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Periods of Greek History

The Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Athena, located on the Acropolis in Athens, is one of the most representative symbols of the culture and sophistication of the ancient Greeks.
The Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Athena, located on the Acropolis in Athens, is one of the most representative symbols of the culture and sophistication of the ancient Greeks.

Historians today separate Greek history into particular periods, which shared specific features throughout the Greek world:

The Bronze Age (c. 3,300 – 1,150 BCE) – a period characterized by the use of bronze tools and weapons. In addition, two particular periods during the Bronze Age are crucial in the development of early Greece: the Minoan Age on the island of Crete (c. 2,000 – 1,450 BCE) and the Mycenean period on mainland Greece (c. 1,600 – 1,100 BCE), both of them characterized by massive palaces, remnants of which still proudly stand today. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations had writing (dubbed Linear A and Linear B, respectively), which they used for keeping lists and palace inventories.

The Dark Ages (c. 1,100 – 750 BCE) – a period that is “dark” from the archaeological perspective, which means that the monumental palaces of the Mycenean period disappear, and the archaeological record reveals a general poverty and loss of culture throughout the Greek world. For instance, the Linear A and Linear B writing systems disappear. The Greeks do not rediscover writing until the invention of the Greek alphabet at the end of the Dark Ages or the early Archaic Period.

Archaic Period (c. 750 – 490 BCE) – the earliest period for which written evidence survives; this is the age of the rise of the Greek city-states, colonization, and the Persian Wars.

Classical Period (c. 480 – 323 BCE) – the period from the end of the Persian Wars to the death of Alexander the Great. One of the most important events during this period is the Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE), which pitted Athens against Sparta, and forced all other Greek city-states to choose to join one side or the other. This period ends with the death of Alexander the Great, who had unified the Greek world into a large kingdom with himself at its helm.

Hellenistic Period (323 – 146 BCE) – the period from the death of Alexander to the Roman conquest of Greece; this is the age of the Hellenistic monarchies ruling over territories previously conquered by Alexander and his generals. Some historians end this period in 30 BCE, with the death of Cleopatra VII, the last surviving ruler of Egypt who was a descendant of one of Alexander’s generals.

To the west, it was during the Bronze Age that the first distinctly Greek civilizations arose: the Minoans of the island of Crete and the Mycenaeans of Greece itself.  Their civilizations, which likely merged together due to invasion after a long period of coexistence, were the basis of later Greek civilization and thus a profound influence on many of the neighboring civilizations of the Middle East in the centuries to come, just as the civilizations of the Middle East unquestionably influenced them.

Minoans and Mycenaeans

Both the Minoans and Mycenaeans were seafarers.  Whereas almost all of the other civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean were land empires, albeit ones who traded and traveled via waterways, the Greek civilizations were very closely tied to the sea itself.  The Minoans ruled the island of Crete in the Mediterranean and created a merchant marine (i.e. a fleet whose purpose is primarily trade, not war) to trade with the Egyptians, Hittites, and other peoples of the area.  One of the noteworthy archaeological traits of the Minoans is that there is very little evidence of fortifications of their palaces or cities, unlike those of other ancient peoples, indicating that they were much less concerned about foreign invasion than were the neighboring land empires thanks to the Minoans’ island setting. 

Map of major Minoan sites
Map of major Minoan sites

The Minoans built enormous palace complexes that combined government, spiritual, and commercial centers in huge, sprawling areas of building that were interconnected and which housed thousands of people.  The Greek legend of the labyrinth, the great maze in which a bull-headed monster called the minotaur roamed, was probably based on the size and the confusion of these Minoan complexes.  Frescoes painted on the walls of the palaces depicted elaborate athletic events featuring naked men leaping over charging bulls.  Minoan frescoes have even been found in the ruins of an Egyptian (New Kingdom) palace, indicating that Minoan art was valued outside of Crete itself. 

The Minoans traded actively with their neighbors and developed their own systems of bureaucracy and writing.  They used a form of writing referred to by historians as Linear A that has never been deciphered.  Their civilization was very rich and powerful by about 1700 BCE, and it continued to prosper for centuries.

The Minoans were, according to the surviving archaeological evidence, relatively peaceful.  They traded with their neighbors, and while there is evidence of violence (including human sacrifice) within Minoan society, there is no indication of large-scale warfare, just passing references from the Mycenaeans about Minoan mastery of the seas.  In contrast, the Mycenaeans were extremely warlike. 

The Mycenaeans, similarly to the Minoans, were a palace civilization. Flourishing on mainland Greece c. 1,600 – 1,100 BCE, they received their name from Mycenae, the most elaborate surviving palace and the mythical home of Agamemnon, the commander-in-chief of the Greek army in the Trojan War.

The Lion Gate at Mycenae
The Lion Gate at Mycenae

The archaeological excavations of graves in Mycenae reveal a prosperous civilization that produced elaborate pottery, bronze weapons and tools, and extravagant jewelry and other objects made of precious metals and gems. One of the most famous finds is the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon,” a burial mask with which one aristocrat was buried, made of hammered gold.

Mask of Agamemnon
Mask of Agamemnon

The Mycenaeans traded with their neighbors, but they also plundered them when the opportunity arose.  Centuries later, the culture of the Mycenaeans would be celebrated in the epic poems (nominally written by the poet Homer, although it is likely “Homer” is a mythical figure himself) The Iliad and The Odyssey, describing the exploits of great Mycenaeans heroes like Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus.  Those exploits almost always revolved around warfare, immortalized in Homer’s account of the Mycenaean siege of Troy, a city in western Anatolia whose ruins were discovered in the late nineteenth century CE.

From their ships, the Mycenaeans operated as both trading partners and raiders as circumstances would dictate; it is clear from the archeological evidence that they traded with Egypt and the Near East (i.e. Lebanon and Palestine), but equally clear that they raided and warred against both vulnerable foreign territories and against one another.  There is even evidence that the Hittites enacted the world’s first embargo of shipping and goods against the Mycenaeans in retaliation for Mycenaean meddling in Hittite affairs.

Embargo comes from the Spanish word embargar which means to bar, seize, or impound. The Spanish is from Colloquial (informal) Latin barra meaning bar or barrier.

An embargo is where ships from other nations are prevented from either entering or leaving a nation’s ports.

The Mycenaeans relied on the sea so heavily because Greece was a very difficult place to live.  Unlike Egypt or Mesopotamia, there were no great rivers feeding fertile soil, just mountains, hills, and scrubland with poor, rocky soil.  There were few mineral deposits or other natural resources that could be used or traded with other lands.  As it happens, there are iron deposits in Greece but its use was not yet known by the Mycenaeans.  They thus learned to cultivate olives to make olive oil and grapes to make wine, two products in great demand all over the ancient world that were profitable enough to sustain seagoing trade.  It is also likely that the difficult conditions in Greece helped lead the Mycenaeans to be so warlike, as they raided each other and their neighbors in search of greater wealth and opportunity.

The Mycenaeans were a society that glorified noble warfare.  As war is depicted in the Iliad, battles consisted of the elite noble warriors of each side squaring off against each other and fighting one-on-one, with the rank-and-file of poorer soldiers providing support but usually not engaging in actual combat. 

Mycenaean ruins (and tombs) make it abundantly clear that most Mycenaeans were dirt-poor farmers working with primitive tools, lorded over by bronze-wielding lords who demanded labor and wealth.  Foreign trade was in service to providing luxury goods to this elite social class, a class that was never politically united but instead shared a common culture of warrior-kings and their armed retinues.  Some beautiful artifacts and amazing myths and poems have survived from this civilization, but it was also one of the most predatory civilizations we know about from ancient history.

The Mycenaeans vanished as a civilization at the end of the Bronze Age.  The cause was probably a combination of foreign invasions and local rebellions and wars. One strong possibility is that there was a sustained civil war among the Mycenaean palace-settlements that resulted in a fatal disruption to the economic setting that was essential to their very existence. A bad enough war in Greece itself could have easily undermined harvests, already near a subsistence level, and when they were destroyed by these conflicts, towns, fortresses and palaces could not be rebuilt. Whatever the cause, the decline of the Mycenaeans occurred around 1100 BCE, marking the beginning of what historians refer to as the Dark Age in Greek history.

Map showing the Bronze Age collapse of Mycenae (conflicts and movements of people)
Map showing the Bronze Age collapse of Mycenae (conflicts and movements of people)

Let’s take a second before moving on to learn a bit about the Hittites (you can see their territory in the map above).

Want to read a book about the Hittites? Here’s a blurb from the book Hittite Warrior by Joanne Williamson:

“When Uriah Tarhund’s Hititte home is destroyed by invading Greeks, his dying father tells him to go seek a Canaanite named Sisera. “He will help you. For my sake….” When Uriah reaches Judea and saves a young boy from being sacrificed to Molech, he is given succor for a time by the Hebrews. Later, he finds Sisera and joins him in war against these same people. When the Canaanites are defeated, the young Hittite has the opportunity to come to a peace with himself, the Hebrew people and their God.”

The Greek Dark Age (1100-750 BCE)

Of all the regions and cultures affected by the collapse of the Bronze Age, Greece was among those hit hardest.  First and foremost, foreign trade declined dramatically. Whereas the Mycenaeans had been seafaring traders, their descendants were largely limited to local production and trade.   Agriculture reverted to subsistence levels, and trade with neighboring areas all but vanished.  In turn, this reversion to local subsistence economies cut them off from important sources of nutrition and materials for daily life, as well as foreign ideas and cultural influences. The Greeks went from being a great traveling and trading culture to one largely isolated from its neighbors.  The results were devastating: some scholarly estimates are that the population of Greece declined by as much as 90% in the centuries following the Bronze Age collapse. The Greek Dark Age started to end around 800 BCE.  The subsequent period of Greek history, from around 800 BCE – 490 BCE, is referred to as the “Archaic” (meaning “old”) Age. 

The Archaic Age and Greek Values (750-490 BCE)

Map of The archaic period in Greece (750 BC – 490 BC)
Map of The archaic period in Greece (750 BC – 490 BC)

Of the various influences the Ionian Greeks received from the Phoenicians, none was more important than their alphabet.  Working from the Phoenician version, the Ionian Greeks developed their own syllabic alphabet (the earlier Greek writing system, Linear B, vanished during the Greek Dark Age). This system of writing proved relatively easy to learn.  Soon, the Greeks started recording not just tax records and mercantile transactions, but their own literature, poetry, and drama. The earliest surviving Greek literature dates from around 800 – 750 BCE thanks to the use of this new alphabet (which, in turn, served as the basis of the Roman alphabet and from there to the alphabets used in all Latinate European languages, including English).

Homer’s epic poems – The Iliad and The Odyssey – were written down in this period after being recited in oral form by traveling singers for centuries.  They purported to recount the deeds of great heroes from the Mycenaean age, in the process providing a rich tapestry of information about ancient Greek values, beliefs, and practices to later cultures. 

Both poems celebrated arete – a Greek virtue which can be translated in English as “excellence” and “success,” but must be understood as a moral characteristic as much as a physical or mental one.  Arete meant, among other things, fulfilling one’s potential, which was almost always the highest goal espoused in Greek philosophy.  Throughout the epics, men and women struggle to overcome both one another and their own limitations, while grappling with the limitations imposed by nature, chance, and the will of the gods.

The values on display in the Homeric poems spoke to the Greeks of the Archaic Age in how they determined what was good and desirable in human behavior in general.  The focus of the Greeks was on the two ways that a man (and it was always a man in Greek philosophy – a theme that will be explored in detail in a subsequent chapter) could dominate other men: through strength of arms and through skill at words. The two major areas a man had to master were thus war and rhetoric: the ability to defeat enemies in battle and the ability to persuade potential allies in the political arena. 

The word rhetoric comes from the Greek rhētōr, meaning master speaker.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasive or effective writing or speaking.

What was important to the Greeks was the public performance of excellence, not private virtue or good intentions.  What mattered was how a man performed publicly, in battle, in athletic competitions, or in the public forums of debate that emerged in the growing city-states of Archaic Greece. The fear of shame was a built-in part of the pursuit of excellence; Greek competitions (in everything from athletics to poetry) had no second-place winners, and the losers were openly mocked in the aftermath of the contests.

A prize vase for a festival in honor of the goddess Athena shows Greek runners competing in a race.
A prize vase for a festival in honor of the goddess Athena shows Greek runners competing in a race.

 This idea of public debate and competition was to have an enormous influence on the development of Greek culture, one that would subsequently spread around the entire Mediterranean region.  

Greek values translated directly into Greece’s unique political order.  The Archaic Age was the era when major Greek political innovations took place. Of these, the most important was the creation of the polis (plural: poleis): a political unit centered on a city and including the surrounding lands.  The English word “political” derives from “polis” – the polis was the center of Greek politics in each city-state, and Greek innovations in the realm of political theory would have an enormous historical legacy.  From the Greek poleis of the Archaic and subsequent Classical Age, the notion of legal citizenship and equality, the practice of voting on laws, and a particular concept of political pride now referred to as patriotism all first took shape.

Athens, a noted polis of classical Greece
Athens, a noted polis of classical Greece

In the Archaic Age, Greek city-states shared similar institutions. Greek citizens could only be members of a single polis, and citizens had some kind of role in political decision-making. Citizens would gather in the agora, an open area that was used as a market and a public square, and discuss matters of importance to the polis as a whole. 

Watch the first two minutes of this video to see what the agora looked like and how it functioned (you can skip the rest of the video, if you wish):

The richest and most powerful citizens became known as “aristocrats” – the “best people.” Eventually, aristocracy became hereditary. Other free citizens could vote in many cases on either electing officials or approving laws, the latter of which were usually created by a council of elders (all of whom were aristocrats) – the elders were called archons. At this early stage, commoners had little real political power; the importance was the precedent of meeting to discuss politics.

The word aristocrat comes from the Greek words aristos meaning best of its kind and kratos meaning power or rule.

Even in poleis in which citizens did not directly vote on laws, however, there was a strong sense of community, out of which developed the concept of civic virtue: the idea that the highest moral calling was to place the good of the community above one’s own selfish desires. This concept was almost unparalleled elsewhere in the ancient world.  While other ancient peoples certainly identified with their places of origin, they linked themselves to lineages of kings rather than the abstract idea of a community in most cases. Also, all Greek citizens were equal before the law, which was a radical break since most other civilizations had different sets of laws based on class identity.  Civic virtue, very closely related to the modern concept of patriotism, was an influential idea because it would continue through the Greek Classical Age, be transmitted by Alexander the Great’s conquests, and eventually become one of, if not the single most important ethical standards of the Roman Republic and Empire. It would ultimately go on to influence thinkers and politicians up to the present.

One area of Archaic Greek culture bears additional focus: gender.  Greek society was explicitly patriarchal, with men holding all official positions of political power.  Likewise, both the Greek myths and epic tales are both rife with hostility and suspicion of assertive, intelligent women, celebrating instead women who dutifully served their husbands or fathers (Penelope, wife of the Greek hero Odysseus, is described as waiting faithfully for twenty years for Odysseus to return from the invasion of Troy despite a legion of suitors trying to win her and Odysseus’s lands). 

Penelope by Thomas Seddon

That being noted, it is clear that women in the Archaic Age did enjoy both social influence and some access to economic power, being able to inherit property and receiving social approval for the skillful management of households.  Likewise, women were not generally secluded from men in normal social discourse, with various Greek tales including moments of casual interaction between men and women.  Practically speaking, women were invaluable to the Greek economy, providing almost all of the domestic labor and contributing to farming and commerce as well.  Their status, however, would grow more fraught over time: as the Archaic Age evolved into the Classical Age where restrictions on women’s lives and freedoms would increase, especially in key poleis like Athens, culminating in some of the most misogynistic gender standards in the ancient world.

The word misogyny comes from the Greek miso, which means “hatred” and gyne, which means “woman”.

A misogynist is someone who hates women.

Greek Culture and Trade

The Greek poleis were each distinct, fiercely proud of their own identity and independence, and they frequently fought small-scale wars against one another. Even as they did so, they recognized each other as fellow Greeks and therefore as cultural equals.  All Greeks spoke mutually intelligible dialects of the Greek language.  All Greeks worshiped the same pantheon of gods. 

All Greeks shared political traditions of citizenship.  Finally, the Greeks took part in a range of cultural practices, from listening to traveling storytellers who recited the Iliad and Odyssey from memory to holding drawn-out drinking parties called symposia.

The poleis also invented institutions that united the cities culturally, despite their political independence, the most important of which was the Panhellenic games. “Panhellenic” literally means “all Greece,” and the games were meant to unite all of the Greek poleis, including those founded by colonists and located far from Greece itself. The games were a combination of religious festival and competition in which aristocrats from each city competed in various sports, including javelin, discus, footraces, and a brutal form of unarmed combat called pankration.

The most significant of these games was the Olympics, named after Olympia, the site in southern Greece where they were held every four years. They started in 776 BCE and ended in 393 CE – in other words, they lasted for over 1,000 years. Thanks to the Olympics, the date 776 BCE is usually used as the definitive break between the Dark and Archaic ages of Greek civilization. The Olympics were extraordinary not just in their longevity, but because Greeks from the entire world of Greek settlements came to them, traveling from as far away as Sicily and the Black Sea. Wars were temporarily suspended and all Greek poleis agreed to let athletes travel with safe passage to take part in the games, in part because the Olympics were dedicated to Zeus, the chief Greek god.  As noted above, there were no second prizes. Greek culture was hugely competitive; the defeated were humiliated and the winners totally triumphant.  In the games, they sought, in the words of one Greek poet, “either the wreath of victory or death” (granted, that poet was indulging in some hyperbole, as there is no evidence that defeated athletes actually committed suicide).

With the end of the Dark Age, population levels in Greece recovered. This led to  emigration as the population outstripped the poor, rocky soil of Greece itself and forced people to move elsewhere. Eventually, Greek colonies stretched across the Mediterranean as far as Spain in the west and the coasts of the Black Sea in the north. Greeks founded colonies on the North African coast and on the islands of the Mediterranean, most importantly on Sicily. Greeks set up trading posts in the areas they settled, even in Egypt.  The colonies continued the mainland practice of growing olives and grapes for oil and wine, but they also took advantage of much more fertile areas away from Greece to cultivate other crops.

The one factor that was common to all Greek colonies was that they were rarely far from the sea. They were so closely tied to the idea of a shared Greek civilization and the need for the sea for trade routes was so strong that colonists were not generally interested in trying to push inland.

Notice how Greece's colonies are near the water.
Notice how Greece’s colonies are near the sea.

As trade recovered following the end of the Dark Age, the Greeks re-established their commercial shipping network across the Mediterranean, with their colonies soon playing a vital role.  Greek merchants eagerly traded with everyone from the Celts of Western Europe to the Egyptians, Lydians, and Babylonians. When Julius Caesar was busy conquering Gaul about 700 years later, he found the Celts there writing in the Greek alphabet, long since learned from the Greek colonies along the coast.  Likewise, archaeologists have discovered beautiful examples of Greek metalwork as far from Greece as northern France.

Greek colonies far from Greece were as important as the older poleis in Greece itself, since they created a common Greek civilization across the entire Mediterranean world. Greek civilization was not an empire united by a single ruler or government.  Instead, it was united by culture rather than a common leadership structure. That culture would go on to influence all of the cultures to follow in a vast swath of territory throughout the Mediterranean region and the Middle East.

Military Organization and Politics

2 hoplites in attack position
A hoplite on Greek pottery

A key military development unique to Greece was the phalanx: a unit of spearmen standing in a dense formation, with each using his shield to protect the man to his left.  Each soldier in a phalanx was called a hoplite. Each hoplite had to be a free Greek citizen of his polis and had to be able to pay for his own weapons and armor. He also had to be able to train and drill regularly with his fellow hoplites, since maneuvering in the densely-packed phalanx required a great deal of practice and coordination. The hoplites were significant politically because they were not always aristocrats, despite the fact that they had to be free citizens capable of paying for their own arms. Because they defended the poleis and proved extremely effective on the battlefield, the hoplites would go on to demand better political representation, something that would have a major impact on Greek politics as a whole.

The most noteworthy military innovation represented by the hoplites was that their form of organization provided one solution to the age-old problem of how to pay for highly-trained and motivated soldiers: rather than a state paying for a standing army, the hoplites paid for themselves and were motivated by civic virtue. When rival poleis fought, the phalanxes of each side would square off and stab away at each other until one side broke, threw down their shields, and ran away (by far the deadliest part of the confrontation). The victors would then allow the losers time to gather their dead for a proper burial and peace terms would be negotiated.

By the seventh century BCE, the hoplites in many poleis were clamoring for better political representation, since they were excluded by the traditional aristocrats from meaningful political power. In many cases, the result was the rise of tyrannies: a government led by a man, the tyrant, who had no legal right to power, but had been appointed by the citizens of a polis in order to stave off civil conflict (tyrants were generally aristocrats, but they answered to the needs of the hoplites as well). To the Greeks, the term tyrant did not originally mean an unjust or cruel ruler, since many tyrants succeeded in solving major political crises on behalf of the hoplites while still managing to placate the aristocrats. 

The tyrants, lacking official political status, had to play to the interests of the people to stay in power as popular dictators. They sometimes seized lands of aristocrats outright and distributed them to free citizens. Many of them built public works and provided jobs, while others went out of their way to promote trade. The period between 650 – 500 BCE is sometimes called the “Age of Tyrants” in Greek history because many poleis instituted tyrants to stave off civil war between aristocrats and less wealthy citizens during this period.  After 500 BCE, a compromise government called oligarchy tended to replace both aristocracies and tyrannies. In an oligarchy, anyone with enough money could hold office, the laws were written down and known to all free citizens, and even poorer citizens could vote (albeit only yes or no) on the laws passed by councils.

The word oligarchy comes from the Greek word oligarkhia, meaning “government by the few.” Oligos means “few or small” and arkhein means “to rule.”

An oligarchy is a small group of people who have control of a country.

Two of the most memorable poleis of the Archaic Age were Sparta and Athens. The two poleis were in many ways a study in contrasts: an obsessively militaristic and inward-looking society of “equals” who controlled the largest slave society in Greece, and a cosmopolitan naval power at the forefront of political innovation.


Territory of ancient Sparta
Territory of ancient Sparta

One scholarly work on Greek history, Frank Frost’s Greek Society, describes the Spartans as “an experiment in elitist communism.”  From approximately 600 BCE – 450 BCE, the Spartans were unique in the ancient world in placing total emphasis on a super-elite, and very small, citizenship of warriors.  Starting in about 700 BCE, the Spartans conquered a large swath of territory in their home region of Greece, the southern Greek peninsula called the Peloponnesus. Sparta at the time was an aristocratic monarchy, with two kings ruling over councils of citizens. Under the two kings were a smaller council that issued laws and a large council made up of all Spartan males over 30 who approved or rejected the laws proposed by the council. Over time, citizenship was limited to men who had undergone the arduous military training for which the Spartans are best remembered.

Spartan culture was among the most extreme forms of militarism the world has ever seen. Spartan boys were taken from their parents when they were seven to live in barracks. They were regularly beaten, both as a form of discipline and to make them unafraid of pain. Children with deformities of any kind were left in the elements to die, as were children maimed by the training regimen. Spartan boys were trained constantly in combat, maneuvering, and physical endurance. They were intentionally underfed to encourage them to steal food for themselves. However, Plutarch states that “if they were caught they would be mercilessly whipped and reduced to their ordinary food allowance.” This was meant to produce well-built soldiers and allow the boys to become accustomed to hunger, preventing hunger from being a problem during battle.

Spartan girls were allowed to stay with their parents, but were trained in martial skills as children as well, along with the knowledge they would need to run a household. Spartan women were also literate and numerate, a rarity in the ancient world. Furthermore, as a result of their education and the fact that they moved freely in society engaging with their fellow (male) citizens, they were notorious for speaking their minds even in public.

When a man in Sparta reached the age of twenty, assuming he was judged worthy, he would be elevated to the rank of “Equal” – a full Spartan citizen – and receive a land grant that ensured that he could concentrate on military discipline for the rest of his life without having to worry about making a living.

Even activities like courtship and acquiring nourishment were designed to test Spartans.  When it was time for young Spartan to marry, the young man would brawl his way into the family home of his bride-to-be, fighting her relatives until he could “kidnap” her – this was as close to courtship as the Spartans got. Married couples were not allowed to live together before the age of 30; up till then, the man was expected to sneak out of his bunker to see his wife, then sneak back in again before morning.  In addition, Spartans in training were often forced to steal food (from their own slave-run farms); they were punished if caught, but the infraction was being caught, not the theft – the idea was that the future warrior had failed to live up to the required level of skill at stealth.

The reason for all of this militaristic mania was simple: Sparta was a slave society. Approximately 90% of the population of the area under Sparta’s control were helots, serfs descended from the population conquered by Sparta in the eighth century. Early Spartan conquests of their region of Greece had resulted in a very large area under their control, populated by people who were not Spartan. Rather than extend any kind of political representation to these subjects, the Spartans instead maintained absolute control over them, up to the right of killing them at will with no legal consequence. 

One ancient historian wrote:

They assign to the Helots every shameful task leading to disgrace. For they ordained that each one of them must wear a dogskin cap and wrap himself in skins and receive a stipulated number of beatings every year regardless of any wrongdoing, so that they would never forget they were slaves.

Plutarch also states that Spartans treated the Helots “harshly and cruelly”: they compelled them to drink pure wine (which was considered dangerous—wine usually being diluted with water) “… and to lead them in that condition into their public halls, that the children might see what a sight a drunken man is; they made them to dance low dances, and sing ridiculous songs…” during syssitia (obligatory banquets).

Every year, the Spartans would “declare war” on the helots, rampaging through their river valley, and part of the training of young Spartans was serving on the Krypteia, the Spartan secret police that infiltrated Helot villages to watch for signs of rebellion.  Adolescent Spartans in training would even be dispatched to simply murder any helots they encountered.  All of this was to ensure that the helots would be too terrified and broken-spirited to resist Spartan domination.  There were never more than 8,000 Spartan soldiers, along with another 20,000 or so of free noncitizens (inhabitants of towns near Sparta who were not considered helots, but instead free but subservient subjects), overseeing a much larger population of helots. Simply put, Spartan society was a military hierarchy that arose out of the fear a massive slave uprising.

Likewise, despite the famous, and accurate, accounts of key battles in which the Spartans were victorious, or at least symbolically victorious, they were loathe to be drawn into wars, especially ones that involved going more than a few days’ march from Sparta. They were so preoccupied with maintaining control over the helots that they were very hesitant to engage in military campaigns of any kind, and hence rarely engaged in battles against other poleis before the outbreak of war against Athens in the fourth century BCE.

The only area in which Spartan society was actually less repressive than the rest of the Greek poleis was in gender roles.  According to Greeks from outside of Sparta, free Spartan women were much less restricted than women elsewhere in Greece. They were trained in war, they could speak publicly, and they could own land.  They scandalized other Greeks by participating in athletics and appear to have benefited from a greater degree of personal freedom than women anywhere else in Greece – of course, this would have been a social necessity since the men of Sparta lived in barracks until they were 30, leaving the women to run household estates.  


In many ways, Athens was the opposite of Sparta. Whereas the Spartans were militaristic and austere (the word “spartan” in English today means “severe and unadorned”), the Athenians celebrated art, music, and drama. While it still controlled a large slave population, Athens is also remembered as the birthplace of democracy.  In turn, Sparta and Athens were, especially in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, rivals for the position of the most powerful polis in Greece.


Athens was rich and populous – the population of Attica, its 1,000-square-mile region of Greece, was about 600,000 by 600 BCE, and Athens was a major force in Mediterranean trade.  That wealth led to conflicts over its distribution among the citizens, in turn prompting some unprecedented political experiments.  Starting early in the Archaic Age, Athens witnessed a series of struggles and compromises between the aristocrats – wealthy land-owning families who controlled most of the land and most of the political power – and everyone else, particularly the free citizens and farmers of Athens who were not aristocrats. One key development in Athenian politics arose from the fact that merchants and prosperous farmers could afford arms and armor but were shut out of political decision-making.  This was a classic case of hoplites becoming increasingly angry with the political domination of the aristocracy. 

The crisis of representation reached a boiling point in about 600 BCE when there was a real possibility of civil war between the common citizens and the aristocrats. The major problem was that the aristocrats owned most of the land that other farmers worked on, many of those farmers were increasingly indebted to the aristocrats, and by Athenian law anyone who could not pay off his or her debts could be legally enslaved.  An increasing number of formerly-free Athenian citizens thus found themselves enslaved to pay off their debts to an aristocrat.

An Athenian hoplite
An Athenian hoplite
"Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens", illustration by Walter Crane
“Solon, the wise lawgiver of Athens”, illustration by Walter Crane

To prevent civil war, the Athenians appointed Solon (638 – 558 BCE), an aristocratic but fair-minded politician, to serve as a tyrant and to reform institutions. His most important step in restoring order was to cancel debts and to eliminate debt-slavery itself. He used public money to buy Athenian slaves who had been enslaved abroad and bring them back to Athens. He enacted other legal reforms that reduced the overall power of the aristocracy, and in a savvy move, he had the laws written down on wooden panels and posted around the city so that anyone who could read could examine them (up to that point, the only people who actually knew the laws were the aristocratic judges, which made it all too easy for them to abuse their power).

Solon was not some kind of rabble-rouser or proto-communist, however. He mitigated the worst of the social divides between rich and poor in Athens, but he still reserved the highest offices for members of the richest families. On the other hand, the poorer free citizens were completely exempt from taxes, which made it easier for them to stay out of debt and to contribute to Athenian society (and the military). Perhaps the most innovative and important of Solon’s innovations was the concept of an impersonal state, one in which the politicians come and go but which continues on as an institution obeying written laws; this is in contrast to “the state” as just the ruling cabal of elite men, which Athens had been prior to Solon’s intervention.

This pattern continued for about a century.  Solon’s successors were a collection of new tyrants, some of whom seized more land from aristocrats and distributed it to farmers, most of whom sponsored new building projects, but none of whom definitively broke the power of the old families. Social divides and tension continued to be the essential reality of Athenian society.

In 508 BCE, however, a new tyrant named Cleisthenes was appointed by the Athenian assembly who finally took the radical step of allowing all male citizens to have a vote in public matters and to be eligible to serve in public office. This included free but poor citizens, the ones too poor to afford weapons and serve as hoplites. He had lawmakers chosen by lot (i.e. randomly) and created new “tribes” mixing men of different backgrounds together to force them to start to think of themselves as fellow Athenians, not just jealous protectors of their own families’ interests. Thus, under Cleisthenes, Athens became the first “real” democracy in history.

That being noted, by modern standards Athens was still highly unequal and unrepresentative. Women were completely excluded from political life, as were free non-citizens (including many prosperous Greeks who had not been born in Athens) and, of course, slaves. The voting age was set at 20. Overall, about 40% of the population were native-born Athenians, of which half were men, and half were under 20, so only 10% of the actual population had political rights. This is still a very large percentage by the standards of the ancient world, but it should be considered as an antidote to the idea that the Greeks believed in “equality” in a modern sense.

Greece managed to develop its unique political institutions and culture as part of a larger Mediterranean “world,” trading with, raiding, and settling alongside many of the other civilizations of the Iron Age.  For centuries, Greece itself was too remote, geographically, and too poor, in terms of natural resources, to tempt foreign invaders to try to seize control.  Starting in the sixth century BCE, however, some Greek colonies fell under the sway of the greatest empire the world had seen to date, and a series of events culminated in a full-scale war between the Greeks and that empire: Persia.

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Next: Persia and the Greek Wars

Gold mask: By Xuan Che – Self-photographed (Flickr), 20 December 2010, CC BY 2.0,

Acropolis: By Leo von Klenze – Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Public Domain,
Greek colonization: By Dipa1965 – derivative work (vector version) of Greek Colonization Archaic Period.png using Mediterranean Basin and Near East before 1000 AD locator map.svg as background. Minor spelling corrections and removal of Pella from the parent cities., CC BY-SA 4.0,
Hoplite on pottery: By Jona Lendering – Provided under CC 0 license (notice under the photograph in the description page of the photograph)., CC0,
Hoplites: By EDSITEment personnell, with confirmation of PD status of the picture received via Email on September 20 2016:”Our webmaster created the image and it is in the public domain.Sincerely,Carol Peters” – EDSITEment, Public Domain,
Knossos palace: By Mmoyaq – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Solon: By Walter Crane – The story of Greece : told to boys and girls (191-?) by Macgregor, Mary, Public Domain,

Sparta info:

Greek runners on vase: By Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011), CC BY 2.5,

Bronze Age collapse: By Lommes – Own work (Translated from File:Bronsealderens_sammenbrudd.jpg), CC BY-SA 4.0,

Lion’s Gate: By Andreas Trepte – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,
Libation vessel: By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Parthenon: By Phanatic – Parthenon, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Agoge info:

Hoplite: By Tilemahos Efthimiadis – Flickr: Athenian, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Sparta map: By Sparta territory.jpg🌒: MarsyasTerritorioEspartano.svg🌒: Rowanwindwhistlerderivative work: Péter Gulyás🌓 – This file was derived from:  TerritorioEspartano.svg, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Archaic period in Greece map: By User:Megistias – Own work data fromGrece Archaice (620-480 Avant J.C.),ISBN 978-960-6709-90-6Blank map from Image:Map greek sanctuaries-fr.svg., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Penelope by Thomas Seddon: Public domain

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

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