Short history of ancient Greece

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Ancient Greek history is most easily understood by dividing it into time periods. The region was already settled, and agriculture initiated, during the Paleolithic era as evidenced by finds at Petralona and Franchthi caves (two of the oldest human habitations in the world). The Neolithic Age (c. 6000 – c. 2900 BCE) is characterized by permanent settlements (primarily in northern Greece), domestication of animals, and the further development of agriculture. Archaeological finds in northern Greece (Thessaly, Macedonia, and Sesklo, among others) suggest a migration from Anatolia in that the ceramic cups and bowls and figures found there share qualities distinctive to Neolithic finds in Anatolia. These inland settlers were primarily farmers, as northern Greece was more conducive to agriculture than elsewhere in the region, and lived in one-room stone houses with a roof of timber and clay daubing.

The Cycladic Civilization (c. 3200-1100 BCE) flourished in the islands of the Aegean Sea (including Delos, Naxos, and Paros) and provides the earliest evidence of continual human habitation in that region. During the Cycladic Period, houses and temples were built of finished stone and the people made their living through fishing and trade. This period is usually divided into three phases: Early Cycladic, Middle Cycladic, and Late Cycladic with a steady development in art and architecture. The latter two phases overlap and finally merge with the Minoan Civilization, and differences between the periods become indistinguishable.

The Minoan Civilization (2700-1500 BCE) developed on the island of Crete, and rapidly became the dominant sea power in the region. The term ‘Minoan’ was coined by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who uncovered the Minoan palace of Knossos in 1900 CE and named the culture for the ancient Cretan king Minos. The name by which the people knew themselves is not known. The Minoan Civilization was thriving, as the Cycladic Civilization seems to have been, long before the accepted modern dates which mark its existence and probably earlier than 6000 BCE.

The Minoans developed a writing system known as Linear A (which has not yet been deciphered) and made advances in shipbuilding, construction, ceramics, the arts and sciences, and warfare. King Minos was credited by ancient historians (Thucydides among them) as being the first person to establish a navy with which he colonized, or conquered, the Cyclades. Archaeological and geological evidence on Crete suggests this civilization fell due to an overuse of the land causing deforestation though, traditionally, it is accepted that they were conquered by the Mycenaeans. The eruption of the volcano on the nearby island of Thera (modern-day Santorini) between 1650 and 1550 BCE and the resulting tsunami is acknowledged as the final cause for the fall of the Minoans. The isle of Crete was deluged and the cities and villages destroyed. This event has been frequently cited as Plato’s inspiration in creating his myth of Atlantis in his dialogues of the Critias and Timaeus.

The Mycenaeans & Their Gods

The Mycenaean Civilization (approximately 1900-1100 BCE) is commonly acknowledged as the beginning of Greek culture, even though we know almost nothing about the Mycenaeans save what can be determined through archaeological finds and through Homer’s account of their war with Troy as recorded in the Iliad. They are credited with establishing the culture owing primarily to their architectural advances, their development of a writing system (known as Linear B, an early form of Greek descended from the Minoan Linear A), and the establishment, or enhancement of, religious rites. The Mycenaeans appear to have been greatly influenced by the Minoans of Crete in their worship of earth goddesses and sky gods, which, in time, become the classical Greek pantheon.

Greek mythology provided a solid paradigm of the creation of the universe, the world, and human beings. An early myth relates how, in the beginning, there was nothing but chaos in the form of unending waters. From this chaos came the goddess Eurynome who separated the water from the air and began her dance of creation with the serpent Ophion. From their dance, all of creation sprang and Eurynome was, originally, the Great Mother Goddess and Creator of All Things.

By the time Hesiod and Homer were writing (8th century BCE), this story had changed into the more familiar myth concerning the titans, Zeus’ war against them, and the birth of the Olympian Gods with Zeus as their chief. This shift indicates a movement from a matriarchal religion to a patriarchal paradigm. Whichever model was followed, however, the gods clearly interacted regularly with the humans who worshipped them and were a large part of daily life in ancient Greece. Prior to the coming of the Romans, the only road in mainland Greece that was not a cow path was the Sacred Way which ran between the city of Athens and the holy city of Eleusis, the birthplace of the Eleusinian Mysteries celebrating the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

By 1100 BCE, around the time of the Bronze Age Collapse, the great Mycenaean cities of southwest Greece were abandoned and, some claim, their civilization destroyed by an invasion of Doric Greeks. Archaeological evidence is inconclusive as to what led to the fall of the Mycenaeans. As no written records of this period survive (or have yet to be unearthed) one may only speculate on causes. The tablets of Linear B script found thus far contain only lists of goods bartered in trade or kept in stock. It seems clear, however, that after what is known as the Greek Dark Ages (approximately 1100-800 BCE, so named because of the absence of written documentation) Greek colonization was ongoing in much of Asia Minor, and the islands surrounding mainland Greece and began to make significant cultural advances. Beginning in c. 585 BCE the first Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, was engaged in what, today, would be recognized as scientific inquiry on the Asia Minor coast, and this region of Ionian colonies would make significant breakthroughs in Greek philosophy and mathematics.

From the Archaic to the Classical Periods

The Archaic Period (800-500 BCE) is characterized by the introduction of republics instead of monarchies (which, in Athens, moved toward democratic rule) organized as a single city-state or polis, the institution of laws (Draco’s reforms in Athens), the great Panathenaic Festival was established, distinctive Greek pottery and Greek sculpture were born, and the first coins minted on the island kingdom of Aegina. This, then, set the stage for the flourishing of the Classical Period of ancient Greece given as 500-400 BCE or, more precisely, as 480-323 BCE, from the Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis to the death of Alexander the Great. This was the Golden Age of Athens, when Pericles initiated the building of the Acropolis and spoke his famous eulogy for the men who died defending Greece at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Greece reached the heights in almost every area of human learning during this time and the great thinkers and artists of antiquity (Phidias, Plato, Aristophanes, to mention only three) flourished. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fell at Thermopylae and, the same year (480 BCE), Themistocles won victory over the superior Persian naval fleet at Salamis leading to the final defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE.

Democracy (literally Demos = people and Kratos = power, so power of the people) was established in Athens allowing all male citizens over the age of twenty a voice in the Greek government. The Pre-Socratic philosophers, following Thales’ lead, initiated what would become the scientific method in exploring natural phenomena. Men like Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Democritus, Xenophanes, and Heraclitus abandoned the theistic model of the universe and strove to uncover the underlying, first cause of life and the universe.

Their successors, among whom were Euclid and Archimedes, continued to advance Greek science and philosophical inquiry and further established mathematics as a serious discipline. The example of Socrates and the writings of Plato and Aristotle after him have influenced western culture and society for over two thousand years. This period also saw advances in architecture and art with a movement away from the ideal to the realistic. Famous works of Greek sculpture such as the Parthenon Marbles and Discobolos (the discus thrower) date from this time and epitomize the artist’s interest in depicting human emotion, beauty, and accomplishment realistically, even if those qualities are presented in works featuring immortals.

All of these developments in culture were made possible by the ascent of Athens following the victory over the Persians in 480 BCE. The peace and prosperity which followed the Persian defeat provided the finances and stability for culture to flourish. Athens became the superpower of the day and, with the most powerful navy, was able to demand tribute from other city-states and enforce its wishes. Athens formed the Delian League, a defensive alliance whose stated purpose was to deter the Persians from further hostilities.

The city-state of Sparta, however, doubted Athenian sincerity and formed their own association for protection against their enemies, the Peloponnesian League (so named for the Peloponnese region where Sparta and the others were located). The city-states which sided with Sparta increasingly perceived Athens as a bully and a tyrant, while those cities which sided with Athens viewed Sparta and its allies with growing distrust. The tension between these two parties eventually erupted in what has become known as the Peloponnesian Wars. The first conflict (c. 460-445 BCE) ended in a truce and continued prosperity for both parties while the second (431-404 BCE) left Athens in ruins and Sparta, the victor, bankrupt after her protracted war with Thebes.

This time is generally referred to as the Late Classical Period (c. 400-330 BCE). The power vacuum left by the fall of these two cities was filled by Philip II of Macedon (382-336 BCE) after his victory over the Athenian forces and their allies at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. Philip united the Greek city-states under Macedonian rule and, upon his assassination in 336 BCE, his son Alexander assumed the throne.

Alexander the Great & the Coming of Rome

Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) carried on his father’s plans for a full scale invasion of Persia in retaliation for their invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. As he had almost the whole of Greece under his command, a standing army of considerable size and strength, and a full treasury, Alexander did not need to bother with allies nor with consulting anyone regarding his plan for invasion and so led his army into Egypt, across Asia Minor, through Persia, and finally to India. Tutored in his youth by Plato’s great student Aristotle, Alexander would spread the ideals of Greek civilization through his conquests and, in so doing, transmitted Greek art, philosophy, culture, and language to every region he came in contact with.

In 323 BCE Alexander died and his vast empire was divided between four of his generals. This initiated what has come to be known to historians as the Hellenistic Period (323-31 BCE) during which Greek thought and culture became dominant in the various regions under these generals’ influence. After the wars of the Diadochi (‘the successors’ as Alexander’s generals came to be known), Antigonus I established the Antigonid Dynasty in Greece which he then lost. It was regained by his grandson, Antigonus II Gonatas, by 276 BCE who ruled the country from his palace at Macedon.

The Roman Republic became increasingly involved in the affairs of Greece during this time and, in 168 BCE, defeated Macedon at the Battle of Pydna. After this date, Greece steadily came under the influence of Rome. In 146 BCE, the region was designated a Protectorate of Rome and Romans began to emulate Greek fashion, philosophy and, to a certain extent, sensibilities. In 31 BCE Octavian Caesar annexed the country as a province of Rome following his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Octavian became Augustus Caesar and Greece a part of the Roman Empire.

Greek religion

Greek religion is not the same as Greek mythology, which is concerned with traditional tales, though the two are closely interlinked. Curiously, for a people so religiously minded, the Greeks had no word for religion itself; the nearest terms were eusebeia (“piety”) and threskeia (“cult”).

Although its origins may be traced to the remotest eras, Greek religion in its developed form lasted more than a thousand years, from the time of Homer (probably 9th or 8th century BCE) to the reign of the emperor Julian (4th century CE). During that period its influence spread as far west as Spain, east to the Indus River, and throughout the Mediterranean world. Its effect was most marked on the Romans, who identified their deities with those of the Greeks. Under Christianity, Greek heroes and even deities survived as saints, while the rival madonnas of southern European communities reflected the independence of local cults. The rediscovery of Greek literature during the Renaissance and, above all, the novel perfection of Classical sculpture produced a revolution in taste that had far-reaching effects on Christian religious art. The most-striking characteristic of Greek religion was the belief in a multiplicity of anthropomorphic deities under one supreme god. Priests simply looked after cults; they did not constitute a clergy, and there were no sacred books.

The sole requirements for the Greeks were to believe that the gods existed and to perform ritual and sacrifice, through which the gods received their due. To deny the existence of a deity was to risk reprisals, from the deity or from other mortals. The list of avowed atheists is brief. But if a Greek went through the motions of piety, he risked little, since no attempt was made to enforce orthodoxy, a religious concept almost incomprehensible to the Greeks. The large corpus of myths concerned with gods, heroes, and rituals embodied the worldview of Greek religion and remains its legacy. It should be noted that the myths varied over time and that, within limits, a writer—e.g., a Greek tragedian—could alter a myth by changing not only the role played by the gods in it but also the evaluation of the gods’ actions.

Greek mythology

Greek mythology was used as a means to explain the environment in which humankind lived, the natural phenomena they witnessed and the passing of time through the days, months, and seasons. Greek myths were also intricately connected to religion and explained the origin and lives of the gods, where humanity had come from and where it was going after death.

Greek myths gave faces and characters to the gods of the Greek religion but they also gave people helpful practical advice on the best way to lead a happy life. Another purpose of myths was to re-tell historical events so that people could maintain contact with their ancestors, the wars they fought, and the places they explored.

The Telling of Myths

In modern usage the term ‘myth’ perhaps has negative connotations suggesting a lack of authenticity and reliability. However, it should not be assumed that myths were whole-heartedly believed in nor should it be assumed that the Greeks were wholly sceptical of them. Probably, the Greek myths, as with any religious or non-written sources, were believed by some and discounted by others. Myths were certainly used for religious and educational purposes but also may well have had a simple aesthetic function of entertainment. What is certain is that the myths were both familiar and popular with a wide section of Greek society through their common representation in art, whether that be sculpture on public buildings or scenes painted on pottery.

Without wide-spread literacy, the passing on of myths was first done orally, probably by Minoan and Mycenaean bards from the 18th century BCE onwards. This of course allows for the possibility that with each re-telling of a particular myth, it is embellished and improved upon to increase audience interest or incorporate local events and prejudices. However, this also is a modern interpretation, for it is also possible that the telling of myths followed certain rules of presentation, and a knowledgeable audience may not have willingly accepted ad hoc adaptations to a familiar tale. Over centuries though, and with increasing contact between city-states, it is difficult to imagine that local stories did not become mixed with others to create a myth with several diverse origins.

The next development in the presentation of myths was the creation of poems in Ionia and the celebrated poems of Homer and Hesiod around the 8th century BCE. For the first time mythology was presented in written form. Homer’s Iliad recounts the final stages of the Trojan War – perhaps an amalgamation of many conflicts between Greeks and their eastern neighbours in the late Bronze Age (1800-1200 BCE) – and the Odyssey recounts the protracted voyage home of the hero Odysseus following the Trojan War. Hesiod’s Theogony gives a genealogy of the gods, and his Works and Days describes the creation of man. Not only are gods described with typically human feelings and failings but also heroes are created, often with one divine parent and the other mortal, thus providing a link between man and the gods.

The next principal representation of myths was through pottery from the 8th century BCE onwards. A myriad of mythical scenes decorate ceramics of all shapes and function and must surely have spread the myths to a wider audience.

Creation of myths

Greek mythology continued to be popular through the centuries, and major public buildings such as the Parthenon at Athens, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, and the Temple to Apollo at Delphi were decorated with larger-than-life sculpture representing celebrated scenes from mythology. In the 5th century BCE the myths were presented in the new format of theatre, especially in the works of the three tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. At the same time, from the 6th century BCE the first documented scepticism and even rejection of the myths began with the pre-Socratic philosophers who searched for a more scientific explanation for phenomena and events. Finally, in the 5th century BCE the first historians Herodotus and Thucydides sought to document as accurately as possible and record for posterity a less subjective view of events and so the modern subject of history was born.

Broadly speaking, the imaginative Greeks created myths to explain just about every element of the human condition. The creation of the world is explained through two stories where a son usurps the place of his father – Cronus from Ouranos and Zeus from Cronus – perhaps referring to the eternal struggle which exists between different generations and family members. The Olympian gods led by Zeus twice defeated the sources of chaos represented by the Titans and the Giants. These gods then, rule man’s destiny and sometimes directly interfere – favourably or otherwise. Indeed, the view that events are not human’s to decide is further evidenced by the specific gods of Fate and Destiny. A further mythological explanation of the seemingly random nature of life is the blind god Pluto who randomly distributes wealth. The gods also illustrated that misdemeanours would be punished, e.g., Prometheus for stealing fire and giving it to man. The origin of other skills such as medicine and music are also explained as ‘divine’ gifts, for example, Apollo passing on to his son Asklepios medicinal knowledge for man’s benefit. Finally, certain abstract concepts were also represented by specific gods, e.g., Justice (Dike), Peace (Eirene), and Lawfulness (Eunomia).

The Heroes – the most famous being Hercules, Achilles, Jason, Perseus, and Theseus but including a great many more – all have divine parents and therefore bridge the gap between mortals and gods. These popular heroes pursue fantastic adventures and epitomise ideal qualities such as perseverance e.g., Hercules’ twelve labours, or fidelity e.g., Penelope waiting faithfully for Odysseus’ return. Heroes also added prestige to a city by being credited as its founder, e.g., Theseus for Athens, Perseus for Mycenae, or Kadmus for Thebes. The heroes and events such as the Trojan War also represented a past golden age when men were greater and life was easier. Heroes then were examples to aspire to, and by doing great deeds a certain immortality could be reached, either absolutely (as in the case of Hercules) or through commemoration in myth and tradition.

In contrast, many mythological figures represent qualities to be avoided and their sad tales illustrate the dangers of bad behaviour. King Midas, for example, was granted his wish that everything he touched turned to gold, but when he found out that this included food and drink, his avarice almost resulted in his death from starvation and thirst. The myth of Narcissus symbolises the dangers of vanity after the poor youth fell in love with his own reflection and he lost the will to live. Finally, the story of Croesus warns that vast riches cannot guarantee happiness when the fabulously rich King misinterpreted the Delphic oracle and lost his kingdom to Persia.

Natural phenomena were explained with myth, e.g., earthquakes are created when Poseidon crashes his trident to the ground or the passage of the sun is Helios in his chariot riding across the sky. Myths such as Persephone’s half year descent to Hades explained the seasons. Time itself had mythological explanations: Helios’ seven herds of 350 cattle correlate to the days of the year, Selene’s 50 daughters are the weeks, and Helios’ twelve daughters the hours.

Greek mythology also includes a number of monsters and strange creatures such as the one-eyed Cyclops in the Odysseus story, a gigantic boar in the fabled Kalydonian hunt, sphinxes, giant snakes, fire-breathing bulls and more. These creatures may represent chaos and lack of reason, for example, the centaurs – half-man and half-horse. Fierce and fantastic creatures often emphasise the difficulty of the tasks heroes are set, for example, the many-headed Hydra to be killed by Hercules, the gorgon Medusa whose look could turn you into stone and whom Perseus had to behead, or the Chimera – a fire-breathing mix of lion, goat and snake – which Bellerophon killed with the help of his winged-horse Pegasus. Alternatively, they may represent the other-worldliness of certain places, for example the three-headed dog Kerberos which guarded Hades or simply symbolised the exotic wildlife of distant lands visited by Greek travellers.

Perhaps unfamiliar experiences were also explained in myth, for example, one can imagine that a Greek visiting King Minos’ sophisticated and many-roomed palace at Knossos might have thought it a labyrinth, and the worship there of bulls and the sport of bull-leaping might be the source of the Minotaur – is it coincidence it was killed by the visiting Athenian, Theseus? Could Jason’s expedition for the Golden Fleece be a reference to the rich gold of the Caucasus and a Greek expedition to plunder this resource? Do the Amazons represent an encounter with another culture where women were treated more equally than in the Greek world? Do the Greek myths of the Sirens and Charybdis warn of the dangers of travel beyond familiar territory?

Such questions may well remain unanswered but starting with the discovery of Troy in the 19th century CE, archaeological finds have steadily contributed an ever-growing body of physical evidence which illustrates that the oral traditions and stories from Greek mythology had an origin and a purpose they were not previously credited with.

Notable people

Hippocrates

The famous ancient Greek physician Hippocrates lived during the age of Pericles in classical Greece and was undoubtedly one of the earliest influential figures in the history of medicine. His remarkable contributions to early medical discoveries have helped to set medical standards to this day, and he is often regarded as the father of Western medicine. He founded the Hippocratic School of Medicine, which, in due course, established medicine as a distinct field and revolutionized medical practice in ancient Greece.

It was his initiatives that helped medicine to attain the status it has today, separating it from other practices such as philosophy and theurgy. He is also thought to be the first person to clearly state that diseases were the result of natural causes, and not caused by superstition and the wrath of the gods, a belief that was widespread in ancient times. From the earliest descriptions of severe health conditions such as clubbed fingers (also called Hippocratic fingers), lung cancer, and cyanotic heart disease to the eventual professionalization of medicine, Hippocrates had a lasting impact in the field of medicine.

Pythagoras

Often called the first of the Greek philosophers, Pythagoras was born in 570 BC on the island of Samos off the coast of present-day Turkey. Legend has it that his earliest days were spent as a disciple of some of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers of that time. During this time, he absorbed their secret teachings, taught himself to play the lyre and was able to recite epics by Homer just from memory.

He then went on to travel to the few centers of knowledge and philosophy in the ancient world and armed himself with knowledge from the most powerful contemporary civilizations. Such was his influence that en route to the town of Kroton, he was joined by more than 300 people who formed an insane cult, worshiping him as an incarnation of the god Apollo.

Together with his cult, he went on to create dozens of mathematical and philosophical principles. They proved the Pythagorean theorem for calculating the area of a triangle and even proposed the concept of the earth revolving around the sun almost 2,000 years before it would be proved by the likes of Galileo and Copernicus. For obvious reasons, such activities upset many people in Greece, and he was killed by an angry mob who burnt him to death.

Plato

One of the most influential figures in ancient philosophy, Plato, was born somewhere around 428 BC or 423 BC in Athens. A student of Socrates, another philosophy legend from ancient Greece, he was named Aristocles by birth, but later earned the nickname of Platon (meaning broad) courtesy of his broad build. His family was deeply involved in Athenian politics, and Plato too seemed headed for a similar career. However, amid certain political crises, most noticeably the execution of his teacher Socrates, Plato needed no more encouragement to leave Athenian politics behind him.

Together with his master Socrates and his disciple Aristotle, Plato had already done heaps of work in laying the foundations of Western philosophy and science. He then went on to found The Academy in Athens, the first institution for higher education in the Western world, and write a number of books on philosophy, his most noticeable work being the Republic. His dialogues have covered a wide range of topics such as philosophy, mathematics, logic, and ethics. His influence was summed up by the famous words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it contains a series of footnotes to Plato.”

Aristotle

There were three pillars who laid the foundation for what we know as Western philosophy, and Aristotle was the youngest of them. A famous Greek philosopher and polymath, he gained all his knowledge and wisdom under the mentorship of Plato and later on tutored the likes of Alexander the Great. When it comes to quintessential figures in the history of Western philosophy, Aristotle did indeed surpass his master Plato, being the first person to create a comprehensive system of philosophy, encompassing several essential aspects and virtues.

Apart from revolutionizing the concepts of morality and aesthetics, logic, science, politics, and metaphysics, he was also an avid writer who covered a number of topics through poetry, theater, music, rhetoric and more. His views on physical science had an enormous influence on the scholarship of the Middle Ages, and their impact lasted as late as the Renaissance, when these concepts were replaced by Newtonian physics. Some of his now popular concepts and assumptions in zoology were so far ahead of the science of the time that these observations were not proved to be accurate until the 19th century

Socrates

Born between 470 and 469 BC in Deme Alopece, Athens, Socrates is a forerunner in classical Greek philosophy and has been credited as one of the most influential founders of Western philosophy. This renowned classical philosopher, famous for his wisdom and knowledge, has been widely documented by historians and writers such as Plato and Xenophon. It is evident from these writings, more specifically through the works of Plato, that Socrates has made some major contributions to the field of ethics.

His new philosophical views and ideas on ethics were not entertained by the society and authority of the time. He was eventually put on trial for two different charges: the corruption of youth, and impiety. In terms of his philosophical beliefs, he was always at odds with many of his fellow Athenians, be it morally, ethically, intellectually, or even politically. Disregarding any possible retributions that he may have to face for his philosophical stand, he stood by his beliefs. He was ultimately sentenced to death by poisoning, a fate he happily accepted.

Herodotus

He was an ancient Greek writer, geographer, and historian born in the Greek city of Halicarnassus, part of the Persian Empire (now Bodrum, Turkey). He is known for having written the Histories – a detailed account of the Greco-Persian Wars. Herodotus was the first writer to do the systematic investigation of historical events. He is referred to as “The Father of History”, a title conferred on him by the ancient Roman orator Cicero.

The Histories primarily covers the lives of prominent kings and famous battles such as Marathon, Thermopylae, Artemisium, Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale. His work deviates from the main topics to provide a cultural, ethnographical, geographical, and historiographical background that forms an essential part of the narrative and provides readers with a wellspring of additional information.

Photo credit: Britannica

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