Ancient Greece






Hesiod, Theogony

Greek mythology: The Minotaur

Iliad and Odyssey (excerpts)

Greek poetry, drama, philosophy


When we think of Greece:

-         City- states

-         Olympics

-         Socrates drinking hemlock

-         Iliad and the Odyssey



-         plays a major role in the emerging civilization

-         Mountainous

-         Few rivers

-         Little cultivatable farmland - colonies

·        1/3 of land is entirely unproductive

-         Mountains lead to formation of city-states

-         Indented seacoast leads to many natural harbors


Beginnings (Aegean Greece)


·        First agricultural villages by 7000 B.C.

·        Bronze by about 3000 B.C.

·        Major exporter of raw materials to western Asia by about 2500 B.C.

·        Civilization flourishes in Greece in the 2nd millennium

·        Work of archaeolgists

·        Two major civilizations

§         Minoans (Crete)

§         Myceneans (Greek mainland)


Minoans (Crete)


·        First literate civilization in Greece c. 2000 B.C.

·        “Linear A” language – not precursor to Greek

·        Located on sea routes between Greek mainland, Egypt, and Anatolia (Turkey)

·        Crete was destroyed by earthquake

·        Rebuilt even better – palaces rebuilt on a grand scale

·        Flourishes 1800-1550 B.C. – Minoan civilization

·        Palaces not merely royal, but centers to administration, religion, politics, and economics

·        Minoan palace bureaucrats supervise a large sector of the economy

§         As in most other ancient societies

·        Largest palace is located at Knossos

§         Main building – 3 acres

§         Palace built around large central court that is 180 ft long by 82 ft wide

·        Artisan workshops

·        Large staterooms

·        Bathrooms

·        Connected with corridors, ramps, and stairways

·        Brightly colored frescoes on the walls

·        Widespread trading network that stretches from Asia Minor to Italy

·        Seems that the Minoans live in relative peace

·        Worship a variety of gods and goddesses – don’t know names or functions

·        Minoan civilization ends

§         All palaces except Knossos were destroyed c. 1550 B.C.

§         Knossos falls c. 1375 B.C.

§         For reasons why, we need to look to the mainland


Mycenean Civilization (Mainland Greece)


·        There was a flourishing Copper Age civilization until destroyed c. 2300 B.C.

·        Relative poverty until c. 1700 B.C.

·        Signs of power and prosperity reappear – land is just too centrally located

§         Pottery, weapons, stone vessels, death mask (combo. Gold and silver)

§         These are the Myceneans (Greek-speakers, unlike previous inhabitants)

·        When did they get there?

o       Different theories, but no consensus

·        Myceneans adopt ideas from their neighbors in Crete, Egypt, Anatolia, and Syria-Palestine

·        Ms also fight with their neighbors

·        M society is dominated by warrior-kings who raided others

·        1550 B.C. – they conquer Crete

·        Between 1400-1200 B.C., Mycenean civ is at its height

·        Kings live in palaces stacked with treasures

·        Traveled through kingdom on good roads

·        My artists excel at pottery, among other things (Museum of Fine Arts in Boston)

·        Palace officials supervise most economic acitivity

§         Thousands of clay tablets written by scribes c. 1200 – palace economy

·        Mycenean merchants replace Minoans

§         Export wine and scented oils from Sicily

§         Bring back metals, ivory, and possibly slaves

·        The glory days are coming to an end, despite fortified cities

§         Internal problems

§         “Sea Peoples” plague Mycenean civilization just as they did the Hittites and others


The (so-called) “Dark Ages”


·        Period from 1100-800 B.C. is becoming clearer, thanks to archeology

·        Considerable depopulation during this time

·        Dorians move into southern Greece at this time from northern Greece

§         Drive out Myceneans with iron swords and go into Crete as well

·        Only Athens retains its independence and it refuge for Myceneans who are fleeing

§         Some refugees head for Anatolia (in Turkey), to places like Troy

·        Despite the economic and social upheaval, they continue to produce pottery and preserve an oral tradition of poetry à epic poetry of Homer

§         Iliad and Odyssey are OT and NT of Greece, so to speak

§         Poems continue to move, inspire, and educate the ancient Greeks

·        Schoolboys learn to recite Homer by heart

§         But is Homer history?






<<Sidebar: Homer and History>>


·        Homer speaks on behalf of polytheistic religion of Greece

·        Gods live on Mt. Olympus – 9500 ft mtn in northern Greece

§         Story is in Hesiod’s Theogony (bring in to class)

·        Zeus

·        Hera

·        Poseidon

·        Ares

·        Aphrodite

·        No all-powerful God, such as in the Bible

§         Less immediate

§         Less interested in intimate affairs of humans

§         Stirrings of Protagoras (5th century B.C.): “Man is the measure of all things”

·        Gods are a lot like us

§         Freud: we want to have a comforting, loving father

§         Used against Bible, but really should be against anthropomorphic gods

·        Homer’s heroes seek glory (divine approval?) through military conquest

·        Above all else, the gods want justice, even though they can act childish at times

·        Iliad: Mycenean king Agememnon (husband of Helen) vs. Trojan king Priam (oldest son: Hector)

§         Trojan War starts when Trojan prince named Paris abducts Helen

§         Troy a vassal state of Hitites?

§         Gods destroy Troy as a punishment for Paris’s deed

·        Odyssey: Story of Odysseus returning victorious to Ithica – 20 yrs away: 10 at war and 10 wandering – wife Penelope keeps things going – nobles fight over her in his absence and he kills them all - maturing of son, Telemachus

·        Archaeological evidence c. 1250-1200 that Troy is destroyed

§         The level of Troy is destroyed by fire (consistent with sack by Greece)


Times, They Are A Changin’


·        Few in 9th century Athens would have predicted that this poor, illiterate society of small settlements and low-level trade

·        Everything changes beginning in 8th century as peace returns and contributes to the population rise – economy shifts from herding to farming (more efficient source of food)

·        Greek commerce is expanding

§         Trading posts established in Syria; Naples, Italy

§         Greek merchants seek iron and luxury goods

§         Greek export silver (rich deposits) and slaves

·        With trade comes colonies

§         Spreads urban civilization into the Mediterranean world

§         Main motive is land hunger

§         Typical colonist was young

§         Typical colony is a few 100 settlers

§         Colonists needed to be prepared to fight because built on native land

§         Complex attitudes toward native peoples

§         After a time, Greek male colonists intermarry with native women

§         Between 750 to 500 B.C., colonies all over the Mediterranean

·        Saguntum, Spain

·        Massalia (Marseille), France

o       one explorer from this city is Pytheas, who c. 300 B.C., goes through Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) up to circumnavigate England and even go up near Scandanavia [REFER TO MAP]

·        Syracuse, Sicily

·        Cyrene, Libya [Simon the Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross]

·        Naucratis, Egypt

·        Al-Mina, Syria

·        Byzantium (modern Turkey)

·        The needs of colonies and trading partners turn more and more Greeks into sailors

§         This is key

§         Historian Thucydides says sea powers tend to be more dynamic and innovative than land powers because they come into contact with new ideas and institutions

·        Ships moved more quickly and efficiently than land transport

·        They also get an alphabet from Phoenicia c. 750 B.C.

§         Literacy spreads rapidly

§         Underlays achievements in poetry, philosophy, and law

§         But still few people at the time could read or write well, so Greek culture remains a primarily oral culture




Golden Age of Greece (Polis), 750-350 B.C.


·        Polis denotes the community as a whole – centrality

·        Began as warriors who defended cities (typically full-time farmers who fought on the side) demanded a right in governing it

·        Get words like citizen, constitution, govern, politics, and politician

·        Aristotle: ideal polis is where everyone knows everyone

·        Most were small (less than 100 sq. miles) and 5,000-10,000 people



Polis – Good and Bad Aspects


·        Polis – “city-state” or “citizen-state”

§         Not every polis is a democracy

·        Sparta – militarism, obedience, austerity

·        Athens – freedom and cultural attainments

§         Every polis emphasized cooperative activities whose participants enjoyed at least a measure of equality

§         Sought a balance between the group and the individual

§         Balance not always struck

§         Fails to grant equal rights to women, immigrants, slaves

§         More war between city-states than war

à Greeks turn these tensions into great cultural achievements

o       sculpture, painting, and architecture

·        Key to the future of Western Civilization!

§         Religious heritage – Israel

§         Philosophical and political heritage – Greece

·        Problem is that poleis didn’t like to help one another, so they are frequently at war with one another

·        A lot of Greek history can be explained by asking whether city-states will join together or fight one another




§         Athens – 1000 sq. miles (Rhode Island)

·        Has many formerly autonomous villages that come under its control c. 800 B.C.

·        At its height (430 B.C.) has about 400,000 people

·        Polis has two parts:

§         Tiny urban area – public space – defensible hill (with water supply) – “high city” (acropolis) – “gathering place” (agora) used as a marketplace and for meetings – usually at least one temple

·        After 500 B.C., stone buildings such as theaters, gymnasia, and baths become increasingly common in urban centers

§         Large countryside, where most people live

·        First polis was not a democracy, but a tyranny

§         Originally a tyrant was defined as a champion of the people because they overthrew a narrow and entrenched aristocracy

·        Also found colonies on trade routes

·        Encourage skilled craftsmen to come from other city-states

·        Build temples

·        Institute festivals

·        Provide jobs and leisure-time activities

·        Corinth becomes wealthiest city-state by exporting agricultural produce

§         Negative connotation by 3rd generation

§         Tyranny spreads to places like Corinth (Bible?) by 660 B.C.

§         By sixth centuries B.C., all city-states except Sparta are tyrannies

·        Most tyrannies don’t last past 3rd generation

·        By 500 B.C., almost all tyrannies are replaced by oligarchies (most common) and democracies (less common)




Located in fertile valley

Surrounded by rugged, isolating mountains


·        Closed, military society – boys taught from youth (after 7, in barracks) to be soldiers

§         Those babies deemed defective are abandoned to die, be sold into slavery, or secretly adopted

·        Not much for book learning

·        Discourages consumption (issues no coins)

·        Currency was heavy iron skewers

·        Suspicious of foreigners

·        Really simple diet

·        Secretive toward the outside world, which was considered corrupt, so little trade

·        Spartan society begins c. 650 B.C. as three groups emerge

§         Highest level: Similars 

§         Middle level: neighbors (free and semi-autonomous)

§         Lowest level: helots (unfree laborers who work the land) – vastly outnumber others

à Similars monopolize gov’t power and only full citizens

à At age 30, each Similar had right to hold office and attend a legislative and deliberative assembly – also gets a minimum land allotment – as name implies, they were similar but not equal (some own more land than others

·        This idea of rule by a group of Similars was radical at the time

§         Other city-states ruled by a king or tyrant

§         But Sparta is not a democracy (more “Mixed” gov’t) because elites – 2 kings, Council of Elders, etc. – hold real powers à really an oligarchy

·        Sparta becomes a militaristic state for one reason: security against the helots, Messenian Greeks whose land the Spartans took and who were in the overwhelming majority

§         Revolted at times, almost defeating the Spartans

·        By 550 B.C. Sparta takes leadership role in a network of alliances called Peloponnesian League – defense league, not imperialistic (sort of like NATO)

§         PL is the dominant land power in Greece for over 100 years



·        Around 650 B.C., kings rule Athens, nine administrators (one-year elected terms) ran the administration

·        Each administrator is a life member of Areopagus (aristocratic council of elders), which holds lion’s share of power [Acts 17 – Paul in Athens speaks there] – it also serves as a court – rarely challenged by the people’s assembly, called the demos

·        By 632 B.C., aristocrats face trouble

§         Corruption

§         Economic change – poor harvests hurt small farmers

§         Assertive hoplites (farmers and merchants)

·        Cylon attempts to establish a tyranny, which failed

·        In 621 B.C., establish a code of laws – Code of Draco (draconian)

·        Elite group of hoplite farmers, which had grown wealthy importing olive oil, press for political power

·        Enter Solon, a peacemaker between rich and poor

§         Moderate

§         Economic and political reforms – gave poor more say in gov’t – votes by a show of hands and not shouting

·        Solon’s reforms ultimately fail to satisy rich or poor, conflict continues, and so a tyranny was established c. 560 B.C. that last for 50 years

·        Sparta, long a hater of tyranny, deposes the tyrant in 510 B.C.

à What would come next: oligarchy or democracy?


Classical Athens


·        Elites try to establish an oligarchy, but massive popular displeasure

·        Elite named Cleisthenes (c. 500) leads popular revolution

§         Tried oligarchy, but winds against it

§         Then turns to the demos, whose leader he became

§         From this base, the people head on to rule Athens

·        Not a democracy in the way we’d think of it

§         Owners of medium-sized farms, artisans, merchants

§         Still establishes principle of rule by the people in popular assembly (House of Representatives), sort of directed by Council of 500 (Senate) – Areopagus continues on until it is stripped of political power under Pericles in mid-400s

·        Principle of ostracism – prevents factionalism from developing

·        Democracy expands to poorest Athenians by 450s, as war veterans (mainly poor) gain political rights – over time, Athenian democracy becomes more egalitarian (just like in U.S., as Senate is popularly elected after 1917 and almost everyone can vote now)

·        Pericles comes to power in 460 B.C. – an aristocrat who liked the common people, an excellent orator, educated in philosophy, a war leader, an honest and tireless worker –

§         really entrenches democracy in Athens for the next 150 years

§         people very involved in their gov’t

§         Large numbers of people attend the assembly from time to time, hold public office

§         Military service for men 18 to 59 was universal

§         Two roads from Athens to sea ports are protected by walls




à Only citizens can participate in gov’t

à 40,000 adult males out of 400,000 population

à girls never officially citizens


Federal level

JUDICIAL BRANCH: Courts – open to almost all citizens – large juries (100s of men chosen by lottery so not easily bribed) – decisions in one day

LEGISLATIVE BRANCH: Assembly – open to all male citizens over 20 – hears great debates of the day – generals and orators lead assembly debates

EXECUTIVE BRANCH: Council of 500 (plus 700 public officials) – all citizens over 30 are eligible – chosen by lottery


State” level

Counties have locally elected executives and assemblies of all citizens




Persian Wars, 499-479 B.C.


à Combination of Spartan land power and Athenian sea power


Round I:

·        Persians have control of Greek city-states

·        City-states rebel and are crushed by Persia c. 499 B.C. after Athens wimps out and withdraws troops send to help

·        Persians under Darius send a fleet to Athens in 492 B.C. – entire fleet destroyed in a storm!

à another ‘what if?’ of history

à would have been no advancement of democracy and Classical Period of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, plays, poetry, etc.

·        In 490, Darius tries again: 26,000+ troops to Marathon, 26 miles east of Athens

·        Athens dispatches 10,000 troops to Marathon, charging shoulder-to-shoulder, singing as they ran

·        Great battle ensues: when dust settles, 6400 Persians and 192 Athenians dead

·        That’s all well and good, but now Athens is defenseless, so Persians ships sail to Athens

·        Someone needs to race to Athens to tell of results of battle so citizens don’t surrender Athens w/o a fight

·        Young runner named Pheidippides (fye-dip-uh-deez) runs 26 miles over rough territory from Marathon to Athens

§         Last words “Rejoice, we conquer,” then he dies!!!

·        Persian ships arrive, see the situation is hopeless, and sailed away


Round II:

·        Persia invades Greece in 480 B.C.

·        Spartans meet them, but are routed

·        Persians march on Athens and sack the abandoned city

·        Greeks lure Persian fleet into shallow water between Athens and island of Salamis and routs Persian fleet

·        Next year, Greeks crush Persian forces and liberate Greek city-states in western Turkey (Ionia)


Athenian Empire


·        After Persian Wars, Athens and Sparta unquestioned leaders of Greece

·        In 477 B.C., Athens heads up Delian League security organization

§         2 purposes: plunder Persian territory and protect Greek lands

§         Starts at 150 allies (250 by 431 B.C.)

·        Allies begin to rebel, but Athens crushes each rebellion

·        Spartans grow jealous of Athenian power and Athens grows cocky of its power and turns Delian League into a network of puppets – a clash becomes inevitable




Peloponnesian Wars, 431-404 B.C.


à Contemporary (Athenian) account: Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War


·        Bitter and bloody conflict between Athens and Sparta

·        431 B.C. Sparta marches into Athenian territory, destroying crops by fire

·        Athens doesn’t try to defeat Sparta on land, but plans to attack Spartan territory by sea

·        Problems for Athens: (1) Plague hits Athens in 430 B.C. (kills 1/3 of population as citizens cower behind city walls); and (2) Force of 27,000 Athenian soldiers wiped out in land battle at Spartan ally of Syracuse in 413 B.C.

·        Athens hangs on until 405 B.C., when Athenian fleet is defeated

·        Walls of Athens were torn down in 404 B.C. and their power declines

§         Lose their self-confidence, not to mention their fleet, empire, and power




·        Sparta can’t unite Greece either

§         Warriors, not diplomats

·        Thebes, to NW of Athens, defeats Spartans in 371 B.C., killing the king.

·        But Thebes was to fall in the wake of the rising power of Macedon


Alexander the Great and the Rise of Macedon


·        Macdeon is in NE Greece and rises through military conquest

·        Under King Philip II (r. 359-336 B.C.), it becomes leader of Greece

·        Under Philip’s son, Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 B.C.), Greek language and culture and spread all over the Mediterranean world, into the Middle East, and into Asia (Greece to Egypt to Pakistan/India)

·        Greeks replace Persians as ruling people of Egypt and western Asia

·        Large numbers of Greek-speaking colonists move South (to places like Egypt) and East (Middle East, South Asia)

·        Founds cities like Alexandria in Egypt

·        After death of Alexander, his kingdom is divided up among his top three generals

·        Over the next hundred years, the Mediterranean world is carved up among small monarchies, empires, and kingdoms (SEE MAP)

·        By 200 A.D., a new world power was emerging in Italy. They were the Romans.