Polis and supporter of Sparta. This led to a meeting of Spartan allies who demanded that the Athenians be stopped. Meetings were held between Athenian and Spartan delegations to no avail, and war broke out. This was the Peloponnesian War.

At the outbreak of the war, the Spartan representative warned the Athenians: "this day will be the beginning of great evil for the Greeks." His words were prophetic. The war lasted twenty seven years (431 – 404 B.C.E.) and resulted in plagues, famine and devastation throughout Greece. The historian Thucydides wrote: "For never had so many cities been captured and destroyed, whether by the barbarians or by the Greeks who were fighting each other…Never had so many men been exiled or slaughtered whether in the war or because of civil conflicts.

Athens at the time was under the leadership of a kinsman of Pericles known as Alciabides, who was brilliant, handsome and charming, but egotistical and self centered. He led planned an invasion of Sicily which proved disastrous, and then deserted Athens to fight for the Spartans. At the time of his desertion, a large number of statues of Hermes, the Greek Messenger God, were emasculated. Alciabides was blamed for the mutation.

The Persians sided with the Spartans, and ultimately Athens was defeated. In 404 B.C.E. the Spartans destroyed the walls of Athens to the music of flute girls.

The Peloponnesian Wars led to the development of historical writing. Among the early historians:

Herodotus, known as the father of history, wrote of the Egyptians and Persians and of the Persian Wars in Histories.

Thucydides an Athenian general who was exiled for defeat, and used the time to write a history of the Peloponnesian Wars. He was interested in human nature, and how it manifested itself in war. He described the great Athenian Plague of 430 B.C.E. and also described the breakdown of Athenian society because of the war.

The Peloponnesian Wars greatly weakened the Greek City States, and made them vulnerable to influence and domination from outside. That influence came in the form of Alexander of Macedon, often known as Alexander the Great.