|History of Greece series
|Aegean Civilization||before 1600 BC|
|Mycenaean Greece||ca. 16001200 BC|
|Greek Dark Ages||ca. 1200800 BC|
|Ancient Greece||776323 BC|
|Hellenistic Greece||323 BC146 BC|
|Roman Greece||146 BC330 AD|
|Byzantine Empire||330 AD1453 AD|
|Modern Greece||after 1832|
|Greek language||Greek literature|
|Military history||Names of the Greeks|
Ancient Greece is the term used to describe the Greek-speaking world in ancient times. It refers not only to the geographical peninsula of modern Greece, but also to areas of Hellenic culture that were settled in ancient times by Greeks: Cyprus, the Aegean coast of Turkey (then known as Ionia), Sicily and southern Italy (known as Magna Graecia), and the scattered Greek settlements on the coasts of what are now Albania, Bulgaria, Egypt, Libya, southern France, southern Spain, Catalonia, Georgia, Romania, and Ukraine.
There are no fixed or universally agreed upon dates for the beginning or the end of the Ancient Greek period. In common usage it refers to all Greek history before the Roman Empire, but historians use the term more precisely. Some writers include the periods of the Greek-speaking Mycenaean civilization that collapsed about 1100 BC, though most would argue that the influential Minoan was so different from later Greek cultures that it should be classed separately.
In the modern Greek school-books, "ancient times" is a period of about 1000 years (from the catastrophe of Mycenae until the conquest of the country by the Romans) that is divided in four periods, based on styles of art as much as culture and politics. The historical line starts with Greek Dark Ages (1100800 BC). In this period artists use geometrical schemes such as squares, circles, lines to decorate amphoras and other pottery. The archaic period (800500 BC) represents those years when the artists made larger free-standing sculptures in stiff, hieratic poses with the dreamlike "archaic smile". In the classical years (500323 BC) artists perfected the style that since has been taken as exemplary: "classical", such as the (Parthenon). In the Hellenistic years that followed the conquests of Alexander (323146 BC), also known as Alexandrian, aspects of Hellenic civilization expanded to Egypt and Bactria.
Traditionally, the Ancient Greek period was taken to begin with the date of the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, but many historians now extend the term back to about 1000 BC. The traditional date for the end of the Ancient Greek period is the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC (The following period is classed Hellenistic) or the integration of Greece into the Roman Republic in 146 BC.
These dates are historians' conventions and some writers treat the Ancient Greek civilization as a continuum running until the advent of "Christianity" in the third century AD.
Ancient Greece is considered by most historians to be the foundational culture of Western Civilization. Greek culture was a powerful influence in the Roman Empire, which carried a version of it to many parts of Europe. Ancient Greek civilization has been immensely influential on the language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, art and architecture of the modern world, particularly during the Renaissance in Western Europe and again during various neo-Classical revivals in 18th and 19th century Europe and The Americas.
The Greeks are believed to have migrated southward into the Greek peninsula
in several waves beginning in the late 3rd millennium BC, the last being the
Dorian invasion. The period from 1600 BC to about 1100 BC is described in
History of Mycenaean Greece known for the reign of King Agamemnon and the wars
against Troy as narrated in the epics of Homer. The period from 1100 BC to the
8th century BC is a "dark age" from which no primary texts survive, and only
scant archaeological evidence remains. Secondary and tertiary texts such as
Herodotus' Histories, Pausanias' Description of Greece, Diodorus' Bibliotheca
and Jerome's Chronicon, contain brief chronologies and king lists for this
period. The history of Ancient Greece is often taken to end with the reign of
Alexander the Great, who died in 323 BC. Subsequent events are described in
Any history of Ancient Greece requires a cautionary note on sources. Those Greek historians and political writers whose works have survived, notably Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Plato and Aristotle, were mostly either Athenian or pro-Athenian. That is why we know far more about the history and politics of Athens than of any other city, and why we know almost nothing about some cities' histories. These writers, furthermore, concentrate almost wholly on political, military and diplomatic history, and ignore economic and social history. All histories of Ancient Greece have to contend with these limits in their sources.
The rise of Hellas
In the 8th century BC Greece began to emerge from the Dark Ages which followed the fall of the Mycenaean civilization. Literacy had been lost and the Mycenaean script forgotten, but the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to Greek and from about 800 BC written records begin to appear. Greece was divided into many small self-governing communities, a pattern dictated by Greek geography, where every island, valley and plain is cut off from its neighbors by the sea or mountain ranges.
As Greece recovered economically, its population grew beyond the capacity of
its limited arable land, and from about 750 BC the Greeks began 250 years of
expansion, settling colonies in all directions. To the east, the Aegean coast of
Asia Minor was colonized first, followed by Cyprus and the coasts of Thrace, the
Sea of Marmara and south coast of the Black Sea. Eventually Greek colonization
reached as far north-east as present day Ukraine. To the west the coasts of
Albania, Sicily and southern Italy were settled, followed by the south coast of
France, Corsica, and even northeastern Spain. Greek colonies were also founded
in Egypt and Libya. Modern Syracuse, Naples, Marseille and Istanbul had their
beginnings as the Greek colonies Syracusa, Neapolis, Massilia and Byzantium.
By the 6th century BC Hellas had become a cultural and linguistic area much larger than the geographical area of Greece. Greek colonies were not politically controlled by their founding cities, although they often retained religious and commercial links with them. The Greeks both at home and abroad organised themselves into independent communities, and the city (polis) became the basic unit of Greek government.
First Crete, then in short order the other Greek city-states, adopted the formal practice of pederasty. From its ritual roots in Indo-European prehistory, the practice was elevated to prominence, influencing pedagogy, warfare and social life, and becoming a central feature of Hellenic culture for the next thousand years.
Social and political conflict
The Greek cities were originally monarchies, although many of them were very small and the term "King" (basileus) for their rulers is misleadingly grand. In a country always short of farmland, power rested with a small class of landowners, who formed a warrior aristocracy fighting frequent petty inter-city wars over land and rapidly ousting the monarchy. About this time the rise of a mercantile class (shown by the introduction of coinage in about 680 BC) introduced class conflict into the larger cities. From 650 BC onwards, the aristocracies had to fight not to be overthrown and replaced by populist leaders called tyrants (tyrranoi), a word which did not necessarily have the modern meaning of oppressive dictators.
By the 6th century BC several cities had emerged as dominant in Greek affairs: Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes. Each of them had brought the surrounding rural areas and smaller towns under their control, and Athens and Corinth had become major maritime and mercantile powers as well. Athens and Sparta developed a rivalry that dominated Greek politics for generations.
In Sparta, the landed aristocracy retained their power, and the constitution of Lycurgus (about 650 BC) entrenched their power and gave Sparta a permanent militarist regime under a dual monarchy. Sparta dominated the other cities of the Peloponnese, with the sole exceptions of Argus and Achaia.
In Athens, by contrast, the monarchy was abolished in 683 BC, and reforms of Solon established a moderate system of aristocratic government. The aristocrats were followed by the tyranny of Pisistratus and his sons, who made the city a great naval and commercial power. When the Pisistratids were overthrown, Cleisthenes established the world's first democracy (500 BC), with power being held by an assembly of all the male citizens. But it must be remembered that only a minority of the male inhabitants were citizens, excluding slaves, freedmen and non-Athenians.
The Persian Wars
Main article: Greco-Persian Wars
In Ionia (the modern Aegean coast of Turkey) the Greek cities, which included great centres such as Miletus and Halicarnassus, were unable to maintain their independence and came under the rule of the Persian Empire in the mid 6th century BC. In 499 BC the Greeks rose in the Ionian Revolt, and Athens and some other Greek cities went to their aid.
In 490 BC the Persian Great King, Darius I, having suppressed the Ionian cities, sent a fleet to punish the Greeks. The Persians landed in Attica, but were defeated at the Battle of Marathon by a Greek army led by the Athenian general Miltiades. The burial mound of the Athenian dead can still be seen at Marathon.
Ten years later Darius's successor, Xerxes I, sent a much more powerful force by land. After being delayed by the Spartan King Leonidas I at Thermopylae, Xerxes advanced into Attica, where he captured and burned Athens. But the Athenians had evacuated the city by sea, and under Themistocles they defeated the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis. A year later, the Greeks, under the Spartan Pausanius, defeated the Persian army at Plataea.
The Athenian fleet then turned to chasing the Persians out of the Aegean Sea, and in 478 BC they captured Byzantium. In the course of doing so Athens enrolled all the island states and some mainland allies into an alliance, called the Delian League because its treasury was kept on the sacred island of Delos. The Spartans, although they had taken part in the war, withdrew into isolation after it, allowing Athens to establish unchallenged naval and commercial power.
The dominance of Athens
In 431 BC war broke out again between Athens and Sparta and its allies. The proximate cause was a dispute between Corinth and one of its colonies, Corcyra (modern-day Corfu), in which Athens intervened. The obviate cause was the growing resentment of Sparta and its allies at the dominance of Athens over Greek affairs. The war lasted 27 years, partly because Athens (a naval power) and Sparta (a land-based military power) found it difficult to come to grips with each other.
Sparta's initial strategy was to invade Attica, but the Athenians were able to retreat behind their walls. An outbreak of plague in the city during the siege caused heavy losses, including Pericles. At the same time the Athenian fleet landed troops in the Peloponnese, winning battles at Naupactus (429 BC) and Pylos (425 BC). But these tactics could bring neither side a decisive victory. After several years of inconclusive campaigning, the moderate Athenian leader Nicias concluded the Peace of Nicias (421 BC).
In 418 BC, however, hostility between Sparta and the Athenian ally Argos led to a resumption of fighting. At Mantinea Sparta defeated the combined armies of Athens and her allies. The resumption of fighting brought the war party, led by Alcibiades, back to power in Athens. In 415 BC Alcibiades persuaded the Athenian Assembly to launch a major expedition against Syracuse, a Peloponnesian ally in Sicily. Though Nicias was a skeptic about the Sicilian Expedition he was appointed along Alcibiades to lead the expedition. Due to accusations against him, Alcibiades fled to Sparta where he persuaded Sparta to send aid to Syracuse. As a result, the expedition was a complete disaster and the whole expeditionary force was lost. Nicias was executed by his captors.
Sparta had now built a fleet to challenge Athenian naval supremacy, and had found a brilliant military leader in Lysander, who seized the strategic initiative by occupying the Hellespont, the source of Athens' grain imports. Threatened with starvation, Athens sent its last remaining fleet to confront Lysander, who decisively defeated them at Aegospotami (405 BC). The loss of her fleet threatened Athens with bankruptcy. In 404 BC Athens sued for peace, and Sparta dictated a predictably stern settlement: Athens lost her city walls, her fleet, and all of her overseas possessions. The anti-democratic party took power in Athens with Spartan support.
Spartan and Theban dominance
The end of the Peloponnesian War left Sparta the master of Greece, but the narrow outlook of the Spartan warrior elite did not suit them to this role. Within a few years the democratic party regained power in Athens and other cities. In 395 BC the Spartan rulers removed Lysander from office, and Sparta lost her naval supremacy. Athens, Argos, Thebes, and Corinth, the latter two formerly Spartan allies, challenged Spartan dominance in the Corinthian War, which ended inconclusively in 387 BC. That same year Sparta shocked Greek opinion by concluding the Treaty of Antalcidas with Persia by which they surrendered the Greek cities of Ionia and Cyprus, thus reversing a hundred years of Greek victories against Persia. Sparta then tried to further weaken the power of Thebes, which led to a war in which Thebes allied herself with the old enemy, Athens. The Theban generals Epaminondas and Pelopidas won a decisive victory at Leuctra (371 BC).
The result of this battle was the end of Spartan supremacy and the establishment of Theban dominance, but Athens also recovered much of her former power. The supremacy of Thebes was short-lived. With the death of Epaminondas at Mantinea (362 BC) the city lost its greatest leader, and his successors blundered into an unsuccessful ten-year war with Phocis. In 346 BC the Thebans appealed to Philip II of Macedon to help them against the Phocians, thus drawing Macedon into Greek affairs for the first time.
The rise of Macedon
The Kingdom of Macedon was formed in the 7th century BC out of northern Greek tribes. They played little part in Greek politics before the beginning of the 4th century, but Philip was an ambitious man who had been educated in Thebes and wanted to play a larger role. In particular, he wanted to be accepted as the new leader of Greece in recovering the freedom of the Greek cities of Asia from Persian rule. By seizing the Greek cities of Amphipolis, Methone and Potidaea, he gained control of the gold and silver mines of Macedonia. This gave him the resources to realize his ambitions.
Philip established Macedonian dominance over Thessaly (352 BC) and Thrace, and by 348 BC he controlled everything north of Thermopylae. He used his great wealth to bribe Greek politicians and create a "Macedonian party" in every Greek city. His intervention in the war between Thebes and Phocis brought him recognition as a Greek leader, and gave him his opportunity to become a power in Greek affairs. But despite his sincere admiration for Athens, the Athenian leader Demosthenes, in a series of famous speeches (philippics) roused the Greek cities to resist his advance.
In 339 BC Thebes, Athens, Sparta and other Greek states formed an alliance to resist Philip and expel him from the Greek cities he had occupied in the north. But Philip struck first, advancing into Greece and defeating the Greek cities at Chaeronea in 338 BC. This traditionally marks the end of the era of the Greek city-state as an independent political unit, although in fact Athens and other cities survived as independent states until Roman times.
Philip tried to win over Athens by flattery and gifts, but did not really succeed. He organised the cities into the League of Corinth, and announced that he would lead an invasion of Persia to liberate the Greek cities and avenge the Persian invasions of the previous century. But before he could do so he was assassinated (336 BC).
The conquests of Alexander
Philip was succeeded by his 20-year-old son Alexander, who immediately set out to carry out his father's plans. He travelled to Corinth where the assembled Greek cities recognised him as leader of the Greeks, then set off north to assemble his forces. The army with which he invaded the Persian Empire was basically Macedonian, but many idealists from the Greek cities also enlisted. But while Alexander was campaigning in Thrace, he heard that the Greek cities had rebelled. He swept south again, captured Thebes, and razed the city to the ground as a warning to the Greek cities that his power could no longer be resisted.
In 334 BC Alexander crossed into Asia, and defeated the Persians at the river Granicus. This gave him control of the Ionian coast, and he made a triumphal procession through the liberated Greek cities. After settling affairs in Anatolia, he advanced south through Cilicia into Syria, where he defeated Darius III at Issus (333 BC). He then advanced through Phoenicia to Egypt, which he captured with little resistance, the Egyptians welcoming him as a liberator from Persian oppression.
Darius was now ready to make peace and Alexander could have returned home in triumph, but he was determined to conquer Persia and make himself the ruler of the world. He advanced north-east through Syria and Mesopotamia, and defeated Darius again at Gaugamela (331 BC). Darius fled and was killed by his own followers, and Alexander found himself the master of the Persian Empire, occupying Susa and Persepolis without resistance.
Meanwhile the Greek cities were making renewed efforts to
escape from Macedonian control. At Megalopolis in 331 BC, Alexander's regent
Antipater defeated the Spartans, who had refused to join the Corinthian League
or recognise Macedonian supremacy.
Alexander pressed on, advancing through what are now Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Indus river valley, and by 326 BC he had reached Punjab. He might well have advanced down the Ganges to Bengal had not his army, convinced they were at the end of the world, refused to go any further. Alexander reluctantly turned back, and died of a fever in Babylon in 323 BC.
Alexander's empire broke up soon after his death, but his conquests permanently changed the Greek world. Thousands of Greeks travelled with him or after him to settle in the new Greek cities he had founded as he advanced, the most important being Alexandria in Egypt. Greek-speaking kingdoms in Egypt, Syria, Iran and Bactria were established. The Hellenistic age had begun.