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Classical Greece
The Golden Age of Athens, Peloponnesian War, and Macedonia
Key Terms
Archaic Period – A period in Greek history between the Dark Age of Greece and Golden Age of Athens.
Hellenes – The culture of Greece; particularly Archaic and Classical Greece.
Pericles – Leader of Athens; lived from 495 to 429 BC.
Parthenon – A temple erected in honor of Athena that also served as a central bank
Helot – An individual that can best be described as trapped between being a peasant and a
slave to their Spartan rulers.
Peloponnesian War – War between Athens and Sparta that lasted from 431 to 404 BC.
Macedonia – Region located just north of Greece.
Philip II – King of Macedonia from 359 to 336 BC.
Alexander the Great – King of Macedonia from 336 to 323 BC.
Darius III – Final king of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty.
Ptolemy – Takes control of Egypt following the death of Alexander in 323 BC.
Alexandria – Though Alexander established many, Alexandria, Egypt was the commercial center of
the Hellenistic world.
Hellenistic – Used to describe the blended Greek culture throughout the Macedonian empire
following the death of Alexander and beyond.
Polis – Acropolis – Agora – Tyrant – Aristocracy – Democracy – Monarchy – Oligarchy – Krypteia
Direct Democracy – Citizen Golden Age of Athens (Pericles) – Classical Art – Tragedy – Comedy
Philosopher – Stoicism – Epicureanism – Realism – Nike – Colossus of Rhodes
Key Figures
Draco – Solon – Cleisthenes – Phidias – Aeschylus – Sophocles – Euripides – Aristophanes
Socrates – Plato – Aristotle – Herodotus – Thucydides – Democritus – Pythagoras – Euclid
Archimedes – Hippocrates – Seleucus – Antigonus
Review: The History of Greece Thus Far
The focus of this unit is to explore and understand what Western Civilization is and how its
development began. In order to do so, we must first take stock of how the founders – the
Greeks – of this “civilization” came to be. So far, we have studied three groups in early
Greek history: the Cretans (known as the Minoans), the Myceneans (the earliest ‘Greeks’),
and the Dorians (the tribe of warriors). Each of these civilizations played a crucial role in the
development of Greece, specifically in the Archaic Period.
Creto-Mycenaean Era 3000 – 1100 BC
The Cretans (Minoans) settled and expanded in the island of Crete.
Very little is known about them in part because of their undeciphered
writing system (Linear A). They built large palaces (like Knossos) that
suggest great wealth and culture, and they engaged in maritime
trading. Their disappearance is a mystery.
The Myceneans spread throughout the mainland and established many
settlements that would eventually become premier city-states, like
Athens and Mycenae. Their writing system (Linear B) has also gone
undeciphered but shares a few similarities with the earliest Greek
writing systems. They were a war-driven tribe whose cities were
surrounded by enormous walls.
Dark Ages 1100 – 800 BC
Around the same time that the Trojan War is believed to have taken place, a group of invaders known as the
Dorians swept in Greece. This tribe, even more war-driven than the Mycenaeans, plunged Greece into a Dark Age.
Literacy dropped almost completely, and societies relied on oral story-telling to maintain their history and folklore.
People were isolated to their settlements, and trade almost stopped entirely – except for a few migrations out of
the region. The Dorians founded a few settlements that eventually grew into powerful city-states as well, like
Sparta. Much of what is known about this time period is taken from writings like those of the legendary Homer.
Into the Archaic Period c. 800-500 BC
The Dark Ages persisted for 300 years until the Phoenicians reached the shores of Greece. The Phoenicians
reestablished contact between the Greeks and the Middle East. In time, the Greeks would begin to send out their
own traders across the Mediterranean and the circulation of ideas and technology began anew. In spite of this, the
greatest gift the Phoenicians left the Greeks was writing. The Greeks had long forgotten their ancient scripts, and
the Phoenician alphabet proved to be an invaluable tool for the growth and development of the region. It is
believed that in Greece the alphabet was first used for economic purposes – tracking trade and production.
However, recent evidence has led some scholars to believe that writing was first used to preserve the oral histories
of the region – a unique first use of such a writing system.
The Archaic Period
The mountainous terrain limited food production, which kept populations low throughout the
Dark Ages. With the reintroduction of maritime trade, city-states were able to supply
themselves with grain grown overseas. New farming techniques also played a role in
increasing the food supply, and populations grew exponentially in Greece.
Growing villages and farming communities merged and became urban centers. These urban
centers became city-states called polis. The Greek polis consisted of an urban center and
the rural territory that it controlled. Each polis had an acropolis (“top of the city”) that
served as a defensive
evacuation zone in times of
war. Towns were built around
this fortified area. The main
social area of any given polis
was its agora (“gathering
place”) which served as both a
political center and
marketplace. Walls usually
surrounded agoras, but towns
continued to be built beyond
these defenses as populations
continued to grow.
The limited amount of farmable land meant that the Greek city-states were fiercely jealous
of their independence and were always encouraged to seek out their neighbors’ farmland.
Naturally, this led to countless military conflicts between the city-states. Battles over land
were settled with hoplite warfare which took only a few hours and left few casualties on
both sides. [Revisit the Classical Warfare video to refresh your memory!].
In time, even the imports of grain and improved farming were unable to feed all of the
people living in Greece. From 750-550 BC, city-states sent excess populations to establish
independent colonies. Though some of these colonists left willingly, many were forced out.
Colonies were established around the Aegean and Black seas as well as along the North
African coast. These colonies solidified a Greek cultural identity for the first time as Greeks
began to use the term Hellenes to distinguish themselves from the peoples they
encountered in their new colonies (Greece, or Graeci, is the name the Romans gave them).
Being exposed to barbaroi (barbarians; other “uncivilized” people) helped the Greeks
become aware of the factors that united the various city-states together – language,
religion, and lifestyle. It also introduced them to new ideas and technologies, most notably
coinage. Coinage allowed for faster exchanges of goods as well as for more efficient
recordkeeping and storage of wealth. This encouraged trade and increased the total wealth
of Greek societies – though trade between different societies remained relatively confusing.
Colonies eventually grew into independent city-states, many of them were far more
powerful than those on the mainland. Those on the western coast of Anatolia, the Ionians,
were especially successful. Despite being closer to neighbors, like Lydia, these city-states
were relatively cut-off from the region and so maintained stronger ties with the Greek
Rise of the Athens
It was not until the late Archaic period that Athens began to rise to prominence in Greece.
Located in Attica, Athens had a relative abundance of farmable land which maintained its
population and removed Athens’ need for colonies. When populations began to grow beyond
even Attica’s capabilities the time for colonization had long passed. Land was valuable and
soon enough the rich were forced to work together with the poor in finding solutions for
Athens’ problems. This forced Athens to begin developing the first forms of democracy.
Towards Democracy
As in most city-states, Athens was ruled by tyrants who took power away from the
aristocracy. An aristocracy is a government in which aristocrats (nobles) had power.
Tyrants were rulers, usually nobles or wealthy citizens, who took power with the support of
the general public. They often did so by force but were still widely regarded as leaders of
the people, promising reform but delivering little on those promises. The main goal of a
tyrant was to maintain power and so little changed. In Athens, however, the political climate
leaned towards cooperation between the rich and poor as there was a constant threat of
civil war. Tyrants, seeking to please the common people, were therefore forced to enact
democratic reforms.
The earliest Athenian reforms came through a man named Draco. Draco was a nobleman
who came to power in 621 BC. To make all Athenians equal, he developed a legal code that
dealt with criminals very harshly. For most crimes, the punishment under Draco was death.
In his eyes, equality under the law was not just between the rich and poor but between all
crimes as well. His laws also upheld questionable practices like debt slavery in which
debtors worked as slaves to repay debts.
Further democratic reforms came with Solon, who came to power in 594 BC. He outlawed
debt slavery under the belief that no citizen could be owned by another – note that this was
not a ban on slavery itself! He also organized citizens into four wealth classes in which all
could participate in the Athenian assembly but only the top three classes could hold political
office. Solon also introduced the legal concept that any citizen could bring charges against
criminals and wrongdoers.
The final democratic reformer of the Archaic period was
Cleisthenes (left). Around 500 BC, he broke up the power of
nobility by organizing citizens by district rather than by wealth.
He also expanded democracy by allowing all citizens to submit
laws for debate and passage. Cleisthenes then created the
Council of Five Hundred – an office filled by citizens chosen by lot
(at random). The Council proposed laws and counseled the
assembly. Though limited to male property-owning citizens,
Athens experienced its first limited democracy under Cleisthenes.
Birth of a Navy
500 BC also saw the discovery of silver in the nearby region of
Laurion which gave Athens a sudden and massive increase in
wealth. By suggestion of Themistocles (remember him?), the
Athenians chose to put that money towards the construction of 200 triremes which would
become the backbone of a new Athenian navy.
The new navy would play a huge role in Greek history. Before
the war, the navy helped secure trade for the Athenians who
would soon begin to rely on imports of grains to feed its
population. Athens’ naval support of the Ionian rebellions in
the Persian empire sparked the Greco-Persian wars while also
being the key to victory in the Battle of Salamis. Athens went
on to impress the rest of Greece throughout the war: they
survived the brunt of the Persian armies and played a large
part in driving out the Persians.
Funding a Golden Age: The Delian League
Victory against the Persians resulted in three things. First, having driven out such a
powerful enemy meant that all the Greek polis felt a surge of pride and unity. Second, the
Greeks got to experience prolonged peace for the first time in centuries. The seas were
safer than ever for trade which increased wealth throughout Greece. Finally, both Athens
and Sparta – who we’ll get to later – emerged as the most respected city-states for their
actions during the war.
The Delian League, established
to end the war, remained even
after the Persians were driven
out. Having learned that unity
equals strength, the allied citystates continued to fund a
common military force to drive
out all threats along the
Mediterranean. Each city-state
was required to provide a
certain amount of tribute money
annually and the money was
kept on the island of the god
Apollo, Delos (hence the name).
Its central location made it an
ideal place for an allied treasury.
Having played possibly the largest role in the war and demonstrating its military might,
Athens became the leader of the Delian League. Under Pericles, Athens was able to
convince the allies that the best strategy was to allow Athens to build and command the
majority of the allied navy. It made sense, the Athenian navy was key in driving out Xerxes’
massive invasion force. With wealth growing throughout Greece, the Delian League gained
allies and received more funds. The Athenians later convinced the allies to relocate the
treasury and headquarters to Athens. They argued that it would be best if management was
left to the city of the goddess of wisdom, Athena. This move made less sense, but the
overwhelming strength of Athens’ navy made most of their arguments difficult to refute.
To house all of the tributes
Pericles ordered the
construction of the
Parthenon. This massive
temple was built on the
acropolis of Athens and
soon became the most
important building in
Greece. While it still stands
as a shell of what it once
was, the Parthenon is still
one of the most iconic
structures in history. With
the League treasury’s new
location, Athens was able
to use the money how ever
it desired – with or without
the Leagues approval.
The Golden Age of Pericles
With an impressive navy, countless allies, and control over
the League’s wealth, Athens entered its golden age. Thanks
in large part to his leadership, it is known as the Golden Age
of Pericles. Pericles (right) was a nobleman and was widely
regarded as a wise and able politician. He held on to popular
support for 32 years, from 461-429 BC, losing power only
when he lost his life. Pericles had three goals, of which he
accomplished two: 1) strengthen Athenian democracy to
reduce tensions, 2) glorify Athens and Greek culture, and 3)
hold and strengthen Athenian control over Greece.
Strengthen Democracy
Pericles’ first reform was to increase the number of public
officials. To do so, he introduced paid positions so that more
citizens, especially the poor, could afford to spend time away
from their normal jobs. In doing so, all citizens could serve if
they were randomly selected or elected. This meant that
Athens had more citizens engaged in self-government than
any other civilization in history. This form of democracy, a
government in which the people rule, is known as a direct
democracy. In a direct democracy, citizens propose, debate,
and vote on laws.
Part of Pericles’ reforms came as a result of the growth in Athens’ navy. In Greece, only the
wealthy were able to be a part of the military as soldiers had to provide their own weapons
and armor. As a result, only the wealthy were allowed to have a voice in political affairs.
With Athens now relying on its navy, military participation expanded to the poor as well.
Who else would fill the role of rower in a ship that had over a hundred ores? Now the poor
had a case that they should be allowed to participate in Athenian democracy since they
provided the chief protection of the community.
Citizens would openly debate current issues several times a month and would propose
solutions to the problems Athens experienced. As an executive, Pericles would act as a
counselor and military leader.
Glorifying Athens
Without the League’s approval, Pericles used money from the Delian League to rebuild and
beautify Athens – which had been destroyed during the Greco-Persian Wars. With the
tribute money, Pericles bought gold, ivory, and marble and generously paid the various
sculptors, artists, and architects that used the materials in their projects. The greatest
projects could be found around the acropolis – like the Parthenon.
Athenian Empire
Athens did not hesitate to use its military and political power to build its own commercial
interests. Piraeus, Athens’ port, grew into the commercial center of the East Mediterranean
but Athens’ grew to depend on not just trade but also the tributes of its allies to fund its
culture projects and democracy. By most historical accounts Athens itself became an
imperial power. While Athens did not “conquer” Greek city-states as Persia did, Athens did
force many city-states to join the Delian League or pay tribute.
Pericles had a single motivation for creating a quasi-Athenian empire: power. It was not for
nothing that Pericles held the support of Athens for so long. Under Pericles the poor found a
voice in government while the rich were showered in wealth and culture projects. Both of
these were vital for Pericles to stay in power and for Athens to maintain its unique culture
and they were only possible with the funds Athens received from its allies.
Art and Literature
The Golden Age of Pericles led to an explosion of culture and thought in Athens. Funding for
the arts grew exponentially as Pericles commissioned countless projects throughout Athens.
Increasing democracy encouraged the open expression debate of ideas, which would
eventually culminate in philosophical thinkers both before and after Socrates. The simplicity
of writing with the adapted Phoenician alphabet, in combination with a developed culture of
open debate, allowed new forms of literature like theatre to develop It also led to the first
true histories of the world.
Art and Sculpture
The arts focused on idealism, the perfect form of the human body,
rather than realism. Capturing the body in motion (example below)
was far more important than showing emotion. By far the greatest
sculptor of Athens was Phidias – who created one of the Wonders
of the World: The Statue of Zeus (right), as well as the Statue of
Athena in the Parthenon in addition to many smaller works.
Theatre was born with two genres, tragedy
and comedy. They often focused on current
events and emphasized the shortcoming of
humanity but approached these focal themes differently. Tragedy was
a serious drama about common themes such as love, hate, war, or
betrayal. Athens saw three notable playwrights of tragedy,
Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles – whose famous play Oedipus
Rex saw the first known use of dramatic irony.
On the other hand, comedy was filled with slapstick situations and
crude humor. Playwrights often made fun of politics, respected figures,
and especially tragedies. The most famous comic, Aristophanes,
wrote Lysistrata during the Peloponnesian War in which the women of
Athens forced their husbands to end the war.
The first historian, Herodotus, is widely regarded as the Father of History though many
modern scholars believe that his methods in writing history were fundamentally flawed.
Herodotus’ major work, The Histories, is the founding historical writing of Western
Civilization. It covered a variety of topics, but none were more significant than the Persian
Empire and the cause, course, and consequences of the Greco-Persian War. The main
criticism towards Herodotus is in his inherit bias against the Persians, which is on full display
in his work. This bias is apparent due in large part to his narrative writing style. Much like
E.H. Gombrich, Herodotus sought to tell a compelling true story more than keep a simple
record of events.
For this reason, the first ‘true’ historian is Thucydides. He believed that events in history
repeat over time and that understanding the past will help in understanding the present. His
book, History of the Peloponnesian War, is regarded as the standard for historical writing to
this day.
Math and Science
Math and science also saw growth in the Golden Age as new processes of thought were
applied to the fields of math and science. Individuals began to make claims, some were
outlandish – such as that the sun was the size of the Peloponnese, while others turned out
to be bold but accurate theories. One such individual, Democritus, proposed the first
theory of the atom – a fundamental and unbreakable unit of matter.
Another individual, Hippocrates, formalized the practice of medicine as its own branch of
scholarship. Known as the Father of Medicine, Hippocrates established the first professional
code for physicians: remain calm at all times to inspire confidence and place the mental and
physical well-being of the patient first. His code has been immortalized even today, as
physicians recite a version of the Hippocratic Oath before becoming practicing doctors.
I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgement,
and I will do no harm or injustice to them. I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise
such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion. In purity and according to divine
law will I carry out my life and my art. I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from stones, but I will
leave this to those who are trained in this craft. Into whatever homes I go, I will enter them for the benefit of the
sick, avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption, including the seduction of women or men, whether
they are free men or slaves. Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my
professional practice or not, which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such
things to be private.
So long as I maintain this Oath faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to partake of life fully
and the practice of my art, gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and
violate it, may the opposite be my fate.
Although mathematics will see its own spike in the years that followed, one mathematician
by the name of Pythagoras, began his work in the growing field of geometry.
A number of thinkers known as philosophers (“lovers of wisdom”) grew from a group of
Athenians who lost confidence in democratic government as Athens began to decline. A
major group of these thinkers, called sophists, were first challenged by a man named
Socrates. Socrates disagreed with sophists’ beliefs and believed that absolute standards for
truth and justice existed. In the end, Socrates was forced to commit suicide by drinking
hemlock, a slow-acting poison, for daring to disagree with public opinion.
Though Socrates never wrote down any of his teachings his student, Plato, recorded many
of his conversations after his death. One of Plato’s most famous works, The Republic, set
forth his own vision of a perfectly governed society. This work would go on to inspire future
European scholars for hundreds of years. Plato would also establish a school called The
Academy in 387 BC. The school remained almost 900 years.
Another influential philosopher was Aristotle, who
lived from 384 to 322 BC. He summarized the
knowledge of his time almost completely and
invented a method for arguing according to the
rules of logic. This methodology took him beyond
just philosophy and drew him into fields of science
such as physics, biology, and psychology. His work
provides the basis of the scientific method still in
use today. Once a student in Plato’s Academy,
Aristotle opened his own school in Athens called
The Lyceum.
Aristotle lived to see Athens begin to decline as a
result of the Peloponnesian war and so he moved
out of the city some time around 343 BC. He
travelled to Macedonia to assume the role of tutor
to the Macedonian king’s son, Alexander.