History Online - Ancient Greece

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Ancient Greece

The navel of Civilization

During the Greek Dark Ages, the Greeks lived in small tribal units; some of these small tribes were sedentary and agricultural and some were certainly nomadic. They had abandoned their cities between 1200 and 1100 BC for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery; the Greeks believed that a cataclysmic and ferocious invasion of northern Greek barbarians, the Dorians, had wiped out the Mycenean civilization. In reality, the decline and abandonment of urbanization in Greece was probably due to a combination of economic collapse and pressure from northern migrations. Greek life during the "Dark Ages" wasn't dark; it was, in fact, a culturally creative period. This period gave the Greeks the religion their religion, mythology, and foundational history in their final forms; the close of the Dark Ages would also gave the Greeks the rudiments of their greatest political achievement: the polis , or "city-state."

The tribal or clan units of the dark ages slowly grew into larger political units; beginning around 800 BC, trade began to dramatically accelerate between the peoples of Greece. Marketplaces grew up in Greek villages and communities began to gather together into defensive units, building fortifications to use in common. On this foundation, the Greek-speaking people on the Greek peninsula, the mainland, and the coast of Asia Minor, developed political units that were centrally based on a single city. These city states were independent states that controlled a limited amount of territory surrounding the state. The largest of these city-states, for instance, was Sparta, which controlled more than 3000 square miles of surrounding territory.

The period in which the city-states evolved is called the Archaic Period; while the separate states had close interaction with one another during this time and certainly learned political organization from one another, in many ways, however, each city-state developed fairly unique and independent cultures and political organizations (notice that the word "political" is derived from the word polis).

Politically, all the Greek city-states began as monarchies. In their earliest stages, they were ruled by a basileus , or hereditary king. The Greeks living in those city-states, however, soon tired of the kings, many of which were overthrown in the eighth century BC. A variety of political alternatives were put in place of the basileus : the most common was an oligarchy, or "rule by a few." The oligarchs were almost always drawn from the wealthiest citizens of the state ("rule by the wealthy" is called a timocracy), but a variety of oligarchic forms were invented in the eighth century. The oligarchs most often ruled absolutely; they had many of the powers granted to a king. Even though these powers were diffused among a group (which could be surprisingly large), the power of the oligarchy could be remarkably totalitarian. Most of the early oligarchic governments and a few of the kings were overthrown by "tyrants" (in Greek, tyrranos); while Greek history is generally unkind to the tyrants, we can through the haze of later Greek propaganda come to some dispassionate conclusions about the nature of the tyrranies. The Greeks believed that the tyrants were illegitimate usurpers of political power; they seem, however, to have had in many cases popular support. The Greek tyrants were often swept into power by dissatisfaction or crisis; they were more often then not extremely popular leaders when they assumed the tyrrany. Once in power, they ruled as a king would rule, and many attempted to make (and some succeeded) the tyrrany hereditary-in essence, a form of monarchy. Many of them seem to have directed their attentions to the crisis that swept them into office, but most of them set about shoring up their shaky hold on power. For the tyrants ruled only by a thread; they maintained power only by their hold on military force and often fear. The tyrranies were by nature highly unstable, and they fell apart rapidly. Even so, tyrrany was a widespread political institution throughout the Greek-speaking world: tyrranies were experimented with not only in Greece, but Asia Minor and even as far away as the Greek cities in Sicily.

By the sixth century, the experiments began to settle around two alternatives. The tyrranies never died out, but oligarchy became the settled norm of the Greek city-states. Several of these oligarchies, however, were replaced by a second alternative that originates sometime in the sixth century: democracy. The word means, "rule by the demos (people)," but the Greek democracies looked nothing like modern democracies. First, they really mean rule by the people; the Greek democracies were not representative governments, they were governments run by the free, male citizens of the city-state. Second, all the people were not involved in the government: slaves, foreigners, and women were all disbarred from the democracy. So, in reality, the democratic city-states more closely resembled oligarchies for a minority-a very large minority, to be sure- ruled the state.

This was a period of frenetic colonization. The Greeks, pressured by growing populations around the city-states, actively went looking for unpopulated or thinly populated areas to colonize in Greece, the Aegean Sea, and elsewhere. The Greek city-state began to appear on the Italian and Sicilian shores, and set up trading posts in the Middle East and Egypt. Greek culture was spreading across the Mediterranean, and Greek commerce was rapidly making the city-states wealthy and powerful. There was no military, political, or cultural center of the Greek world in the Archaic period. Different city-states developed separate cultures; these developments, however, spread across the Greek world. The city-state culture, then, was in many ways a national culture because of the dynamic interactions between the city states. The greatest flowering of culture occurred on the city-states of Asia Minor, and especially Miletus. Greek philosophy begins in these city-states and soon spreads around the Greek world. Corinth and later Argos became great centers of literature. But perhaps the greatest of the city-states were Athens and Sparta. Sparta in particular dominated the political scene all during the seventh century BC, and would remain a powerful force all throughout its history until the Macdonians conquer Greece in the fourth century BC.


It's hard for textbooks to say anything nice about the Spartans. Take up any world history textbook and read; you'll find that the Spartans were "an armed camp," "brutal," "culturally stagnant," "economically stagnant," "politically stagnant," and other fun things. The reality, of course, lies somewhere behind the value judgements. Greek history does, after all, come down to us through the eyes of the other major city-state in Greece, Athens, a bitter enemy and rival of Sparta. The two represent diametrically opposed concepts of the Greek polis and its relations with other city-states; they also represent diametrically opposed concepts of the individual's relationship to the state. Despite all the rhetoric in Athens and in the European historical tradition, we should keep in mind that the Spartans believed they lived in the best of all Greek worlds, and many of their Greek neighbors agreed with them. The rivalry, then, between Sparta and Athens, which would erupt into a disastrous war for Athens, was also an ideological and cultural rivalry.

The single, overwhelming fact of Spartan history is the Messenean War. In the eighth century BC, Sparta, like all her neighbors, was a monarchy with a limited oligarchy. In 725, however, needing land to feed a dramatically growing population, the Spartans marched over the Taygetus mountains and annexed all the territory of their neighbor, Messenia. The Messenians occupied a fertile plain and the Spartans found themselves with more than enough land to support themselves and their newly conquered people. However, like all conquered people, the Messenians did not appreciate the loss of their independence. With the help of the city-state of Argos, the Messenians revolted in 640 BC. This was no ordinary revolt, for not only did the Messenians almost win, they almost destroyed Sparta itself.

Here's how the situation stood for Sparta at the end of the Messenian revolt. Almost defeated, controlling the territory of a subject population that outnumbered their population ten to one , it was only a matter of time before this subject population would overrun their conquerors. So the Spartans invented a new political system as dramatically revolutionary as Athenian democracy in the north: they turned their state into what amounts to a military state.

The Messenians were turned into agricultural slaves called helots . We describe their lives as the life of a "serf," for they worked small plots of land on estates owned by Spartans; part of their produce went to the master of the estate, and the remainder went to the helot farmer and his family. There's no question that the life of the helots was a miserable life. Labor was long and hard and the helots always lived right on the border of subsistence.

But Spartan society itself changed. The military and the city-state became the center of Spartan existence. The state determined whether children, both male and female, were strong when they were born; weakling infants were left in the hills to die of exposure. Exposing weak or sickly children was a common practice in the Greek world, but Sparta institutionalized it as a state activity rather than a domestic activity. At the age of seven, every male Spartan was sent to military and athletic school. These schools taught toughness, discipline, endurance of pain (often severe pain), and survival skills. At twenty, after thirteen years of training, the Spartan became a soldier. The Spartan soldier spent his life with his fellow soldiers; he lived in barracks and ate all his meals with his fellow soldiers. He also married, but he didn't live with his wife; one Athenian once joked that Spartans had children before they even saw the face of their wives. The marriage ceremony had an unusual ritual involved: at the end of the ceremony, the man carried his wife off as if he were taking her by force (this did not mean, however, that the status of women was bad in Sparta, as we shall see later). Only at the age of thirty, did the Spartan become an "equal," and was allowed to live in his own house with his own family-although he continued to serve in the military. Military service ended at the age of sixty. How did the soldier survive? How did Sparta afford to feed young men who did nothing but soldier in their twenties? Each soldier was granted a piece of land, which he probably never saw; this land was farmed, of course, by the helots.

The life of a Spartan male was a life of discipline, self-denial, and simplicity. The Spartans viewed themselves as the true inheritors of the Greek tradition. They did not surround themselves with luxuries, expensive foods, or opportunities for leisure. And this, I think, is the key to understanding the Spartans. While the Athenians and many others thought the Spartans were insane, the life of the Spartans seemed to hark back to a more basic way of life. Discipline, simplicity, and self-denial always remained ideals in the Greek and Roman worlds; civilization was often seen as bringing disorder, ennervation, weakness, and a decline in moral values. The Spartan, however, could point to Spartan society and argue that moral values and human courage and strength was as great as it was before civilization. Spartan society, then, exercised a profound pull on the surrounding city-states who admired the simplicity, discipline, and order of Spartan life.

The ideology of Sparta was oriented around the state. The individual lived (and died) for the state. Their lives were designed to serve the state from their beginning to the age of sixty. The combination of this ideology, the education of Spartan males, and the disciplined maintenance of a standing army gave the Spartans the stability that had been threatened so dramatically in the Messenean revolt.

Paradoxically, this soldier-centered state was the most liberal state in regards to the status of women. While women did not go through military training, they were required to be educated along similar lines. The Spartans were the only Greeks not only to take seriously the education of women, they instituted it as state policy. This was not, however, an academic education (just as the education of males was not an academic education); it was a physical education which could be grueling. Infant girls were also exposed to die if they were judged to be weak; they were later subject to physical and gymnastics training. This education also involved teaching women that their lives should be dedicated to the state. In most Greek states, women were required to stay indoors at all times (though only the upper classes could afford to observe this custom); Spartan women, however, were free to move about, and had an unusual amount of domestic freedom for their husbands, after all, didn't live at home.

Spartan society was divided into three main classes. At the top was the Spartiate, or native Spartan, who could trace his or her ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the city. The Spartiate served in the army and was the only person who enjoyed the full political and legal rights of the state. Below the Spartiates wer the perioeci , or "dwellers around or about." These were foreign people who served as a kind of buffer population between the Spartans and the helots. Because of this vital function, they were accorded a great deal of freedom. Most of the trade and commerce carried out in Sparta were performed by the perioeci . At the bottom, of course, were the helots.

Spartan government was an odd affair, but its overwhelming characteristic was stability . The Spartans, in fact, had the most stable government in the history of ancient Greece (some historians call this stability, "political stagnation"). At the top of government was the monarchy; the monarchy, however, was a dual monarchy. Below the monarchy was a council which was composed of the two kings plus twenty-eight nobles, all of whom were over sixty, that is, retired from the military. The council debated and set legislative and foreign policy, and was the supreme criminal court. Below the council (or above it), was an assembly of all the Spartiate males (a democracy, in other words) that selected the council and approved or vetoed council proposals. Above them all, however, was a small group of five men known as the ephorate . For all practical purposes, Spartan government was the ephorate, for these five men led the council, ran the military, ran the educational system, ran the infant selection system, and had veto power over everything coming out of the council or the assembly. They even had power to depose the king; however, they needed powerful divine proof (in the form of omens or oracles) to exercise this power. So what kind of government was Spartan government? It was a democratic timocratic monarchical oligarchy. Chew on that a few times.

The anxiety-ridden situation with the helots led the Spartans to fear even their neighbors, who were often sticking their spoons in that pot to brew up trouble. So in the sixth century BC, the Spartans began to set their military sights on neighboring states. However, when they conquered their neighbor, Tegea, they set up a truce with them rather than annex their land and people. They demanded instead an alliance. Tegea would follow Sparta in all its foreign relationships, including wars, and would supply Sparta with a fixed amount of soldiers and equipment. In exchange, the Tegeans could remain an independent state. This was a brilliant move on the part of the Spartans. In a short time, Sparta had formed alliances with a huge number of states in the southern part of Greece (called the Peloponnesus), and had become the major power in Greece when the Persians invaded in 490 BC. Their power eclipsed that of even their powerful neighbor in the north, Athens.


The Areopagus

Athens entered the Archaic Period in the same way so many of its neighbors, as a city-state ruled by a basileus , or "king." Unlike Sparta, however, Athens' history was not dominated by invasion of a neighbor, for the land around Athens was agriculturally rich and the city had a harbor so that it could trade easily with city-states around the Aegean. The power of the basileus slowly faded; underneath the basileus was a council of nobles, which were called the Areopagus, from the name of the hill on which they met. In the eighth century BC, these nobles gradually became very wealthy, particularly off of the cash crops of wine and olive oil, both of which require great wealth to get started. As their wealth increased, the nobles of the Areopagus slowly stripped the king of power until Athenian government imperceptibly became an oligarchy. The Areopagus consisted of a varying number of members, and it elected nine archons, or "rulers," to run the state. The archons, however, always had to submit to the approval or veto of the Areopagus, and they also became members of the Areopagus when their term in office expired, so, in reality, the Areopagus ruled the country.

Rule by the wealthy, however, is often inherently unstable. In Athens, the farmers in the surrounding countryside produced mainly wheat, while the wealthy and nobility owned estates that produced wine and olive oil. Wheat-farming was badly managed, however; the average Athenian farmer didn't rotate crops or let fields lie fallow. Production of wheath plummeted at the same time that Athenians began to import wheat and to export olive oil and wine. So not only did production of wheat fall, so did its price. Pretty soon, even though the wealthy farmers were making money hand over fist, the average farmer had fallen deeply into debt to the wealthiest members of society. To pay for that debt, farmers sold their children, their wives, and even themselves into (limited) slavery both in Athens and abroad. The situation was a powder-keg waiting to go off; suffering under unmanageable debts, sold into slavery, with the government under the control of the wealthy people that were the causes of their problems, the average Athenian farmer was primed for revolution.

The Reforms of Solon

But history takes strange turns sometimes. Recognizing the danger of the situation, in 594 BC, the Areopagus and the people of Athens agreed to hand over all political power to a single individual, Solon. In effect a tyrant, Solon's mission was to reform the government to stem the tide of privation and exploitation and set up a system to guarantee that Athens didn't slip into such a situation again.

Solon immediately dismissed all outstanding debts, and he freed as many Athenians as he could from the slavery they had sold themselves into. He banned any loans that are secured by a promise to enter into slavery if the loan is defaulted, and he tried to bring people who had been sold into slavery abroad back to Athens. In addition, he encouraged the development of olive and wine production, so that by the end of the century, most of Athenian land was dedicated to these lucrative crops.

As far as government is concerned, he divided Athenian society into four classes based on wealth. The two wealthiest classes were allowed to serve on the Areopagus. The third class were allowed to serve on an elected council of four hundred people. This council was organized according to the four tribes making up the Athenian people; each tribe was allowed to elect one hundred representatives from this third class. This council of four hundred served as a kind of balance or check to the power of the Areopagus. The fourth class, the poorest class, was allowed to participate in an assembly; this assembly voted on affairs brought to it by the council of four hundred, and even elected local magistrates. This class also participated in a new judicial court that gradually drew civil and military cases out of the hands of the wealthiest people, the Areopagus.

Peisistratus and the Tyranny

The Athenians considered Solon the great hero of their state and pointed to the reforms of Solon as the basis of their state. Solon's new state, however, lasted very briefly. Although he brilliantly reformed the government, he really didn't solve the economic crisis, and within a few years, Athens was collapsing in anarchy. A nobleman, Peisistratus, swept into power during this anarchy and set about restoring order. The tyranny of Peisistratus, however, was as important to the foundation of Athenian democracy as Solon's reforms had been. Although he was a military leader who backed up his power with a frightening mercenary army, Peisistratus began to actively build in and around Athens, and actively reform Athenian religion and religious practices, and, in particular, devoted his government to cultural reform. He sought out poets and artists in order to make Athens a culturally sophisticated and dynamic society. But, in particular, he launched a full attack on the power of the nobility. He increased the power of the Assembly and the courts associated with the poorest classes, and used all his power to make sure that the Solonian government worked smoothly and that elections were held (provided his supporters were elected).

Like most tyrants, Peisistratus had monarchical ambitions; on his death, the tyranny fell to his son, Hippias. The life of a tyrant is not a comfortable one, and although Hippias began in the mold of his father, the assassination of his brother caused him great fright and consternation. He became suspicious and withdrawn and increasingly arbitrary. His enemies, which were many, if they hadn't already started, began plotting his overthrow. In particular, a wealthy family, the Alcmaeonids, who had been exiled by Peisistratus, prevailed on Sparta to assist them in the overthrow of Hippias. Under the Spartan king, Cleomenes I, Athens was overcome in 510 BC and Hippias ran to exile in Persia


The Spartans followed their usual practice and entered into a truce with Athens and installed their own hand-picked Athenians to lead the government. The Spartans, however, were too clever for their own good. They chose an individual, Isagoras, whom they felt was the most loyal to Sparta; Isagoras, however, was a bitter rival of the Alcmaeonids, who had been the original allies of Sparta. Isagoras, for his part, set about restoring the Solonic government, but he also set about "purifying" Athenian citizenship. Under Solon and later Peisistratus, a number of people had been enfranchised as citizens even though they weren't Athenian or who were doubtfully Athenian. For in the Greek world, you could only be the citizen of a city-state if you could trace your ancestorship back to the original inhabitants of the state. Isagoras, however, began to throw people off the citizenship rolls in great numbers. Cleisthenes, an Alcmaeonid noble, rallied popular support and threatened the power of Isagoras, who promptly called for the Spartans again. The Spartans invaded a second time, and Cleisthenes was expelled, but soon a popular uprising swept Isagoras from power and installed Cleisthenes.

From 508 to 502 BC, Cleisthenes began a series of major reforms that would produce Athenian democracy. He enfranchised as citizens all free men living in Athens and Attica (the area surrounding Athens). He established a council which would be the chief arm of government with all executive and administrative control. Every citizen over the age of thirty was eligible to sit on this council; each year the members of the council would be chosen by lot. The Assembly, which included all male citizens, was allowed to veto any of the council's proposals and was the only branch of government that could declare war. In 487, long after Cleisthenes, the Athenians added the final aspect of Athenian democracy proper: ostracism. The Assembly could vote (voting was done on potsherds called ostra ) on expelling citizens from the state for a period of ten years. This ostracism would guarantee that individuals who were contemplating seizing power would be removed from the country before they got too powerful.

So by 502 BC, Athens had pretty much established its culture and political structure, just as Sparta had pretty much established its culture and political structure by 550 BC. Athens was more or less a democracy; it had become primarily a trading and commercial center; a large part of the Athenian economy focussed on cash crops for export and crafts; it had become a center of art and literature; the city had become architecturally rich because of the building projects of Peisistratus-an architectural richness that far outshone other Greek city-states; and Athenian religious fesitivals were largely in place. The next one hundred years would be politically and culturally dominated by Athens; the event that would catapult Athens to the center of the Greek world was the invasion of the Persians in 490 BC.

The Empire

Before the peace with Sparta, Athens benefitted from the taxes paid into the League and began growing quite wealty; after the peace, the Athenians moved the treasury to Athens and began keeping one sixtieth of all the revenue. The Athenians began to grew especially wealthy. The League, after all, was no longer at war with Persia, but the tribute money kept rolling in. At this stage, when the League had lost its military justification and when the tribute money was no longer really going for defense, the League in reality had become an Athenian empire. Reaction among the tribute states was mixed; some city-states eagerly participated in the empire, but most fumed under the onerousness of Athenian control and taxation. As Athens grew more and more powerful and the city more opulent, discontent grew among the tribute states. However, the Spartans, in particular, grew increasingly distrustfull of Athenian power and wealth. They had agreed to recognize the Athenian Empire in exchange for Athens giving up claims to continental territories; however, it was becoming apparent that even without the continental territory, the Athenians were a major threat to Sparta and its influence.

Democracy and the Age of Pericles

The great Athenian leader of this age, Pericles, was swept into power in a popular democratic movement. A member of a noble and venerable family, Pericles led the Athenians against Cimon for harboring autocratic intentions. Pericles had been the leader of the democratic faction of Athenian politics since 462 BC. Ephialtes was the Athenian leader who had finally divested the Areopagus of all its power; Athens was now solely governed by the council and the democratic Assembly. Pericles quickly brought forward legislation that let anyone serve as the archon (one of the nine central leaders of the country) despite birth or wealth. The Assembly became the central power of the state. Consisting of all the free-born (no freed slaves) male citizens of Athens, the Assembly was given sole approval or veto power over every state decision. The Assembly was not a representative government, but instead consisted of every male citizen. In terms of numbers, this still was not a democratic state: women weren't included, nor were foreigners, slaves, or freed slaves. Pericles also changed the rules of citizenship: before the ascendancy of Pericles, anyone born of a single Athenian parent was an Athenian citizen; Pericles instituted laws which demanded that both parents be Athenian citizens. So, in reality, the great democracy of Periclean Athens was in reality only a very small minority of the people living in Athens. It was, however, the closest human culture has come to an unadulterated democracy.

The Assembly was given unprecedented power over the selections of officials; elected officials, such as military generals, were not chosen by the Assembly, but the Assembly did hire and fire all other public officials. In addition, the Assembly served as a law court hearing major cases. Any decision made in a court of law could be appealed to the Assembly where a court of free citizens would hear the case. There was no standing army, either, as there was in Sparta; free citizens could choose to serve in the military.

One figure towers over this new democratic state: Pericles. This Age of Athens, which begins either in 462 or 450 or 445 BC and lasts until 404 BC, when Athens is defeated by Sparta, is called the Athenian Age, the Classical Age, or, after its most important political figure, the Age of Pericles. Just about everything that you associate with Greek culture is squeezed into this half century of wealth, energy, creativity, and chauvinism in Athens. All the great works of Greek tragedy and comedy, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, were written in this time in the city of Athens. Most of the monumental works of architecture, built off of the wealth that literally poured into Athens from her imperial possessions, were built at this time: the Acropolis, the rebuilding of the Agora. Flush with wealth and at peace with Persia and Sparta, the Athenians had nothing better to do with this wealth then invest it in a massive cultural flowering of art, poetry, philosophy, and architecture.

And still there remains the figure of Pericles himself. There is no question that the democratic reforms of the Age of Pericles owe their existence to the energy of this political figure. He was a man of immense persuasiveness and an orator of great power. Although he was eventually ostracized by the Athenians (he later returned), he dominated the democratic government of Athens with his formidable capacity to speak and to persuade. He had two central policies: democratic reform and the maintenance of the empire.

Sparta, however, growing increasinly wary of Athenian prosperity, would soon find itself entangled once again with its old rival. The thirty year peace managed to hang on for only fourteen years before hostilities broke out again. In 431, a second war broke out, called simply The Peloponnesian War; this war would see the death of Pericles in its second year, but eventually witness the foolish destruction of the Athenian navy, the defeat of Athens, and the end of Athenian democracy.

Hellenism In spite of the political turbulence and chaos of the fourth century BC, Greece was poised on its most triumphant period: the Hellenistic age. The word, Hellenistic, is derived from the word, Hellene, which was the Greek word for the Greeks. The Hellenistic age was the "age of the Greeks; during this time, Greek culture and power extended itself across the known world. While the classical age of Greece produced great literature, poetry, philosophy, drama, and art, the Hellenistic age "hellenized" the world. At the root of Hellenism were the conquests of Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexander. However, the Macedonians did more than control territory; they actively exported Greek culture: politics, law, literature, philosophy, religion, and art. This was a new idea, exporting culture, and more than anything else this exporting of culture would deeply influence all the civilizations and cultures that would later erupt from this soil: the Romans, the Christians, the Jewish diaspora, and Islam.

Learn how and why Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt were invented during Renaissance.

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