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Greek Civilization



AEGEAN CIVILIZATION: BACKGROUND FOR GREEK CULTURE   Greek civilization was preceded by an advanced civilization located on the lands surrounding the Aegean Sea from about 2000 B.C. to 1200 B.C.

MINOAN CIVILIZATION (2000-1450 B.C. ) was centered in Crete and spread to the Aegean Islands, to Troy in Asia Minor, and to Greece.

Stimulated by contacts with Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Minoan prosperity was based on large-scale trade involving ships.
Exports were olive oil, wine, metal ware, and pottery.
Trade was the monopoly of an efficient, bureaucratic government under a powerful ruler.
The palace at Knossos was furnished with running water and had a sanitation system.

MYCENAEAN CIVILIZATION (1450-1200 B.C..) was characterized by political centralization, wide-ranging commerce, sophisticated art forms (including monumental architecture), and writing.

Mycenaean centers were fortified palaces and administrative centers, not true cities.
The bulk of the population lived in scattered villages where they worked communal land or land held by nobles or kings.
Trade was a royal monopoly and the most important income item was olive oil.
Geographic Factors
  Geographic factors played an important role in Greek history
Numerous MOUNTAIN RANGES, which crisscross the peninsula, hampered internal communications and led to the development of independent city-states.
Numerous ISLANDS and the indented coastlines of the Greek peninsula and of Asia Minor stimulated a seagoing trade.
The ROCKY SOIL (less than a fifth of Greece is arable) and limited natural resources encouraged the Greeks to establish colonies abroad.
Homeric Age   During the Greek Dark Ages (c. 1150-750 B.C.), the values that gave meaning to life were predominantly HEROIC VALUES  -- the strength, skill, and valor of the warrior. This was the earliest meaning of arete (excellence or virtue).

GODS were plainly human: Zeus (king of the gods) Hera (his wife) plotted against him

SOCIETY  was clearly aristocratic:

Only the aristoi (aristocrats) possessed arete
Common man had political rights as a member of the assembly, summoned in a crisis.
King was a chief among his peers (fellow nobles)
Nobles sat in the king's council to advise him

ECONOMIC CONDITIONS were those of a simple, self-sufficient agricultural system.

The POLIS (city-state) consisted of a city and its surrounding plains and valleys.

The nucleus of the polis was the elevated, fortified site called the ACROPOLIS where people could take refuge from attack.
With the revival of commerce, a TRADING CENTER developed below the acropolis.
Political Evolution of the City-State   Four major TYPES OF GOVERNMENT evolved:
Monarchy limited by an aristocratic council and a popular assembly.
Oligarchy (rule of the few) arising when the aristocratic council ousted the king and abolished the assembly.
Tyranny imposed by one man who rode to power on the discontent of the lower classes.
Democracy (rule of the people), the outstanding political achievement of the Greeks.

Age of Oligarchy

  By the middle of the 8th century B.C., the nobles, who resented the power of the tribal king, had taken over the government, ushering in the AGE OF OLIGARCHY.
Nobles ruthlessly acquired the best land.
Many commoners were reduced to virtual serfdom.
Other commoners were forced to seek a living on rocky, barren soil.

In time, COLONIZATION ameliorated Greece's economic and social problems.

By 600 B.C., the use of coined money had created the beginnings of a middle class.
The Greek home states focused on the production of specialized wares (vases, metal goods, textiles, olive oil, wine) for export.

The continuing land hunger of the peasants contributed to a POLITICAL REVOLUTION.

After 650 B.C., tyrants arose in many Greek city-states and, supported by the peasantry and rising merchant class, seized the reigns of government from the nobility.
Tyrants redistributed land to the peasants and by promoting further colonization, trade, and industry, accelerated the rise of the mercantile class and completed the ECONOMIC REVOLUTION.
Athens to
500 B.C.
  When Athenian noble realized their failure to reform would result in a tyrant, they agreed to the policy of compromise advocated by the liberal aristocrat SOLON.
In 594 B.C., Solon was made sole archon (aristocratic  magistrate) with board authority to reconcile the lower classes.
Inspired by the new ideals of moderation and justice, Solon instituted moderate reforms:
Provided a new start for the lower classes by canceling all debts.
Sought full employment by stimulating trade and industry and requiring fathers to teach their sons a trade
Granted common people political rights but not equality.

Unfortunately, Solon's moderate reforms satisfied neither party and, after a period of civil strife, PISISTRATUS, a military hero and champion of the commoners, took over as tyrant.

Solved the economic problem by banishing many nobels, whose lands he distributed among the poor, and by promoting commerce and industry.
Supported public works and the patronage of the arts -- starting Athens on the path to cultural leadership in Greece.

CLEISTHENES temporarily seized power in 508 B.C. and put through constitutional reforms that destroyed the remaining power of the nobility.

Disregarded the old noble-dominated tribes and created ten new ones, each embracing citizens of all classes and districts.
The popular assembly acquired the right to initiate legislation.
The 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.
Started the institution of OSTRACISM (an annual referendum) in which a quorum of 6,000 citizens could vote to exile for ten years any individual thought to be a threat to Athenian democracy.
Sparta to
500 B.C.
  The city-state of Sparta expanded by conquering and enslaving its neighbors. To guard against revolts by the state slaves (helots), who worked the land, Sparta transformed itself into a militaristic TOTALITARIAN STATE.
For the small minority of ruling Spartans, it was a democracy.
For the masses, it was an oligarchy (rule by the few).

The state enforced ABSOLUTE SUBORDINATION of the individual to its will.

Every Spartan was first of all a solider.
Sickly infants were left to die on lonely mountaintops.
Boys were taken from their families at age 7 to live under rigorous military discipline.
Girls were trained to be the mothers of warrior sons.
Spartan women bid the men farewell by saying: "Come back with your shield or on it."

Sparta remained BACKWARD culturally and economically.

Trade and travel were prohibited for fear that alien ideas would disturb the status quo.
A self-imposed isolation resulted in:
Intellectual stagnation
Rigid social conformity
Military regimentation

The Persian Wars

  To insure that its helots would remain uncontaminated by democratic ideas, Sparta formed the SPARTAN LEAGUE of oligarchic states.

When the Persians conquered Lydia in 547 B.C., they also annexed Ionia.

In 499 B.C., the Ionian cities revolted, established democratic regimes, and appealed to the Athenians to help.
The BATTLE OF MARATHON in 490 B.C. was a decisive victory for the Athenian army, which was half the size of the Persians. (6400 Persians died as opposed to 192 Athenians.)
Ten years later, in the BAY OF SALAMIS, the Greek fleet (largely Athenian) turned the tide of victory and forced the Persians to retreat.
  During the GOLDEN AGE of Greece (461-429 B.C.), the great statesman Pericles guided Athenian policy.
Power resided in a board of ten elected generals.
To insure that the poor could participate in government, Athens paid jurors (a panel of 6,000 citizens chosen annually by lot) and members of the Council.

The majority of the inhabitants of Athens were not recognized citizens.

Women, slaves, and resident aliens were denied citizenship.
These groups had no standing in the law courts. (If a woman sought the protection of the law, she had to ask a citizen to plead for her in court.)
  In 478 B.C., Athens 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 moony in proportion to its wealth.
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.
Motivated by fear of the Persians and by the need to protect free-trade, the Athenians suppressed all attempt to secede and created an informal EMPIRE.
By aiding in the suppression of local aristocratic factions within its subject states, Athens emerged as the leader of a union of democratic states.
However, its HUBRIS (excessive pride) proved to be its undoing.

To many Greeks, especially the oligarchic SPARTAN LEAGUE and the aristocratic factions within the Athenian empire, Athens was a tyrant city and an enslaver of Greek liberties.

  In 431 B.C., the Peloponnesian War broke out between the Spartan League and the Athenian empire.
COMMERCIAL RIVALRY between Athens and Sparta's ally Corinth was an important factor.
Real cause: SPARTAN FEAR of Athens' growth of power.


Sparta's army had the ability to besiege Athens and lay waste to its fields.
Athens' unrivaled navy could import foodstuffs and harass its enemies' costs.


In 2nd year of war, a plague killed a third of the Athenian population, including Pericles.
Leadership of the Athenian government passed to demagogues.

A compromise peace was reached in 421 B.C. During the succeeding period, Athenian IMPERIALISM manifested itself in its worst form.

In 416 B.C., an expedition embarked for Melos, a neutral Aegean island, to force it to join the Athenian empire.
Acting on the premise that "might makes right," the Athenians put all Melians of military age to death and sold the women and children into slavery.
This exhibition of HUBRIS

The war was resumed in 425 B.C. with an Athenian expedition against Syracuse that was destined to end in disaster.

Two great Athenian fleets and a large army were destroyed by the Syracusans, who were advised by a Spartan general.
In 404 B.C., Athens capitulated after its last fleet was destroyed by a Spartan fleet built with money received from Persia in exchange for the Greek cities in Ionian.
The once great city of Athens was stripped of its possessions and demilitarized.
of War
  Anarchy and depression were the political and economic legacies of the war.
The Spartans replaced democracies with oligarchies -- supported by Spartan troops.
The excesses of these oligarchs led to revolutions, which Sparta could not suppress.
Incessant warfare filled the early 4th century B.C. as a bewildering series of shifting alliances sought to keep any state from dominating.

Political disintegration contributed to economic and social ills during the 4th century B.C.

Commerce and industry languished.
The unemployed supported demagogues and radical schemes for the redistribution of wealth.
The wealthy became increasingly reactionary and uncompromising.
Even most intellectuals -- including Plato and Aristotle -- lost faith in democracy.
The Macedonian
Unification of
  Macedonia, to the north of Greece, became a centralized, powerful state under Philip II (359-336 B.C.)
Philip forced the Greeks into a federal league in which each state, while retaining self-government, swore to make war upon anyone who violated the general peace and to furnish men and supplies for a campaign against Persia.
On the eve of setting for Asia Minor, Philip was assassinated by a noble with a personal grudge, leaving the war against Persia to his brilliant son Alexander, who conquered the Persian Empire.

Incapable of finding a solution to anarchy, the Greeks ended as political failures but retained their cultural leadership.

HELLENISTIC GREECE   The period between the death of Alexander and that of Cleopatra is called the Hellenistic Age, a period of large warring kingdoms, great cities, relative prosperity, and important cultural accomplishments.


Exploring Ancient World Cultures: Excellent treatment of many ancient cultures, including the Greek. Check out the "Conclusions" section for some astute observations about how we view different cultures today.
How do you explain the development of such an extraordinary civilization by the Greeks? Do you think much of the credit belongs to some sort of Greek "spirit," or were geographic factors more important?
Should Greek civilization be considered superior to Near Eastern civilizations, or simply different? How do you evaluate this?
From the findings of modern archaeologists, we have learned that certain parts of Greek legends did indeed chronicle actual people and real events. Think about a legendary figure or event with which you have grown up (e.g., Camelot) and see if you can separate fact from fiction.
Two Greek words ARETE (excellence) and HUBRIS (excessive pride) had special meanings to the ancient Greeks and are used today to describe Athen's cultural achievements and its downfall.  Give examples of arete and hubris in the modern world.
Explain why many ancient Greek philosophers and writers admired the Spartan way of government more so than Athenian democracy.
"It is a mistake to be so admiring of the ancient Greeks. We think highly of their civilization only because it resembles our own in some ways, and we overlook the fact that it was based upon slave labor, the subjection of women, and almost perpetual warfare." Do you agree or disagree? Why?


Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: July 12, 2000