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Classical Greece


Classical Greece Overview
-Classical Greece
-The Greek polis
-Greco Persian Wars
-Second Persian Invasion
-Classical Greek Society and Culture
-Philosophy: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
-Classical Greek society
-Classical Greek culture
-Prelude to the Peloponnesian War
-The Peloponnesian War


The Greek polis




- Greek city-states developed different forms of governance with very different political structures and strengths.
- Greek colonization led to the spread of the Greek language and Greek culture, but it also resulted in tensions with the neighboring Persian empire, culminating in the Persian Wars.
- Athens developed democratic institutions and a culture of philosophy, science, and culture; it emerged as a powerful state and allied with other city-states, forming the Delian League.
- Resistance to Athens’ power among the other Greek city-states, particularly Sparta, prompted the Peloponnesian War.


The rise of the polis


The territory of Greece is mountainous; as a result, ancient Greece consisted of many smaller regions, each with its own dialect, cultural peculiarities, and identity. Regionalism and regional conflicts were a prominent feature of ancient Greece. Cities tended to be located in valleys between mountains or on coastal plains and dominated the countryside around them.

According to the legendary poet Homer, whose historical authenticity is debated, around 1200 BCE, the Mycenaeans were involved in a conflict with the city of Troy in Anatolia, called the Trojan war. As Homer wrote in his famous work, the Iliad, at the same time as the war, various foreign “Sea Peoples” began invading Mycenaean settlements, prompting the inhabitants to migrate to islands in the Aegean, Anatolia, and Cyprus. At that time, writing seemed to have disappeared, and life in the Greek peninsula and Greek islands was characterized by conflict and instability.

This instability was the context for the emergence of Greek city-states. Without a powerful, centralized state, smaller governing bodies created political order. One such type of governing body was the city-state or polis. Initially, the term polis referred to a fortified area or citadel which offered protection during times of war. Because of the relative safety these structures afforded, people flocked to them and set up communities and commercial centers. Over time, poleis—the plural of polis—became urban centers whose power and influence extended to the surrounding agricultural regions, which provided resources and paid taxes.

By around 800 BCE, there were many poleis which functioned independently. In response to their own specific contexts, each city-state created a different form of governance, ranging from monarchies and oligarchies to militaristic societies and proto-democracies. Monarchies were sometimes ruled by a tyrant—a ruler who did not follow any set laws. Oligarchies were small groups of powerful individuals who ran city-state government. Oligarchs and tyrants often competed for power. Democracies were governments that allowed citizens to vote on and participate in making state decisions.

Some of the most important city-states were Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Corinth, and Delphi. Of these, Athens and Sparta were the two most powerful city-states. Athens was a democracy and Sparta had two kings and an oligarchic system, but both were important in the development of Greek society and culture.

What were some of the effects of the lack of a powerful central state?




Located in a fertile area of the Peloponnesus, a peninsula in southern Greece, Sparta’s population steadily grew between 800 and 600 BCE. As Sparta developed a complex and strong economy, it extended its power throughout the Peloponnesus and brought the people of neighboring villages under its control. The people in these villages, however, were not accorded equal status with Spartans. Instead, they became helots, who were a class of unfree laborers. Unlike enslaved people who were owned privately, helots were subjects of the Spartan state. They were able to have families and exercised some degree of freedom, but they were tied to the land and were required to supply Sparta with food.

Spartans expended vast resources to develop a powerful and structured military apparatus to prevent and subdue rebellions.

Though there was a very sharp distinction between Spartans and helots, Spartan society itself did not have a complex social hierarchy, at least in theory. Instead of wealth being a distinguishing marker, social status was determined by military achievements. Strength and discipline were emphasized, even in children at a very young age. At age seven, Spartan boys were separated from their families and sent to live in military barracks, where they underwent serious military training, leading up to active service when they were barely out of their teens.

Though Spartan society did not have a rigid social hierarchy, it still had some influential groups. Like all Greek societies, Sparta was dominated by male citizens, and the most powerful of these came from a select group of families. The Spartan political system was unusual in that it had two hereditary kings from two separate families. These monarchs were particularly powerful when one of them led the army on campaign.

The kings were also priests of Zeus, and they sat on the council of elders known as the gerousia, which was also the highest court in Sparta. There was also an executive committee of five ephors chosen by lot from the citizen body, able only to serve for a maximum of one year after which point they were ineligible for future office. Two of the ephors also accompanied one of the kings when on campaign. Just how these different political elements interacted is not known for certain, but clearly a degree of consensus was necessary for the state apparatus to function.

Women in Sparta had more rights than women in other Greek city-states. In Sparta, they could own property, which they often gained through dowries and inheritances. Some women became rich when the men in their families were killed in war. In fact, women eventually controlled nearly half of Spartan land. In addition, Spartan women could move around with reasonable freedom, wear non-constricting clothing, enjoy athletics, and even drink wine.

How were Spartan helots different from enslaved people?

How was social status primarily determined in Sparta?




Athens emerged as the dominant economic power in Greece around the late sixth century BCE, its power and wealth was further bolstered by the discovery of silver in the neighboring mountains. Athens was at the center of an efficient trading system with other Greek city states. Trade was incredibly important for Athens, as it did not have the agricultural conditions to cultivate enough grain for its population.

Athens transitioned through different systems of government as its population grew and became wealthier through maritime trade. This wealth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few members of the aristocracy, who were also political leaders, leaving other members of society in debt, sometimes to the point of being forced into debt slavery. Further, there was a perceived lack of consistency among the laws of the city.

The first series of laws written to address these inequities was provided by the statesman Draco around 621 BCE, but the laws were considered too severe—the penalty for most infractions was death! This is where we get the term draconian! An aristocrat named Solon was called upon to modify and revise these harsh laws; he created a series of laws which equalized political power. Two of the changes for which Solon was responsible were the cancellation of debts and the abolition of debt slavery. He also created opportunities for some common people to participate in the government of Athens. In doing so, Solon laid the groundwork for democracy in Athens.

Pericles led Athens between 461 and 429 BCE; he was an incredibly well-liked leader known for encouraging culture, philosophy, and science and for advocating for the common people. Under Pericles, Athens entered its golden age and great thinkers, writers, and artists flourished in the city. Herodotus—the “father of history”—lived and wrote in Athens. Socrates—the “father of philosophy”—taught in the marketplace. Hippocrates—“the father of medicine”—practiced there. The sculptor Phidias created his great works for the Parthenon on the Acropolis and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Democritus envisioned an atomic universe. Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Sophocles wrote their famous plays. This legacy continued as, later, Plato founded his Academy outside the walls of Athens in 385 BCE and, even later, Aristotle's Lyceum was founded in the city center.

Still, Athenian democracy was limited to its male citizens. Foreigners, enslaved people, and women were excluded from these institutions. Women’s roles were largely confined to the private sphere, where they were responsible for raising children and managing the household, including enslaved people if the household could afford them. While women of the upper classes were often literate, most were not likely to receive an education beyond what was needed for the execution of their domestic duties. They required male chaperones to travel in public.
Enslaved people, while not involved in political affairs, were integral to the Athenian economy. They cultivated food, worked large construction projects, and labored in mines and quarries. Enslaved people were present in most Athenian households, carrying out an array of domestic duties.

Where does the term draconian come from?


Colonization and the Persian Wars


Due to the increasing populations of the city states and the insufficient resources available, many Greeks began to look outward and create settlements outside of mainland Greece. Between the eighth and sixth centuries, hundreds of colonies were established on the coasts of the Mediterranean and Black seas. Later, Greek communities would settle in modern-day Sicily and southern Italy, even as far as modern-day southern France. Eventually, more Greeks lived in these settlements than on mainland Greece.

Greek colonization invigorated the networks of trade and exchange throughout the Mediterranean. Greek language and culture spread throughout the region. However, it also brought conflict and tensions with the Persian empire, inaugurating the two-decade long Persian Wars from 500 to 479 BCE. As Persia consolidated its control over its conquests in Anatolia, Greek communities living in that area, called Ionia, resisted Persian rule. To support the Ionian Greeks, the Athenians sent their impressive fleet, which prompted retribution from the Persians. The ensuing conflict drew in other Greek city-states, most notably, Sparta. Conflict between the Greeks and Persians continued for over 100 years.


The Delian league and the Peloponnesian War


Though the Greek city-states were unified to some extent in the face of an external threat, as that threat waned, conflicts between the city-states made a resurgence. Following the wars, Athens emerged as the supreme naval power in Greece. It formed the Delian League, ostensibly to create a cohesive Greek network among city-states to ward off further Persian attacks. Under the leadership of Pericles, Athens grew so powerful that the Athenian Empire could effectively dictate the laws, customs, and trade of all her neighbors in Attica and the islands of the Aegean.

The might of the Athenian Empire encouraged an arrogance in Athenian policy makers of the day which grew intolerable to the other city-states. When Athens sent troops to help Sparta put down a Helot rebellion, the Spartans refused the gesture and sent the Athenian force back home in dishonor, thus provoking the war which had long been brewing. Later, when Athens sent their fleet to help defend its ally Cocyra—Corfu—against a Corinthian invasion during the Battle of Sybota in 433 BCE, their action was interpreted by Sparta as aggression instead of assistance, as Corinth was an ally of Sparta.

The Peloponnesian War—which took place between 431 and 404 BCE between Athens and Sparta, though it involved directly or indirectly all of Greece—ended in disaster for Athens when it was defeated. Its empire and wealth decimated, its walls destroyed, only Athen’s reputation as a great seat of learning and culture prevented the sack of the city and the enslavement of the populace.


Classical Greek society




- Greek society was comprised of independent city-states that shared a culture and religion.
- Ancient Greeks were unified by traditions like the panhellenic games.

Greek architecture was designed to facilitate religious ceremonies and common civic spaces.


Independent cities


Ancient Greece was comprised of hundreds of essentially independent city-states, partly due to the geography of Greece. Communities were separated by mountains, hills, and water. Rather than a unified nation, Ancient Greece was more like a network of communities with a shared religion and language that sometimes led to a sense of common belonging.

Despite these cultural commonalities, affiliations between city-states were loose and short-lived. The Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues, for example, were dominated by one strong city-state. Another good example is how conflict with Persia prompted several city-states to unify against a common enemy, but not all Greek city-states were involved; further, once the external threat was diminished, conflict between the city-states resumed.

Even as Greeks colonized the Mediterranean and Black seas, new colonies, while recognizing a “mother” city-state, were largely independent. Even after Philip II of Macedon brought mainland Greece under his League of Corinth, the individual city-states still retained much of their essential independence.

Why did the geography of Greece prevent city-states from being geographically unified?


Shared culture and religion


Ancient Greeks were unified by traditions like the panhellenic games and other athletic competitions. These competitions also had religious significance and were often tied to Greek mythology. The most significant of these games were the Olympic Games.

The ancient Olympic Games were a sporting event held every four years at the sacred site of Olympia in honor of Zeus, the supreme god of Greek religion. Involving participants and spectators from all over Greece and beyond, the Olympic Games were the most important cultural event in ancient Greece and were held from 776 BCE to 393 CE, a run of 293 consecutive Olympiads.

In the ancient Greek world, religion was personal, direct, and present in all areas of life. It revolved around myths which explained the origins of mankind and gave the gods a human face. Temples dominated the urban landscape and city festivals and national sporting and artistic competitions were frequent, so religion was never far from the mind of an ancient Greek.

Individuals in Greek society probably had varying degrees of religious belief—and some may have been skeptics—but Greek society could only function as it did because certain fundamentals were generally accepted throughout society: the gods existed, they could influence human affairs, and they welcomed and responded to acts of piety and worship.

The temple was the place where, on special occasions, religion took on a more formal tone. Gods were worshipped at sacred sites and temples in all major Greek communities during ceremonies carried out by priests and their attendants.

At first, sacred sites were merely a simple altar in a designated area, but over time massive temples were built in honor of particular gods. These temples usually housed a cult statue of the deity being honored; two famous examples are the huge statue of Athena in the Parthenon of Athens and the statue of Zeus at Olympia.

Athletic Games and competitions in music and theatre—both tragedy and comedy—were held during festivals honoring particular gods, such as the City Dionysia of Athens and the Panhellenic games at the sacred sites of Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia. These events were attended by visitors from all over Greece, and the experience was perhaps more akin to a pilgrimage rather than a modern sports event. Warfare was prohibited during these sacred events and pilgrims were guaranteed free passage across Greece.


Life in the polis


Although individual poleis—plural of polis, or city-state—each had their own particular institutions and practices, there were several features common to the majority of Greek city-states. In most poleis, the majority of the population lived in the city rather than being spread across small farm communities in the surrounding territory; also, the heart of the urban area was usually a sacred space with one or more temples.

From the seventh century BCE, cities were usually fortified with city walls—Sparta being a notable exception—and the agora space, a common public area, was created for civic and commercial activity. From the fifth century BCE, many poleis displayed evidence of town planning—especially in newly established colonies—with specific areas of the city designated for private, public, and religious functions. Many poleis also had designated spaces for public assembly, either for political purposes or for entertainment—for example, a theatre or a gymnasium.

In Greek society, men were the most powerful group, but other social groups—women, children, enslaved people, freed people, labourers, and foreigners—could make up as much as 90 percent of the total polis population. All of these groups had to be included and involved in the polis in order for it to function as a cohesive community.

One way of doing this was to create a sense of solidarity by fostering a social identity that differentiated the polis from all others. This identity was achieved in various ways, such as the creation of a communal space where people could mix and socialize—the agora. Polis-specific festivals and celebrations on specific dates in the year—usually of a religious nature— reinforced the idea that the polis had a unique, often mythical, founder and patron deity.

What were some common features of Greek city-states?


Classical Greek culture




- The Greeks made important contributions to philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine.
- Literature and theatre was an important aspect of Greek culture and influenced modern drama.
- The Greeks were known for their sophisticated sculpture and architecture.

Greek culture influenced the Roman Empire and many other civilizations, and it continues to influence modern cultures today.


Philosophy and science


Building on the discoveries and knowledge of civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, among others, the Ancient Greeks developed a sophisticated philosophical and scientific culture. One of the key points of Ancient Greek philosophy was the role of reason and inquiry. It emphasized logic and championed the idea of impartial, rational observation of the natural world.

The Greeks made major contributions to math and science. We owe our basic ideas about geometry and the concept of mathematical proofs to ancient Greek mathematicians such as Pythagoras, Euclid, and Archimedes. Some of the first astronomical models were developed by Ancient Greeks trying to describe planetary movement, the Earth’s axis, and the heliocentric system—a model that places the Sun at the center of the solar system. Hippocrates, another ancient Greek, is the most famous physician in antiquity. He established a medical school, wrote many medical treatises, and is— because of his systematic and empirical investigation of diseases and remedies—credited with being the founder of modern medicine. The Hippocratic oath, a medical standard for doctors, is named after him.

Greek philosophical culture is exemplified in the dialogues of Plato, who turned the questioning style of Socrates into written form. Aristotle, Plato's student, wrote about topics as varied as biology and drama.

Why did Greek philosophers value logic so highly?


Art, literature, and theatre


Literature and theatre, which were very intertwined, were important in ancient Greek society. Greek theatre began in the sixth century BCE in Athens with the performance of tragedy plays at religious festivals. These, in turn, inspired the genre of Greek comedy plays.

These two types of Greek drama became hugely popular, and performances spread around the Mediterranean and influenced Hellenistic and Roman theatre. The works of playwrights like Sophocles and Aristophanes formed the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based. In fact, while it may seem like dialogue was always a part of literature, it was rare before a playwright named Aeschylus introduced the idea of characters interacting with dialogue. Other theatrical devices, like irony, were exemplified in works like Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.

In addition to written forms of theater and literature, oral traditions were important, especially in early Greek history. It wasn’t until around 670 BCE that Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and Odyssey, were compiled into text form.

Greek art, particularly sculpture and architecture, was also incredibly influential on other societies. Greek sculpture from 800 to 300 BCE took inspiration from Egyptian and Near Eastern monumental art and, over centuries, evolved into a uniquely Greek vision of the art form.

Greek artists reached a peak of excellence which captured the human form in a way never before seen and much copied. Greek sculptors were particularly concerned with proportion, poise, and the idealized perfection of the human body; their figures in stone and bronze have become some of the most recognizable pieces of art ever produced by any civilization.

Greek architects provided some of the finest and most distinctive buildings in the entire Ancient World and some of their structures— including temples, theatres, and stadia—would become staple features of towns and cities from antiquity onwards.

In addition, the Greek concern with simplicity, proportion, perspective, and harmony in their buildings would go on to greatly influence architects in the Roman world and provide the foundation for the classical architectural orders which would dominate the western world from the Renaissance to the present day.


The legacy of Greek culture


The civilization of ancient Greece was immensely influential in many spheres: language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, science, and the arts. It had major effects on the Roman Empire which ultimately ruled it. As Horace put it, "Captive Greece took captive her fierce conqueror and instilled her arts in rustic Latium."

Via the Roman Empire, Greek culture came to be foundational to Western culture in general. The Byzantine Empire inherited Classical Greek culture directly, without Latin intermediation, and the preservation of classical Greek learning in medieval Byzantine tradition exerted strong influence on the Slavs and later on the Islamic Golden Age and the Western European Renaissance. A modern revival of Classical Greek learning took place in the Neoclassicism movement in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and the Americas.

Can you think of modern-day art, architecture, or theater that may have been influenced by Greek culture?



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TransAnatolie Tour is a subgroup of Anadolu and is a Multi-Lingual Cultural Tour Operator in Anatolia (Asia Minor) Turkey.

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