Greek Legacy

A History of Ancient Greece

Author: Robert Guisepi

Date: 1998

A Vital Legacy

The final complexity in dealing with classical Greece (and then Rome)
involves its relationship to us - to contemporary residents of North America.
For most Americans, Greece constitutes the first phase of "our own" classical
past. The framers of the Constitution of the United States were intensely
conscious of Greek precedents. Designers of public buildings in the United
States have dutifully copied Greek and Roman models. Plato and Aristotle
continue to be thought of as founders of our philosophical tradition, skillful
teachers still imitate the Socratic method in seeking dialogues with students,
and reliance on scientific methods of inquiry owes much to Greek formulations.
The United States and Western Europe unquestionably owe a great debt to the
achievements of the classical Mediterranean. We need to understand Greek
civilization in order to understand our own society; yet this fact may tempt
us to seek in Greek history a particularly rich detail or meaning. The Western
educational tradition has long invited elaborate explorations of the
Greco-Roman past as part of the standard intellectual equipment for the
educated person.

The world history approach requires the classical Mediterranean to be
seen in a larger framework - one in which its development is compared with
other great classical traditions. Although less familiar to the West, the
classical patterns of China and India are no less important and no less valid.
From a comparative standpoint, the civilization of the classical Mediterranean
was inferior to that of China and India in key respects. The challenge is to
comprehend the leading features of Greek and Roman civilization and recognize
our debt to them while recognizing the vital importance of equally fascinating
formative periods in other parts of the world. The sense of reverence to
Greece and the Hellenistic world, which remains an identifiable feature of
Western culture today, must not preclude comparisons with the other creative
classical civilizations - civilizations to which even more people in southern
and eastern Asia feel reverence as they define their own identities in the
late 20th century.

The Rise Of The City-States: The Political Core Of Greek Civilization

The rapid development of civilization in Greece had two obvious roots.
First was the continued existence of small cities, as well as the memories of
the earlier achievements of Crete and Mycenae, even during the Indo-European
invasions. This heritage was combined with an Indo-European culture that
included a vivid polytheistic religion. Oral poems chanted to local
aristocracies preserved knowledge of a pantheon of gods and goddesses and of
values from which more elaborate philosophies and ethical systems could be

The second spur to Greek civilization was a general revival of trade in
the eastern Mediterranean, abetted by the introduction of coined money. Trade
allowed many Greek city-states (including Greek-dominated cities in Greece and
Mediterranean Asia, particularly in what is now Turkey) to increase their
wealth and their range of contacts. By 800 B.C. several Greek centers had
trading connections around the Black Sea and also in Egypt and southern Italy.
Economic revival, in turn, spurred population growth and social change in the
Greek centers, which encouraged new political structures that challenged
dominance by the owners of landed estates.

The Emergence Of Greek Forms

As it developed, Greek civilization placed particular emphasis on
political and cultural values comparable with those in other classical
civilizations. Greek political evolution occurred at an often dizzying pace
from the civilization's early days until a period of decline set in after a
major internal war at the end of the 5th century B.C. Cultural development, in
contrast, continued into the following Hellenistic centuries, while the
civilization's geographical range widened on the heels of Alexander the
Great's conquests. In the Greek and Hellenistic periods, political and
cultural patterns depended on a complex social and economic structure that
both explained and drove the Greek thirst for expansion.

During the 8th century B.C., the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet
for writing their own language, therefore creating the literal basis for a new
civilization. This alphabet was easier to learn than any writing system
previously devised. The advancement of literacy further stimulated trade by
aiding in the exchange of commercial information, and also enhanced cultural
life. It was at this point that two great poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey,
which focused on the legendary Mycenean War with Troy, were written down,
possibly by the poet Homer to whom they were attributed or by a larger group
of writers gradually formalizing oral tradition. The Homeric achievement drew
together many separate stories and set forth definitions of the gods and human
nature that shaped later Greek thinking profoundly. Soon after the Homeric
epics were written, other writers in several cities, including the famous
woman poet Sappho, began writing poems that ranged from military songs to
lyric statements. A distinctive Greek art also began to emerge. Architects
defined the shape of the Greek temple as an oblong building framed by pillars.
Early Greek sculptors used Egyptian models, but then moved toward more
realistic portrayals including full profile figures. Geometric designs on
pottery similarly yielded to more realistic scenes of human activities,
reflecting yet again the growing appreciation of human beauty and the
centrality of human life.

The Polis (City-State) Emerges As A Political Unit

Greek politics also took shape in the three centuries after 800 B.C.
Greek government in this early period and thereafter revolved around the
city-state unit - that is, a regional government centered in a major city but
embracing the agricultural hinterland as well. These units could be quite tiny
or, like Sparta (one of the key city-states), they could embrace a substantial
area. Athens, the most famous city-state, was about the size of the state of
Rhode Island; by the 5th century B.C. Athens had a population of roughly
250,000, of whom 100,000 lived in the city proper. The city-state government
came naturally to Greece, partly because of the traditions set in earlier
Middle Eastern civilizations where regional states often predominated and
partly because a mountainous terrain made larger connections difficult. Many
city-states were formed in a valley or bay with a single city organizing the
surrounding agricultural enclave. Greek settlements in other areas, however,
such as the northern Middle East or southern Italy, also adopted the
city-state form even when natural conditions did not require it. By 600 B.C.,
nearly 300 independent poleis had developed in Greece. While the city-state
format promoted frequent wars, as no single unit predominated, it did
encourage a political life of unusual intensity. So much was this the case
that the Greek word for city-state government - polis - serves as the origin
of our word politics.

Early Greek poleis were mainly ruled by landowning aristocrats, mostly
descendants of the Indo-European warrior class who were still responsible for
most military activities. Free farmers were also citizens, supporting the
government and often participating in periodic assemblies though not ruling
directly. Councils of various sorts played a vital role in the early Greek
city-states, even when there was a single king or other ruler.
Warrior-aristocrats frequently met with the ruler to advise on matters of
state, and they expected their advice to be taken seriously. Independent
farmers also had a chance to meet occasionally to discuss political issues;
one historian has described this form of government as a real peasant

This mixed system was increasingly challenged from about 700 B.C. onward.
With the commercial expansion that began in the 8th century, aristocratic rule
was often disputed. Some city-states escaped major contests, for they remained
largely agricultural; Sparta, for example, maintained a strong militaristic
rule under aristocratic leadership. But in active trading centers, merchants
and a growing urban manufacturing group chafed under aristocratic rule.
Furthermore, in many areas agriculture itself changed. Landlords began to
specialize in growing olives and grapes and in manufacturing cooking oil and
wines. These were commercial products, requiring substantial capital to
develop; the landlords began importing cheap grain from colonies in Asia,
Egypt, and Sicily in order to provide basic foodstuffs. These imports
progressively squeezed out local independent farmers, creating a growing gulf
between the rich and poor. The ideals of widespread citizenship were
contradicted by these developments.

The result, by the 6th century B.C., was a growing crescendo of social
protest, pitting urban groups and dispossessed farmers against the
aristocratic elite. One common outcome was a series of tyrants who won popular
support against the aristocratic interest. These tyrants often developed
public works and other activities that benefited the lower classes and the
cities, while maintaining pressures against aristocratic opposition. But the
idea of one-man rule contradicted traditions of political legitimacy, which
held that the community should govern itself, and of course it antagonized the
aristocracy without destroying this class completely. Hence in many cases
reformers arose to try to restore earlier ideals of citizenship while dealing
with the new social tensions. Many reformers emphasized developing new laws to
regulate economic relationships without resorting to tyrants. Solon, a
reformer in Athens early in the 6th century, set up laws that would ease the
burden of debts on the farmers by prohibiting slavery for such debts. The idea
developed that laws could be written and revised, rather than being passed
down unaltered from tradition; here was one source of new political interest
and participation.

Other forces pressed for political change. Military activity increasingly
involved larger numbers of citizens who formed tightly organized and
well-coordinated lines of infantry; naval forces, in the port cities, such as
Athens, also depended on extensive recruitment. This development increased the
need for strong bonds among citizens within the polis, regardless of its
previous constitutional form. By 500 B.C., most poleis strongly believed in
the importance of loyalty to the community, which itself would be regulated by
law rather than custom or purely personal relationships. Participation in
public life became a widespread ideal, and it corresponded to the busy
functions that grouped city dwellers together in the marketplace.

The dominant religion also supported this ideal of political unity and
involvement. Each city-state had its own patron god or goddess, and regular
rituals called forth prayer and ceremony on behalf of the city's well-being.
These ceremonies included plays, choruses, sporting events, and religious
exercises, all calling attention to the power and cohesion of the polis. When,
in 399 B.C., the philosopher Socrates was condemned by a jury in Athens for
corrupting his students by encouraging skepticism and doubt, he was given a
choice between exile and death: he chose death because, as he said, the city
had been the source of his character and he owed it obedience; better to die
than to be apart.

This spirit of political devotion and participation was the most common
ingredient of city-state life. It showed itself in the willingness of citizens
to serve in the military at their own expense and to sponsor plays, poetry
contests, temples, and other public buildings. The specific constitutional
structures of the Greek city-states, as they hit their stride after the period
of most pronounced social unrest, varied greatly. Some city-states remained
monarchies; Sparta in fact had two kings who helped check each other. Other
city-states reverted to aristocratic councils, while in a few city-states
tyrants still ruled. Generally, however, by the 5th century, there was some
evolution toward more democratic structures, and here Athens proudly took the

The Rise Of Democracy In Athens

Athens had undergone a fairly standard, if highly dramatic, political
evolution prior to its democratic flowering in the 5th century B.C. It started
when smaller villages were unified into a single city-state as an aristocratic
domain. Powerful nobles held the best land and dominated political and
religious life through their council. There was no written law. During the 7th
century, tensions between aristocrats and commoners mounted as family farmers
increasingly went into debt when harvests failed, often losing their land and
in some cases being enslaved when they could not repay. Solon's reforms, which
limited indebtedness while also encouraging greater commerce, resolved this
crisis, and Solon also expanded the citizenship rights of most adult males.
Citizens could elect a council that monitored the aristocratic government. But
these reforms did not prevent the rise of an outright tyranny as an
aristocratic leader, Pisastratus, gained popular support against the
traditional noble councils, ruling from 546-527 B.C. Pisastratus sponsored
major new buildings and public works, which created new jobs, while dominating
the major councils. Soon after his death an invasion from Sparta sought to
restore the aristocracy, but while the tyranny was toppled, the Athenian
people refused to revert to traditional forms. A new reform leader,
Clisthenes, reestablished a council, elected by all citizens, that prepared
agendas for an assembly composed of the citizens themselves. Athens was ready
to become not only the most powerful but also the most fully developed of the
Greek democracies of the 5th century.

Full-blown Athenian democracy, after a few additional reforms around 462
B.C., continued to depend on the popular assembly as sovereign authority. All
decisions of state emanated from this body or had to be approved by it, and
there were no restrictions on who could debate or propose in assembly
meetings. This was direct democracy - the word itself comes from the Greek
word for people, demos - not rule through elected representatives. Since the
assembly met frequently, only a minority of citizens actually had time to
attend regularly, and a few leading speakers usually predominated.

Citizen voice, however, had other outlets. The army was composed of
citizens, whose active service and coordinated maneuvers expressed the spirit
of the democratic polis. Citizens also served as jurors in court trials, and
every judicial decision could be appealed to a citizen board. Most officials
were selected by lot on grounds that any citizen could and should serve as
administrator. A few key officials - the generals and imperial treasurers -
were elected, usually from the nobility, but like all officials they were
carefully assessed by the assembly and might be removed or punished for faulty
service. Terms of office were brief, further to encourage popular control.
Only a few positions in the area of military leadership were reserved for

This was a democracy of a different sort from the version common in the
contemporary world. It depended on the small size of the city-state and the
intensive participation of its citizens. Furthermore, many adults were
excluded from political rights. Women, though they might be citizens in terms
of treatment by the law, had no rights of political participation. Half of all
adult males were not citizens in any sense, being slaves or foreigners. Even
at its most democratic, the Athenian government was shaped by considerable
behind-the-scenes control by the aristocracy. The Athenian leader Pericles,
who guided Athens during its decades of greatest glory after the mid-5th
century, was an aristocrat who managed to direct affairs year after year
through wise manipulation of political groups and his own prestige, whether or
not he held formal office. Many Athenians, and even more Greeks in city-states
where democracy did not go as far, continued to believe that real political
virtue lay in aristocratic rule (aristocracy being derived from the Greek word
aristos or "rule of the best"). Sparta continued to represent the aristocratic

Yet if democracy was qualified, and far from general throughout Greece,
its principles were articulated clearly. Athenian democracy rested far more
directly on the public devotion and talent of those who were citizens than
modern democracies do. Pericles offered a classic definition of the democratic

The administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But
while the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private
disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen
is in any way distinguished he is preferred to the public service, not as
a matter of privilege but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty a
bar, but a man may benefit his country whatever be the obscurity of
his condition.

In truth, for many Athenians politics could provide both excitement and
responsibility. Huge juries handled crucial trials, including political cases
such as that of Socrates. Officials judged to have served badly could be
ostracized for ten years, a measure introduced to prevent tyranny. Names of
politicians judged to be potential tyrants were inscribed on ostraka, or
pottery fragments, and if one name was listed often enough the person was
forced to leave.

By the end of the 5th century, when Athens plunged into a devastating war
with Sparta, the polis demonstrated some of the weaknesses as well as the
strengths of democracy. Ordinary citizens worked hard in the war, but the
lower-class citizens, eager to get government jobs and spoils, often pressed
for reckless expeditions that weakened the state in its military efforts and
contributed substantially to ultimate defeat. In a famous instance, popular
leaders won approval for a major attack on Sicily, designed to expand Athens's
empire and bring booty for the naval forces involved, even though this
diverted dangerously from the Spartan threat. Cautious leaders were overturned
in favor of crowd-pleasers who promised lucrative colonial ventures or an
expansion of government payments to poorer citizens.

A Comparison Of Greek And Chinese Political Styles

The Greek political approach, overall, involved intense emphasis on
political virtue and responsibility. Participation in politics was part of the
ideal life, particularly in the aristocracy. There was in this approach, with
its concern for a sound political system and well-defined relationships among
various social elements, more than a hint of the values Confucianism
emphasized in China. But in the decentralized atmosphere of Greek politics, a
far larger array of political structures was tossed up than was true in China
with its greater stress on a single centralized system. Compared to Chinese
political principles also, the Greeks placed more value on various councils,
and on participation rather than on hierarchy and obedience (including the
very idea of citizenship); there was more emphasis on formal preparation of
law (a theme the Romans would later extend) and far less stress on a
bureaucracy and bureaucratic codes. Democracy was not a fully typical form, as
even in Athens it proved short-lived. The idea of intense citizen involvement
and responsibility - with the corollary that citizenship was restricted - was
more characteristic of Greek political life, compatible with mixed
aristocratic council systems as well as with democracy.

Greek Diplomacy And The Tensions Of United Effort

During the four centuries when Greek political forms evolved, many
city-states sent out additional colonies, which expanded exposure to Greek
political values. Colonies helped relieve population pressure at home. They
also provided vital grain supplies to the mainland while serving as markets
for processed products, including wine, cooking oil, and manufactured goods.
By the 5th century, Greek colonies dotted the Mediterranean coast of
present-day Turkey, the entire coastline of the Black Sea, and key points in
North Africa, Italy, and even southern France and Spain. By providing new
wealth, colonies greatly supported political and cultural vigor in Greece
itself. They reduced, though did not eliminate, quarrels among city-states
back home. They also helped Greeks realize their common values beyond the
intense, divisive loyalties of the poleis.

At their best from 750-420 B.C., Greek politics included some important
common efforts, in addition to the focus on separate government units. The
Greek city-states were capable of sufficient coordination to deal with a
variety of general problems. They joined in regular celebrations such as the
athletic competitions of the Olympic games, which grouped wrestlers and
runners in often bitter (and occasionally rigged) competitions. They supported
some common religious organizations, such as the oracle priests at Delphi
whose predictions and advice were widely sought. More important was the
collaboration that allowed Greece to defeat its most pressing outside enemy,
the great empire of Persia. Soon after Cyrus the Great created the Persian
Empire, he turned against wealthy Greek colonies along the Asian side of the
Mediterranean, conquering them by about 540 B.C. Persian power became an
obvious threat to the Greek mainland, impelling cooperation between Athens and
Sparta, the most powerful city-states. In 499 B.C. the conquered Greek cities
rebelled against the Persians, and were aided by the Athenian navy. The
rebellion failed, and the Persian kings (Darius I, then Xerxes) moved against
Greece in punishment. In 480 B.C. a Persian army of 100,000 troops moved down
the Greek peninsula, initially winning great success and capturing Athens. But
the Athenians built a new fleet, which defeated the Persian navy and cut off
supplies, and then a Spartan-led force bested the Persian army. While Persia
continued to dominate the Middle East, Greek independence was preserved. The
greatest age of Greek politics and culture followed, including the perfection
of Athenian political institutions and the Age of Pericles.

The wars against Persia provided some of the most dramatic moments in
classical Greek history. In the battle at Thermopylae, 300 Spartans and a few
thousand Greek soldiers blocked a huge Persian army until they were betrayed
by local Greeks and caught from behind. After a crucial Athenian naval victory
at Marathon, a runner labored over 26 miles to bring news to the city,
collapsing after the word was passed. The final Greek triumph, celebrated
later by the historian Herodotus, who praised Greek justice over the excessive
ambition of the Persians, helped the Greeks define their separate identity as
a society different from the Asian empire.

In the years following the Persian defeat Athens began to form an empire
of its own. The Athenians quickly rebuilt their city, leading to a huge
impetus for Greek art and architecture. Athenian naval power helped organize
an alliance of lesser Greek cities, which Athens quickly dominated. Officially
designed to guard against the Persian threat, this Delian league was headed by
an Athenian admiral, its treasury controlled by Athens. Increasingly, many
cities became completely dependent on Athenian rule without having a voice in
policy. The empire provided great resources for Athens, but it also
complicated Athenian politics because the city grew to include increasing
numbers of noncitizens while the spoils of political office, given imperial
wealth, became increasingly attractive and highly contested. Many Athenians
wondered if authoritarian control of colonies based on military force and
heavy tribute payment was compatible with free political life at home.
Domestic political infighting to compete for crowd favor became increasingly
nasty as dependence on the empire increased.

Even as new problems loomed, Greek political development during the three
centuries prior to the mid-5th century had produced a number of key results.
An initial aristocratic tone, though often modified, had demonstrated
continued validity even in democratic centers such as Athens. Greek
aristocrats could agree on the need for wise political service and devotion to
political life. Some of their ideals had extended to a wider group of citizens
and underwrote the intense political loyalties of the city-states. At the same
time, other political trends had modified aristocratic rule, particularly
through the advance of democracy.

Greek political and economic control had spread widely along the eastern
and northern coasts of the Mediterranean, and around the Black Sea. And
temporary union among the Greeks had pushed back the Persian advance, where
defeat would have opened quite a different chapter in Mediterranean history.

Yet the Greek political structure was also fragile. With so many
different government units, division could easily override common purpose.
Diversity also produced animosity, with democrats and aristocrats glaring at
each other both within and among poleis. A new and bitter conflict between the
leading states set the stage for declining political vigor within Greece

Athens Vs. Sparta

The growing imperial power of Athens attracted competition from Sparta,
which had its own alliance system of land-based city-states. Competition for
power in the Greek peninsula in the later 5th century B.C. - each side fearing
that the other might gain a dominant position - was heightened by ideological
conflicts that some historians have compared in their intensity though not
their precise nature to "cold war" battles between the capitalist United
States and the communist Soviet Union in the decades after World War II.
Sparta stood for the old Greece before extensive commerce and massive
political change. Aristocratic rule had been transformed into a highly
military regime in which boys were trained for battle and girls for the
bearing of brave sons; Spartan militarism was designed to keep a large force
of near-slaves, who did the agricultural work, under control. Use of money was
discouraged by minting coins of unwieldy size. Discipline and control were the
themes of Spartan society.

Athens contrasted with Sparta by encouraging extensive trade and a
vibrant, creative culture, while its democracy contrasted with the narrow
aristocratic dominance of Sparta. Both sides were quite aware of their
differences and disliked the principles of the rival society intensely. Both
also drew allies from like-minded poleis. Sparta had unexpected advantages
because its traditional principles were widely admired, even by some
conservative Athenians. The heavy-handedness of Athens's empire also drew
hostility from many smaller cities.

For a few decades, around 450 B.C., an uneasy peace prevailed between the
Greek rivals. Pericles, though aggressively proud of Athens's values, judged
that Athenian welfare rested on a cautious foreign policy and in peace with
the Spartans. But in 435 B.C. a revolt in a colonial city-state, Corcyra,
disrupted the precarious balance. Corcyra had been neutral between Athens and
Sparta, but it had a large navy that now risked coming under the control of a
Spartan ally. Athens insisted that Corcyra was under its protection, for it
feared a rival navy; but this persuaded Sparta that Athens was insatiably
power hungry. War broke out in 431 B.C., as Spartan forces marched into
Athenian territory.

In the resultant Peloponnesian War, the Athenian strategy was to let
Sparta invade its outlying lands, while relying on its fleet to maintain
supplies and to raid the Spartan coast. But during the second year of the war
a massive plague broke out in Athens, ultimately killing one-third of the
population, including Pericles. Grievances rose in Athens, and there was no
longer a leader to provide consistent guidance. A victory over Spartan troops
brought a chance for peace, but a warlike faction in Athens insisted on
continuing the war, seeking to conquer new territory while wasting precious
Athenian resources. The attempt to invade Sicily failed, costing Athens over
200 ships, 4500 men, and the support of many allies. Finally, in 404 B.C. a
Spartan general cut off the Athenian food supply, and the city had to
surrender. Athens was deprived of its remaining fleet, and the city walls were
torn down. A political age came to an end not only in Athens, but in all of

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