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A Very Short History of the Ancient World

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Ancient Greece

The history of Greece can be traced back to Stone Age hunters. Later came early farmers and the civilizations of the Minoan and Mycenaean kings (in Crete and mainland Greece, respectively). This was followed by a period of wars and invasions, known as the Dark Ages. In about 1100 B.C., a people called the Dorians invaded from the north and spread down the west coast of the Greek peninsula. From 500 to 336 B.C. -- the so-called "classical period" -- Greece was divided into small city-states, each of which consisted of an urban center and its surrounding countryside.

At its height, Greek civilization was admired, envied and emulated -- and hated -- throughout the Mediterranean area. Why hated? The Greeks felt that they (and their civilization) were superior to others. And, as they looked down on so-called barbarians, this induced resentment -- and hatred -- on the part of those who were supposedly inferior.

Although the "glory that was ancient Greece" gets all the publicity, civilization in this part of the world actually started on the island of Crete with the Minoans, named for their mythical king Minos. We know now that Greek civilization began at least a millennium before the Age of Athens and almost 800 years before Homer. It began on Crete in the Aegean Sea, off the mainland of Greece, in the palaces of the bureaucrat-kings of Minoa..

The Minotaur and the Labryinth

A word here about the "myth" of that mythical king Minos:

(According to legend, Minos vowed to sacrifice the best bull in the land to the sea god Poseidon if he became king. Vying against other contenders, with Poseidon's aid he was victorious and a glorious white bull was sent from the sea for the sacrifice. But when King Minos saw the bull, he wanted it for his own, substituting a lesser bull for the promised sacrifice.

(For revenge, Poseidon caused Minos' wife, Pasifae, to fall in love with the bull. Pasifae and the bull from the sea eventually produced a child with the head of a bull and the body of a man -- the Minotaur. Abandoned to die, as was the custom, the infant Minotaur not only lived, but grew wild, strong and vicious and soon began to terrorize the countryside.

(So King Minos charged Daedalus, a very clever inventor, to design a prison to hold the Minotaur. Daedalus created an impenetrable maze called the Labyrinth, where the Minotaur was fed prisoners. The Minotaur finally met its end at the hands a Greek, Theseus of Athens, who volunteered to be part of the tribute to be sacrificed to the beast. But King Minos' daughter Ariadne had fallen in love with the brave Athenian. She supplied him with a ball of string [to find his way out of the Labyrinth] and a sword [to kill the Minotaur]. When Theseus emerged alive from the Labyrinth, after slaying the Minotaur, he led a revolt against King Minos and then went on to many more exploits. But that's another story . . . )

The Minoans

Around 1700 B.C., a highly sophisticated culture grew up around palace centers on Crete: The Minoans. Crete is a large island located midway between Asia Minor and Greece with a comfortable climate and a fertile soil. As the population increased, the resources of the island became increasingly scarce. So the Cretans migrated, populating other islands in the Aegean Sea, that island-dotted expanse of water that separates Greece from Asia Minor. In doing so, they took their growing civilization with them. The Cretans who remained turned to trade, becoming a central exporter of wine, oil, jewelry, and highly crafted works. In the process, they built the first major navy in the world.

Their trade was extensive. The Egyptians were highly familiar with the Cretans, who even appear in Egyptian art. Cretan artifacts turn up all over Asia Minor, and they seem to have been involved in trade with the tribal clans living on the Greek mainland. All of this produced great wealth for the Cretans, which went into massive building projects, art, and technological development. The Cretans, for instance, seem to be the only people in the ancient world that would construct multi-room buildings for a large part of society, including even the poorest people. The Cretans were the first to build a plumbing system in their buildings. And Cretan society seems to be the first "leisure" society in existence, in which a large part of human activity focused on leisure activities, such as sports.

The most popular sports were incredibly violent and dangerous, especially bull-jumping where a bull would charge headlong into a line of jumpers. Each jumper, when the bull was right on top of them, would grab the horns of the bull and vault over in a somersault to land feet first behind the bull. All the representations of this sport show both young women and young men participating.

The downfall of the Cretans was a slow and painful process. After five centuries of prosperity, the magnificent palace centers at Knossos and other places were destroyed by an earthquake in 1500 B.C. The cataclysm may have been followed by an even more serious event. Around 1500 to 1450 B.C. on the island of Strongphyle, a volcano erupted in an explosion four to five times greater than the eruption of Krakatoa (an island between Sumatra and Java) in 1883 -- the most serious known in recent history.

This explosion fragmented the island into several small islands, and produced tidal waves that would have destroyed all the palaces and cities on the northern coast of Crete, including Knossos. The Minoans, weakened by this catastrophe, seem to have been conquered by the Myceneans. It seems the Myceneans employed Minoan bureaucrats and scribes to carry on business, but in a language they understood; that is, Greek.

The Myceneans

Somewhere between 3000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., the lands of Greece were settled by a metal-using agricultural people who spoke a language other than Indo-European. Some of the names they gave their villages were preserved by the Greeks, names, for instance, ending in "- ssos." The period when they dominated Greece, called the "Early Helladic," seemed to be one of comparative quiet and peace. All that ended around 2000 B.C. when Greek invaders entered the stage and quickly dominated the landscape.

This period of conquest and settlement by the Greeks makes up the Middle Helladic period. They spoke an Indo-European language; in fact Greek. Their society was primarily based on warfare. They came to a difficult land: The Greek mainland is hot, dry and rocky. Agriculture is difficult, but some crops, such as grapes and olives, grow extremely well. The coastal settlers relied heavily on fish for their diet. These early Greeks traded with a civilization to the south, the Minoans, a contact that was instantly fruitful. They began to urbanize somewhere in the Middle Helladic period and translated their culture into a civilization.

Around 1600 B.C., these urban centers began to thrive and the Greek settlers entered their first major period of cultural creativity. Their cities grew larger, their graves more opulent, their art more common, their agriculture more efficient, and the power of these new warlord cities began to be felt around the Aegean Sea. This period of Greek development and prosperity is called the Late Helladic Period or simply the Mycenean period. For four centuries, this culture thrived until it finally crumbled into the emptiness of history.

The Dark Ages

At the very peak of their power, shortly after the destruction of Troy, the Myceneans suddenly disappear from history. Around 1200 B.C., the populations of their cities dramatically decrease until they are completely abandoned by 1100 B.C. The Greeks believed that the Myceneans were overrun by another Greek-speaking people, the Dorians. Whatever happened, the great Mycenean cities were abandoned to their fates; Greek society once again became a non-urbanized, tribal culture. The Greeks also stopped writing, so the history of this period is lost to us forever.

Not only did the Greeks abandon writing and most crafts, they also abandoned their large commercial network. They virtually stopped trading with Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Egypt as well as with themselves. Fortunately for the Greeks, none of the great powers of that time were interested in Europe or the Aegean, so the Greek Dark Ages, once the Dorians had settled, were probably a time of peace. This long breathing-space allowed the Greeks the leisure to slowly redevelop an urbanized culture.

The Greeks began to slowly urbanize in the latter part of the Dark Ages. This early urbanized culture would produce, at the very close of the Greek Dark Ages, the single greatest Greek accomplishment: The poetry of Homer. Not only are the two epic poems of Homer windows into the distant Mycenean past, they are the defining moment in Greek culture; for throughout their history the Greeks will turn to these poems to define themselves culturally, politically and historically.

There are two very important words repeatedly used throughout the Homeric epics: Honor and virtue or greatness . The latter term is perhaps the most reiterated cultural and moral value in ancient Greece and means something like achieving, morally and otherwise, your greatest potential as a human being. The reward for great honor and virtue is fame, which is what guarantees meaning and value to one's life. Dying without fame is generally considered a disaster, and the warriors of the Homeric epics commit the most outrageous deeds to avoid dying in obscurity or infamy.

The Trojan War, the Iliad and the Odyssey

The Iliad is the story of a brief event toward the end of the ten-year Trojan war when the great Greek hero Achilles is offended when the leader of the Greeks, King Agamemnon, takes a slave girl Achilles had been awarded for himself. So Achilles withdraws from the battle and prays to his mother, Thetis, a goddess, to turn the tide of battle against the Greeks. The gods grant Achilles his prayer and the Greeks are almost vanquished.

According to legend, Achilles was the greatest warrior of his age and almost invincible. When he was an infant, his mother had dipped him in the river Styx, protecting him from damage everywhere except on the heel by which she held him.

The blind poet Homer tells us the war was over a woman. When Achilles' parents were married, all of the gods had been invited to the wedding except for Eris, the goddess of discord. Insulted, she made herself invisible and cast down a golden apple with the inscription "To the fairest." Each of the goddesses there -- Hera, Athena and Aphrodite -- claimed the apple.

Eventually, Zeus ordered the matter to be settled by Paris, the youngest prince of Troy. Athena tempted Paris with strength in battle, Hera offered him power, and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris eventually awarded the apple to Aphrodite.

The most beautiful woman in the world was Helen; scores of men sought her hand. Her father, unwilling to choose one for fear the others would attack him, finally, at the suggestion of Odysseus, ruler of the island kingdom of Ithaca, solved the problem by making all the suitors swear an oath to protect Helen and her future husband. Those suitors included Agamemnon, ruler of Thebes; Ajax the Greater, a close friend of Achilles; Ajax the Lesser, ruler of Locris; Diomedes, a valiant warrior; Odysseus; Nestor, wise king of Pylos; Idomeneus, grandson of King Minos of Crete; and the archer Philoctetes, who would later kill Paris.

But Helen married Menelaus of Sparta and her sister married Agamemnon of Thebes, Menelaus' brother. On a diplomatic mission to Sparta, Paris became enamored of Helen and, when Menelaus was off on a trip to Crete, took her with him to Troy. In anger, Menelaus calls upon Helen's past suitors to make good their oaths to attack Troy. Thus began the war.

Eventually an armada of a thousand ships marshaled by King Agamemnon was gathered at a port in southeastern Greece near Thebes, including all the above-named men and their armies. They eventually landed at Troy, where there ensued a siege of nine years, broken only intermittently by fighting until the tenth year.

At this point, Achilles, having removed himself from the conflict, does not return to battle until his best friend is killed by the great Trojan hero, Hector. Achilles throws himself into the battle, fights Hector, kills him, and, in a final gesture of contempt, drags his lifeless body around the walls of Troy. Later, Hector's father, King Priam, comes to Achilles disguised as a beggar to ransom his son's body back, and, as Achilles is moved to pity, the funeral of Hector ends the poem.

Post Iliad: Conclusion of the War

Although certain events subsequent to the funeral of Hector are foreshadowed in the Iliad, and there is a general sense that the Trojans are doomed, a detailed account of the fall of Troy is not set out by Homer. Rather, the end of the story comes from later Greek and Roman poetry and drama as follows:

Achilles fights and kills the Amazon Queen Penthesilea and the Aethiopean King Memnon. Soon thereafter, he is killed on the battlefield by Paris, who manages to shoot a poisoned arrow into his only vulnerable spot -- his heel. Ajax the Greater and Odysseus feud over who would keep Achilles' armor, and, when an impromptu court awards the prize to Odysseus, Ajax goes mad with grief and slaughters his livestock, believing they were the Greek commanders. Overcome, he then kills himself.

Odysseus then devises a plan to take the city. He has his men build a large, hollow wooden horse, then he and twenty others hide inside. The Greek ships withdrew out of sight of Troy, apparently admitting defeat, leaving behind them only the giant horse, purportedly as an offering to Poseidon for good winds on the return trip. The Trojans take the wooden horse inside the city walls, and then feast and celebrate in the belief the war is over and victory is theirs. That night, the Greek soldiers creep out and open the gates to the other Greeks who had sailed back under cover of night. The city is sacked and King Priam is killed. Thus ends the Trojan war.

Homer's other epic poem, The Odyssey, is the story of the homecoming of one of the great Greek heroes at Troy, Odysseus. Unlike Achilles, Odysseus is not famous for his great strength or bravery, but for his ability to deceive and trick He is the "man of many ways," or the "man of many tricks." His homecoming is delayed for ten years because of the anger of the gods, during which time he has many adventures. But finally, in the tenth year, he is allowed to go home. If the Odyssey has a discernible theme, it is the nature of mortal life; why any human being would, if offered the chance to be a god, still choose to be mortal. Much of the book deals with the nature of human civilization and human savagery. The last half of the epic also introduces the question of the value of an anonymous human life. What value can be attached to a life that will be forgotten at its conclusion?

The Greeks regarded Homer's two epics as the highest cultural achievement of their people, the defining moment in Greek culture that set the basic Greek character in stone. Throughout antiquity, both in Greece and Rome, everything tended to be compared to these two works; events in history made sense when put in the light of the events narrated in these two works. As a result, then, these two epics are the focal point of Greek values and the Greek world view despite all its evolution and permutations throughout the centuries following their composition.

Although called the "Dark Ages," Greek life during this period was, in fact, a culturally creative period. It gave the Greeks their religion, mythology, and foundational history in their final forms. And the close of the Dark Ages would also gave the Greeks the rudiments of their greatest political achievement: The polis or "city-state."

The Archaic Period

Beginning around 800 B.C., trade began to dramatically accelerate between the peoples of Greece. Marketplaces grew up in Greek villages and communities began to gather together into defensive units, building fortifications. On this foundation, the Greek-speaking people on the Greek peninsula, the mainland, and the coast of Asia Minor developed political units that were centrally based on a single city. These city-states were independent entities that controlled a limited amount of territory surrounding a city. The largest of these city-states, for instance, was Sparta, which controlled more than 3,000 square miles of surrounding territory.

Each city-state developed fairly unique and independent cultures and political organizations (notice that the word "political" is derived from the word polis or city-state). All the Greek city-states began as monarchies, ruled by hereditary kings. These Greeks, however, soon tired of the kings, many of which were overthrown in the 8th century B.C. A variety of political alternatives were put in place, the most common being an oligarchy, or "rule by a few." The oligarchs were almost always drawn from the wealthiest citizens of the state. Even though these powers were diffused among a group (which could be surprisingly large), the power of the oligarchy could be remarkably totalitarian. Most of the early oligarchic governments and a few of the kings were overthrown by "tyrants," often swept into power by dissatisfaction or crisis; they were usually extremely popular leaders when they assumed rule. But these tyrants, who usually maintained power only by their hold on military force and fear, often fell apart rapidly.

By the 6th century B.C., experiments in government began to settle around two alternatives. Although oligarchy became the settled norm of the Greek city-state, several were replaced by a second alternative: Democracy. The word democracy means, "rule by the people (demos)," but the Greek democracies looked nothing like modern democracies. First, they really did mean rule by the people, for the Greek democracies were not representative governments; they were governments run by the free, male citizens of the city-state. Second, all the people were not involved in the government: Slaves, foreigners and women were all disbarred.

This was a period of frenetic colonization for the Greeks. Pressured by growing populations around the city-states, they actively went looking for areas to colonize in Greece, the Aegean Sea, and elsewhere. Greek city-state colonies began to appear on the Italian and Sicilian shores. They set up trading posts in the Middle East and Egypt. Greek culture was spreading across the Mediterranean, and Greek commerce was rapidly making the city-states wealthy and powerful.

Although there was no military, political, or cultural center of the Greek world in the Archaic Period -- and different city-states developed separate cultures -- the Greek culture became in many ways a national culture because of the dynamic interactions between the various city-states. The greatest flowering of culture occurred on the city-states of Asia Minor, especially in Miletus, a port city on the western coast of modern-day Turkey.

Greek philosophy begins in these city-states and soon spreads around the Greek world. Corinth and later Argos become great centers of literature. But perhaps the greatest of the city- states were Athens and Sparta. Sparta, in particular, dominated the political scene all during the 7th century B.C., and would remain a powerful force all throughout its history until the Macedonians conquered Greece in the 4th century B.C.


Sparta and Athens represented diametrically opposed concepts of the Greek polis and its relations with other city-states; they also represent diametrically opposed concepts of the individual's relationship to the state. The rivalry, then, between Sparta and Athens, which would erupt into a disastrous war for Athens, was also an ideological and cultural rivalry.

The single, overwhelming fact of Spartan history was the Messenean War. In the 8th century B.C., Sparta, like all her neighbors, was a monarchy with a limited oligarchy. However, in 725 B.C., needing land to feed a dramatically growing population, the Spartans marched over the Taygetus mountains and annexed all the territory of their neighbor, Messenia. The Messenians occupied a fertile plain and the Spartans soon found themselves with more than enough land to support themselves and their newly conquered neighbors. However, like all conquered people, the Messenians did not appreciate the loss of their independence. With the help of the city-state of Argos, the Messenians revolted in 640 B.C. This was no ordinary revolt, for not only did the Messenians almost win, they almost destroyed Sparta itself.

At the end of the Messenian revolt, Sparta found itself controlling the territory of a subject population that outnumbered it ten to one! Believing it was only a matter of time before they would be overrun, the Spartans invented a new political system as dramatically revolutionary as the Athenian democracy that would evolve in the north: They turned their city- state into a military state and the Messenians into agricultural slaves called helots who worked small plots of land on estates owned by the Spartans.

Spartan society itself changed. The military became the center of existence. The state determined whether children, both male and female, were strong when they were born; weakling infants were left in the hills to die of exposure. Although this was a common practice in the Greek world, Sparta institutionalized it as a state activity rather than an individual family choice. At the age of seven, every male Spartan was sent to military and athletic school. These schools taught toughness, discipline, endurance of pain, and survival skills. At twenty, after thirteen years of training, the Spartan became a soldier. He spent his life with his fellow soldiers, living in barracks and eating all his meals with his fellow soldiers. If he married, he didn't live with his wife. Only at the age of thirty, did the Spartan become an "equal," and was allowed to live in his own house with his own family -- although he continued to serve in the military. Military service ended at the age of sixty.

How did the soldier survive? How did Sparta afford to feed young men who did nothing but soldier in their twenties? Each soldier was granted a piece of land, which he probably never saw; this land was farmed, of course, by the conquered Messenian helots. These helots worked small plots of land on estates owned by Spartans; part of their produce went to the master of the estate, and the remainder went to the helot farmer and his family.

The Spartans viewed themselves as the true inheritors of Greek tradition. They did not surround themselves with luxuries, expensive foods or opportunities for leisure. And, although the ideology of Sparta was oriented around the state, paradoxically, this soldier-centered state was the most liberal with regards to the status of women. Unlike most Greek states, where women were supposedly required to stay indoors at all times, Spartan women were free to move about at will.

Spartan society was divided into three main classes. At the top was the native Spartan, who could trace his or her ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the city. He served in the army and was the only person who enjoyed the full political and legal rights of the state. Next were foreign people who served as a kind of buffer population between the Spartans and the helots. They carried out most of the trade and commerce in Sparta. At the bottom, of course, were the Messenian helots.

In the 6th century B.C., the Spartans began to set their military sights on neighboring states. However, when they conquered their neighbor, Tegea, rather than annex the land and people, they set up a truce. Under this arrangement, Tegea would obey Sparta in all its foreign relationships, including wars, and would supply Sparta with a fixed amount of soldiers and equipment. In exchange, the Tegeans could remain an independent state. This was a brilliant move on the part of the Spartans, and, in a short time, they had formed alliances with a large number of other city-states in the southern part of Greece called the Peloponnesus. By the time the Persians invaded in 490 B.C., they had become the major power in Greece, eclipsing even their powerful neighbor in the north, Athens.


Unlike Sparta, the land around Athens was agriculturally rich and the city had a good harbor so it could trade easily with other city-states around the Aegean Sea. Athens entered the Archaic Period the same way so many of its neighbors did, as a city-state ruled by a king. Underneath the king was a council of nobles, which in the 8th century B.C. gradually became very wealthy, particularly off the cash crops of wine and olive oil. As their wealth increased, the nobles slowly stripped the king of power until Athenian government became an oligarchy.

Rule by the wealthy, however, is often inherently unstable. In Athens, the farmers in the surrounding countryside produced mainly wheat, while the wealthy and nobility owned estates that produced wine and olive oil. Wheat farming was badly managed, however; the average Athenian farmer didn't rotate crops or let fields lie fallow. Production of wheat plummeted at the same time that Athenians began to import wheat and export olive oil and wine. So not only did production of wheat fall, so did its price. Pretty soon, while the wealthy farmers were making money hand over fist, the average farmer had fallen deeply into debt. To pay for that debt, farmers sold their children, their wives, and even themselves into (limited) slavery both in Athens and abroad. The situation was a powder-keg waiting to go off; suffering under unmanageable debts, sold into slavery, with the government under the control of the wealthy people that were the causes of their problems, the average Athenian farmer was primed for revolution.

But history takes strange turns sometimes. Recognizing the danger of the situation, in 594 B.C., the council and the people of Athens agreed to hand over all political power to a single individual, Solon. In effect a tyrant, Solon's mission was to reform the government and set up a system to guarantee that Athens didn't slip into an exploitive situation again.

Solon immediately dismissed all outstanding debts and freed as many Athenians as he could from slavery. He banned any loans that were secured by a promise to enter into slavery if the loan was defaulted. In addition, he encouraged the development of olive and wine production, so that by the end of the century, most of Athenian land was dedicated to these lucrative crops.

As far as government is concerned, he divided Athenian society into four classes based on wealth. The two wealthiest classes were allowed to serve on the council. The third class was allowed to serve on another elected council of 400 people. Each of the four tribes making up the Athenian people was allowed to elect 100 representatives from this third class. This "Council of Four Hundred" served as a kind of balance or check on the power of the Areopagus (as the top council was called). The fourth and poorest class was allowed to participate in an Assembly, which elected local magistrates and voted on affairs brought to it by the Council of Four Hundred. This class also participated in a new judicial court that gradually drew civil and military cases out of the hands of the wealthiest people.

The Athenians considered Solon the greatest hero of their city-state and pointed to his reforms as the basis of their state. Solon's new state, however, lasted very briefly. Although he brilliantly reformed the government, he didn't really solve the economic crisis, and within a few years, Athens was collapsing into anarchy. A nobleman, Peisistratus, was swept into power and set about restoring order. The tyranny of Peisistratus, however, was as important to the foundation of Athenian democracy as Solon's reforms had been. Although he was a military leader who backed up his power with a frightening mercenary army, Peisistratus began to actively build in and around Athens, and to reform Athenian religion and religious practices, and, in particular, to devote his government to cultural reform. He sought out poets and artists in order to make Athens a culturally sophisticated and dynamic society.

But, in particular, he launched a full attack on the power of the nobility. He increased the power of the Assembly and the courts associated with the poorest classes, and used all his power to make sure that the Solonian government worked smoothly and that elections were held (provided his supporters were elected).

Like most tyrants, Peisistratus had monarchical ambitions; on his death, the tyranny fell to his son, Hippias. And although Hippias began in the mold of his father, following the assassination of his brother he became suspicious and withdrawn and increasingly arbitrary. His many enemies began plotting his overthrow. In particular, a wealthy family who had been exiled by Peisistratus prevailed on Sparta to assist them in the overthrow of Hippias. Under the Spartan king, Cleomenes I, Athens was overcome in 510 B.C. and Hippias ran to exile in Persia.

The Spartans followed their usual practice and entered into a truce with Athens and installed their own hand-picked Athenians to lead the government. But the individual they chose was a bitter rival of the family who had been the original allies of Sparta and he began to throw people off the citizenship rolls in great numbers. Cleisthenes, a member of that family, rallied popular support and, although the Spartans invaded a second time, he was soon reinstalled.

From 508 to 502 B.C., Cleisthenes began a series of major reforms that would produce Athenian democracy. He enfranchised as citizens all free men living in Athens and the surrounding area.. He established a council that would be the chief arm of government with all executive and administrative control. Every citizen over the age of 30 was eligible to sit on this council; each year the members of the council would be chosen by lot. The Assembly, which included all male citizens, was allowed to veto any of the council's proposals and was the only branch of government that could declare war. In 487 B.C., long after Cleisthenes, the Athenians added the final aspect of Athenian democracy proper: Ostracism. The Assembly could vote (voting was done on potsherds called ostra) to expel citizens from the state for a period of ten years. This would guarantee that individuals who were thinking about seizing power could be removed from the country before they got too powerful.

So by 502 B.C., Athens had established its culture and political structure, just as Sparta had established its culture and political structure by 550 B.C. Athens was more or less a democracy; it had become primarily a trading and commercial center; a large part of the Athenian economy focused on cash crops for export and crafts; it had become a center of art and literature; the city had become architecturally rich because of the building projects of Peisistratus -- an architectural richness that far outshone other Greek city-states; and Athenian religious festivals were largely in place. The next 100 years in the Greek world would be politically and culturally dominated by Athens. But the event that would catapult Athens to the center of the Greek world was the invasion of the Persians in 490 B.C.

The Classical Period: 500-336 B.C.

Like the Trojan War, the Persian Wars were a defining moment in Greek history. The Athenians, who dominated the Greek world culturally and politically through the 5th century B.C. and part of the fourth, regarded the wars against Persia as their greatest and most characteristic moment.

In the middle of the 6th century B.C., the Greek city-states that had become established along the coast of Asia Minor (in what is now Turkey) came under the control of the Lydians and their king, Croesus (560-546 B.C.). However, the Lydians were conquered by the Persians in 546 B.C. The Persians controlled them very closely, appointing tyrants to rule the city-states, requiring citizens to serve in the Persian army and levying steep taxes.

Smarting under these new burdens, Aristagoras, the tyrant of Miletus, began a democratic rebellion in 499 B.C., asking for assistance to the Athenians, who supplied 20 ships. In 498 B.C., the Athenians conquered and burned Sardis, the capital of Lydia, and all the Greek cities in Asia Minor joined the revolt. But by 495 B.C., after the Athenians had lost interest and gone home, the Persians under king Darius I (521-486 B.C.) restored control over the rebellious Greek cities.

But the Persians desired that Athens be punished for the role it played in the destruction of Sardis. The Persians also had Hippias, the tyrant of Athens who had been deposed by Cleisthenes in 508 B.C. So in 490 B.C., the Persians launched an expedition against Athens. They were met, however, by one of their former soldiers, Miltiades. Previously an outstanding soldier in the Persian army, he had fled to Greece after angering Darius. Unlike the Athenians, he knew Persian army tactics. So when the two armies met at Marathon in Attica near Athens, with the Athenians led by Miltiades, the Athenians roundly defeated the invading Persians.

Legend has it that after that battle, a messenger named Phidippides ran from Marathon to Athens, a distance of 26.2 miles to report the victory. When he arrived in Athens, he shouted "Nenikikamen" ("we were victorious") and then died. The battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. is perhaps the single most important battle in Greek history. Had the Athenians lost, Greece would have eventually come under the control of the Persians and all the subsequent culture and accomplishments of the Greeks would probably have taken a different form.

Thus, for the Athenians, Marathon was a tremendous achievement. They began to think of themselves as the center of Greek culture and Greek power. This pride, or chauvinism, was the foundation of much of their cultural achievements. The first great dramas of Aeschylus were a celebration of Athenian greatness. The great building projects in the latter half of the 5th century were motivated by the need to display Athenian wealth, greatness, and power.

But while Marathon stands as one of the greatest of Greek military accomplishments, it was merely a minor setback to the Persians who, after all, controlled almost all the entire civilized world: Asia Minor, Lydia, Judah, Mesopotamia and Egypt. So it wasn't until Xerxes (who ruled from 486-465 B.C.) became king that the Persians turned their attention back to the Greeks and launched a punitive expedition against Athens. In 481 B.C., Xerxes gathered together an army of some 150,000 men and a navy of 600 ships, determined that the whole of Greece would be conquered.

This time, however, the Athenians were prepared. The Greek politician, Themistocles, and the Athenians had begun a navy-building project of epic proportions and by 481 B.C., Athens had a navy of 200 ships.

But when Xerxes gathered his army at the Hellespont, the narrow inlet to the Black Sea that separates Asia Minor from Europe, most Greeks despaired of winning. Of several hundred Greek city-states, only 31 decided to resist the Persian army. These states the Greek League were led by Sparta, Corinth, and Athens. Sparta was made the leader of all land and sea operations.

Themistocles, however, understood that the battle would be won or lost at sea. He thought that the Persian army could succeed only if it were kept supplied by the fleet. He also understood that the Aegean Sea was a violent place, subject to dangerous winds and sudden squalls. So while he kept the Athenian fleet safe in harbor, many of Xerxes' ships were destroyed at sea during bad weather. He also bided his time; if the Persians could be delayed on land, then he could destroy the Persian fleet at the proper moment.

That time came in a sea battle off the island of Salamis. The Greeks had slow, clumsy ships in comparison with the Persian fleet, so they turned their ships into fighting platforms. They filled them with soldiers who fought the opposing boats in hand-to-hand combat. It was a brilliant innovation and, after the Athenians managed to destroy the majority of the Persian fleet, most of the Persian army withdrew.

However, one Persian general, Mardonius, remained. And, in 479 B.C., he was met by the largest Greek army history had ever known. Under the leadership of the Spartan king Pausanias, Mardonius was killed in the battle of Plataea, and his army retreated back to Persia.

The Delian League

After the Persians retreated from Greece, the Greek League began to fall apart. Although Sparta had contributed the most to the war and had fought the deciding battle at Plataea, the victory over the Persians would not have been possible without the Athenian navy, which remained powerful after the war. All the Greek cities in Asia Minor lived under the direct threat of Persian reinvasion and revenge. But Sparta, with a land-based military, was in no position to defend them. So these city-states, along with many city-states of the islands in the Aegean, turned to Athens and her powerful navy for protection and alliance. However, the city-states in southern Greece, and some in the north, turned to Sparta. Thus was set up the great rivalry between these two diametrically opposed Greek states and cultures, a rivalry that would lift Athens to the height of empire only to be finally defeated by an increasingly distrustful Spartan alliance.

In 478 B.C., representatives from the Greek city-states of Asia Minor and the islands of Aegean Sea, met on the island of Delos a sacred place associated with the cult of Apollo to discuss an alliance with the Athenians. Thus was born the Delian League. Although Athens was the leader, the Delian League was essentially a democratic alliance between equals with each city-state having one vote.

The League began fighting the Persians, freeing city after city until they achieved a decisive victory in 467 B.C. This battle freed several Greek cities, all of which joined the league although many were coerced into joining because it was thought that the League's safety and its objectives would be seriously threatened by independent states.

During all this time, Athens was led by a powerfully brilliant political leader named Cimon, the son of Miltiades, the great hero of the battle of Marathon. Under Cimon's leadership, Athens and the League constantly and aggressively attacked the Persians; as the League grew, the power of Athens, as leader of the League, grew proportionately.

Athens itself grew tremendously wealthy during this time since part of the agreement of the League involved tax payments to Athens for maintaining the fleet. With all that wealth, Athens began to invest in large building projects such as the Acropolis, as well as in drama, in art, and in crafts. The great flowering of Athenian culture begins in the heyday years of the Delian League, as wealth and power flowed to Athens as if it were the center of the world.

The turning point in the Delian League came with the revolt of a small island city, Thasos. Cimon promptly squashed this revolt. But in Athens he became unpopular, as a radical democratic movement, under the leadership of Pericles, challenged his authority. As Athens stood on the brink of becoming a democratic state, Pericles stood ready to move the Delian League into an Athenian Empire.

The First Peloponnesian War

In 461 B.C., under the leadership of Pericles, Cimon was ousted from power. Athens overnight changed direction in foreign policy, focusing on its role with Sparta rather than with Persia. Immediately after Cimon's exile, the Athenians formed an alliance with Argos, a long- standing rival of Sparta. Then they formed an alliance with Megara, the city that lay directly in the path of the route from Athens to Sparta in the southern part of Greece. The Spartans, suspicious of these moves -- particularly the alliance with Megara -- began a campaign against the Athenians and thus began the First Peloponnesian War.

Athens dominated the war in its early years, but a disastrous campaign against the Persians in Egypt decimated the Athenian navy and inspired several members of the Delian League to revolt. At this point, the Athenian empire began to fray at the edges. And when Megara and a neighboring state, Boeotia, rebelled against the alliance, Athens no longer had a buffer zone between it and the Peloponnesian states allied with Sparta.

However, in 445 B.C., Pericles diverted disaster by making a 30-year peace with Sparta. Both sides got they wanted. Athens gave up political power over the states on the Greek mainland; in return, Sparta recognized the Athenian Empire as a legitimate political institution. The Athenian Empire, which had been forming gradually, was now official.

The Athenian Empire

Before the peace with Sparta, Athens benefitted from the taxes paid into the Delian League and began growing quite wealthy; after the peace, the Athenians began to grew especially wealthy! Though the League had made peace with Persia in 449 B.C., tribute money for defense kept rolling in. Although some city-states eagerly participated in the empire, most fumed under the onerousness of Athenian control and taxation. As Athens grew more and more powerful and the city more opulent, discontent grew. The Spartans, in particular, grew increasingly distrustful of Athenian power and wealth. It was becoming apparent that even without the territory that Athens had given up, the Athenians were a major threat to Sparta and its influence.

Democracy and the Age of Pericles

The great Athenian leader of this age, Pericles, as the leader of the democratic faction of Athenian politics since 462 B.C., was swept into power in a popular movement. A member of a noble and venerable family, Pericles led the Athenians against Cimon's autocratic intentions. With the Areopagus or group of nobles finally divested of power; Athens was now solely governed by the council and the democratic Assembly. Pericles quickly brought forward legislation that let anyone serve as the archon (one of the nine central leaders of the country) despite birth or wealth. The Assembly became the central power of the state. Consisting of all the free-born male citizens of Athens, the Assembly was given sole veto power over every state decision. In terms of numbers, this still was not a democratic state: Women weren't included, nor were foreigners, slaves or freed slaves.

Pericles also changed the rules of citizenship. Before his ascendancy, anyone born of a single Athenian parent was a citizen. But Pericles instituted laws demanding that both parents be citizens. So, in reality, the great democracy of Periclean Athens included only a very small minority of the people living there. It was, however, the closest to an unadulterated democracy before or since.

The Assembly was given power over the hiring and firing of public officials. In addition, the Assembly served as a law court for major cases. Any decision made in a court could be appealed to the Assembly where a court of free citizens would hear the case. There was no standing army as there was in Sparta; free citizens could choose to serve in the military.

One figure in particular towers over this new democratic state: Pericles. The Age of Athens, which begins in the middle of the 5th century B.C. and lasts until 404 B.C., when Athens is defeated by Sparta, is also called the "Classical Age," or, after its most important political figure, the "Age of Pericles." Just about everything associated with Greek culture is squeezed into this half century of wealth, energy, creativity and chauvinism in Athens. All the great works of Greek tragedy and comedy -- the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes -- were written during this half century span in Athens. Most of the monumental works of architecture, built off the wealth that literally poured in from her imperial possessions, were built at this time: The Acropolis, along with the rebuilding of the Agora, or Greek market. Flush with wealth and at peace, the Athenians had nothing better to do then invest in a massive cultural flowering of art, poetry, philosophy, and architecture.

There is no question that the democratic reforms of the Age of Pericles owe their existence to the energy of this political figure. He was a man of immense persuasiveness and an orator of great power. Although at one point he was ostracized by the Athenians (he later returned), he dominated the city's democratic government with his formidable capacity to speak and to persuade.

The Second Peloponnesian War

Suspicious and fearful of Athenian power and wealth, the Spartans were not happy with the 30-year peace they had agreed to in 445 B.C. The Athenians themselves had become chauvinistic and power hungry, and seemed ready to begin to reassert their power on the mainland of Greece. So in 431 B.C., 14 years after the peace treaty, hostilities began anew. This war would see the death of Pericles in its second year, and eventually witness the foolish destruction of the Athenian navy, the defeat of Athens, and the end of Athenian democracy.

The Spartans, who outnumbered the Athenians two to one, wished to fight a land war. At the outbreak of the war, then, they invaded Attica and began burning crops in order to starve the Athenians into submission. The Athenians, however, with a harbor and a powerful navy, could easily supply their citizens from the sea. In 430 B.C., an outbreak of typhoid fever killed a third of the city and, a year later, Pericles died of the disease.

This horrendous war dragged on for the next quarter century, with back and forth results; at times to Athens' advantage and to Sparta's at others. Sparta offered peace terms on advantageous terms to Athens several time, but in each case they were rejected by Athenian democratic elements.

After ten years of bloody fighting, the situation was no different than it was at the beginning of the war. Both sides were worn down, so Sparta and Athens signed a 50-year peace called the Peace of Nicias, after the Athenian politician and general who was leading Athens at the time. Essentially similar in view and ability as Pericles, Nicias was a brilliant and cautious man who managed to pull off an effective truce. Everyone was allowed to go home, and the current territorial status was allowed to remain in place. Athens kept its continental territories and allies, and Sparta got to keep all the territories it had acquired.

Nicias, however, had rivals in the democratic assembly. Perhaps the most talented of these rivals was a young, brilliant follower of the philosopher Socrates named Alcibiades. With creativity, energy, and immense oratorical ability, Alicibiades in 415 B.C. convinced the Athenians to attack the Greek city-states on the island of Sicily and bring them under control of the Athenian Empire. This expedition, in part under the leadership of Nicias, soon turned into a disaster. In 413 B.C., the entire army was defeated and captured and a large part of the great, powerful fleet of the Athenians was destroyed in the Sicilian harbor of Syracuse. Since Athenian power since the Persian Wars had rested solely on the power of the navy; the disastrous Sicilian expedition left Athens almost completely powerless.

Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the Spartans soon attacked Athens and they were soon joined by the Persians, who were still smarting from the war Athens had so vigorously prosecuted in the first half of the 5th century. For a while the Athenians hung on, even enjoying some tremendous victories when the war shifted to the Aegean Sea. But in 405, the rest of their navy was destroyed in a surprise attack as it was beached on the Turkish coast, and by the next year the situation was hopeless.

Thus, in 404 B.C., the Athenians surrendered to the Spartans, who tore down the walls of the city, barred the city from ever having a navy, and installed their own oligarchic government, called "The Thirty Tyrants" or just "The Thirty." The Age of Athens, the Age of Pericles, the Classical Age, the Athenian Empire by whatever name, it had come to an end.

Spartan Hegenomy (404-371 B.C.)

After the surrender of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta was the undisputed major power among the Greek city-states. This period is called the Spartan hegemony, for although Sparta didn't rule the city-states of Greece as an empire, it did exercise considerable influence over the domestic and foreign decisions of these independent states.

In Athens, the Spartan general who defeated the city, Lysander, pulled down the democratic government and established an oligarchy. Members of the democratic factions fled the city and raised armies in Corinth and in Thebes. The oligarchy ruled with an iron fist, often ordering summary executions of its political opponents (as Socrates tells us in The Apology); for this, the 30 members of the oligarchy were called "the Thirty Tyrants," or simply, "the Thirty." Eventually the Athenians were allowed by Sparta to return to a democratic constitution.

Sparta, meanwhile, vigorously went about establishing an empire of its own. Shortly after the defeat of Athens, they entered into an alliance with the Persian Cyrus, who claimed the throne from his brother, who was king. The Persians and the Greeks, under the leadership of Sparta, managed to make it all the way to the center of Mesopotamia and the capital itself, where Cyrus was killed. But the Greeks escaped and the Spartans soon entered into defensive alliances with the Greek city-states of Asia Minor.

The great figure of this age is Agesilaus, the king of Sparta from 396 to 360 B.C. Agesilaus was an energetic and aggressive general who, though physically lame, was incredibly brave in battle. Soon the Spartan and Greek army was threatening Persia again, but the Persians destroyed the Spartan sea empire in 394 B.C. This occurred because the Spartans were distracted by another war on the Greek mainland, namely the Corinthian War (395-387 B.C.), when Athens, Corinth, and Argos formed an alliance against Sparta. By this time, Athens had rebuilt the walls of the city and restored its navy.

But the Corinthian war, like the Peloponnesian War, accomplished virtually nothing. In the end, all sides agreed to a peace established by the Persian king. Fearful of the Athenians, the Persian king put Sparta in charge of Greece, and Agesilaus promptly broke up the Corinthian alliance and any other alliances that didn't involve Sparta. From 387 B.C. onwards, Agesilaus and the Spartans closely controlled political decisions in the individual city-states and stacked their governments with individuals friendly to Sparta and its interests.

The period of Spartan hegemony saw the first years of the maturing of Greek philosophy. Socrates, who looms large as a principle foundation of Greek philosophy, had come to the end of his years when the Age of Pericles closed, having been put to death in 399 B.C. However, his pupil, Plato, who more than anyone else is responsible for synthesizing earlier Greek philosophy into a single, overarching system, began his activities as a philosopher and teacher in these years. Based in Athens, his school, the Academy, would become the intellectual center of Greece in the decades to follow.


Philosophers, Science and the Arts

During the "Golden Age," the Greeks excelled at philosophy, though science and the arts were not far behind, and often the three were intermixed.

What we like to think of as "philosophic thought" first appears in Greece in a poem written by Hesiod about 725 B.C. It retells the myths of the gods and speculates about the origins of things and the order of the universe. What we generally call "Greek philosophy" was almost certainly derived from Egyptian culture, particularly natural science (physics and math), which preoccupied Greek thought up to the time of Plato. The Greeks seem also to have derived much of their philosophical theology from the Egyptians as well.

Nevertheless, in the latter half of the 5th century B.C., a group called the Sophists ("those with wisdom") shifted the inquiry away from natural science and towards the nature of morality and society. Socrates follows in the footsteps of the early Sophists in making ethics his primary topic; with this and with Plato's overwhelming concern with ethics, Greek philosophy became primarily concerned with ethical and civic virtue.

These pre-Socratic Greek philosophers are divided up into several schools.

  • Miletus, on the coast of Ionia in Asia Minor, in the 6th century was a prosperous trading center with numerous colonies. In order to explain the origin of things and the nature of change and motion, the philosophers there (who formed the Milesian or Ionian school) sought to discover or describe one primary, material substance as the base or elemental foundation of all natural objects and the source of all motion. Thales (640-546 B.C.) postulated that this primary substance was water; Anaximander (611-547 B.C.) defined it as "the unlimited" or "the indefinite;" and Anaximenes (585-525 B.C.) defined it as air, which could form the other elements of water, earth, and fire by rarefaction and condensation. He explained the rainbow as light hitting condensed air (i.e., water). A pupil of Anaximander, Anaximenes was the first Greek to distinguish clearly between the planets and stars.

  • Pythagoreanism (named for Phythagoras, 569-500 B.C., a Greek philosopher and mathematician) began towards the end of the 6th century in Greek cities in southern Italy. Among the extensive mathematical investigations carried on by the Pythagoreans were studies of odd and even numbers and of prime and square numbers This helped them develop a basic understanding of mathematics and geometry from which they built the Pythagorean theorem. From this arithmetical standpoint they cultivated the concept of number, which became for them the ultimate principle of all proportion, order, and harmony in the universe. The astronomy of the Pythagoreans also marked an important advance in ancient scientific thought, for they were the first to consider the earth as a globe revolving with the other planets around a central fire, the sun.


The most important of the later thinkers who developed these early ideas were:

  • Xenophanes of Colophon (570-475 B.C.). Born in Ionia, he settled in southern Italy where he ridiculed the anthropomorphic gods of Greece and believed in one great God, which was not physical but was all mind (in Greek: nous), moving all things by the force of his spirit without himself having to move (since mind was not physical, it couldn't move).

  • Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475 B.C.), a contemporary of Xenophanes, saw change as the unity of all things. He took movement or the contrary tension of things (such as a taut bow, which is potential movement because of the opposing forces at work) as forms of the mutual resolution of opposites. This unity underlies all change and opposition, but does not exist outside of change and opposition. Heraclitus alternatively called this Logos or God. With Parmenides, Heraclitus is perhaps the most important philosopher before Plato Also an astronomer, he was the first to explain that the apparent rotation of the heavens is brought about by rotation of the earth on its axis rather than by the passage of stars around the Earth. He proposed that the seeming westward movement of the heavenly bodies was due to the eastward rotation of the Earth on its axis.

  • Parmenides of Elea (b 515 B.C.) founded the Eleatic School in southern Italy and taught that Being (or Existence) must be unchanging and unmoving, and so the changing world registered by our senses has no reality whatsoever and cannot be known at all (how can you "know" an illusion?). The Parmenidean idea of the nature of reality would become the basis of Plato's thinking and would later become the foundation of the Christian theology of God.

  • Zeno of Elea (90-425 B.C.), a pupil of Parmenides, produced famous paradoxes that were essentially arguments supporting Parmenides's views. Zeno's best-known paradox is the race between Achilles and the tortoise, in which Achilles may never catch a tortoise if it's given a head start in a race. For before he caught up to the tortoise, Achilles would have to reach a point half-way from his starting point and the tortoise, then he must go half-way again, and so on to infinity so he can never catch up to the tortoise.

  • Empedocles of Acragas in Sicily (492-432 B.C.), a philosopher, poet and statesman, tried to reconcile the views of Heraclitus and Parmenides by identifying four basic elements (which became the standard elements up until modern times) earth, water, air and fire.

  • Anaxagoras of Athens (500-428 B.C.) taught that all things come to be from the mixing of innumerable tiny particles of all kinds of substance, shaped by a separate, immaterial, creating principle called "Nous" or "Mind." Nous is not explicitly called divine, but has the qualities of a creating god; Nous does not create matter, but rather creates the forms that matter assumes.

  • The Atomists: Leucippus (about whom almost nothing is known) and Democritus (of Abdera, in Thrace, born about 460), held that void (space with no matter) exists (against the Eleatics, who held that what is not there cannot exist) and that this void contains an infinite number of indivisible units (atoma, which means "indivisibles") that are undifferentiated in material but different in size and shape. By random movements they form vortexes, in which similar atoms come together and form the sensible world. This theory was taken over later by the Hellenistic philosopher, Epicurus (342-270 B.C.).

  • The Sophists were professional teachers who, for a fee, would undertake to teach their students how to get ahead in the world. Socrates was often allied with them by his contemporaries. The best-known Sophists were Protagoras, Gorgias and Hippias, who were significant original thinkers. To get a position of importance, especially in a democracy, one had to have oratorical skill, strength in debate, and a knowledge of law and politics. One would also need to know how to manage property and maybe run the state, and know something of music, astronomy, math, physics, and so on.

Socrates (469-399 B.C.)

Socrates is generally regarded as one of the wisest people of all time, even though he actually wrote nothing. Most of our knowledge of him comes from the works of Plato (427-347 B.C.), and, since Plato had other concerns in mind than simple historical accuracy, it's impossible to determine how much of his thinking actually derives from Socrates.

The most accurate of Plato's writings on Socrates is probably the "The Apology." It is Plato's account of Socrates's defense at his trial in 399 B.C. (The word "apology" comes from the Greek word for "defense-speech" and does not have the same meaning as the modern-day word.) It is clear, however, that Plato dressed up Socrates's speech to turn it into a justification for Socrates's life and his death. In it, Plato outlines some of Socrates's most famous philosophical ideas: The need to do what one thinks is right even in the face of universal opposition, and the need to pursue knowledge even when opposed.

Socrates' method of philosophical inquiry consisted in questioning people on the positions they asserted and working them through questions into a contradiction, thus proving that their original assertion was wrong. Socrates himself never takes a position; in "The Apology" he radically and skeptically claims to know nothing at all except that he knows nothing. His method of questioning eventually gives rides to the idea that truth needs to be pursued by modifying one's position through questioning and conflict with opposing ideas. It is this idea of truth being pursued, rather than discovered, that characterizes Socratic thought.

The one positive statement that Socrates seems to have made is a definition of virtue "virtue is knowledge." If one knows the good, one will always do the good. It follows, then, that anyone who does anything wrong doesn't really know what the good is. This, for Socrates, justifies tearing down people's moral positions, for if they have the wrong ideas about virtue, morality, love, or any other ethical idea, they can't be trusted to do the right thing.

A self-proclaimed "gadfly," Socrates was a most unconventional teachers and the least tactful. He purposely shocked the more refined sensibilities of his fellow citizens. Opposition to him culminated in a trial where he was found guilty of religious heresies and corrupting the morals of Athenian youth. Sentenced to death in 399 B.C., Socrates accepting this outcome with remarkable grace, drinking hemlock and dying in the company of his friends and disciples.

Plato (427-327 B.C.)

The most famous of Socrates's pupils was an aristocratic young man named Plato. For the next 12 years after Socrates' death, Plato traveled to Egypt and Italy, where he studied with students of Pythagoras. On returning to Athens at the age of 40, Plato carried on much of his former teacher's work and eventually founded his own school, the Academy, in 385 B.C. The Academy where astronomy, biology, mathematics, politics and philosophy were taught would become the most famous school in the classical world, and its most famous pupil was Aristotle.

We know much about Plato's teachings, because he wrote "dialogues" between Socrates and others that would explore philosophical issues. These dialogues were used in his school as starting points for discussion. The Platonic dialogues consist of Socrates asking questions of another and proving, through these questions, that the other person has the wrong idea on the subject. Initially, Plato seems to have carried on the philosophy of Socrates, concentrating on the basic ethical issues: What is friendship? What is virtue? Can virtue be taught? In these early Platonic dialogues, Socrates questions another person and proves, through these questions, that the other person has the wrong idea on the subject. But these dialogues never answer the questions they begin with. However, Plato later began to develop his own philosophy and "the Socrates" in these later dialogues does more teaching than questioning.

Of his many works, the most famous dialogues are Protagoras (on the structures of the virtues), The Republic (on the nature of justice in the soul and the state), Apology (Socrate's defense speech), Phaedo (the death of Socrates), Timaeus (on the priciples of the cosmos), Symposium (on love), and The Laws (on the laws that an mediate between human irrationality and rational knowledge).

Of these, the most famous is "The Republic," one of the single most influential works in Western philosophy. Essentially, it deals with the central problem of how to live a good life. This inquiry is shaped into parallel questions: (a) what is justice in the state or what is an ideal state like, and (b) what is a just individual? Naturally these questions also encompass many others, such as how the citizens of a state should be educated, what kinds of arts should be encouraged, what form its government should take, who should do the governing and for what rewards, what is the nature of the soul, and, finally, what (if any) divine sanctions and afterlife should be thought to exist. The dialogue covers just about every aspect of Plato's thought.

He compared the state and the individual, stating they both consisted of three parts: The desiring, the spirited and the rational. If they are all in harmony, but ruled by the rational, you have justice. Therefore, he concluded, the lower classes must be ruled by the upper class (according to Plato, the philosophers) for the society to be correct. Plato said class has to do with education, and not with birth or sex, starting with music and gymnastics and ending with mathematics. And when a person qualifies as a philosopher of the upper class, he must be deprived of private property, paying attention only to civic affairs.

"Until philosophers are kings . . . cities will never cease from evils nor, I think, the human race." Plato, The Republic.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)

Aristotle, one of the most famous philosophers and scientists of the ancient world, was born in Stageira, Thrace, where his father was physician to the king of Macedon. At age 17, he moved to Athens, where he studied at Plato's Academy, remaining there for 20 years and becoming a teacher.

Although he studied under Plato, Aristotle fundamentally disagreed with him on just about everything. Above all else, Aristotle believed that the world could be understood through the detailed observation and cataloging of phenomenon. That is, knowledge (which is what the word science means) is fundamentally empirical, i.e., capable of being verified or disproved by observation or experiment. As a result of this belief, Aristotle literally wrote about everything: Poetics, rhetoric, ethics, politics, meteorology, embryology, physics, mathematics, metaphysics, anatomy, physiology, logic, dreams, etc.

After Plato's death in 347 B.C., Aristotle left Athens, moving to Assos in Asia Minor, where his friend Hermias was king. He married the king's niece and adopted daughter, Phytias, and became the king's counselor. When Hermias was killed by the Persians in 345 B.C., Aristotle moved to the Macedonian capital Pella where Philip II was king. He became the tutor of the king's son, Alexander, but moved back to Athens when Alexander the Great came to the throne ten years later.

There, he founded his own school, Lyceum, also called the Peripatetic ("walking") school because the teacher and students often walked around on the grounds while discussing topics. At Lyceum, Aristotle would give advanced lessons to a private circle in the morning, and, in the afternoons, he would hold more popular speeches to a larger crowd. From these two kinds of teachings, the words esoteric and exoteric are derived.

Aristotle is said to have written more than170 texts. Like Plato, he wrote philosophical dialogues, but he also wrote texts on subjects such as music, optics and proverbs. He would separate the many subjects by name: Logic, psychology, physics, zoology, social science, etc., most of which categories have remained as subjects in many languages. Aristotle also wrote studies on the anatomy of animals, natural processes of generation and corruption, astronomy and meteorology. In the "Meta ta Physica" ("After the Normal, or Physical"), from which the term Metaphysics have come, he studied the philosophy of being. He also wrote a work on ethics, dedicated to his son Nicomachus, known as the Nicomachean Ethics. Other texts were the Rhetoric, the Poetics and the Politics.

Aristotle was convinced that humans can understand the surrounding world. But, since they are not born with this capability, they must obtain it through perception. Aristotle also believed it was important to study and understand previous thinkers and their ideas; by studying different opinions, all which partly contain some truth, one can come to a broader conclusion of the truth.

In his treatise on animals, he studied more than 500 species; in studying government, he collected and read 158 individual constitutions of Greek states as his fundamental data. This is called inductive reasoning: Observing as many examples as possible and then working out the underlying principles. Inductive reasoning is the foundation of the Western scientific method.

However, Aristotle wasn't perfect. He believed that heavy bodies of a given material fall faster than light ones when their shapes were the same, something only disproved much later by Galileo. Aristotle also believed the universe was a sphere with earth as its center.

Aristotle's logic consisted of syllogistic rules or propositions that would give a new conclusions. For example: All human beings are mortal. All Greeks are human beings. Thus, all Greeks are mortal.

In his metaphysics, Aristotle was convinced that a divine being existed -- the "Prime Mover," who is responsible for the unity and purposefulness of nature. God is perfect and all things want to be like him since all things want to reach perfection. But he said the Prime Mover is not really a religious being since he did not create the world and takes no interest in what goes on in it.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., there was such an anti-Macedonian atmosphere in Athens that Aristotle left. He spent his last year in a family estate on the island of Euboea and was succeeded at the Lyceum by his friend and disciple Theophrastus (372-287 B.C.), who expanded the school to more than 2,000 students.

" . . . credit must be given to observation rather than to theories, and to theories only in so far as they are confirmed by the observed facts." Aristotle, On Generation of the Animals. "He who exercises his mind and cultivates it seems to be both in the best state of mind and most dear to the gods." Aristotle.

Science and the Arts

But the ancient Greeks weren't just about philosophy. There were many famous Greek scientists as well as poets and dramatists. Here are some of the more well known, listed in chronological order:

Homer (who lived about 850 B.C.), a blind poet who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Sappho (7th century B.C.) was an ancient lyric poet on the island of Lebos, a cultural center at that time. Although the bulk of her poetry is now lost, her reputation in her time was immense, and she was reputedly considered by Plato as the tenth Muse.

Thespis (6th century B.C.) was termed the "inventor of tragedy" since he introduced such things as the independent actor, as opposed to the choir, as well as masks, make-up and costumes. The word for actor "thespian" comes from his name. In 534 B.C., when competitions to find the best tragedy were instituted in Athens, Thespis was the first winner.

Pythagoras (569-500 B.C.), mentioned above as a philosopher, was also active in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and music. Born on the island of Samos, he settled in Crotona, a Greek colony in southern Italy, where he formed the Pythagorean School. He is probably most famous for the Pythagorean theorem, which states that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. Though known to Babylonians 1,000 years before, Pythagoras was the first to decisively prove this theorem.

Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), the first of the three great Greek writers of tragedy, was the predecessor of Sophocles and Euripides. He wrote about 90 plays, of which only seven remain. Called the "Father of Tragedy," he improved costumes and masks and added a second actor, thus making dialogue the leading feature of a play.

Pindar (522-443 B.C.), one of the most famous Greek poets, with most of his works still extant. Most of his life was spent writing victory odes for a fee in honor of winners at various games, as well as p‘‘ans and other hymns for religious festivals. From Thebes, he is considered the greatest of the nine lyric poets of ancient Greece,

Anaxagoras (499-428 B.C.), a mathematician and astronomer born in Ionia who moved to Athens. He taught that the moon reflected light from the sun.

Sophocles ( 496- 406 B.C.), one of the three great ancient Greek tragedians (together with Aeschylus and Euripides). He wrote123 plays, winning more first prizes (around 20) than any other playwright in the dramatic competitions of the Festival of Dionysus. Only seven of his tragedies have survived, the most famous of which are the three tragedies concerning Oedipus and Antigone.

Phidias (493-430 B.C.), a sculptor in Athens, was known for his nearly 40-foot-tall statue of Athena in the Parthenon and his Zeus at Olympia.

Leucippus of Miletus (c 490-420 B.C.) was the first to introduce the idea of the atom, an indivisible unit of matter. Though little is known about his life, his idea was later expanded by his student, Democretus.

Herodotus (484-425 B.C.), author of "The Histories," including an account of the conflict between Greece and Persia, was known as "The Father of History."

Euripides (480-406 B.C.) was the last of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, along with Aeschylus and Sophocles. He wrote 92 plays, 18 of which have survived. Euripides is known primarily for having reshaped the formal structure of traditional tragedy by showing strong women characters and smart slaves, and by satirizing many heroes of Greek mythology

Myron of Eleutherae (480-440 B.C.), an older contemporary of Phidias and Polyclitus, and, like them, also a pupil of Ageladas, was a sculptor who worked chiefly in bronze. Myron is known for his Discobolus (the discus-thrower), which had careful proportion and rhythm. His sculpture of a bronze heifer was supposedly so lifelike it could be mistaken for a real cow. He is best known for his many studies of athletes in action. Only two (as marble copies made in Roman times) of his many works survive: The group of Athena and Marsyas, originally standing on the Acropolis of Athens, and the "Discobolos."

Democritus of Thrace (470-380 B.C.) was a philosopher who expanded the concept of atoms that was introduced by his teacher Leucippus and showed that atoms are the basis of all form of matter. He recognized that the Milky Way consists of a number of stars and that the moon is similar to earth.

Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.), the greatest physician of antiquity, is regarded as the father of medicine. Born on the island of Kos, Hippocrates traveled widely before settling there to practice and teach medicine. One of his most important contributions was to set standards for doctors. The Hippocratic Oath has served as a guide for more than two thousand years. In taking the oath, a physician promises to be honest with patients, to protect and preserve life, and to keep patient information private.

Thucydides (460-400 B.C.), historian and author of the "History of the Peloponnesian War" between Sparta and Athens. Widely regarded a classic, it represents the first work of its kind. Unlike his predecessor Herodotus (often called "the father of history"), who included rumors and references to myths and the gods in his writing, Thucydides assiduously consulted written documents and interviewed participants in the events that he recorded. He is generally regarded as one of the first true historians.

Polyclitus of Argos (450-420 B.C.), a sculptor who created a statue of Hera for the temple of the goddess at Argos, is best known for his Doryphorus (spear-bearer) statue, which illustrated his book on ideal mathematical proportions for human body parts and on the balance between tension and movement, known as symmetria.

Antisthenes (445-365 B.C.), an accomplished orator, a companion of Socrates, and a philosopher, was either a founder or a forerunner of Cynicism. He also was the teacher of Diogenes.

Xenophon (434-355 B.C.), a soldier, mercenary and historian, wrote an account of the Persian king Cyrus the Younger, and the return of the ten thousand Greek mercenaries who had fought with him. Xenophon's record of this expedition and the journey home was titled Anabasis ("The Expedition" or "The March Up Country").

Diogenes (412-323 B.C.), a cynic, philosopher and aesthetic iconoclast (his nickname was "dog" -- the Greek word for cynic -- and for many years he lived in a tub on a diet of onions), is perhaps now most well known for his quest in broad daylight through the Athenian agora or marketplace with a lantern or lighted torch "searching for an honest man." Some have said this may have had to do with the fact that he and his father had been convicted in Sinope (an Ionian colony on the south side of the Black Sea) of adulterating coins with base metals. So perhaps Diogenes was trying to prove that nobody is completely honest, and thus mitigate his crime. Diogenes was witty, rude, and had little respect for any authority. Here are some of his more colorful doings and sayings:

  • Chided as an old man who ought to rest, he replied, "What, if I were running in the stadium, ought I to slacken my pace when approaching the goal?"
  • On one occasion, seeing a child drinking out of its hands, he threw away his only wooden bowl, saying, "That child has beaten me in simplicity."
  • A man once asked him what was the proper time for supper, and he answered, "If you are a rich man, whenever you please; and if you are a poor man, whenever you can."
  • One day he saw an unskillful archer shooting; so he went and sat down by the target, saying, "Now I shall be out of harm's way."
  • Legend has it that when Alexander the Great came to see Diogenes, who was sunning himself, he said, "Ask any favour you wish" and Diogenes replied, "Then I would have you stand from between me and the sun."
  • When asked from where he came, Diogenes said, "I am a citizen of the world" (or cosmos), rather than of any particular city or state, thereby inventing the concept of cosmopolitanism.

Sold as a slave after capture by pirates, he told the auctioneer, "Sell me to this man; he needs a master." Xeniades of Corinth, who then bought him, heeded his advice. Freeing Diogenes, he entrusted him with his household and the education of his children. It is said that Diogenes and Alexander the Great died on the same day in Corinth and Babylon, respectively; Diogenes was 90, Alexander 33.

Eudoxus (408-355 B.C.), a geometrician and astronomer born in Asia Minor, proposed a heliocentric system for the solar system. He also developed formulas for measuring pyramids, cones and cylinders.

Praxiteles of Athens (400-330 B.C.), the son of the sculptor Cephisodotus the Elder, sculpted a great variety of men and gods, male and female, primarily using marble, but sometimes bronze. Two examples of Praxiteles' work are Aphrodite of Knidos (Cnidos) and Hermes with the Infant Dionysus.

Scopas of Paros (395-350 B.C.), an architect of the Temple of Athena Alea at Tegea in Arcadia, also was a sculptor, working on the bas-reliefs that decorated the frieze of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Caria. Scopas sculptures are noted for heads with half-open mouths and deep-set eyes.

Lysippos of Sicyon (370 [or 390]-310 B.C.), a metalworker, taught himself sculpture by studying nature and Polyclitus' book. His work is characterized by lifelike naturalism and slender proportions. Creator of more than 1,500 works ranging is size from a few inches to a 60- foot statue of Zeus, all of them were in bronze. One of his most famous is the statue of the god Hermes in 350 B.C. He was the official sculptor for Alexander the Great.

Herophilus (335-280 B.C.), a physician born in Chalcedon, is known as the father of anatomy. He was the first to base his conclusions on dissection of the human body. He recognizing the brain as the center of the nervous system, distinguished the motor from the sensory nerves and accurately described the eye, brain, liver, and pancreas and the salivary and genital organs. He was first to recognize that the arteries contain blood, not air.

Euclid of Alexandria (325-265 B.C.) was the most prominent mathematician of antiquity and is best known for "The Elements," his treatise on mathematics. The long-lasting nature of this treatise makes Euclid the leading mathematics teacher of all time.

Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 B.C.), an astronomer often referred to as the Copernicus of antiquity, laid the foundation for much of the scientific examination of the heavens and was the first to propose a heliocentric universe (i.e., that the sun was the center of the universe).

Callimachus of Cyrene, Lybia (305-240 B.C.), a poet and grammarian, opened a school in the suburbs of Alexandria, Egypt, with some of the most distinguished grammarians and poets as his pupils. He was appointed by as chief librarian of the Alexandrian library about 260 B.C., which office he held till his death. His critical and chronologically arranged catalogue of the library laid the foundation of a history of Greek literature. He wrote about 800 works in verse and prose, only a few of which are available today.

Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) was a mathematician and inventor of Syracuse, Sicily, whose most famous invention was a machine for raising water, called Archimedes' screw. This was used for raising water from ditches and emptying flooded ships. Archimedes also studied how levers worked and how geometry could be used to measure circles. He is also famous for his discovery that a body immersed in fluid displaces an amount of fluid equal to its own mass. Legend has it that he discovered this while in a bath and later ran naked around the streets of Syracuse shouting Eureka ("I have found it"). He used levers to pull a fully loaded ship on shore, thus supporting his statement: "Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand and I can move the Earth."

Eratosthenes (276-194 B.C.) was a mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and poet, who used geometry to measure the circumference of the earth with extraordinary accuracy by determining astronomically the difference in latitude between the Egyptian cities of Syene (now Aswan) and Alexandria. Born in Libya, Eratosthenes also created a catalog of 675 stars and produced a systematic treatise on geography.

Hipparchus of Nicaea (190-120 B.C.), a creative and talented astronomer and mathematician, founded trigonometry and scientific geography. He invented methods of fixing terrestrial positions by circles of latitude and longitude. He located 850 stars and divided them into classes of apparent brightness. Hipparchus estimated the size and distance of the moon and found a way to predict eclipses, as well as calculating the length of the year to within 6 and a 1/2 minutes!


Theban Hegenomy (371-362 B.C.)

The Spartan king Agesilaus finally overstepped himself when he attacked and captured the city of Thebes without any provocation. When he then turned on Athens, the Athenians allied themselves with the Thebans, and Spartan control over Greece came to a final end in 371 B.C. when the Spartans were defeated at the battle of Leuctra under the leadership of two brilliant Theban generals, Epaminondas and Pelopidas.

Life in Greece changed overnight. The Thebans took territory away from the Spartans and freed all of the helots, who were allowed to set up an independent state. For the next 30 years, Theban democracy would hold sway over much of the politics of the Greek mainland. In 362 B.C., in the face of the rivalry of a new Peloponnesian coalition and a resurgent Athenian empire, as well as the deaths of Apaminondas and Pelopidas, Thebes began to slip out of its powerful position.

Second Athenian Empire (362-355 B.C.)

Soon after the bitter defeat at the hands of the Spartans and the dismantling of the Athenian Empire in 404 B.C., Athens began rebuilding its power even during the period of Spartan hegemony. In 378 B.C., it formed the Second Athenian Confederation, a league of Aegean city-states, to resist the growth of Spartan power in the Aegean Sea. However, after Sparta had been conclusively defeated in 371 B.C. and Thebes just as conclusively defeated nine years later, the reason for the league evaporated. Persia no longer seemed to be a threat, and there seemed no reason to pour tribute money into Athens. The Second Athenian Empire, then, soon crumbled in a series of revolts. By 355 B.C., Greece had once again become a group of independent, unallied city-states. And in less than two decades, these city-states would disappear forever as political units, to be replaced by a vast kingdom under an ambitious Macedonian king, Philip II.


In spite of the political turbulence and chaos of the 4th century B.C.., Greece was poised to move into its most triumphant period: The Hellenistic age. This term comes from "Hellene," the Greek word for the Greeks. The Hellenistic age was the "age of the Greeks;" during this time, Greek culture and power extended itself across the known world. While the classical age of Greece produced great literature, poetry, philosophy, drama, and art, the Hellenistic age made the world Greek. At the root of Hellenism were the conquests of Philip of Macedon and his son, Alexanderthe Great. However, the Macedonians did more than control territory; they actively exported Greek culture in the form of politics, language, law, literature, philosophy, religion and art. This would deeply influence all the civilizations and cultures that would later erupt from this soil: The Romans, the Christians, the Jewish diaspora and Islam.


All during the period of the Greek city-states, Macedon was an anomaly: Not a "polis," it was ruled by a king. Located slightly northeast of the Greek mainland and northwest of Asia Minor, the Macedon Greeks were firmly entrenched on the European continent, serving as a barrier to various European tribes from the north, many of which were war-like. Nevertheless, the Macedonians were unappreciated by their fellow Greeks; they were looked on as no better than barbarians themselves, particularly since they had never developed or adopted the polis

The Macedonian king came to power through inheritance, but first had to be approved by the army. Into this situation, at the peak of the political chaos roiling the Greek world to the south, stepped a powerful man who unified Macedon and set his sights on conquering the whole of the Greek world: Philip of Macedon.

Philip II ascended the throne in his late twenties after, as regent to his infant nephew, he crowned himself king in 359 B.C. He promptly pacified all the European tribes to his north, seized gold and silver mines there and began to build new cities and large standing armies.

He then turned his eyes to the south. In 349 B.C., he began to systematically conquer each of the Greek cities. After a great victory against Athens and its allies in 338 B.C., Philip found himself in control of all Greece, except for Sparta. He then set about securing his power, building garrisons at Corinth, Thebes and Chalcis; in 338 B.C., he created the Federal League of Corinth. Ostensibly an alliance of free city-states, Philip was its ruler and, for all practical purposes, had become king of Greece. The independent city-state, the polis, had ceased to exist.

But Philip wasn't finished; the Persian Wars still festered in Greek memory. So in 337 B.C., Philip announced that the League would attack Persia as revenge for the wars and, a year later, he stood poised to prosecute his mighty invasion of the Persian Empire.

Alexander The Great

The decisive battle of Philip's conquest of Greece occurred in 338 B.C. at Chaeronea in Boeotia, when Philip beat the Athenians and their allies. The military feat that won that day was a cavalry charge by Philip's 18-year-old son, Alexander. He had been a youth of infinite promise. Physically handsome, strong, brave, and nothing short of brilliant, he had been schooled by no less a person than Aristotle. With all these qualities, when his father died in 336 B.C. at an assassin's hand, at the age of 21 Alexander quickly consolidated his power and set out to conquer the world.

In 334 B.C., Alexander began his conquest of Persia. To conquer Persia was to conquer the world, for the Persian Empire sprawled over most of the known world: Asia Minor, the Middle East, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Iran. He didn't have much to go on: His army numbered just 30,000 infantry and only 5,000 cavalry. He had no navy. He had no money.

His strategy was simple. He would move quickly and begin with a few sure victories, so he could gain money and supplies. He would focus on taking over coastal cities; in that way, the Persian navy would have no place to make landfall. Finally, he took the battle right to the center of the opposing forces, and he threw himself into the very worst of the battle. His enemies were stunned and his troops grew intensely loyal to this man who threw both them and himself right into the teeth of the fighting.

He quickly overran Asia Minor and, after seizing all the coastal cities, turned inland towards Syria in 333 B.C. There he engaged the main Persian army under the leadership of the Persian king Darius at a city called Issus. As he had done at Chaeronia, he led a astounding cavalry charge against a superior opponent and forced them to break ranks. Darius and much of his army ran inland towards Mesopotamia, leaving Alexander free to continue south. He seized the coastal towns along the Phoenician and Palestinian coasts. When he entered Jerusalem, he was hailed as a great liberator. He continued south and conquered Egypt with almost no resistance whatsoever; the Egyptians called him king and son of the god Re.

By this point, Darius knew the situation was out of his control. As Alexander had moved down the Phoenican coast, he conquered the city of Tyre, which was absolutely central to Persian naval operations. Darius knew that he could never recover Asia Minor, Phoenicia or Palestine, so he sent an offer to halt hostilities. If Alexander would stop, Darius would cede to him all of the Persian Empire west of the Euphrates River; only Mesopotamia, Persia (modern- day Iran), and the northern territories would remain under Persian control.

Alexander said no. In 331 B.C., he crossed the Euphrates river into Mesopotamia. Darius met him near the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, the city that had been destroyed by the Chaldeans only three centuries earlier. In the last battle between Darius and Alexander, the Macedonian king again put the numerically superior Persian army to flight, and Darius also ran. In January of 330 B.C., Alexander entered Babylon: He had conquered Mesopotamia and now controlled its greatest and wealthiest city.

The Persians had amassed vast wealth from the tribute paid by the various states under them. Alexander, who had started with no money at all, was now in control of the fattest treasury that had ever existed.

Darius, meanwhile, met his death at the hands of a conspiracy of Persian nobles who felt he could no longer effectively lead them. Under the leadership of his brother Bessus, his body was left for Alexander to find. Alexander, however, pushed on, found Bessus, and killed him and as many Persian nobles as he could. The Persian Empire had officially come to a close.

At this point, Alexander had pushed his army to the very limits of civilization as he knew it. But he wanted more. He saw that the world extended further and, partly out of curiosity, partly out of a desire to conquer the entire world, Alexander and his army pushed east, through Scythia (northern Iran), and all the way to Pakistan and India. He conquered Bactria at the foot of the western Himalayas, gained a huge Bactrian army, and married a Bactrian princess, Roxane. But when he tried to push on past Pakistan, his army grew tired, and he abandoned the eastward conquest in 327 B.C.

In 324 B.C., he returned to Babylon. Alexander was now, literally, king of the world, and he began to lay down strategies for consolidating his empire. He began to plan cities and building works, new conquests, and even considered deifying himself. But like so many human gods, his own death caught up with him. In 323 B.C., at the age of 33, he fell into a fever and died.

It's rare in history that human events become so focused on a single individual. It is even rarer when that focus is justified. Alexander, however, is a notable exceptions. The age of Alexander would permanently stamp world culture with a Greek character. He was in many ways a brilliant and selfless person, quite possibly the most brilliant military leader in human history. With a small army, little or no supplies, and no money, he conquered the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire in the world. He never lost a battle -- not once -- and he flung himself into battle with intense physical bravery. He was also a tyrant and a bully, given to fits of uncompromising violence. He was certainly a drunkard and at times unstable. We will never know if he could have ruled or unified this huge empire but his death guaranteed that the empire he had built would never last.

Three Empires -- the Legacy of Alexander

Alexander, who was only 33 years old when he died, had made no preparations for his succession. He had married a Bactrian princess, Roxane, but their son was unborn when Alexander died. Alexander's brother was both weak and unintelligent. So the generals who had fought by Alexander's side divided the empire among themselves in order to preserve it for the future, as yet unborn, king. But like most powerful and ambitious men, they soon fell into conflict with one another. In two decades of conflict, several of the original generals were killed, along with Alexander's son and brother. By 300 B.C., all that was left of Alexander's empire were four smaller empires, soon to be three, each controlled by military generals who declared themselves kings.

  • Greece and Macedonia fell to Antigonus, who founded the Antigonid dynasty of Greek kings. This dynasty would eventually control Asia Minor, which originally came under the control of the Attalid dynasty.

  • Mesopotamia and the Middle East came under the control of Seleucus, who crowned himself Seleucus I and began the Seleucus dynasty (every king in this dynasty would be named Seleucus).

  • Egypt came under the control of Ptolemy, who crowned himself Ptolemy I and began the Ptolemid dynasty. The Ptolemids maintained Greek learning and culture, but adopted several Egyptian customs surrounding the kingship.

These three empires periodically fought with one another, for none of their kings ever fully accepted the fact that the empire had fractured. Each believed they were the rightful heirs to Alexander's entire empire. Despite the constant conflict, the Hellenistic world was an incredibly prosperous one. Alexander and his successors had liberated an immense amount of wealth from the Persian empire, and with this new wealth in circulation the standard of living rose dramatically. Each of the empires embarked on building projects, on scholarship, on patronage of the arts, and on literature and philosophy. For instance, the Ptolemies built an enormous library in their capital city of Alexandria, and sponsored the translation of a host of religious and literary works into Greek.

Although the Greeks exported their culture, non-Greek ideas and non-Greeks also flowed into Greece and Italy, taking with them their religions, their philosophies, science, and culture. In this environment, eastern religions in particular began to take hold in the Greek city-states. Among these religions were Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.

This process of the "Hellenization" of the world ("making it Greek") took place largely in the urban centers the Greeks began to build. The growth of these cities provoked massive migrations from the Greek mainland. Spread from Italy to India, from Macedonia to Egypt, Greek culture was the most significant of its times. And, although the Greek empires hung onto this vast amount of territory for almost three centuries, slowly a new power was rising in the west, steadily building its own, accidental empire. By the time of Christ, the great Greek empires of the Hellenistic world had been replaced and unified once more into a single empire under the control of an Italian people -- the Romans.


Greek Timeline:

  • 6000-2900 B.C. - Neolithic Period: Domestication of plants and animals allows for permanent settlements.
  • 2900-2000 B.C. - Early Bronze Age: Early Aegean cultures.
  • 2000-1400 B.C. - Minoan Age: Minoan civilization develops on Crete.
  • 1600-1100 B.C. - Mycenaean Age: Urban centers begin to thrive and Greek settlers enter their first major period of cultural creativity.
  • 1100-750 B.C. - The Dark Ages: Dorians invade. First Greek migration to west coast of Asia minor. Few written records of this time period remain.
  • 750-500 B.C. - Archaic Period: Distinct regional cultures develop in the Aegean. Mythology evolves, and Greek language gains an alphabet. First Olympic Games held in 776 B.C. Homer writes the Iliad and the Odyssey. City-states are formed throughout the Mediterranean that function as political units or polis, each ruled by a king and a council. The first Greek colonies are formed in Sicily, 735-700 B.C. From 730-710 B.C. the Spartans conquer southwest Peloponnese in the First Messenian War, followed by the Lelantine war in Euboia in 700 B.C. In 540 B.C., Anaximander (credited with making the first map of the known world) dies.
  • 500-336 B.C. - Classical Period: Interest in literature, artwork, architecture, philosophy, and politics surges with Athens the hub of activity throughout the Mediterranean. In this period, Athens reaches its greatest political and cultural height: Development of the democratic system of government under the statesman Pericles; building of the Parthenon on the Acropolis; creation of the tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides; and founding of the philosophical schools of Socrates and Plato. The Greek-Persian wars cover the period from 490-479 B.C. In the First Persian War, the Athenians defeat the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. In the Second Persian War, Persian forces led by Xerxes destroy Athens, but Greek forces win a major sea battle at Salamis and eventually prevail. From 461-446 B.C., the First Peloponnesian War occurs between Sparta and Athens with no one the winner. The Second Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens takes place from 431-405 B.C., ending with Spartan victory. In 371 B.C., Sparta is defeated by Thebes. In 366 B.C., Athens regains supremacy only to lose it in 355 B.C. as Greece once again becomes a group of independent, unallied city-states until it is unified under an ambitious Macedonian king, Philip II.
  • 336-146 B.C. - Hellenistic Period: The conquests of Alexander the Great, followed by the three empires founded in his name, spread Greek culture and language throughout the known world.


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