Classical Greece

Classical Greece (500 B.C.E)


The fifth century B.C.E. witnessed a remarkable flowering of culture among the city-states of Greece, particularly Athens. For perhaps the first time in history, a social elite began to think deeply about the world around them, to experiment with new architectural, artistic, and literary forms, and to consider rational explanations of nature without recourse to gods and goddesses. So much of what we take for granted in contemporary Western civilization – democracy, science, medicine, drama, philosophy – has its roots in this belief, yet extraordinary era. So revolutionary were its achievements that historians have come to view it as the start of a new chapter in human history. Thus, in 500 B.C.E., ancient history made way for the classical world.


Ancient Greece was located on a peninsula between the waters of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Because the land in Greece was mostly mountainous, there wasn’t much possibility for agricultural development on the scale that marked the ancient river valley civilizations. But Greece did have natural harbors and mild weather, and its coastal position aided trade and cultural diffusion by boat, which is precisely how the Greeks conducted most of their commercial activity. The Greeks could easily sail to Palestine, Egypt, and Carthage, exchanging wine and olive products for grain. Eventually, they replaced the barter system with a money system, and soon Athens became a wealthy city at the center of all this commercial activity.

Greece’s limited geographical area also contributed to its dominance. Land was tight, so Greece was always looking to establish colonies abroad to ease overcrowding and gain raw materials. This meant that the Greeks had to be militarily powerful. It also meant that they had to develop sophisticated methods of communication, transportation, and governance.



Like the other early civilizations, Greece wasn’t a country then in the way that it is now. Instead, it was a collection of city-states, very much like those of early Mesopotamian civilizations in Sumer or Babylon. Each city-state, known as a polis, shared a common culture and identity. Although each polis was part of a broader civilization known as Greece, and shared a common language and many similar traditions, each was independent from, and often in conflict with, the others.

The two main city-states were Athens and Sparta. Athens was the political, commercial, and cultural center of Greek civilization. Sparta was an agricultural and highly militaristic region. Most citizens in Sparta lived a very austere, highly disciplined existence. Men and women received military training, which stressed equality but not individuality.

Each polis was composed of three groups: (1) citizens, composed of adult males, often engaged in business or commerce; (2) free people with no political rights; and (3) noncitizens (slaves, who accounted for nearly one-third of the people in Athens, and who had no rights). Among the citizens, civic decisions were made openly, after engaging in debates. All citizens were expected to participate. This practice led to Athens being regarded as the first democracy. But it’s important to point out that only adult males could participate, so it was not a democracy in the modern sense of the word.

It’s also important to point out that democracy in Athens did not develop immediately. As Athens grew more and more powerful, the government changed from a monarchy to an aristocracy, and finally to a democracy.

Ironically, it was slavery that enabled the Greeks to develop their democracy. It was by slave labor that Greek citizens gained the time to meet and vote, and to create great works of art and philosophy. Slaves, obtained by various means, were the private property of their owners. They worked as laborers, domestic servants, and cultivators. Educated or skilled slaves became craftsmen and business managers. Some owners helped slaves set up small businesses and then kept part of the profits; and in a few cases, slaves who earned and saved enough money could eventually buy their freedom.



The Parthenon is regarded as the supreme achievement of Greek architecture. It was the most important building in Athens, where it still sits on top of the Acropolis. The temple took 15 years to build and was dedicated to Athena, guardian goddess of Athens. Around 22,000 tons of marble, transported from over 15 km away, were used in its construction.


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The omphalos was a carved stone kept at the shrine at Delphi. The ancient Greeks thought that this holy sanctuary was the centre of the world. The omphalos stone was placed there to mark the centre. It was said to have been put there by Zeus, ruler of the gods. It may have also served as an altar on which sacrifices were made.

The Ancient Greek World


The map shows the main ports and cities through which the Greeks traded. The ancient Greek world centred on the Aegean Sea. The Greeks were adventurous seafarers. Trade took them from the Aegean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean and the shores of the Black Sea, where they formed many settlements. These colonies helped Greece to spread its influence beyond the mainland and it offshore islands.



Many possible reasons have been cited for the magnificient achievements of Greek – and especially Athenian – culture in the fifth century B.C.E. Some have argued that the fiercely independent nature of the Greek city-states placed a strong emphasis on individual freedom and encouraged creative thought. Others have speculated that the emergence of democracy, and the political debate it generated, led to an insistence on rational argument and the need for proof in other areas of human activity. Certainly, the widespread use of slaves for manual work allowed a wealthy elite sufficient time to devote themselves to matters of an intellectual and artistic nature.

Whatever the cause, the ancient Greeks were among the world’s first philosophers, scientists and physicians. They were the first to speculate deeply about the underlying nature of the universe, the nature of knowledge and reality, and the meaning of good and    evil. Among the most important Greek philosophers were Socrates and Plato.

Greek scientists believed the universe operated according to laws that they could discover using logic and reasoning. Some of their conclusions anticipated the discoveries of modern science. For example, Aristarchus of Samos claimed that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and Democritus believed all substances consisted of tiny, indivisible atoms.

Greek Mythology


The Greeks were polytheistic. The myths surrounding their gods, like those of Zeus and Aphrodite, are richly detailed and still hold our interest to this day. As you know by now, most early civilizations were polytheistic, but Greek polytheism was unique in one major respect: The Greek gods were believed to possess human failings – they got angry, got drunk, took sides, and had petty agruments.

Greek mythology remains part of western heritage and language. Every time we refer to a task as “Herculean,” or read our horoscopes, we’re tipping our hats to the ancient Greeks.

The Gods of Olympus


The Greeks worshiped dozens of gods, the most important of whom were the 12 who were believed to live on Mount Olympus in northeast Greece. The king and queen of the gods were the stern sky-god Zeus and his consort Hera, the goddess of women and marriage. The other gods of the Olympian pantheon included Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Hermes, the messenger of the gods who guided souls to the underworld; Athena, the goddess of wisdom, the corn goddess Demeter; Poseidon, the sea god; Apollo,the Sun god; Artmeis, the Moon goddess; Ares, the war god; Hephaestus, the god of fire, volcanoes, and blacksmiths; and Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. Also of universal importance were the wine-god Dionysos and Hades, the ruler of the underworld. There were wide variations in cultric practices in Greece and every city had a special relationship with its own particular patron deity, for example Athens with Athena, and Corinth with Poseidon. The gods behaved like powerful humans, with human virtues and vices. They interacted directly with humans and even had children by them. Greek religion had no systematic theology and no consistent moral teaching: the Greeks understood that the source of law was human, not divine.

The Greeks believed in an afterlife for the soul in the underworld. The underworld was originally conceived of as a uniformly gloomy and cheerless place. Later, it came to be believed that the souls of mortals were judged after death, the good going to blissful Elysium and the wicked to suffer in hellish Tartarus. Those who had done neither great good or great evil went to the Asphodel Meadows, a rather bland place where souls mechanically performed a ghostly version of their everyday lives on Earth. Specifically favored humans, like the hero Hercules, could be rewarded by the gods with deification.


The Olympian Games

Olympia, in the western Peloponnese, was a sanctuary dedicated to Zeus and named for the home of the gods on Mount Olympos. The athletic festival which made Olympia famous was first recorded in 776 B.C.E., but it probably originated during the dark ages. The festival was held once every four years until it was abolished by the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius in C.E. 393 because of its pagan associations. Olympia became wealthy from the offerings of visitors. The gold and ivory statue of Zeus, by the Athenian sculptor Phidias, which stood in the temple of Zeus, was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.The earliest games consisted simply of a 180- meter foot race, but by 632 B.C.E. they had expanded to include foot races of different distances, horse racing, chariot racing, wrestling, boxing and the pentathion. Later, separate events for boys were introduced. Two days before the start of the event, the athletes who had gathered to compete joined a procession to the sanctuary from the nearby city of Elis. The festival lasted for five days, attracting thousands of spectators from all over Greece. This stadium could seat 40,000 people. The festival was an exclusively male event; women were not even permitted to watch. At the end of the festival, the victors went in procession to the temple of Zeus to receive their olive wreaths. Though these were the only prizes given, successful athletes could expect to be treated as heroes by their home cities. The festival closed with the sacrifice of 100 oxen to Zeus and feasting


Persian Wars

It is perhaps astonishing that the achievements of Classical Greece took place against a backdrop of almost constant warfare. Provoked by Athenian assistance to the rebellious Greek cities in Persian dominated Ionia, Persia attacked Greece in 490. When Athens defeated the Persians at Marathon, their emperor decided to mount a full-scale invasion, which took place ten years later. The Persian force was said to have been the largest assembled in ancient times – 200,000 soldiers, supported by around 1,000 ships. 

The northern Greek states thought it wisest to remain neutral, leaving the southern states, led by Athens and Sparta, to confront the invaders. The Spartans tried to block the Persian advance, but were defeated after a heroic stand at Thermopylae. This gave the Athenians time to evacuate their population, leaving the Persians to occupy their empty city. The Persian fleet was ambushed and destroyed by the Athenians at Salamis. Half the Persian army then retreated, while the other half was crushed by the Spartans at Plataea in 479.With the threat to their homeland now lifted, the Athenians took the fight to the Persians, reopening the Bosphorus to Greek shipping in 475 and liberating the Ionian Greeks in 468. There were further outbreaks of fighting in the following years until a formal peace was negotiated with the Persians in 448. With Persia held back, Greece was free to enter into an era of peace and prosperity, which is often called the Golden Age of Pericles.

Spartan Militarism

PictureSpartan society was totally geared for breeding good soldiers. At the age of seven, boys were taken from their families to begin the agoge, an austere, state-organized upbringing aimed towards military training and excellence. Education centered around gymnastics and training for war and involved developing loyalty to the group, increasing an individual’s pain tolerance, hunting and stealth, as well as dancing and singing. The ultimate aim of the agoge was to mold the individual Spartan into the most efficient and terrifying fighting machine.  Bullying was officially condoned and comforts were few, even shoes were forbidden. Meals were deliberately inadequate to encourage boys to use their initiative to find extra rations or even steal them from their fellow students. The boys were also encouraged to fight among themselves to find out who was the dominant leader within the group. Boys who dropped out of the agoge, the ‘tremblers’, lived with the shame for the rest of their loves and could never become a full citizen. In the final stage of the agoge, the krypteia (concealment), the boy hid out in the countryside to prove his manhood by hunting down and murdering a helot (slave). At the age of 20, those who completed the agoge became full citizens and joined a dining-mess and military unit called a syssitia. Though now allowed to marry, they were expected to live inthe syssitiauntil the age of 30, when they were finally able to set up their own households. Even then, however, men were expected to eat daily in the syssitia. The common upbringing created a tough, cohesive, disciplined, conformist society, in which a man’s birth counted for little. Spartans were proud to describe themselves as homoioi, ‘the men who are equal’.

The Arts

PictureThe Greeks invented many new artistic and literary forms, which remain influential to this day. Whatever medium their artists worked in, they strove for an ideal of beauty based on harmonious proportions. Their architects built magnificent temples, such as the Parthenon in Athens, with tall columns arranged around a rectangular inner chamber. Their sculptors, such as Phidias, produced astonishingly lifelike figures of gods, goddesses and heroes. Their vase paintings depicted vivid portrayals of their myths and legends. Writers such as Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes introduced new literary forms: the tragic and comedy drama. So universal were their themes that their plays are still enjoyed today.

Greek Theater

PictureAthen’s greatest contribution to Greek, and western civilization was the invention of drama. Drama developed for choral songs about the life and death of Dionysos. In the sixth century B.C.E., the poet Thespis (from whose name the word ‘thespian’ is derived) introduced a new type of performance where he impersonated a single character and engaged in dialogue with a chorus of singers and dancers. Competitors in the Dionysian drama festival, founded in 534 B.C.E., were originally required to produce four plays: a trilogy of tragic plays followed by a burlesque satyr play (satyrs were mythological creatures, half man, half goat, who featured in the cult of Dionysos). In the fifth century B.C.E. the satyr plays developed into a separate genre, comedy. Only one complete trilogy of tragic plays has survived, the Oresteia by Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.E.) Aeschylus introduced a second character, allowing greater development of conflicts of character. The number of characters gradually increased and the chorus became less important. Staging became more elaborate after the first theaters were built in the fifth century B.C.E. A side-effect of this was the development of perspective painting, first used by Athenian stage painters to create optical illusions.

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Delian League

To pay for the war against Persia, Athens formed the Delian League in 479, consisting of Greek cities bordering the Aegean Sea. Each member state contributed to a common fund on the island of Delos. As it wealthiest and most powerful member, Athens dominated the league and often used it navy to forcibly collect contributions from other members. It also insisted that other member states follow the Athenian system of coinage, weights and measures. As the threat from Persia receded, members bgfan to resent making payments to the league, particularly when, in 454, the treasury was moved from Delos to Athens and funds were diverted into building schemes for the city, including the Parthenon. However, few dared openly to confront Athens and the league became, in effect, an Athenian Empire.Athens may have had the strongest navy in Greece, but the strongest army belonged to Sparta, a city in the Pelponnese. After Athens tried to extend its power to the Peloponnese in 457, war broke out between the two cities. Sparta provoked anti-Athenian rebellions in the Delian League, which Athens forcefully quelled. However, Athens could not sustain its position on the Peloponnese and eventually accepted Spartan dominance there in 445.

Golden Age of Pericles


Under the leadership of Pericles, Athens became a cultural powerhouse. It was under Pericles that democracy for all adult males was firmly established. It was under Pericles, too, that Athens was rebuilt after its destruction by the Persians (the Parthenon was built during this reconstruction). And it was under Pericles that Athens established the Delian League with the other city-states, an alliance against aggression from its common enemies. Under Pericles, philosophy and the arts flourished, and continued to do so for the next two centuries.

During the Golden Age, Greek drama was dominated by the comedies and tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides; the sculptures of Phidias adorned the streets; and Greek architecture earned its place in history with distinctive Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. Math and Science thrived under the capable instruction of Archimedes, Hippocrates, Euclid, and Pythagoras.
Make no mistake, during the Golden Age, the arts and sciences became firmly cemented into the western consciousness. The accomplishments of this period served as the inspiration for the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment nearly two millenia later.

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Peloponnesian War

Although Athens dominated the Delian League with its powerful navy, other Greek city-states in the Aegean allied themselves with Sparta’s great army to form the Peloponnesian League. Athens and Sparta as leaders of their respective alliances, became increasingly fearful and envious of each other’s power. After years of increasing tensions, a trade dispute involving the city of Corinth pushed Athens and Sparta into the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C.E. Athens attempted a defensive strategy, hiding behind its great walls while allowing the Spartan army to ravage its farmlands. This worked well for the Athenians for a time until two tragedies occurred. First, a great plague afflicted the city, killing vast numbers of the population including Pericles. Then, Athen’s navy suffered a devastating defeat at Syracuse on the island of Sicily. Athens was never the same again.

Sparta, though, didn’t destroy Athens, out of respect for the defeated city’s former role in the Persian War. But Sparta failed to dominate the region for long, because in spite of its victory, it also was so weakened by the war that it became vulnerable to outside aggression. The Macedonians, under the rule of Philip of Macedon, who reigned from 359 to 336 B.C.E., invaded Athens from the north and conquered the entire region. Fortunately, Philip respected Greek culture and, rather than destroy it, encouraged it to flourish.



The first important Athenian-born philosopher was Socrates (469-399 B.C.E.). Pre-Socratic Greek philosphers were mainly interested in metaphysical questions about the nature of the universe. Socrates was interested in ethics. Socrates believed that there were objective concepts, such as ‘the good’, ‘bravery’ or ‘justice’, and that these could be understood by reason. Socrates made many enemies by his ability to make those arguing with him contradict themselves through the use of rational cross-questioning. He made one of the scapegoats for Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War and sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens.



Socrate’s ideas were developed by his pupil Plato (429-347 B.C.E.), also an Athenian, who sought to establish an absolute basis for knowledge with his doctrine of ‘Forms’ in which concepts such as ‘beauty’ had a real existence as eternal entities. Plato presented his thought in an accessible way using a series of dramatic dialogues in which the discourse was placed in the mouths of characters, chief among whom was his hero Socrates. In his most famous work, the Republic, Plato set out his vision of the ideal state ruled by an intellectual elite of ‘philosopher kings’ governing in accordance with the principles of reason. In 388 B.C.E., Plato founded his own school, the Academy, which ensured that Athens continued to be a major center for the study of philosophy well into the Christian era.



Plato’s ideas were challenged by his pupil Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.). Aristotle was born in Stageria in northern Greece. He came to Athens aged 18 to study at the Academy and stayed on to teach. In 343 B.C.E., he went to Macedon as tutor to the young Alexander the Great. On his return to Athens in 355 B.C.E., he founded the Lyceum, which taught a wider curriculum than the Academy. Aristotle believed that observation and experience of the physical world were essential to rational enquiry. As well as exploring ethical issues, Aristotle wrote extensively on the sciences of astronomy, biology, chemistry, physics, and zoology. Aristotle’s greatest achievement was his system of logic, which has still not been superseded. It is important not to be too dazzled by the achievements of the ancient Greek philosophers. Their influence at the time was confined to a small intellectual elite and their beliefs were ridiculed by comic playwrights such as Aristophanes, who coined the expression ‘cloud cuckoo land’ as a metaphor for impractical Utopianism.

Alexander the Great


The Macedonians didn’t stop with Greece. Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, who was taught by Aristotle, widely expanded Macedonian dominance. Under Alexander, they conquered the mighty Persian Empire and then move eastward to the shores of the Indus River, in what today is India, eventually creating the largest empire of the time. To manage his massive realm, Alexander divided it into three empires: Antigonid (Greece and Macedon), Ptolemaic (Egypt), and Seleucid (Bactria and Anatolia).

Along with its size, the Macedonian Empire is notable for the fact that it adopted Greek customs and then spread them to much of the known world. Consequently, much of the world became connected under a uniform law and common trade practices. Therefore, Hellenism – the culture, ideals, and pattern of life of Classical Greece – didn’t perish as a result of the victories over Athens and Sparta; instead, it came to be influential far beyond its original borders.

In the immediate aftermath of the expansion of Hellenism, the economies of Athens and Corinth revived through trade. Of the three Hellenistic empires, the Ptolemaic Empire became the wealthiest. Alexandria, its capital, was built at the mouth of the Nile. Wisely, the Ptolemaic rulers did not interfere in Egyptian society, and, eventually, Ptolemaic Egypt also became a cultural center, home of the Alexandria Museum and Alexandria Library, the latter which contained the most scrolls of any location in the empire, perhaps the whole world.

When Alexander the Great died, at 33, his empire started to crumble. With the Macedonians focused on the East and on Egypt, the door was open in the West for a new power to rise to the world stage. That power was the Romans.

Content Sources:

A Short History of the World , Alex Woolf, Metro Books, New York, 2008.
The Ancient World, John Haywood, Quercus Books, Massachusetts, 2010.
The Princeton Review: Cracking the AP World History Exam, 2006-2007 Edition, Random House, New York, 2007.
The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, Hurdman, MacDonald, Steele, Tames, Armadillo Books, Pennsylvania, 2011

About historymartinez

Social Studies Department Chair, Room A305 Tutoring Mondays @ 4:15 pm & Wednesdays @ 8:00 a.m.
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