A History of Ancient Greece
The Glory That Was Greece
Author: Robert A. Guisepi
The glory that was Greece," in the words of Edgar Allan Poe, was short-lived and confined to a very small geographic area. Yet it has influenced the growth of Western civilization far out of proportion to its size and duration. The Greece that Poe praised was primarily Athens during its golden age in the 5th century BC. Strictly speaking, the state was Attica; Athens was its heart. The English poet John Milton called Athens "the eye of Greece, mother of arts and eloquence." Athens was the city-state in which the arts, philosophy, and democracy flourished. At least it was the city that attracted those who wanted to work, speak, and think in an environment of freedom. In the rarefied atmosphere of Athens were born ideas about human nature and political society that are fundamental to the Western world today.
The Background: Aegean Civilization, 2000-1200 B.C.
Greek civilization was unique in so many ways that a student of history might infer that it developed free from outside influences, springing full blown from the mountains and plains of this small land. The Greek achievement, however, was preceded by an advanced civilization located on the lands surrounding the Aegean Sea. This Aegean civilization, which came into full flower about 2000 B.C. and collapsed suddenly following 1200 B.C., developed through two major periods.
Minoan And Mycenaean Phases
The first and longer phase of Aegean civilization, which ended about 1450 B.C., is called Minoan after the legendary Cretan King Minos. Crete was the center of Minoan civilization, which spread to the Aegean Islands, the coast of Asia Minor, and mainland Greece. The last period of Aegean civilization, the two and one-half centuries following 1450 B.C. when the center of Aegean political power and culture lay on the Greek mainland, is called Mycenaean after its most important site at Mycenae.
The narrow, 160-mile-long island of Crete was a stepping stone between
Europe, Asia, and Africa. Stimulated by immigrants from Asia Minor and by
contacts with Mesopotamia and Egypt, a brilliant civilization emerged here by
Minoan prosperity was based on large-scale trade that ranged from Sicily,
Greece, and Asia Minor to Syria and Egypt. The Minoans employed the first
ships capable of long voyages over the open sea. Chief exports were olive oil,
wine, metal ware, and magnificent pottery. This trade was the monopoly of an
efficient bureaucratic government under a powerful ruler whose administrative
records were written on clay tablets, first in a form of picture writing and
later in a syllabic script known as Linear A. As neither script has been
deciphered, our knowledge of Minoan civilization is scanty and imprecise; most
of it is derived from the material remains uncovered by archaeologists.
It was the epoch-making discoveries of the English archaeologist Sir
Arthur Evans that first brought to light this civilization, whose existence
had previously only been hinted at in the epics of Homer and in Greek legends
such as that of the minotaur, half bull and half man, who devoured youths and
maidens sent as tribute from Greece. Between 1900 and 1905 Evans unearthed the ruins of a great palace at Knossos, the dominant city in Crete after 1700 B.C.
Rising at least three stories high and sprawling over nearly six acres, this "Palace of Minos," built of brick and limestone and employing unusual downward-tapering columns of wood, was a maze of royal apartments, storerooms, corridors, open courtyards, and broad stairways. Furnished with running water, the palace had a sanitation system that surpassed anything constructed in Europe until Roman times. Walls were painted with elaborate frescoes in which the Minoans appear as a happy, peaceful people with a pronounced liking for dancing, festivals, and athletic contests. Women are shown enjoying a freedom and dignity unknown elsewhere in the ancient Near East or classical Greece. They are not secluded in the home but are seen sitting with men and taking an equal part in public festivities - even as toreadors in a form of bull
fighting. Their dresses are very elaborate, with gay patterns and colors,
pleats, puffed sleeves, and flounces. Bodices are open in front to the waist,
and hair is elaborately fashioned with ringlets over the forehead and about
The glory of Minoan culture was its art, spontaneous and full of rhythmic
motion. Art was an essential part of everyday life and not, as in the ancient
Near East, an adjunct to religion and the state. What little is known of
Minoan religion also contrasts sharply with conditions in the Near East: there
were no great temples, powerful priesthoods, or large cult statues of the
gods. The principal deity was the Mother Goddess; her importance reflected the
important position held by women in Cretan society. A number of recovered
statuettes show her dressed like a fashionable Cretan woman with flounced
skirts, a tightly laced, lowcut bodice, and an elaborate coiffure. She was
probably the prototype of such later Greek goddesses as Athena, Demeter, and
About 2000 B.C. or shortly thereafter, the first Indo-European Greek
tribes, collectively called Achaeans, entered Greece, where they absorbed the
earlier settlers and ruled from strongly fortified citadels at Mycenae, Pylos,
Athens, and other sites. By 1600 B.C. the Achaeans - or Mycenaeans, as they
are usually called - had adopted much of the advances culture of the Minoans.
They remained warlike, however, and plied the seas as raiders as well as
traders. Mycenaean women adopted Cretan fashions and added a variety of
sumptuous jewelry from bracelets to earrings.
Some of the wealth accumulated by the kings of Mycenae - the greatest
single hoard of gold, silver, and ivory objects found anywhere before the
discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb - was unearthed in 1876 by Heinrich
Schliemann, fresh from his even more sensational discoveries at Troy. The
royal palace on the acropolis, or citadel, of Mycenae had well-proportioned
audience rooms and apartments, fresco-lined walls, floors of painted stucco,
and large storerooms. Noteworthy also were the royal "beehive" tombs,
constructed of cut stone and covered with earth.
The expansive force of Mycenaean civilization led to the planting of
colonies in the eastern Mediterranean (Hittite sources refer to Achaeans in
Asia Minor) and to the conquest of Knossos about 1450 B.C. The latter event
was made possible by the destruction of the labyrinthian palace at Knossos by
fire - the aftereffect, it is now conjectured, of a great tidal wave caused by
the eruption of the small volcanic island of Thera (Santorini) eighty miles
north of Crete. The palace at Knossos was rebuilt by the Mycenaeans (to be
destroyed finally about 1380 B.C. by earthquake and fire), and the center of
Aegean civilization shifted to the Greek mainland.
This story of Achaean-Cretan relations was unclear until after 1952 when
a young English architect, Michael Ventris, startled the scholarly world by
deciphering a type of Cretan script known as Linear B, many examples of which
had been found by Evans at Knossos and by later archaeologists at Pylos,
Mycenae, and Thebes. When Linear B turned out to be an early form of Greek
written in syllabic characters, it followed that the rulers of Knossos after
1450 B.C. must have been Achaean Greeks who had adopted the Cretan script to
write their own language.
The Linear B texts, which are administrative documents and inventories,
greatly add to our knowledge of Mycenaean life. The Mycenaean centers were
fortified palaces and administrative centers and not, as in Crete, true
cities. The bulk of the population lived in scattered villages where they
worked either communal land or land held by nobles or kings. The nobles were
under the close control of the kings, whose administrative records were kept
daily by a large number of scribes. Prominent in these records are details of
the disbursement of grain and wine as wages and the collection of taxes in
kind. The most important item of income was olive oil, the major article in
the wide-ranging Mycenaean trade, which was operated as a royal monopoly.
Perhaps it was their role as merchantmonopolists that led the Achaean kings
about 1250 B.C. to launch the famous expedition against Troy in order to
eliminate a powerful commercial rival.
Troy, Site Of Homer's Iliad
The city of Troy occupied a strategic position on the Hellespont (the
strait from the Aegean to the Black seas now known as the Dardanelles). Thus
Troy could command both sea traffic through the straits and land caravans
going between Asia and Europe. For many years scholars thought this city
existed only in the epic poems of Homer. Henrich Schliemann (1822-1890), a
German romantic dreamer and amateur archaeologist, believed otherwise. As a
boy, he had read Homer's Iliad, and thereafter he remained firmly
convinced that Troy had actually existed. At the age of forty-eight, having
amassed a fortune in the California gold rush and in world-wide trade,
Schliemann retired from business to put his persistent dream of ancient Troy
to the test.
In 1870 Schliemann began excavations at the legendary site of Troy, where
he unearthed nine buried cities, built one on top of another. He discovered a
treasure of golden earrings, hairpins, and bracelets in the second city (Troy
II), which led him to believe that this was the city of Homer's epics.
Excavations in the 1930s, however, showed that Troy II had been destroyed
about 2200 B.C., far too early to have been the scene of the Trojan War, and
that Troy VIIa, clearly destroyed by human violence about 1250 B.C., was
probably the one made famous by Homer.
Neither the view that Troy was the victim of commercial rivalry nor the
other widely held theory that it was destroyed by Achaean pirates seeking
booty corresponds to Homer's view that the Trojan War was caused by the
abduction of Helen, queen of Sparta, by the Trojan prince Paris. Led by
Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, the wrathful Achaeans besieged Troy for ten long
years. Homer's Iliad deals only with a few weeks during the tenth year
of the siege.
The Fall Of Mycenaean Civilization
About 1200 B.C. a new wave of Indo-Europeans, the Dorian Greeks,
materially aided by weapons made of iron instead of bronze, invaded Greece.
First of the Mycenaean strongholds to fall was Pylos, whose Linear B archives
contain numerous references to hastily undertaken preparations to repel the
invaders. We find orders directing women and children to places of safety;
instructions to armorers, "rowers," and food suppliers; and a report entitled
"How the watchers are guarding the coastal regions." ^2 The preparations were
in vain, however. Pylos was sacked and burned, and the destruction of the
other major Mycenaean citadels soon followed. Mycenaean refugees found a haven
at Athens and in Ionia on the western coast of Asia Minor.
[Footnote 2: See Leonard R. Palmer, Mycenaeans and Minoans: Aegean Prehistory
in the Light of the Linear B Tablets (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961), ch. 5,
"The Last Days of Pylos."]
The Rise Of Hellenic Civilization, 1150-500 B.C.
The four centuries from c.1150 to 750 B.C., the Greek Dark Ages, were
marked by the disappearance of the major characteristics of Mycenaean
civilizationcentralized and bureaucratic administration, wide-ranging
commerce, sophisticated art forms (including monumental architecture), and
writing. Yet while the Dorian invasion was an undoubted catastrophe, it was
also vital to the ultimate rise of a unique Hellenic (from Hellas, the
Greek name for Greece) civilization that was not largely an offshoot of the
Near East, as was Aegean civilization. A fresh start now had to be made.
The Influence Of Geography
Geographical factors played an important part in shaping the events of
Greek history. The numerous mountain ranges that crisscross the peninsula,
which is about the size of Maine, severely hampered internal communication and
led to the development of fiercely independent city-states and the failure of
the Greeks to unite into a single state. The mountains cover two thirds of the
surface, and along the west coast they come close to the sea, leaving few
harbors and arable plains. Elsewhere the deeply indented coast provides many
natural harbors that invite maritime adventure. The major cleft is the Gulf of
Corinth, which made southern Greece almost an island - hence, it was called
the Peloponnesus ("Pelop's island"). The indented coastline and the many
islands offshore stimulated seagoing trade, and the rocky soil (less than a
fifth of Greece is arable) and few natural resources encouraged the Greeks to
establish colonies abroad.
The Homeric Age
Most of our information about the Greek Dark Ages, which followed the
Dorian invasion, is derived from the epics put in final form during the last
century of this period and attributed to the blind Ionian poet Homer.
Controversy surrounds the question of Homer's existence and whether he or
several poets composed the Iliad and Odyssey. The Homeric epics retain
something of the material side of the Mycenaean period. Yet in filling in the
details of political, economic, and social life; the religious beliefs and
practices; and the ideals that gave meaning to life; the poet could only
describe what was familiar to him in his own age.
The values that gave meaning to life in the Homeric Age were
predominantly heroic values - the strength, skill, and valor of the preeminent
warrior. Such was the earliest meaning of aret, "excellence" or "virtue," a
key term throughout the course of Greek culture. To obtain aret - defined by
one Homeric hero as "to fight ever in the forefront and outvie my peers" - and
the imperishable fame that was its reward, men welcomed hardship, struggle,
and even death. Honor, like fame, was a measure of arete, and thei greatest of
human tragedies was the denial of honor due to a great warrior. Homer makes
such a denial the theme of the Iliad: "The ruinous wrath of Achilles that
brought countless ills upon the Achaeans" when Achilles, insulted by
Agamemnon, withdraws from battle.
To the Homeric Greeks, the gods were plainly human. Zeus, the king of the
gods, was often the undignified victim of the plots of his wife Hera and other
deities, and he asserted his authority through threats of violence. Hades, the
abode of the dead, was a subterranean land of dust and darkness, and Achilles,
as Homer tells us in the Odyssey, would have preferred to be a slave on
earth than a king in Hades.
Society was clearly aristocratic - only the aristoi ("aristocrats") possessed aret - and the common man was reviled and beaten when he dared to question his betters. Yet the common man had certain political rights as a member of the assembly that was summoned whenever a crisis, such as war, required his participation. Two other instruments of government described by Homer were the tribal king and his council. The king was hardly more than a chief among his peers, his fellow nobles, who sat in his council to advise him and to check any attempt he might make to exercise arbitrary power. The economy was that of a simple, self-sufficient agricultural system much like that of the early Middle Ages in western Europe.
The City-State: Origin And Political Evolution
The polis, or city-state, the famed Greek political unit, did not exist
in the Greek Dark Ages. The nucleus of the polis, was the elevated, fortified
site - the acropolis - where people could take refuge from attack. In time
this defensive center took on added significance as the focus of political and
religious life. When commerce revived in the eighth and seventh centuries
B.C., a trading center developed below the acropolis. The two areas and the
surrounding territory, usually smaller than a modern county, formed the polis,
from which our word "politics" is derived.
The political development of the polis was so rich and varied that it is
difficult to think of a form of government not experienced - and given a
lasting name - by the Greeks. Four major types of government evolved: (1)
monarchy, limited by an aristocratic council and a popular assembly, as
described in the Homeric epics; (2) oligarchy ("rule of the few"), arising
when the aristocratic council ousted the king and abolished or restricted the
popular assembly; (3) tyranny, imposed by one man who rode to power on the
discontent of the lower classes; (4) democracy ("rule of the people"), the
outstanding political achievement of the Greeks, which emerged after the
tyrant was deposed and the popular assembly revived and made the chief organ
of government. After dissatisfaction with democratic government be-came
widespread in the fourth century B.C., many of the city-states returned either
to oligarchy or to one-man rule.
From Oligarchy To Tyranny
By the middle of the eighth century B.C., the nobles, who resented the
power wielded by the tribal kings, had taken over the government, ushering in
an age of oligarchy. Ruthlessly exercising their superior power, the nobles
acquired a monopoly of the best land, reducing many commoners to virtual
serfdom and forcing others to seek a living on rocky, barren soil.
The hard lot of common people under oligarchy produced the anguished
protest of Hesiod's Works and Days (c. 700 B.C.). A commoner who had been
cheated out of his parcel of land by his evil brother in league with
"bribe-swallowing" aristocratic judges, Hesiod was the prophet of a more
exalted conception of the gods and a new age of social justice. To establish a
just society, Hesiod argued, people must learn to pursue moderation
(sophrosyne) in all things - apparently the first expression of this famous
Greek ideal - and realize that "far-seeing" Zeus and the other gods punish
evildoers and reward the righteous. In contrast to Homer with his aristocratic
heroes, Hesiod defined human excellence, or arete, in a way to make it
attainable for commoni people. Its essential ingredients were righteousness
and work - honest work in competition with one's fellows being a form of
strife in moderation. "Gods and men hate him who lives without work," Hesiod
insisted. "His nature is like the drones who sit idle and eat the labor of the
bees." Furthermore, "work is no shame, but idleness is a shame," and "esteem,"
"glory," and "riches" follow work. ^3 All this sounds much like the Protestant
ethic of disciplined restraint, sobriety, frugality, and industry taught by
John Calvin and his followers.
[Footnote 3: Quoted in Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), vol. 1, p. 70.]
Hesiod's new ideals of moderation and justice were slow to take root. The
poor found relief only by emigrating to new lands overseas. As Plato later
noted, the wealthy promoted colonization as a safety valve to ward off a
threatened political and economic explosion:
When men who have nothing, and are in want of food, show a disposition to
follow their leaders in an attack on the property of the rich - these, who are
the natural plague of the state, are sent away by the legislator in a friendly
spirit as far as he is able; and this dismissal of them is euphemistically
termed a colony. ^4
[Footnote 4: Plato Laws 5.735. In The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett
(New York: Random House, 1937), vol. 2, p. 503.]
From 750 to 550 B.C. the Greeks planted colonies throughout much of the
Mediterranean world, a development often compared with the expansion of Europe in modern times. Settlements sprang up along the northern coast of the Aegean and around the Black Sea. So many Greeks migrated to southern Italy and
eastern Sicily that the region became known as Magna Graecia, or Great Greece.
Colonies were also founded as far west as present-day France - at Massilia,
modern Marseilles for example - and Spain and on parts of the African coast.
Unique was Naucratis in Egypt, not a true colony but a trading post whose
residents gained extraterritorial rights (their own magistrates and law
courts) from the Egyptians.
In time colonization ameliorated Greece's economic and social problems.
By 600 B.C. economic progress and the use of coined money, learned from the
Lydians, had created the beginnings of a middle class. The Greek home states
gradually became "industrialized" as a result of concentrating upon the
production of specialized wares - vases, metal goods, textiles, olive oil, and
wine - for export in exchange for foodstuffs and raw materials. But before
this economic revolution was completed, the continuing land hunger of the
peasants contributed to a political revolution.
After 650 B.C. tyrants arose in many Greek states and, supported by the
aggrieved peasantry and rising merchant class, seized the reins of government
from the nobility. They were supported by a new heavy-armed infantry (the
hoplite phalanx), composed of middle-class citizens wealthy enough to furnish
their own equipment. These tyrants (the word meant simply "master" and did not
at first have today's unfavorable meaning) not only distributed land to the
peasants but, by promoting further colonization, trade, and industry,
completed the Greek economic revolution.
Athens To 500 B.C.
Athens and Sparta, the city-states destined to dominate the history of
Greece during the classical period (the fifth and most of the fourth centuries
B.C.), underwent markedly different developments during the period prior to
500 B.C. While Athens' political, economic, and social evolution was typical
of most other Greek states, Sparta's development produced a unique way of life
that elicited the wonder and often the admiration of other Greeks.
During the seventh century B.C., the council of nobles became supreme in
Athens. The popular assembly no longer met, and the king was replaced by nine
aristocratic magistrates, called archons, chosen annually by the council to
exercise the king's civil, military, and religious powers. While the nobles on
their large estates prospered, the small farmers and sharecroppers suffered.
Bad years forced them to borrow seed from their rich neighbors, and when they
were unable to repay they were sold into slavery. To the small farmers' clamor
for the cancellation of debts and the end to debt slavery was added the voice
of the landless for the redistribution of land.
When the Athenian nobles finally realized that their failure to heed the
cry for reform would result in the rise of a tyrant, they agreed to the policy
of compromise advocated by the liberal aristocrat Solon. In 594 B.C. Solon was
made sole archon with broad authority to reconcile the lower classes. Inspired
by the ideals of moderation and justice promoted by Hesiod a century earlier,
Solon instituted middle-of-the-road reforms that have made his name a byword
for wise statesmanship.
For the lower classes, Solon agreed to canceling all debts and forbidding
debt bondage, but he rejected as too radical the demand for the re-division of the land. His long-range solution to the economic problem was to seek full employment by stimulating trade and industry. To achieve this goal, Solon required fathers to teach their sons a trade, granted citizenship to foreign artisans who settled in Athens, and encouraged the intensive production of olive oil for export.
Moderation also characterized Solon's political reformsthe common people
were granted important political rights, but not equality. While laws
continued to originate in a new aristocratic Council of Four Hundred, they now
had to be ratified by the popular assembly, which Solon revived. And since
wealth, not birth, became the qualification for membership in the Council and
for the archonships, wealthy commoners acquired full political equality.
Furthermore, the assembly could now act as a court to hear appeals from the
decisions of the archons and to try them for misdeeds in office.
Unfortunately, Solon's moderate reforms satisfied neither party. The poor
had received neither land nor full political equality, while the nobles
thought Solon a radical who had betrayed his class. Deeply discouraged, Solon
described what is too often the lot of moderate reformers: "Formerly their
eyes sparkled when they saw me; now they coldly scorn me, no longer friends
but enemies." ^5
[Footnote 5: Plutarch Lives "Solon" 16.]
Solon had warned the Athenians to accept his reforms lest "the people in
its ignorance comes into the power of a tyrant." He lived to see his
prediction fulfilled. In 560 B.C., after a period of civil strife,
Pisistratus, a military hero and champion of the commoners, usurped power as
tyrant. He solved the economic problem by banishing many nobles, whose lands
he distributed among the poor, and by promoting commerce and industry.
Together with extensive public works and the patronage of culture - thus
starting Athens on the road to cultural leadership in Greece - these reforms
gave rise to a popular saying that "Life under Pisistratus was paradise on
Pisistratus was succeeded by his two sons, one of whom was assassinated
and the other exiled after he became suspicious and cruel. When the nobles,
aided by a Spartan army, took this opportunity to restore oligarchy,
Cleisthenes temporarily seized power in 508 B.C. and put through
constitutional reforms that destroyed the remaining power of the nobility. He
disregarded the old noble-dominated tribes and created ten new ones, each
embracing citizens of all classes from widely scattered districts. The popular
assembly soon acquired the right to initiate legislation and became the
sovereign power in the state; there could be no appeal from its decisions. A
new and democratic Council of Five Hundred, selected by lot from the ten
tribes, advised the assembly and supervised the administrative actions of the
archons. Cleisthenes' final reform was the peculiar institution of
ostracism, an annual referendum in which a quorum of citizens could vote
to exile for ten years any individual thought to be a threat to the new
Athenian democracy. (A quorum consisted of 6000 of the 50,000 male citizens
over the age of eighteen. The average attendance at an Athenian assembly,
whose ordinary meetings were held every ten days, was about 5000.) The 2500th
anniversary of the establishment of the Athenian democracy will be celebrated
Sparta To 500 B.C.
In sharp contrast to Athens was its rival Sparta. Sparta had not joined
the other Greek cities in trade and colonization but had expanded instead by
conquering and enslaving its neighbors. To guard against revolts by the state
slaves (helots), who worked the land for their conquerors, Sparta deviated
from the normal course of Greek political development and transformed itself
into a militaristic totalitarian state. Aristotle called the government of
Sparta a "mixed constitution"; for the small minority of ruling Spartans, it
was a democracy, but for the great mass of subjected people it was an
oligarchy. The government included two kings, an aristocratic council, and an
assembly of all 9000 Spartan citizens. Great power resided in five magistrates
called ephors ("overseers"), created originally as an aristocratic check on
royal authority, but later elected annually by the assembly.
While the Athenian state required only two years of military training for
young men, the Spartan system - traditionally attributed to a legendary
lawgiver named Lycurgus - was designed to make every Spartan a professional
soldier and to keep him in a constant state of readiness for war. To this end,
the state enforced absolute subordination of the individual to its will.
State officials examined all newborn children, and any found sickly or
deformed were abandoned to die. At the age of seven a boy was taken from his
family and placed in the charge of state educators, who taught him to bear
hardship, endure discipline, and devote his life to the state. At twenty the
young Spartan enrolled in the army and lived in barracks, where he contributed
food from his allotment of land granted by the state and worked by helots. At
thirty he was allowed to marry, but he continued to live in barracks, visiting
his wife only at night. Finally, at sixty, he was released from the army and
could live at home with his family.
This lifelong discipline produced formidable soldiers and inspired them
with the spirit of obedience and respect for law. Plutarch reports that
Spartan training "accustomed the citizens to have neither the will nor the
ability to lead a private life, but, like bees, to be organic parts of their
community, clinging together around their leader, forgetting themselves in
their enthusiastic patriotism, and belonging wholly to their country."
Although many Greeks admired the Spartan way of life, the typical Spartan
was crude and aggressive, took few baths, and spoke few words. According to
One may judge their character by their jokes;
for they are taught never to talk at random,
nor to utter a syllable that does not contain some thought.
For example, when one of them was invited to hear a man
imitate the nightingale, he answered, "I have heard the
[Footnote 6: Plutarch Lives "Lycurgus" 20.]
Spartan girls also received state training in order to become healthy
mothers of warrior sons. Clad in short tunics, which other Greeks thought
immodest, they engaged in running, wrestling, and throwing the discus and
javelin. As their men marched off to war, Spartan women bade them a laconic
farewell: "Come back with your shield or on it."
According to Plutarch, the Spartans
did away with all seclusion and retirement for
women, and ordained that girls, no less than boys,
should go naked in processions, and dance and sing
at festivals in the presence of the young men....
This nakedness of the maidens had in it nothing disgraceful.
It was done modestly, not licentiously, and it produced
habits of simplicity and taught them to desire good health
and beauty of body, and to love honor and courage no less
than the men. This it was that made them speak and think as
Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, is said to have done. Some
foreign lady, it seems, said to her, "You Spartan women are
the only ones who rule men." She answered, "Yes, for we are
the only ones who give birth to men."
While Sparta developed the finest military machine in Greece, it remained
backward culturally and economically. Trade and travel were prohibited because
the city fathers feared that alien ideas might disturb the status quo. Sparta
is a classic example of how intellectual stagnation accompanies rigid social
conformity and military regimentation.
To provide additional assurance that its helots remained uncontaminated
by democratic ideas, Sparta allied itself with oligarchic parties in other
Peloponnesian states and aided them in suppressing their democratic opponents.
The resulting Spartan League of oligarchic states, in operation by the end of
the sixth century B.C., was shortly to be faced by an Athenian-led union of
Unity And Strife In The Hellenic World, 500-336 B.C.
The leaders of the Greek economic and cultural revival after 750 B.C.
were the Ionian Greeks, descendants of the Mycenaeans who had fled the Dorian
invaders and settled the Aegean coast of Asia Minor and its offshore islands.
Influenced by contacts with Phoenician traders (from whom they borrowed the
alphabet in the eighth century B.C.), neighboring Lydia, and Egypt, the
Ionians "first kindled the torch of Hellenism." They were also the first
Greeks to face the threat of the great powers of the Near East.
[See Greek Alliances: Greek political alliances about 431 BC]
The Persian Wars
When the Persians conquered Lydia in 547 B.C., they also annexed Ionia,
which had been under nominal Lydian rule. Chafing under Persian-appointed
tyrants, the Ionian cities revolted in 449 B.C., established democratic
regimes, and appealed to the Athenians, who were also Ionians, for aid. Athens
sent twenty ships, but to no avail. By 494 B.C. Darius I had crushed the
revolt, burning Miletus in revenge.
Darius knew that Ionia was insecure as long as Athens remained free to
incite its kin to revolt, and thus in 490 B.C. a Persian force about 20,000
strong sailed across the Aegean and debarked on the plain of Marathon near
Athens. Darius' aim of forcing the Athenians to accept the exiled son of
Pisistratus as a pro-Persian tyrant was frustrated when the Athenian army,
half the size of the Persian, won an overwhelming victory, killing 6400 of the
foe while losing only 192.
The battle of Marathon was one of the most decisive in history. It
destroyed the belief in Persian invincibility and demonstrated, in the words
of the Greek historian Herodotus, that "free men fight better than slaves."
The victory also gave the Athenians the self-confidence that would soon make
their city the leading Greek state.
Ten years later the Greeks were well prepared for a new Persian invasion
under Xerxes, Darius' successor, whose objective was the subjection of all of
Greece. Athens now had 200 ships, the largest fleet in Greece, and Sparta had
agreed to head a defensive alliance of thirty-one states.
The Persian army - reckoned by Herodotus at 1,700,000 but more likely
150,000 or so - was too huge to be transported by ship. Crossing the
swift-flowing, mile-wide Hellespont near Troy on two pontoon bridges - a
notable feat of engineering - the army marched along the Aegean coast
accompanied by a great fleet carrying provisions. The Spartans wanted to
abandon all of Greece except the Peloponnesus to the invaders but finally
agreed to a holding action at the narrow pass of Thermopylae. Here 300
Spartans and a few thousand other Greeks held back the Persians for three
days, until a Greek traitor led them over a mountain path to the rear of the
Greek position. The Spartans fought magnificently until all were slain,
together with 700 other Greeks. The Spartan dead were immortalized on a
monument erected at the pass: "Go tell the Spartans, you who pass us by, that
here, obedient to their laws, we lie."
The Persians then burned Athens, whose inhabitants had fled, for they
placed their faith in "wooden walls" - their fleet. Their faith was not
misplaced; in the Bay of Salamis the Greek fleet, largely Athenian, turned the
tide of victory with the shout: "On, sons of the Greeks! Set free your country,
set your children free, your wives, the temples of your country's gods, your
fathers' tombs; now they are all at stake." ^7 With 200 of his 350 ships
destroyed and his lines of communication cut, Xerxes had no alternative but to
retreat to Asia, although he left a strong force in Greece. The following
summer (479 B.C.) the Greek army, with the Spartan contingent in the vanguard,
routed the Persian force at Plataea, and Greece was for the time being safe
[Footnote 7: A. R. Burn, trans., The Pelican History of Greece (Baltimore:
Penguin Books, 1966), p. 186.]
Culmination Of Athenian Democracy
The part they played in the Greek victory over the mighty Persian empire
exhilarated the Athenians and gave them the confidence and energy that made
them the leaders of the Greek world during the remainder of the fifth century
B.C. During this period, known as the Golden Age of Greece, the Athenians
"attempted more and achieved more in a wider variety of fields than any nation
great or small has ever attempted or achieved in a similar space of time." ^8
[Footnote 8: C. E. Robinson, Hellas: A Short History of Ancient Greece
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), p. 68.]
For more than thirty years (461-429 B.C.) during this period, the great
statesman Pericles guided Athenian policy. In Pericles' time the actual
executive power no longer resided in the archons who were chosen by lot, but
in a board of ten elected generals. This board operated much like a modern-day
governmental cabinet. The generals urged the popular assembly to adopt
specific measures, and the success or failure of their policies determined
whether they would be reelected at the end of their annual term. Pericles
failed of reelection only once, and so great was his influence on the
Athenians that, in the words of the contemporary historian Thucydides, "what
was in name a democracy was virtually a government by its greatest
[Footnote 9: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.65.]
To enable even the poorest citizen to participate in government, Pericles
extended payment to jurors (a panel of 6000 citizens chosen annually by lot)
and to members of the council. While his conservative opponents called this
political bribery, Pericles insisted that it was essential to the success of
Our constitution is named a democracy, because it is in the
hands not of the few but of the many. But our laws secure
equal justice for all in their private disputes, and our public
opinion welcomes and honours talent in every branch of
achievement, not as a matter of privilege but on grounds of
excellence alone.... [Athenians] do not allow absorption in
their own various affairs to interfere with their knowledge of
the city's. We differ from other states in regarding the man
who holds aloof from public life not as "quiet" but as useless;
we decide or debate, carefully and in person, all matters of
policy, holding, not that words and deeds go ill together, but
that acts are foredoomed to failure when undertaken
[Footnote 10: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.37, 40.]
The majority of the inhabitants of Athens, however, were not recognized
as citizens. Women, slaves, and resident aliens were denied citizenship and
had no voice in the government. Legally, women were first the property of
their fathers, then of their husbands. They could not possess property in
their own name, or, as the law expressly stated, "make a contract about
anything worth more than a bushel of barley."
Athens was distinctly a man's world. A wife's function was to bear
children and manage the home, where she was restricted to the women's quarters
when her husband entertained his friends. Men did not marry until they were
about thirty, and they usually married girls half their age. Marriages were
normally arranged by the families, and prospective brides and bridegrooms
seldom met before their betrothal. Families were rather small, and
infanticide, usually by exposure, of unwanted infants (especially girls) was
practiced as a primitive form of birth control. The average life expectancy
was little more than thirty years.
Athenian society sanctioned a double moral standard, and the philandering
of a husband was not the occasion for adverse public comment. A peculiar
institution, catering to the needs and desires of upper-class Athenian males,
was that of the "companions" (hetaerae). These females were normally
resident aliens and therefore not subject to the social restrictions imposed
on Athenian women. A few of the hetaerae, such as Aspasia, the mistress
of Pericles, were cultivated women who entertained at salons frequented by
Athenian political and cultural leaders. Generally speaking, however,
champions of the social emancipation of Athenian women were rare, and the
women themselves accepted their status. Aside from a few cases in which wives
murdered their husbands (usually by poison), married life seems to have been
stable and peaceful. Attic gravestones in particular attest to the love
spouses felt for one another. The tie to their children was strong, and the
community set high store by the honor owed by sons and daughters to their
Male homosexuality is frequently pictured on Athenian vases and mentioned
in literature. Socially acceptable was "boy love," a homosexual relationship
between a mature man and a young boy just before the youth attained puberty.
This relationship was viewed as pedagogicala rite of initiation into adult
society. Like initiation rites in general, it contained a strong element of
humiliation. Adult male homosexuality and homosexual prostitution, however,
were not socially acceptable. Such relationships were looked upon as "contrary
to nature," and the Athenian government issued stringent legal prohibitions
No ancient society did without slaves, although their importance is often
overstated; almost everyone, free as well as slave, had to work for a living.
In fifth-century Athens it is estimated that one out of every four persons was
a slave. Some were war captives, others were children of slaves, but most came
from outside Greece through slave dealers. No large slave gangs were employed
on plantations, as they were in Roman times and in the American South before
the Civil War. Small landowners owned one or more slaves, who worked in the
fields alongside their masters. Those who owned many slavesone rich Athenian
owned a thousandhired them out to private individuals or to the state where
they worked beside Athenian citizens and received the same wages.
Other slaves were taught a trade and set up in business. They were
allowed to keep one sixth of their wages, and many of them were able to
purchase their freedom. Although a few voices argued that slavery was contrary
to nature and that all people were equal, the Greek world as a whole agreed
with Aristotle that some people - non-Greeks in particular - were incapable of
full human reason; thus they were by nature slaves who needed the guidance of
The victory over Persia had been made possible by a partial unity of
Hellenic arms; but that unity quickly dissolved when Sparta, fearful of helot
rebellion at home, recalled its troops and resumed its policy of isolation.
Because the Persians still ruled the Ionian cities and another invasion of
Greece seemed probable, Athens in 478 B.C. invited the city-states bordering
on the Aegean to form a defensive alliance called the Delian League. To
maintain a 200 ship navy that would police the seas, each state was assessed
ships or money in proportion to its wealth. From the beginning, Athens
dominated the league. Since almost all of the 173 member states paid their
assessments in money, which Athens was empowered to collect, the Athenians
furnished the necessary ships.
By 468 B.C., after the Ionian cities had been liberated and the Persian
fleet destroyed, various league members thought it unnecessary to continue the
confederacy. In suppressing all attempts to secede, the Athenians were
motivated by the fear that the Persian danger still existed and by the need to
maintain and protect the large free-trade area so necessary for Greek - and
especially Athenian - commerce and industry. The Athenians created an empire
because they dared not unmake a confederation. By aiding in the suppression of
local aristocratic factions within its subject states, Athens both eased the
task of controlling its empire and emerged as the leader of a union of
To many Greeks - above all to the members of the oligarchic Spartan
League and the suppressed aristocratic factions within the Athenian empire -
Athens was a "tyrant city" and an "enslaver of Greek liberties." Pericles, on
the other hand, justified Athenian imperialism on the ground that it brought
"freedom" from fear and want to the Greek world:
We secure our friends not by accepting
favours but by doing them....We are alone
among mankind in doing men benefits, not on
calculations of self-interest, but in the fearless
confidence of freedom. In a word I claim that
our city as a whole is an education to
Hellas .... ^11
[Footnote 11: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.40, 41.]