History of Ancient Greece

Information about the history of Greece during ancient times: the formation of the city-state, the classical period, the expedition of Alexander the Great and other important events in Ancient Greece.

Table of contents:
Formation of the city-stateClassical PeriodAlexander the Great


The formation of the city-state

In the 8th century BC, Dorian's rule declined and the towns started to re-emerge. Two towns, Argos and Corinth began trades with the Near East and a wealthy elite group emerged from trading. These two ports were specialized in the manufacture of luxury goods and products like olive oil, wine, and wheat that were stored and transported in pot vases. This is why pottery was also developed at that time. In trade contacts with the Phoenicians, they adopted their phonetic alphabet and other innovations.

Many Greek colonies based on trade and agriculture were founded all around the Mediterranean Basin and the Black Sea. This way, the Greek culture started slowly to grow and gradually more than 150 colonies were established. These colonies had strong connections with the mother town and provided economic and military support to each other.

Another interesting fact is that poetry started to develop that time. The first poets were sung by professional singers with the accompaniment of music. In the 8th century, two poems that were sung as part of the tradition since the 12th century BC were sung by Homer and written down by his students. These poems were the Iliad and the Odyssey.

From a political aspect, this period is characterized by the growth of the city-state called polis. The two most important city-states that began to develop were Sparta and Athens. Sparta was the first city that organized itself with a strict social structure and a government that included an assembly representing all citizens.

In the meanwhile, the largest polis appeared which also included several other regions of Attica and was named Athens, a name taken by goddess Athena according to the myth. The first social system of Athens was based on wealth rather than aristocratic birth. Although in different ways, Sparta and Athens both included all citizens in their political system.

During this period, inter-state relations started to grow between the towns of ancient Greece. In religious or athletic festivals, such as the Olympic Games, the Greek people showed an early sense of common identity and referred to themselves as Hellenes. All the foreigners were called barbarians.

In the 6th century BC, the Greek towns faced the threat of the Persian Empire, under the rule of King Xerxes who had views on invading Greece and consequently entire Europe. The Hellenic league, under the leadership of Athens and Sparta, decisively defeated the Persians at the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plateae. They only defeated in the Battle of Thermopylae, where King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 soldiers stayed to delay the Persians while the other Greek towns were preparing their counter-attacks. Leonidas and his soldiers died in this battle but gave the precious advantage of the time to the other Greeks to get ready and eventually win the Persian army.

After the Persian Wars, two large leagues were formed in the Greece territory: the Peloponnesian League, headed by Sparta and the Delian League, headed by Athens.


The Classical Period

From the 6th to the 4th century, Athens was the dominating power in the Aegean Sea and had developed strong connections with ports around the Mediterranean Sea. The Athenian Empire was composed of 172 tribute-paying towns and had got very rich out of the trade with other city-states of ancient Greece and other countries of the Mediterranean basin. This enormous wealth permitted Athens to flourish in terms of art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and politics.

Until the beginning of the 6th century, Athens was ruled by aristocrats and generals. The position of the citizen in the hierarchy depended upon his wealth. Poor citizens had no rights until Solon, lawgiver, and poet, put the basis for democracy when he declared all free (non-slaves) Athenians equal by law and abolished inherited privileges.

Pericles, a general who was elected governor in 461 BC, established a developed kind of democracy upon which all decisions were taken by the general assembly of the Athenian citizens. These meetings would take place in the Agora (modern Thissio), where political matters were discussed and governors were elected. All Athenians had the right to vote, speak and become a candidate for governor. Also, all Athenians by turn were holding official positions, sharing thus wisdom and responsibility in this co-operative democracy.

Pericles also showed a special interest in education and legislated that even the poorest children must be educated in public schools. He also constructed many public works, monuments, and temples, including the Acropolis that symbolized the majesty of Athens. This period is known as the Golden Age of Athens.

With the enormous growth of Athens, many city-states felt threatened. One of the states was Sparta. This town had developed a close military culture. The Spartans were not allowed to exit the town, they received a military education all through their lives and had many slaves to cultivate their land while they were fighting for the defence and expansion of their hometown.

The rivalry between Athens and Sparta led to the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), a war that gradually included almost all towns of Greece as allies of either Athens or Sparta. After many years of war and mostly after the death of Pericles, the Athenians were eventually defeated. However, the end of this war found most Greek towns down to their knees after the long battles.


The expedition of Alexander the Great

After the Peloponnesian War, a new political force emerged, Macedon. The Macedonians were a tribe of northern Greece with different customs and social organization. It was organized with a headman, the king, concentrating all the state powers.

Macedon quickly became a large kingdom and under King Philip II they even conquered Athens and Thebes in 338 BC. He united all the Greek towns and wanted to start an expedition against the Persians but death caught upon him. After his assassination, his son Alexander became king at the age of 22 and continued the vision of his father.

Alexander the Great invaded Asia in 334 BC with 30,000 soldiers from all Greece, except for the Spartans who denied following the expedition due to religious beliefs. Before dying at the age of 33 of malarial fever, Alexander the Great had conquered the entire Persian Empire, Egypt, Mesopotamia, modern Afghanistan and some parts of India.

After the death of Alexander the Great, the large Macedonian Empire that expanded from Greece to India were torn into pieces. New monarchies made their appearance in this period that is called the Hellenistic period but they did not last for long. The concept of polis had disappeared and states of larger size appeared. However, in these states that were spread in all eastern world, the Greek language remained the official language in trade, administration, and literature. The history of Ancient Greece is now entering a new stage: the Hellenistic and Roman period.

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