Section 2: The Rise of Greek City-States
Section 3: Conflict in the Greek World
Section 5: Alexander and the Hellenistic Age
The Mediterranean and Aegean seas were as central to the development of Greek civilization as the Nile was to the Egyptians. The ancient Greeks absorbed many ideas and beliefs from the older civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. At the same time, they developed their own unique ways. In particular, the Greeks developed new ideas about how best to govern each individual Greek polis (poh lis), or city-state.
Geography Shapes Greece
As you have read, the earliest civilizations rose in fertile river valleys. There, strong rulers organized irrigation works that helped farmers produce food surpluses needed to support large cities. A very different set of geographic conditions influenced the rise of Greek civilization.
Landscape Defines Political Boundaries
Greece is part of the Balkan peninsula, which extends southward into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Mountains divide the peninsula into isolated valleys. Beyond the rugged coast, hundreds of rocky islands spread toward the horizon.
Life by the Sea
While mountains divided Greeks from one another, the seas provided a vital link to the world outside. With its hundreds of bays, the Greek coastline offered safe harbors for ships. The Greeks became skilled sailors and carried cargoes of olive oil, wine, and marble to parts throughout the eastern Mediterranean. They returned not only with grains and metals but also with ideas, which they adapted to their own needs. For example, the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to meet their needs. The resulting alphabet in turn became the basis for all later Western alphabets.
By 750 B.C., rapid population growth forced many Greeks to leave their own overcrowded valleys. With fertile land limited, the Greeks expanded overseas. Gradually, a scattering of Greek colonies took root all around the Mediterranean from Spain to Egypt. Wherever they traveled, Greek settlers and traders carried their ideas and culture.
Governing the City-States
As their world expanded after 750 B.C., the Greeks evolved a unique version of the city-state, which they called the polis. The polis was made up of a major city or town and its surrounding countryside. Typically, the city itself was built on two levels. On the top of a hill stood the acropolis (uh krah puh lis), or high city, with its great marble temples dedicated to different gods and goddesses. On flatter ground below lay the walled main city with its marketplace, theater, public buildings, and homes.
The population of each city-state was fairly small, which helped the citizens, or free residents, share a sense of responsibility for its triumphs and defeats. In the warm climate of Greece, free men spent much time outdoors in the marketplace, debating issues that affected their lives. The whole community joined in festivals honoring the city’s special god or goddess. The rights of citizens were unequal, however; and male landowners held all the political power.
Types of Government Evolve
Between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C., different forms of government evolved in Greece. At first, the ruler of the polis, like those in the river valley empires, was a king. A government in which a hereditary ruler exercises central power is a monarchy. Slowly, however, power shifted to a class of noble landowners. Because only they could afford bronze weapons and chariots, these nobles were also the military defenders of the city-states. At first these landowners defended the king. In time, however, they won power for themselves. The result was an aristocracy, or rule by a hereditary landholding elite.
As trade expanded, a new middle class of wealthy merchants, farmers, and artisans emerged in some cities. They challenged the landowning nobles for power and came to dominate some city-states. The result was a form of government called an oligarchy. In an oligarchy, power is in the hands of a small, wealthy elite.
Sparta: A Warrior Society
Dorian invaders from the north conquered Laconia, in the southern part of the Peloponnesus (pel uh puh nee sus). The Dorians settled here and built the city-state of Sparta. The invaders turned the conquered people into state-owned slaves, called helots, and made them work the land. Because the helots greatly outnumbered their rulers, the Spartans set up a brutal system of strict control.
The Spartan government included two kings and a council of elders who advised the monarchs. An assembly made up of all citizens approved major decisions. Citizens were male, native-born Spartans over the age of 30. The assembly also elected five ephors, or officials who ran day-to-day affairs.
Daily Life Ruled by Discipline
From childhood, a Spartan prepared to be part of a military state. Officials examined every newborn, and sickly children were abandoned to die. Spartans wanted future soldiers and the future mothers of soldiers to be healthy.
At the age of seven, boys began training for a lifetime in the military. They moved into barracks, where they were toughened by a coarse diet, hard exercise, and rigid discipline. This strict and harsh discipline made Spartan youths excellent soldiers. To develop cunning and supplement their diet, boys were even encouraged to steal food. If caught, though, they were beaten severely.
At the age of 20, a man could marry, but he continued to live in the barracks for another 10 years and to eat there for another 40 years. At the age of 30, after further training, he took his place in the assembly.
Women of Sparta
Girls, too, had a rigorous upbringing. As part of a warrior society, they were expected to produce healthy sons for the army. They therefore were required to exercise and strengthen their bodies.
Like other Greek women, Spartan women had to obey their fathers or husbands. Yet under Spartan law, they had the right to inherit property. Because men were occupied with war, some women took on responsibilities such as running the family’s estate.
Sparta Stands Alone
The Spartans isolated themselves from other Greeks. They looked down on trade and wealth, forbade their own citizens to travel, and had little use for new ideas or the arts. While other Greeks admired the Spartans’ military skills, no other city-state imitated their rigorous way of life. “Spartans are willing to die for their city,” some suggested, “because they have no reason to live.”
Athens Evolves Into a Democracy
Athens was located in Attica, just north of the Peloponnesus. As in many Greek city-states, Athenian government evolved from a monarchy into an aristocracy. By 700 B.C., noble landowners held power. They chose the chief officials, judged major court cases, and dominated the assembly.
Demands for Change
Under the aristocracy, Athenian wealth and power grew. Yet discontent spread among ordinary people. Merchants and soldiers resented the power of the nobles. They argued that their service to Athens entitled them to more rights. Foreign artisans, who produced many of the goods that Athens traded abroad, were resentful that foreigners were barred from becoming citizens. Farmers, too, demanded change. During hard times, many farmers were forced to sell their land to nobles. A growing number even sold themselves and their families into slavery to pay their debts.
As discontent spread, Athens moved slowly toward democracy, or government by the people. As you will see, the term had a different meaning for the ancient Greeks than it has for us today.
Solon Reforms Government
Solon, a wise and trusted leader, was appointed archon (ahr kahn), or chief official, in 594 B.C. Athenians gave Solon a free hand to make needed reforms. He outlawed debt slavery and freed those who had already been sold into slavery for debt. He opened high offices to more citizens, granted citizenship to some foreigners, and gave the Athenian assembly more say in important decisions.
Solon introduced economic reforms as well. He encouraged the export of wine and olive oil. This policy helped merchants and farmers by increasing demand for their products.
Despite Solon’s reforms, citizenship remained limited, and many positions were open only to the wealthy. Continued and widespread unrest led to the rise of tyrants, or people who gained power by force. Tyrants often won support from the merchant class and the poor by imposing reforms to help these groups. Although Greek tyrants often governed well, the word tyrant has come to mean a vicious and brutal ruler.
Citizens Share Power and Wealth
The Athenian tyrant Pisistratus (py sis truh tus) seized power in 546 B.C. He helped farmers by giving them loans and land taken from nobles. New building projects gave jobs to the poor. By giving poor citizens a greater voice, he further weakened the aristocracy.
In 507 B.C., another reformer, Cleisthenes (klys thuh neez), broadened the role of ordinary citizens in government. He set up the Council of 500, whose members were chosen by lot from among all citizens over the age of 30. The council prepared laws considered by the assembly and supervised the day-to-day work of government. Cleisthenes made the assembly a genuine legislature, or lawmaking body, that debated laws before deciding to approve or reject them. All male citizens were members of the assembly and were expected to participate.
A Limited Democracy
By modern standards, Athenian democracy was quite limited. Only citizens could participate in government, and citizenship was restricted to landowning men. Women were excluded along with merchants and foreigners. So were the tens of thousands of Athenian slaves who lacked political rights as well as personal freedom, although it was their labor that gave citizens the time to participate in government. Still, Athens gave more people a say in decision making than any other ancient civilization.
Women in Athens
As in other Greek city-states, women in Athens had no share in political life. According to Aristotle, “the man is by nature fitter for command than the female just as an older person is superior to a younger, more immature person.” Although some men disagreed, most Greeks accepted the view that women must be guided by men.
Women played their most significant public role in religion. Their participation in sacred processions and ceremonies was considered essential for the city’s well-being. In well-to-do Athenian homes, women managed the entire household. They spun and wove, cared for their children, and prepared food, but lived a secluded existence and were rarely seen in public. Their slaves or children were sent to buy food and to fetch water from the public well. Poorer women worked outside the home, tending sheep or working as spinners, weavers, or potters.
Educating the Youth
Unlike girls, who received little or no formal education, boys attended school if their families could afford it. Besides learning to read and write, they studied music, memorized poetry, and studied public speaking because, as citizens in a democracy, they would have to voice their views. Although they received military training and participated in athletic contests, unlike Sparta, which put military training above all else, Athens encouraged young men to explore many areas of knowledge.
The Persian Wars
As you have read, the Persians conquered a huge empire stretching from Asia Minor to the border of India. Their subjects included the Greek city-states of Ionia in Asia Minor. Though under Persian rule, these Ionian city-states were largely self-governing. Still, they resented their situation.
In 499 B.C., Ionian Greeks rebelled against Persian rule. Athens sent ships to help them. As the historian Herodotus wrote some years later, “These ships were the beginning of mischief both to the Greeks and to the barbarians.”
Athenians Win at Marathon
The Persians soon crushed the rebel cities. However, Darius I was furious at the role Athens played in the uprising. In time, Darius sent a huge force across the Aegean to punish Athens for its interference. The mighty Persian army landed near Marathon, a plain north of Athens, in 490 B.C. The Athenians asked for help from neighboring Greek city-states, but received little support.
The Persians greatly outnumbered Athenian forces. Yet the invaders were amazed to see “a mere handful of men coming on at a run without either horsemen or archers.” The Persians responded with a rain of arrows, but the Greeks rushed onward. They broke through the Persian line and engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Overwhelmed by the fury of the assault, the Persians hastily retreated to their ships.
The Athenians celebrated their triumph. Still, the Athenian leader, Themistocles (thuh mis tuh kleez), knew the victory at Marathon had bought only a temporary lull in the fighting. He urged Athenians to build a fleet of warships and prepare other defenses.
Greek City-States Unite
Darius died before he could mass his troops for another attack. But in 480 B.C., his son Xerxes (zurk seez) sent a much larger force to conquer Greece. By this time, Athens had persuaded Sparta and other city-states to join in the fight against Persia.
Once again, the Persians landed in northern Greece. A small Spartan force guarded the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae (thur mahp uh lee). Led by the great warrior-king Leonidas (lee ahn ih dus), the Spartans held out heroically against the enormous Persian force, but were defeated in the end. The Persians marched south and burned Athens. The city was empty, however. The Athenians had already withdrawn to safety.
The Greeks now put their faith in the fleet of ships that Themistocles had urged them to build. The Athenians lured the Persian navy into the narrow strait of Salamis (sahl uh mis). Then, Athenian warships, powered by rowers, drove into the Persian boats with underwater battering rams. On the shore, Xerxes watched helplessly as his mighty fleet sank.
The following year, the Greeks defeated the Persians on land in Asia Minor. This victory marked the end of the Persian invasions. In a brief moment of unity, the Greek city-states had saved themselves from the Persian threat.
Athens Leads the Delian League
Victory in the Persian Wars increased the Greeks’ sense of their own uniqueness. The gods, they felt, had protected their superior form of government—the city-state—against invaders from Asia.
Athens emerged from the war as the most powerful city-state in Greece. To continue to defend against Persia, it organized with other Greek city-states an alliance, or a formal agreement between two or more nations or powers to cooperate and come to one another’s defense. Modern scholars call this alliance the Delian League after Delos, the location where the league held meetings.
From the start, Athens dominated the Delian League. It slowly used its position of leadership to create an Athenian empire. It moved the league treasury from the island of Delos to Athens, using money contributed by other city-states to rebuild its own city. When its allies protested and tried to withdraw from the league, Athens used force to make them remain. Yet, while Athens was enforcing its will abroad, Athenian leaders were championing political freedom at home.
The Age of Pericles and Direct Democracy
The years after the Persian Wars from 460 B.C. to 429 B.C. were a golden age for Athens under the able statesman Pericles (pehr uh kleez). Because of his wise and skillful leadership, the economy thrived and the government became more democratic.
Periclean Athens was a direct democracy. Under this system, citizens take part directly in the day-to-day affairs of government. By contrast, in most democratic countries today, citizens participate in government indirectly through elected representatives.
By the time of Pericles, the Athenian assembly met several times a month. A Council of 500, selected by lot, conducted daily government business. Pericles believed that all citizens, regardless of wealth or social class, should take part in government. Athens therefore began to pay a stipend, or fixed salary, to men who participated in the Assembly and its governing Council. This reform enabled poor men to serve in government.
In addition, Athenians also served on juries. A jury is a panel of citizens who have the authority to make the final judgment in a trial. Unlike a modern American trial jury, which is usually made up of 12 members, an Athenian jury might include hundreds or even thousands of jurors. Citizens over 30 years of age were chosen by lot to serve on the jury for a year.
Athenian citizens could also vote to banish, or send away, a public figure whom they saw as a threat to their democracy. This process was called ostracism (ahs truh siz um). The person with the largest number of votes cast against him was ostracized, meaning that that individual would have to live outside the city, usually for a period of 10 years.
Culture Thrives in Athens
Athens prospered during the Age of Pericles. With the empire’s riches, Pericles directed the rebuilding of the Acropolis, which the Persians had destroyed. With the help of an educated foreign-born woman named Aspasia (as pay shuh), Pericles turned Athens into the cultural center of Greece. They encouraged the arts through public festivals, dramatic competitions, and building programs. Such building projects increased Athenians’ prosperity by creating jobs for artisans and workers.
The Peloponnesian War
Many Greeks outside Athens resented Athenian domination. Before long, the Greek world was split into rival camps. To counter the Delian League, Sparta and other enemies of Athens formed the Peloponnesian League. In 431 B.C., warfare broke out between Athens and Sparta. This conflict, which became known as the Peloponnesian War, soon engulfed all of Greece. The fighting would last for 27 years.
Sparta Defeats Athens
Despite its riches and powerful navy, Athens faced a serious geographic disadvantage. Because Sparta was inland, Athens could not use its navy to attack. Sparta’s powerful army, however, had only to march north to attack Athens. When the Spartan troops came near, Pericles allowed people from the countryside to move inside the city walls. The overcrowded conditions led to a terrible plague that killed many Athenians, including Pericles himself.
As the war dragged on, each side committed savage acts against the other. Sparta even allied itself with Persia, the longtime enemy of the Greeks. Finally, in 404 B.C., with the help of the Persian navy, the Spartans captured Athens. The victors stripped the Athenians of their fleet and empire. However, Sparta rejected calls from its allies to destroy Athens.
Greek Domination Declines
The Peloponnesian War ended Athenian domination of the Greek world. The Athenian economy eventually revived and Athens remained the cultural center of Greece. However, its spirit and vitality declined. Meanwhile, as Greeks battled among themselves, a new power rose in Macedonia (mas uh doh nee uh), a kingdom to the north of Greece. By 359 B.C., its ambitious ruler stood poised to conquer the quarrelsome Greek city-states.
In 338 B.C., Athens fell to the Macedonian army. Athens and the other Greek city-states lost their independence. Yet the disaster ushered in a new age in which Greek culture spread from the Mediterranean to the borders of India. The architect of this new era was the man who would eventually become known to history as Alexander the Great.
The Empire of Alexander the Great
To the Greeks, the rugged, mountainous kingdom of Macedonia was a backward, half-civilized land. The rulers of this frontier land, in fact, were of Greek origin and kept ties to their Greek neighbors. As a youth, Philip II had lived in Thebes and had come to admire Greek culture. Later, he hired Aristotle as a tutor to his young son Alexander.
Philip II Conquers Greece
When Philip II gained the throne in 359 B.C., he dreamed of conquering the prosperous city-states to the south. He built a superb and powerful army. Through threats, bribery, and diplomacy, he formed alliances with many Greek city-states.
Others he conquered. In 338 B.C., when Athens and Thebes joined forces against him, Philip II defeated them at the battle of Chaeronea (kehr uh nee uh). He then brought all of Greece under his control.
Philip had a still grander dream—to conquer the Persian empire. Before he could achieve that plan, though, he was assassinated at his daughter’s wedding. Assassination is the murder of a public figure, usually for political reasons. Philip’s queen, Olympias, then outmaneuvered his other wives and children to put her own son, Alexander, on the throne.
Alexander Takes Persia
Alexander was only 20 years old. Yet he was already an experienced soldier who shared his father’s ambitions. With Greece subdued, he began organizing the forces needed to conquer Persia. By 334 B.C., he had enough ships to cross the Dardanelles, the strait separating Europe from Asia Minor.
Persia was no longer the great power it had once been. The emperor Darius III was weak, and the provinces were often in rebellion against him. Still, the Persian empire stretched more than 2,000 miles from Egypt to India.
Alexander won his first victory against the Persians at the Granicus River. He then moved from victory to victory, marching through Asia Minor into Palestine and south to Egypt before turning east again to take Babylon in 331 B.C. Other cities followed. But before Alexander could capture Darius, the Persian emperor was murdered.
Advance into India
With much of the Persian empire under his control, the restless Alexander headed farther east. He crossed the Hindu Kush into northern India. There, in 326 B.C., his troops for the first time faced soldiers mounted on war elephants. Although Alexander never lost a battle, his soldiers were tired of the long campaign and refused to go farther east. Reluctantly, Alexander agreed to turn back. After a long and difficult march, they reached Babylon, where Alexander began planning a new campaign.
Alexander’s Early Death
Before he could set out again, the thirty-two-year-old fell victim to a sudden fever. As Alexander lay dying, his commanders asked to whom he left his immense empire. “To the strongest,” he is said to have whispered.
In fact, no one leader proved strong enough to succeed Alexander. Instead, after years of disorder, three generals divided up the empire. Macedonia and Greece went to one general, Egypt to another, and most of Persia to a third. For the next 300 years, their descendants competed for power over the lands Alexander had conquered.