Greece, A History Of Ancient (Greeks) The Dorians To Alexander

A History of Ancient Greece

The Glory That Was Greece

Author: Robert A. Guisepi

Date: 2001

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 Minoans

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

2000 B.C.

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 ears.

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


The Mycenaeans

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

in 1993.

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

original." ^6

[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

democratic states.

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

from invasion.

[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

citizen." ^9

[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

undiscussed. ^10

[Footnote 10: Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 2.37, 40.]

Athenian Society

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

against them.

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

a master.

Athenian Imperialism

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

democratic states.

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.]

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