Greece: Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece

Important aspects of ancient Greek culture are covered in separate articles—Greek architecture, Greek art, Greek language, Greek literature, Greek music, and Greek religion. See also the articles on the cities, e.g., Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes.

At various times in its history Greece included all of Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace, part of Asia Minor, and Magna Graecia. Archaeological remains show that Greece had a long prehistory, dating from the Neolithic Age (c.4000 b.c.). By the Bronze Age (c.2800 b.c.) important cultures had developed. The Aegean civilization had several phases, two of the most important being the Minoan civilization and the Mycenaean civilization. These cultures had disappeared by 1100 b.c. The Greek-speaking Achaeans migrated into the Peloponnesus during the 14th and 13th cent. b.c. The Aeolians and the Ionians apparently preceded the Dorians, who migrated into Greece before 1000 b.c. The Ionians, moving forth, possibly as refugees, possibly as conquerors, settled in the Ionian Islands and on the shores of Asia Minor, which became a part of the Greek world.

After the Dorian invasion, the peoples of Greece, under the influence of the divisive geography and the great variety of tribes, developed the city-state—small settlements that grew into minor kingdoms. Homeric Greece (named for the great epic poet Homer) was dependent on the agriculture of relatively unproductive fields but was already open to the sea. Although the Greeks never rivaled the Phoenicians or the later Carthaginians and Romans as mariners, the sea offered them an opportunity for expansion and commerce. In the 8th, 7th, and 6th cent. b.c., the Greeks established colonies, many of which became separate city-states, from the Black Sea and the Bosporus (where Byzantium was founded) to Sicily, S Italy (Magna Graecia), Mediterranean France, the northern shores of Africa, and Spain. These colonies had a great influence on the history of the Greek mainland, where the city-states were developing in quarrelsome freedom.

Because of their independence, the cities developed separately. However, there was a general pattern of development, which varied somewhat in each particular instance. Monarchies yielded to aristocracies, which were in turn replaced by tyrants, who usually gained power by espousing the cause of the underprivileged and by using force. Although the tyrants usually tried to establish dynasties, the hold established by their families was short-lived. Pisistratus, Hipparchus, and Hippias in Athens and the later Gelon, Dionysius the Elder, and Dionysius the Younger in Sicily were typical tyrants.

On the Greek mainland the tyrannies soon yielded to oligarchies or to democracies tempered by limited citizenship and by slaveholding; it was in Greece that the idea of political democracy came into being. Solon established a democracy in Athens. Militaristic Sparta had a unique constitutional and social development. The warring city-states had a sense of unity; all their citizens considered themselves Hellenes, and religious unity gave rise to leagues known as amphictyonies, notably the great amphictyony centered at Delphi.

The celebration of contests such as the Olympian Games also fostered unity. However, the Ionian cities in Asia Minor received little help from Greece when they revolted (499 b.c.) against Persia, which also threatened the Greek mainland, and the mainland cities were poorly united in the Persian Wars that continued until 449 b.c. Out of these successful wars, however, came the powerful surge of Greek civilization.

Athens, in particular, with the support of the Delian League as the basis of an empire, grew dramatically, and in the age of Pericles (c.495–429 b.c.) developed a culture that left its mark on the course of Western and Eastern civilization. Drama, poetry, sculpture, architecture, and philosophy flourished, and there was a vigorous intellectual life. The leading Greeks of the 5th and 4th cent. b.c. included Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Phidias, Myron, Polykleitos, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Hippocrates. Although Athens succumbed in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 b.c.) and Sparta triumphed briefly before continued fighting gave the hegemony of Greece to Corinth and Thebes, the civilization that had been created lived on.

When Philip II of Macedon attacked the warring city-states and conquered Greece by defeating the Athenians and the Thebans in the battle of Chaeronea (338 b.c.), he paved the way for his son, Alexander the Great, who spread Greek civilization over the known Western world and across Asia to India. After Alexander's death, his empire was torn apart by his warring generals (see Diadochi; Ptolemy I; Seleucus I; Antigonus I; Demetrius I) in the period from 323 to 276 b.c. Some Greek cities formed the Aetolian League to oppose Macedonian rule, but members of the Achaean League took the Macedonian side. The Greek city-states continued their rivalries, and Macedon under the Antigonids became thoroughly Hellenized.

Incessant warfare made Greece increasingly weak, while Rome grew stronger. In 146 b.c., after the Fourth Macedonian War (see Macedon), the remnants of the Greek states fell definitively into the hands of Rome. Under Roman rule, the cities long retained a measure of independence and intellectual life, but had little political or economic importance. Hellenism, however, had triumphed, and Greek intellectual supremacy continued for many centuries. The Byzantine Empire was thoroughly Greek in origin, and Hellenistic civilization, centered at Alexandria, Pergamum, Dura, and other cities, spread Greek influence and preserved the Greek heritage for later ages. The Greeks were the first to write narrative secular history, and the works of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius are basic sources of events and contemporary ideas as well as classics of world literature.

Sections in this article:

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Greek Political Geography