Category Archives: West-Eastern Civilisation: conflicted and hybrid histories

Lesson 5. From the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire


Republican Rome

Rome, in around the eighth century BC, was the usual post-Dark Age cluster of clannish villages, struggling for survival, fighting for pre-eminence and squabbling over cattle-rustling, ownership of water sources and land.

The people who first settled there picked a good spot. Situated in northern Latium (the region of western central Italy surrounding Rome), on a group of seven hills, it was the best crossing point of the Tiber river. Not only did it occupy a good defensive position but it was also blessed with a supply of fresh water and easy access to the sea.

By the end of the seventh century BC Rome had begun to develop those indicators of urban civilization: planned streets, temples and a forum.

Between 509 and 264 B.C.E., this city expanded and united almost all of Italy under its control. During this time of conquest, Rome also developed the political institutions of a republic ruled by an aristocratic oligarchy.

 5th century BCE Etruscan bronze wolf to which two small figures of Romulus and Remus were added in 15th century CE

The founding myth for Romans was the tale of Romulus and his twin brother Remus. They were the children of Rhea Silvia and Mars (or in some versions, Hercules). The story tells that Romulus and Remus were chucked into the Tiber to drown by their great-uncle, the king of a local city who feared that they would grow up to claim the throne. But the infants were washed up at the future site of Rome, where they were sheltered and suckled by a she-wolf. After an argument, Romulus murdered his twin, spilling his blood on the foundations of the fledgling city.

For later Romans, who knew of the tumultuous civil wars that had racked their city, that Rome should have come into being against the backdrop of bloody murder must have seemed fitting. The story of Romulus and Remus highlighted a persistent and well-founded fear of the consequences of destructive strife within its ruling elite.

The Roman Republic came into being, with noblemen Lucius Collatinus (Lucretia’s widowed husband) and Marcus Brutus (who had led the revolt against Tarquin) as the first consuls of Rome, ridding Rome of its line of kings.

The Republic which lasted for over 450 years, was a mix of monarchical, oligarchic and democratic elements. The king was replaced by two elected consuls, who could serve no longer than a year in office. This constitutional arrangement was designed to ensure that no individual could amass too much political power or influence.

The first act of the two consuls was to administer an oath, taken by all the Roman people, which promised never to accept another king. As Rome grew, new roles, or magistracies, were added to assist the consuls: praetors, aediles and quaestors, each one with a fixed set of responsibilities and seniority. Rome’s courts interpreted the huge body of laws based on the twelve tablets (see below).


All these officials were elected from the law-making body of the state, the Senate. Roman government revolved around the Senate’s body of aristocratic citizens who distinguished themselves from everyone else with their titles, purple-striped togas, senatorial rings and even special shoes. Senators held the key public offices and many would command provinces and armies.

Lastly, there was a Popular Assembly made up of the whole citizen body, enacted legislation and an army of magistrates who enforced it. The Assembly, as in many other city-states, was essentially powerless, but used by aristocrats to legitimate their power through its support. Plebians attempted to wrest some power back. In 495 BC, during discord over debt and military recruitment, the Senate realized it could not function if it lost almost its entire army, and agreed to the Plebeians’ demands. From then on, two Plebeian tribunes, in what became known as the Popular Tribunate, were elected every year to protect the interests of the Roman people in the Senate as well as presiding over the Popular Assembly.

Despite the semi-democratic institutions, Patricians (a closed group of aristocratic clans) had power over the Plebeians (everybody else) Republican Rome was basically still in the thrall of an aristocratic warrior class engaged in cattle rustling and attacking their neighbours.

Like all oligarchies, the Roman elite strove to achieve good order by admitting the barest minimum of ‘rights’ to lower social classes while at the same time preventing anyone of their own number from achieving pre-eminence by breaking ranks and recruiting the lower orders to their banner.

To speak of a Roman senatorial elite is to ignore the fact that political life was controlled by an über class made up of just a few select families. Others might become senators, but it was rare for them to break into the charmed circle of consular families. When individuals from less exalted senatorial families did achieve this, it was usually because they had the support of one of the grand aristocratic houses. Once a consulship had been attained, then a family could dare to hope that more might follow and that eventually they might too join the rarefied ranks of the nobiles (The families of Fabius, Cornelius, Metellius and Marcellus, …).

The aristocratic Roman was expected to uphold the virtues of civilitas (being a good citizen). This involved a rigid set of virtues including courage, clemency, wisdom, duty, modesty and gravitas. The aristocratic male was hard-wired to pursue political and military glory. The extreme competitive ethos that was the hallmark of the ruling class was the greatest engine for Roman expansion.

Republican expansion and integration

Rome first expanded through Italy. It’s great strength was its ability to integrate native populations, creating a large and stable territories.

Rome granted full Roman citizenship to virtually all the Latin cities, they also bestowed the old Latin legal status that guaranteed rights such as property ownership, intermarriage and migration on the populations of the new colonies that they established further afield across the rest of Italy. These Latin rights acted as a kind of halfway house between foreigner and Roman citizenship. Using newly created legal statuses, rather than ethnicity or geography, as the basis for membership of their club, all sorts of very different populations could be quickly and fairly painlessly absorbed into the Roman state. They were good incentivizers too, because by maintaining a sliding scale of statuses, Rome could reward loyal allies with an upgrade. At the same time these communities were able to maintain their own local political offices and identities. It was a blueprint that would help Rome to hold together a vast empire for centuries.

For Rome, the most important benefit of this generosity with rights and citizenship lay in military recruitment: Latin rights brought with them an obligation to provide troops for military service. As Roman territory grew, so did the potential size of its army, giving it a huge advantage over other states with far more finite resources. By the second century BC, over half the Roman army was made up of Italians, not Romans.


Firm control over Italy made Rome one of the Mediterranean’s major powers. Between 264 and 133 B.C.E., Republican Rome expanded to the west and east and became master of the Mediterranean. The Romans began to come into conflict with another rising power located just across the water: Carthage. Located in North Africa near modern-day Tunis, Carthage was the capital of a seafaring empire, shown here in red, that dominated commerce in the Western Mediterranean. Rome fought three conflicts with Carthage, known as the Punic Wars, between 264 and 146 BC. The first conflict occurred after Carthage intervened in a dispute on the island of Sicily, just off the southern tip of Italy. While Sicily wasn’t Roman territory at the time, the Romans felt this was a little too close to home. They sent an army to expel the Carthaginian troops. The result was the First Punic War, which lasted for more than 20 years. This map shows the situation after the war: Rome gained control of the islands of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia, making it a significant naval power for the first time.

Rome prevailed against the Carthaginian empire in Spain and Africa in the second and third Punic wars. In the east, Rome conquered Macedonia and also took control of the Greek states.

The Romans made their rule acceptable by allowing local autonomy and gradually granting Roman citizenship to non-Romans. Rome’s early laws, written in the Twelve Tables, constituted civil law for Romans. As Rome expanded, the Romans developed the law of nations, that applied to Romans and non-Romans alike.


Religion permeated Roman life. Ritual was at the focus of religion, for ritual established the correct relationship with the gods, both for individuals and for the state. or most of its history, Rome was a pagan society. Romans worshiped a pantheon of Roman and Greek deities, including Jupiter, Apollo, and Venus. From the early days of the republic, the Romans built temples and made sacrifices to the gods, and would consult religious leaders to determine which days were auspicious ones for a wedding, military offensive, or other major undertaking. This map shows the temples in Pompeii. Notice that in addition to temples to traditional pagan gods, the map shows a Temple of Vespasian. pompeiiThis is an unfinished structure that some historians speculate was intended to honor the emperor who was in power at the time Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the city. Religion and state were closely intertwined in Roman society, and subjects were encouraged to think of their rulers as semi-divine figures.


Rome was a slave state.


When the Romans prevailed on the battlefield, they would often take their defeated enemies captive and sell them into slavery. People could also become slaves due to failure to pay debts or as a punishment for crime. Roman slavery differed from American slavery in some important respects. Roman slaves could be of any race. And while American slaves generally performed manual labor, Roman slaves could sometimes be highly skilled. Educated slaves captured from the Greek world were highly sought after for tutoring children and performing clerical work.

Many slaves resented their subservient status, and some revolted. This map shows a portion of the most famous slave revolt in Roman history. The Third Servile War, also called by Plutarch the Gladiator War and The War of Spartacus, was the last in a series of slave rebellions against the Roman Republic, known as the Servile Wars.

The revolt began in 73 BC, with the escape of around 70 slave-gladiators from a gladiator school in Capua; they easily defeated the small Roman force sent to recapture them. Within two years, they had been joined by some 120,000 men, women and children; the able-bodied adults of this band were a surprisingly effective armed force that repeatedly showed they could withstand or defeat the Roman military, from the local Campanian patrols, to the Roman militia and to trained Roman legions under consular command. The slaves wandered through Italia, raiding estates and towns with relative impunity, sometimes dividing into separate but connected bands with several leaders, including the famous gladiator-general Spartacus.

The war ended in 71 BC when, after a long and bitter fighting retreat before the legions of Crassus and the realization that the legions of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Terentius Varro Lucullus were moving in to entrap them, the armies of Spartacus launched their full strength against Crassus’ legions and were utterly defeated. When the rebellion was finally crushed, 6,000 surviving slaves were crucified along the Appian Way, a major road leading into Rome.

(Let’s listen to Bettany Hughes on Roman Slavery, 0.1.00-)

Fall of the Republic

Huge wealth, earned in a series of military victories across the second century BC, largely found its way into senatorial pockets. The senators were keen to invest their new riches in prime agricultural land, much of which was still in the hands of small peasant farmers. In turn, many of these smallholdings were heavily in debt because their men had been called up to serve in the Roman armies often for many years. A land grab ensued, in which Italian smallholders were kicked off and their farms became part of the huge estates owned by extremely rich senators. The evicted peasant farmers went to swell the ranks of the dispossessed urban poor in Rome.

The Gracchi brothers were two aristocrats who thought rule had become too unfair. Their scheme was to redistribute of the huge bank of public land that the Roman state had accumulated during its conquest of Italy and the central Mediterranean region, and to set up subsidized corn rations in Rome.

These proposals put them on a direct collision course with their fellow senators, many of whom had appropriated much of this public land for themselves. The Gracchi’s appealed to the Popular Assembly; this earned them the hatred of the Senate. When they realized that they could not stop the Gracchi by legitimate means, the senators took the law into their hands. In 133 BC, Tiberius was battered to death on Capitol Hill by senators armed with clubs and planks. In 122 Gaius and 3,000 of his supporters were killed, with swords this time. The corpses of both brothers ended up in the Tiber river.

After 133 B.C.E., Rome’s republican institutions proved inadequate for the task of ruling an empire. Ambitious individuals such as Pompey, Crassus, and Caesar saw opportunities for power. Military reforms at the beginning of the first century had made possible the creation of professional armies that were loyal to the generals who recruited them, rather than to the state. Bloody civil war ensued.

In 58 BC, Julius Caesar took command of Rome’s northern frontier and set out to conquer Gaul, which corresponds roughly to modern-day France. He was following in the footsteps of other ambitious Roman politicians who had led foreign conquests as a way to bolster their reputation at home. This map shows Caesar’s exploits, which took almost a decade and brought him to almost every part of modern-day France. While he was on campaign, Caesar’s enemies gained the upper hand in Rome and declared martial law. Roman law forbade a general on campaign to enter Italy at the head of an army. In 49 BC, Caesar took the fateful step of crossing the Rubicon, the river that marked the northern border of Italy, with his army. That triggered the civil war that would destroy the Roman Republic.

The decisive battle came on August 10, 48 BC, when Caesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Parsalus, in the north of modern-day Greece. Pompey fled to Egypt, but officials there betrayed him and sent Caesar his head. After that, Caesar became the master of Rome. His strategy would be very different from that of Sulla, the last man to have occupied such a position of political supremacy. Under Caesar, there were no proscriptions or illegal land grabs. Former enemies were treated with impressive compassion.

Under Caesar, poverty was alleviated by debt reform, and new colonies were planned for the landless. Road building and drainage projects were introduced to provide employment and improve the infrastructure of Italy. Economic reforms were enacted to revive an economy shattered by war and mismanagement.

In the provinces, unfair taxation systems were overhauled and large numbers of provincials were granted Roman citizenship. Many loyal followers were elevated to an enlarged Senate.

Julius Caesar’s reforms showed that fair and decent government was easier to achieve under the rule of one man. The previous hundred years of political strife proved that Rome’s constitution had not evolved to meet the needs of a city-state that was now a world empire

Caesar ruled Rome as an autocrat despite his efforts to mask it by showing due deference to the political institutions of the Republic – he held successive consulships, but the idea of Caesar as just another senator was clearly preposterous.

Caesar careful to refuse the crown, not wanting to appear to want to rule as king. However, many of the old senatorial elite disliked the personal oath to protect his life that they had been obliged to swear. In fact, they disliked it so much that they decided to break it.

On the ides (the 15th) of March, a group of senators murdered Jul ius Caesar. When he recognized one of his assassins, Marcus Brutus, an Optimate whom he had pardoned and subsequently admitted into his inner circle, he was said to have cried out ‘Et tu, Brute’, ‘Even you, Brutus’, words of injured betrayal that have rattled down through the centuries.

The plotters were driven out of Rome, an then Italy, by an enraged urban mob. Caesar had nominated an heir, Marcus Octavius, his nephew and adopted son

After the series of civil wars, peace was achieved when Octavian (Julius Caesar’s nephew) defeated Antony and Cleopatra (the Egyptian Queen) at the Battle of Actium, in 31 BC. Antony and Cleopatra tried to flee from Octavian’s advancing army by sea, but he was intercepted by a navy commanded by Octavian’s deputy, Agrippa. Octavian’s ships won the battle, and although Antony and Cleopatra escaped, they no longer had enough forces to pose a serious threat to Octavian.

Let’s listen to Bettany Hughes narrating the fall of Mark Antony and the rise of Caesar (video in class 28.40-37.00)

Roman Empire


Octavian renamed himself with the title of Augustus (redeemer of the people) in 27BC (this date is often seen as the end of the Republic).

After a series of bloody civil wars, Augustus created a new order that began the
Roman Empire. Although he never declared the Republic dead and continued
to give the senate a role in governing, most political power remained in the hands of the princeps, or First Citizen, as he called himself. the army swore loyalty to
him, and the restoration of peace soon made the new political order acceptable to most people in the empire.

Augustus established the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which lasted until 68.

In the second century, the five ‘‘good emperors’’ maintained a period of peace and prosperity in which trade flourished and the provinces were governed efficiently.

Within their empire, the Romans were responsible for a series of achievements that were fundamental to the development of Western civilization, a civilization that would arise for the most part in the lands in Europe conquered by the Romans, where Roman culture and political ideals were gradually spread.


The Romance languages of today (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian) are based on Latin.


Roman Republican and Imperial Law and its legacy

Western practices of impartial justice and trial by jury owe much to Roman law. The Twelve Tables (aka Law of the Twelve Tables) was a set of laws inscribed on 12 bronze tablets created in ancient Rome in 451 and 450 BCE. They were the beginning of a new approach to laws where they would be passed by government and written down so that all citizens might be treated equally before them. Although not perhaps a fully codified system, it was a first step which would allow the protection of the rights of all citizens and permit wrongs to be redressed through precisely-worded written laws known to everybody. Consequently, the Roman approach to law would later become the model followed by many subsequent civilizations right up to the present day.


As great builders, the Romans left monuments to their skills throughout Europe, some of which, including aqueducts and roads, are still in use today. Other monuments provided models for public buildings in the West for hundreds of years.

Roman Britain

Throughout the classical period, Britain was at the fringes of civilization. Caesar invaded in 55 BC, but didn’t establish a permanent Roman presence on the island. Conquest of Britain began in earnest under the emperor Claudius in 43 AD. Over the next four decades, Roman troops explored the entire island, including the northernmost parts of Scotland. But the Romans only conquered an area roughly corresponding to modern-day England and Wales. The Romans would govern this territory until 410, when the declining Western Roman Empire was forced to abandon the remote province.


Hadrian, who ruled from 117 to 138 AD,  believed the empire was becoming overextended militarily, and immediately upon taking office he focused on consolidating Roman control of the territories that had already been conquered. One reflection of this shifting thinking was Hadrian’s Wall, whose construction was begun in 122. Over time, similar fortifications would be built all around the edges of the empire, transforming what had been a fluid frontier into a clearly defined border. The wisdom of Hadrian’s decision became apparent after 142, when Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, conquered additional British territory and ordered a second wall built farther north. The new wall was only manned for a few years before the Romans were forced to abandon the new territory and retreat to the border Hadrian had chosen.


Protected behind Hadrian’s Wall, Roman Britain flourished. The island’s economy became more specialized and more integrated with the continent. The Roman empire provided its subjects with a reliable and standardized system of currency. Uniform money brings major economic benefits because cash transactions are a lot more efficient than those done by barter.

This map, drawn from a database of amateur archeological finds, shows where Roman coins were found between 1997 and 2010. The fact that coins are still being found all over England and Wales, centuries after the empire’s collapse, suggests just how thoroughly Romanized these territories became during four centuries of imperial rule.

The Romans founded London as Londinium in 47 AD, later building a bridge over the River Thames and establishing the settlement as a port with roads leading to other outposts in Roman Britain. As the largest Roman city in Britannia, London remained under Rome’s authority until 410 AD

Model of Roman London

East-West diffusion (Roman Empire)


As Rome was rising in the West, the Han dynasty was consolidating power in China. These two great empires were too far apart to have a direct relationship. But they became linked together indirectly through trade networks. This map, based on geographical data recorded by a Greek writer in the early years of the Roman Empire, shows the trade route from Rome to India. Elites in India and China prized Roman-made glass and rugs, while Roman aristocrats enjoyed purchasing silks made in the Far East. Some Roman writers saw the increasing sums Romans were spending on silks for their wives as a symbol of Rome’s decadence and moral decline.

Fall of the Roman Empire

By the third century, the Roman world was suffering an era of decline. Generals fought each other in civil wars. Between the years 235 and 284, there were twenty-seven emperors, and only four of them did not suffer a violent end. German tribes and Persian armies invaded the empire. There were plagues, population
decline, and economic problems.

A new religion—Christianity—was spreading throughout the empire. Beginning among the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity, with its promise of salvation, its similarity to many mystery religions, and its universality as a religion for all—
rich and poor, men and women, Greek and Roman—slowly gained acceptance.

Late Antiquity, Roman influence, birth of the Middle Ages


The period from the mid-third century to the mid-eighth century was both chaotic
and creative.

During late antiquity, the Roman world of the Mediterranean was gradually transformed. Diocletian and Constantine restored an aura of stability to the Late Empire by increasing the size of the bureaucracy and the army, establishing price controls, raising taxes, and making occupations hereditary.

Constantine made some profound changes to the empire after he became Rome’s sole emperor in 324. He created a new imperial capital at Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople, laying the foundations for an Eastern Roman Empire that would endure long after the West fell. Even more important, Constantine was Rome’s first Christian emperor. When he took the throne, he began the transformation of Rome into a Christian empire. While some of his subjects resisted Christianity, the change ultimately stuck. As a result, Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe for the next 1,500 years.

Upon Constantine’s death in 337, the empire was divided among Constantine’s three sons, who quickly began fighting among themselves. This cycle would repeat itself several times over the next half-century. It became clear that the empire was too big for any one man to rule. The last emperor to rule a united empire, Theodosius, died in 395. This map shows the result: an empire permanently divided between east and west.


Dividing East and West

In 476, the last western emperor was deposed. With fewer resources and little resolve, the government was less able to repel the German migrants who moved into the western part of the empire.As the western part of the Roman Empire disintegrated, a new civilization slowly emerged, formed by the coalescence of three major elements: the Germanic peoples who moved into the western part of the empire and established new kingdoms, the continuing attraction of the Greco-Roman cultural legacy, and the Christian church.

Politically, the Roman Empire in the west was replaced by a new series of Germanic
kingdoms, including the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Visigoths in Spain, several Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain, and a Frankish kingdom in Gaul.Each of these kingdoms fused Roman and Germanic elements to create a new society.

Beginning in the fourth century, under Constantine, Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Christian church (or Roman Catholic Church, as it came to be called in the west) played a crucial role in the growth of a new civilization.

The church developed an organized government under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, who became known as the pope. One of the most significant popes was Gregory I the Great, who gained both religious and political power. The church also assimilated the Classical tradition and through its clergy brought Christianized civilization to the Germanic tribes. Monks and nuns who led the way in converting the Germanic peoples in Europe to Christianity.

In the east, Greek and eastern elements of late antiquity were of more consequence as the Eastern Roman Empire was transformed into the Byzantine Empire. The Germanic kingdoms of the west and the Byzantine civilization of the east came to share a common bond in Christianity.

Despite the Christian bond, the two civilizations continued to move apart.

The rise of Islam, Rome’s third heir, resulted in the loss of the southern and eastern Mediterranean portions of the old Roman Empire to a religious power that was neither Roman nor Christian. The new Islamic empire forced Europe proper back upon itself, and slowly, a new civilization emerged that became the heart of what we know as Western civilization.



Ancient Greek Music (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

published on 05 January 2013

Ancient Greek Forminx
by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)


Music (or mousike) was an integral part of life in the ancient Greek world, and the term covered not only music but also dance, lyrics, and the performance of poetry. A wide range of instruments was used to perform music which was played on all manner of occasions such as religious ceremonies, festivals, private drinking parties (symposia), weddings, funerals, and during athletic and military activities. Music was also an important element of education and Greek drama performances held in theatres such as plays, recitals, and competitions.

Musical Origins

For the ancient Greeks, music was viewed as quite literally a gift from the gods. The invention of specific instruments is attributed to particular deities: Hermes the lyre, Pan the syrinx (panpipes) and Athena the aulos (flute). In Greek mythology the Muses personified the various elements of music (in the wide Greek sense of the term) and were said to entertain the gods on Mt. Olympus with their divine music, dancing, and singing.

The nine Muses are goddesses of the various arts such as music, dance, and poetry and are blessed not only with wonderful artistic talents themselves but also with great beauty, grace, and allure. Their gifts of song, dance, and joy helped the gods and mankind to forget their troubles and inspired musicians and writers to reach ever greater artistic and intellectual heights.

The Muses are the daughters of Zeus and the Titan Mnemosyne (Memory) after the couple slept together for nine consecutive nights. They are:

  1. Calliope, traditionally the most important (beautiful-voiced and representing epic poetry and also rhetoric),
  2. Clio (glorifying and representing history),
  3. Erato (lovely and representing singing),
  4. Euterpe (well-delighting and representing lyric poetry),
  5. Melpomene (singing and representing tragedy),
  6. Polymnia (many hymning and representing hymns to the gods and heroes),
  7. Terpsichore or Stesichore (delighting in dance),
  8. Thalia (blooming and representing comedy),
  9. Urania (heavenly and representing astronomy).

Other mythical figures strongly associated with music are the god of wine Dionysos and his followers the Satyrs and Maenads. Amphion and Thamyres were both famed for their skills playing the kithara (guitar) whilst Orpheus was celebrated as a magnificent singer and lyre player.

The Greeks believed music could have a beneficial effect on both the mind & body of the listener.

The oldest surviving Greek musical instruments are bone auloi which date from the Neolithic Age (7th-4th millennium BCE) and were found in western Macedonia, Thessaly, and Mykonos. The three major civilizations of the Bronze Age in the Aegean (3000 to 1000 BCE), Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenaean Civilization, all provide physical evidence of the importance of music in their respective cultures. Marble figurines from the Cyclades represent players of both the aulos and the harp. Cretan hieroglyphic script has three symbols which are musical instruments – two types of harp and a sistrum (or rattle, originally from Egypt). An alabaster lyre decorated with swan heads survives from Knossos and a fresco at Akrotiri on Thera depicts a blue monkey playing a small triangular lyre. The Minoan ‘Harvester Vase’ (1500-1450 BCE) from Hagia Triada on Crete depicts a sistrum player and clay versions of the instrument have been found in graves across Crete. There is also some evidence that music may have been written down as early as the Bronze Age if a Minoan Linear A text on a wall in Hagia Triada is interpreted as such.

The combining of words and music, melodic and scalar systems, and several of the most popular musical instruments such as the aulos and lyre probably derived from the Near East. However, the Greeks themselves considered the lyre, in particular, as a ‘Greek’ instrument whilst the aulos is often represented in mythology as an inferior foreign competitor of Eastern origin. Hence, the great Greek god Apollo, who was believed to be the master of the lyre, defeated the Phrygian Satyr Marsyas and his aulos in a musical competition judged by the Muses. The lyre was also the musical instrument, above all others, which young Greeks had to learn in their schooling and was recommended as such by Plato in his Republic.

Musical Instruments

Greek musical instruments included stringed, wind, and percussion. By far the most popular were the lyre, aulos (usually double), and syrinx. Other instruments, however, included the rattle (sistrum and seistron), cymbals (kymbala), guitar (kithara), bagpipe (askaulos), conch and triton shells (kochlos), trumpet (salpinx), horn (keras), tambourine (rhoptron), shallow drum (tympanon), clappers (krotala), maracas (phormiskoi), xylophone (psithyra), various versions of the lyre such as the four-stringed lyre (phorminx) and the multi-stringed and elongated barbiton, and various types of harps, usually triangular shaped (e.g. the psalterion). Two unusual instruments were the rhombos (a wind instrument) which was a flat rhombus pierced with holes, strung on a cord, and played by spinning the cord. The second was the hydraulis, a sophisticated Hellenistic organ which used compressed air and water pressure maintained by two pedals. Incidentally, stringed instruments were always played with the fingers or a plectrum rather than with a bow and in the Classical Period, stringed instruments were favoured over wind as they allowed the player to also sing and, for the Greeks, words were considered more important than musical sounds.

Music Theory

There is evidence that the Greeks began to study music theory as early as the 6th century BCE. This consisted of harmonic, acoustic, scalar, and melody studies. The earliest surviving (but fragmentary) text on the subject is the Harmonic Elements by Aristoxenos, written in the 4th century BCE. Music also became an element of philosophical study, notably, by the followers of Pythagoras, who believed that music was a mathematical expression of the cosmic order. Music was also held to have certain therapeutic benefits, even medicinal powers over physical and mental illnesses.

In addition, one of the unique contributions the Greeks made to the history and development of music is that it can have a moral and emotional effect on the listener and his or her soul; in short, that music has an ethical role in society. For this reason, Plato, considering them rather decadent, banned instruments capable of producing all of the scales. Likewise, overcomplicated rhythms and music with too fast a tempo were considered morally dangerous in the great philosopher’s ideal republic.

Regarding written music, 52 pieces of Greek music survive, albeit in a fragmentary form. For example, a musical excerpt from Euripedes’ play Orestes survives, as does an inscription of music from the Athenian Treasury at Delphi. The most complete surviving piece of Greek music is the song of Seikilos from a 2nd century BCE tombstone found at Tralleis near Ephesus.

Bronze Aulos Player Figurine
by James Lloyd (Copyright, fair use)


Greek musicians were very often the composers and lyricists of the music they performed. Known as the ‘makers of songs’ or melopoioi, they created melos: a composition of words, tune, and rhythm. There is evidence that musicians enjoyed an elevated status in society as indicated by their particular robes and presence on royal household staff lists. There was even a specific symbol for musicians in the Cretan hieroglyphic script and the later Linear B. Professional musicians were male, although an exception were the courtesans or hetairai who performed at symposia. However, there are depictions in art of female musicians, notably the clay dancing lyre players from Palaikastro. Other professional musicians included the trieraules who set the beat for the rowers in triremes and trumpet players and choral singers who accompanied marching soldiers.

Music & Religion

Music and dancing accompanied processions on special religious occasions in various Greek cities and, amongst the most famous in the Greek world, were the Panathenaia and Great Dionysia festivals of Athens. Certain religious practices were usually performed to music, for example, sacrifices and the pouring of libations. Hymns (parabomia) and prayers (kateuches) were also sung during processions and at the altar itself. These were provided by choral groups of professional musicians, notably aulos players, often attached to particular sanctuaries, for example, the paeanists in Athens and the aoidoi and epispondorchestai in the sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus.

Music, dance, poetry and drama recitals were also a competitive activity in events such as the pan-Hellenic festivals held at Isthmia, Delphi and Nemea. However, as with the athletic competitions, the music contests were of a religious nature in that excellence was offered to honour the gods. There were two types of such musical contest: stephanites (sacred with a symbolic wreath as the prize) and chrematites or thematikoi (with more tangible prizes such as money or precious goods). Sparta, Argos, and Paros held the earliest such competitions from the 7th century BCE. In Hellenistic times, musical festivals and competitions became so common that musicians and performing artists began to organise themselves into guilds or Koina.

Aulos Player
by James Lloyd (Copyright, fair use)

Music & Education

Plato informs us that the first schools dedicated to musical education were created by the Cretans. However, the heyday of music in the classroom was during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE when schools of music were established in Athens where pupils aged between 13 and 16 were taught to play the lyre and kithara and to sing, accompanied by their teacher on the aulos. Music taught discipline and order and allowed the educated to better appreciate musical performance. Athletics and other sporting activities, another major element of the Greek education, were also done accompanied to music, particularly in order to increase synchronization.

Music for Pleasure

Music was a staple element of the symposium or all-male drinking party. After eating, the men each sang a song (skolia) with an aulos, lyre, or barbiton providing backing music. Often they sang amusing satirical songs (silloi). Finally, at the end of the evening, it was common for the group to take to the streets as a komos (band of revellers) and sing and dance their way through the town.

Women too could enjoy music in the privacy of their homes. Usually women played stringed instruments and recited poetry to music. In addition, household chores such as weaving and baking were done to music. Children too sang songs (agermos) at people’s doors to receive small change and sweets just as carol-singers do today.

Theatre of Segesta
by Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

In the theatre, performances of Greek tragedy, comedy, and drama were all accompanied by music, and singing was provided by a designated chorus which consisted of as many as 24 singers in Greek theatre performances of the 5th century BCE.

Music in Art

Musicians and musical instruments were a popular subject on frescoes, in sculpture, and on Greek pottery, particularly in the geometric, black-figure and red-figure styles. Aside from all of the major figures of Greek Mythology previously mentioned, a notable addition to the subject of music on Greek pottery is the greatest of heroes Hercules. Late Archaic and Early Attic pottery often portray the hero with a kithara, and perhaps this symbolizes the association between physical and musical exercise which are necessary for a properly balanced education. Other great heroes such as Achilles, Theseus, and Paris are also sometimes portrayed playing a musical instrument (usually a lyre), once again reinforcing the dual aims of an aristocratic education and the virtue of music. Also, many school scenes on 5th-century BCE pottery depict students with both a lyre and a book-roll, illustrating once again the importance of music in education. Finally, Lekythoi, slim jars for holding perfumes, are commonly found in grave contexts and often have music as the subject of their decoration, perhaps in an attempt to ensure that the deceased was accompanied by music on their journey into the next life.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

About the Author

Mark is a history writer based in Italy. His special interests include pottery, architecture, world mythology and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share in common. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the Publishing Director at AHE.
Note: AHE article shared in this form rather for educational purposes in China (links and other forms of sharing restricted). Please see the AHE website for subscription information.

Trojan War (Ancient History Encyclopedia)

22 March 2018

The Trojan War, fought between Greeks and the defenders of the city of Troy in Anatolia sometime in the late Bronze Age, has grabbed the imagination for millennia. A conflict between Mycenaeans and Hittites may well have occurred, but its representation in epic literature such as Homer’s Iliad is almost certainly more myth than reality. Nevertheless, it has defined and shaped the way ancient Greek culture has been viewed right up to the 21st century CE. The story of gods and heroic warriors is perhaps one of the richest single surviving sources from antiquity and offers insights into the warfare, religion, customs, and attitudes of the ancient Greeks.

Paris & Helen

The main source for our knowledge of the Trojan War is Homer’s Iliad (written sometime in the 8th century BCE) where he recounts 52 days during the final year of the ten-year conflict. The Greeks imagined the war to have occurred some time in the 13th century BCE. However, the war was also the subject of a long oral tradition prior to Homer’s work, and this, combined with other sources such as the fragmentary Epic Cycle poems, give us a more complete picture of what exactly the Greeks thought of as the Trojan War.

The Trojan War, in Greek tradition, started as a way for Zeus to reduce the ever-increasing population of humanity and, more practically, as an expedition to reclaim Helen, wife of Menelaos, King of Sparta and brother of Agamemnon. Helen was abducted by the Trojan prince Paris (also known as Alexandros) and taken as his prize for choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess in a competition with Athena and Hera at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. Menelaos and the Greeks wanted her back and to avenge Trojan impudence.

The Greek Army

The coalition of Greek forces (or Archaians as Homer often calls them) was led by King Agamemnon of Mycenae. Amongst the cities or regions represented were Boiotia, Phocia, Euboea, Athens, Argos, Corinth, Arcadia, Sparta, Kephalonia, Crete, Rhodes, Magnesia, and the Cyclades. Just how many men these totalled is unclear. Homer states an army of ‘tens of thousands’ or rather more poetically ‘as many [men] as the leaves and flowers that come in springtime’.

The gods had their favourites amongst the men fighting down on the plains of Troy & they often protected them by deflecting spears.

Amongst the Greek warriors were some extra special heroes, leaders who were the greatest fighters and displayed the greatest courage on the battlefield. Also, they often had a divine mother or father whilst the other parent was a mortal, thereby creating a genealogical link between the gods and ordinary men. Amongst the most important were Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Diomedes, Patroklos, Antilokus, Menestheus, and Idomenus.

The Greeks were aided by several of the Olympian gods of Greek religion. Athena, Poseidon, Hera, Hephaistos, Hermes, and Thetis all gave direct or indirect help to the Greeks in Homer’s account of the war. The gods had their favourites amongst the men fighting down on the plains of Troy and they often protected them by deflecting spears and even spiriting them away in the heat of battle to put them down somewhere safe, far from danger.

The Trojan Army

The Trojan army defending the great city of Troy, led by their king Priam, had assistance from a long list of allies. These included the Carians, Halizones, Kaukones, Kikones, Lycians, Maionians, Mysians, Paionians, Paphlagonians, Pelasgians, Phrygians, and Thracians.

The Trojans, too, had their semi-divine heroes and these included Hektor (son of Priam), Aeneas, Sarpedon, Glaukos, Phorkys, Poulydamas, and Rhesos. The Trojans also had help from the gods, receiving assistance during the battle from Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares, and Leto.

Key Battles

Most of the Trojan War was in a fact a protracted siege, and the city was able to resist the invaders for so long principally because its fortifications were so magnificent. Indeed, in Greek mythology, the walls of Troy were said to have been built by Poseidon and Apollo who, after an act of impiety, were compelled by Zeus to serve the Trojan King Laomedon for one year. There were, though, battles outside the city where armies fought, sometimes with chariots, but mostly by men on foot using spears and swords and protected by a shield, helmet, and armour for the chest and legs. War waged back and forth across the plains of Troy over the years, but the really exciting battles seem to have been reserved for the final year of the siege and the following are a selection of the highlights.

Paris v Menelaos

Tiring of indecisive battles, Menelaos offered to fight Paris in single-combat and so settle the issue of the war. Agreeing to this, the two warriors drew lots to see who would have first throw with their spear. Paris won and threw first but his spear landed harmlessly in the shield of Menelaos. The Greek king then threw his weapon with tremendous force and the spear went through the shield of Paris and carried on through to pierce his armour. If Paris had not swayed at the last moment, he would surely have been killed outright. However, Menelaos was not finished and with his sword he struck a fearful blow on the Trojan prince’s helmet. The sword shattered, though, and fell in pieces into the dust. Menelaos then grabbed Paris’ helmet with his bare hands and proceeded to drag him from the field. Choking as his helmet strap wrapped around his neck, Paris was only saved through the intervention of Aphrodite who broke the helmet strap and, covering the prince in a thick mist, spirited her favourite back to the safety of his perfumed bedroom.

Achilles and Ajax By Exekias
by Dan Diffendale (CC BY-NC-SA)

Hektor v Ajax

The meeting of the two great heroes echoes that of Menelaos and Paris. Each throw their spears but to no effect. Hektor then threw a large rock at the Greek, only for him to fend it off with his shield. Ajax then returned the favour with an even bigger rock, smashing Hektor’s shield. They then drew their swords and closed for mortal combat but were each stopped by their comrades who called for an end to the fighting as night was approaching. Displaying the code of honour for which the good old days were famous, the two warriors even said goodbye on friendly terms by exchanging gifts, Hektor giving a silver-hilted sword and Ajax giving a splendid purple belt.

With the support of Apollo, an inspirational Hektor, in his finest hour, once more beat the Greeks back to their ships.

The Greek Ships Attacked

Following a tremendous day of fighting, Hektor led the Trojans in an attack on the very walls of the Greeks’ camp. Breaking through the gates, the Trojans sent the Greeks fleeing in panic back to their ships. However, as Zeus was momentarily distracted by the charms of Hera, Poseidon stepped in to encourage the Greeks who rallied and forced the Trojans to retreat. Then the tide of battle changed again and, with the support of Apollo, an inspirational Hektor, in his finest hour, once more beat the Greeks back to their ships where he sought to set them ablaze.

Patroklos Falls

Invincible Achilles was quite simply the greatest warrior in Greece, or anywhere else for that matter. Much to the Greek’s frustration, though, he sat out most of the final act of the war in a big sulk. Agamemnon had stolen his female war-booty Briseis and consequently the hero refused to fight. Agamemnon at first doesn’t seem to have been too bothered about losing his temperamental talisman but as the Trojans started to gain an upper hand in the war, it began to look like Achilles would be needed if the Archaians were to actually win the protracted conflict. Accordingly, an increasingly desperate Agamemnon sent an appeal to Achilles with promises of vast treasure if he would only re-join the conflict. These Achilles refused but with the Greek camp under attack, Patroklos appealed to his mentor and great friend Achilles to rejoin the conflict and, when he still refused, Patroklos asked for permission to wear Achilles’ armour and lead the fearful Myrmidons himself. Achilles, on seeing one of the Greek ships already ablaze, reluctantly gave his consent but warned Patroklos to only repel the Trojans from the camp and not pursue them to the walls of Troy.

Ambrosian Iliad
by Unknown (Public Domain)

Patroklos then led the Greek fight-back, the Trojans were swept back and he even managed to kill the great Trojan hero Sarpedon. Flushed with success, the young hero then ignored Achilles’ advice and rashly carried the fighting on towards Troy. However, at this point, great Apollo intervened on behalf of the Trojans and struck the helmet and armour from Patroklos, shattered his spear and knocked his shield from his arm. Thus exposed and defenceless, Patroklos was stabbed by Euphorbos and then Hektor stepped in to deal the fatal blow with a pitiless stab of his spear.

Achilles’ New Armour

When Achilles discovered the death of his great friend Patroklos, he was overcome with grief and rage and he swore to take terrible revenge on the Trojans and Hektor in particular. After a suitable show of mourning, Achilles finally decided to enter the battlefield once more. It was a decision which would seal the fate of Troy.

Resplendent in his shining armour, Achilles, still mad with rage, predictably routed the Trojans.

Before he could enter the fighting, though, Achilles needed new armour and this was provided by his divine mother Thetis who had Hephaistos, the master craftsman of Olympus, make him the most magnificent set of armour ever seen. Using bronze, tin, silver, and gold, the god made a massive shield which depicted a myriad of earthly scenes and all the constellations. So too, he made a dazzling, gold-crested helmet for the hero. Resplendent in his shining armour, Achilles, still mad with rage, predictably routed the Trojans who fled in panic behind the safety of their city walls.

Hektor v Achilles

Hektor alone remained standing outside the walls but at the sight of the awesome Achilles on the rampage, even his nerve gave way and he made a run for safety. Achilles, however, gave chase and pursued the Trojan prince three times around the city walls. Finally catching him, Achilles killed his quarry with a vicious stab of his spear in Hektor’s throat. Achilles then stripped the body of its fine armour and, tying Hektor by the ankles to his chariot, Achilles dragged the body back to the Greek camp in full view of Priam standing atop the fortifications of the city. This was a shockingly dishonourable act and against all the rules of ancient warfare.

Achilles Fighting Hektor
by Trustees of the British Museum (Copyright)

Having avenged the death of Patroklos, Achilles arranged funeral games in his fallen friend’s honour. Meanwhile, Priam entered the Greek camp in disguise and begged Achilles to return the body of his son that he might be given proper burial. Initially reluctant, the emotional pleas of the old man were finally heeded and Achilles consented to return the body. Here the Iliad ends but the war still had a few more twists of fate to turn.

The Trojan Horse & Victory

The war involved several more exciting episodes including Achilles’ fight with and killing of the Ethiopian King Memnon and the Amazon Penthesilea who both came to the aid of the Trojans. Achilles was even said to have fallen in love with the beautiful Amazon just at the moment he killed her with his spear. Achilles himself met his destiny and was killed by an arrow to his only weak spot, his ankle, shot by Paris and guided by Apollo. Odysseus and Ajax squabbled over the hero’s magnificent armour and Ajax went mad with disappointment when he lost out on the prize. Slaughtering a herd of sheep he thought were Greeks, he fell on his sword in a messy and pointless suicide. Philoktetes got revenge for Achilles by fatally shooting Paris with the legendary bow of Hercules. Finally, Odysseus even managed to get into the city in disguise and steal the sacred Palladion statue of Athena.

Troy was sacked & the population slaughtered or enslaved.

The final and decisive action was, though, the idea of the wooden horse. Odysseus, inspired by Athena, thought up the ruse to get a body of men inside the walls of Troy. First, the Greeks all sailed off into the sunset leaving a mysterious offering to the Trojans of a gigantic wooden horse which in reality concealed a group of warriors within. Just to make sure the Trojans took the horse within the city, Sinon was chosen to stay behind and tell a cock and bull story about the Greeks having given up and left a nice present. The Trojans did take the horse inside the city walls but whilst they were enjoying a drunken celebration of their victory, the Greeks climbed out of the horse, opened the city walls for the returning Greek army, and the city was sacked and the population slaughtered or enslaved. Helen was taken back to Argos and of the Trojan heroes only Aeneas escaped to eventually set up a new home in Italy.

Victory had its price though. Due to their pitiless ravaging of the city and its people and even worse, outrageous sacrilegious acts such as the rape of Kassandra, the gods punished the Greeks by sending storms to wreck their ships and those who did eventually return were made to endure a protracted and difficult voyage home. Even then, some of the Greeks who did make it back to their homeland only did so to face further misfortune and disaster.

The Trojan Horse
by Tetraktyas (CC BY-SA)

Trojan War: Art & Literature

Troy and the Trojan War became a staple myth of Classical Greek and Roman literature and were revisited many times by writers in works such as AeschylusAgamemnon, EuripidesTrojan Women, and Virgil’s Aenid. Also in pottery decoration and in sculpture, artists were captivated by the Trojan War. Scenes of the judgement of Paris, Achilles fighting Hektor, Achilles playing dice with Ajax, and Ajax falling on his sword were just some of the myriad scenes from the story that would appear in art again and again over the centuries. Perhaps more importantly, the Trojan War came to represent the struggle of Greeks against foreign powers and it told tales of a time when men were better, more able, and more honourable.

Troy In Archaeology

There has been much scholarly debate as to whether the mythical Troy actually existed and if so, whether the archaeological site discovered in Anatolia which revealed a city which had prospered over thousands of years of habitation was actually the same city; however, it is now almost universally accepted that the archaeological excavations have revealed the city of Homer’s Iliad.

Of the several cities built on top of each other, Troy VI (c. 1750-1300 BCE) is the most likely candidate for the besieged city of Homer’s Trojan War. Impressive fortification walls with several towers certainly fit the Homeric description of ‘strong-built Troy’. The lower town covers an impressive 270,000 m² protected by an encircling rock-cut ditch and suggests a grand city like the Troy of tradition.

Troy VI was partially destroyed but the exact cause is not known beyond some evidence of fire. Intriguingly, bronze arrowheads, spear tips, and slingshots have been found at the site and even some embedded in the fortification walls, suggesting some sort of conflict. The dates of these (c. 1250 BCE) and the site destruction correlate with Herodotus’ dates for the Trojan War. Conflicts over the centuries between the Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations are more than probable, colonial expansion and control of lucrative trade routes being prime motivators. However, such conflicts are unlikely to have been on the scale of Homer’s war, but collectively they may well have been the origin of the epic tale of the Trojan War which has fascinated for centuries.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

About the Author

Mark is a history writer based in Italy. His special interests include pottery, architecture, world mythology and discovering the ideas that all civilizations share in common. He holds an MA in Political Philosophy and is the Publishing Director at AHE.

Note: AHE article shared in this form rather for educational purposes in China (links and other forms of sharing restricted). Please see the AHE website for subscription information.

Western Civilization Essay

Western Civilization: end of semester essay

Length: 3000 words

Topic: Your choice (but see ‘planning’, below).


  • Give a critical account of an aspect (or aspects) of Western civilization.
  • Your essay should go beyond the merely descriptive and demonstrate knowledge and understanding.
  • Your essay should draw on an appropriate range of academic sources and cite them in one of the accepted academic styles.

Planning: You should submit a proposed essay topic and plan to me prior to writing the essay. You are encouraged to seek feedback on your plan.

Format: Word.

Submission: submit to me via email.


Proposed submission date: 12/27


Lesson 4b: Hellenikon (the Greek Thing) and its cultural aspects

Jackson Spielvogel’s view on the legacy of ancient Greek civilization for Western societies

For Professor Spielvogel and many other classical historians, the civilization of the ancient Greeks was the fountainhead of Western culture.

Spielvogel writes that:

  • Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle established the foundations of Western philosophy.
  • Herodotus and Thucydides created the discipline of history.
  • Our literary forms are largely derived from Greek poetry and drama.
  • Greek notions of harmony, proportion, and beauty have remained the touchstones for all subsequent Western art and architecture.
  • A rational method of inquiry, so important to modern science, was conceived in ancient Greece.
  • Many of our political terms are Greek in origin, and so are our concepts of the rights and duties of citizenship, especially as they were conceived in Athens, which gave the idea of democracy to the Western world.
  • Especially during the Classical period, the Greeks raised and debated fundamental questions about the purpose of human existence, the structure of human society, and the nature of the universe that have concerned Western thinkers ever since.

Spielvogel does caution that even if their legacy has come be be seen as foundational, the ancient Greeks themselves did not conceive of Western civilization as a cultural entity.

We might note, however, that they had begun to conceive of themselves as of the West, not the East.

We could also note that their democratic ideals were hierarchical (equality among some citizens was greater than among others, and equality of all citizens relied on the subjugation of other peoples). To some degree the roots of these contradictions lay in their identities and culture.


The Greeks had a word Hellenikon, meaning ‘Greekness’ (or, ‘the Greek thing’).

It was first used by the historian Herodotus to sum up everything the ancient Greeks had in common: language, religion, customs, blood.

Today, ‘the Greek thing’ has become a kind of shorthand for the values and ideals that we like to think lie at the root of who we are: rational, cultured, humane and civilized. But beneath the cool marble skin there was a fierce pulse that gave ‘the Greek thing’ its energy and passion, and also its capacity for sudden, shocking violence.

  • Violence and slavery are, equally, legacies of the ancient Greeks.

Ancient Greece shows us, with absolute clarity, the polarities contained within the concept of ‘civilization’.

In the story of ancient Greece, …. the blossoming in art, philosophy and science went hand-in-bloody-hand with political discord, social unrest, endless wars and, ultimately, the complete failure to forge a common political identity (Richard Miles)’.

Mythologizing the Warrior Culture

Let’s have a listen to Bettany Hughes talking about chariots and warriors (play video clip).

So that fighting spirit, we talked about last week, comes from the Mycenean warrior culture, and the Greeks celebrated it, …. they mythologized it.

The Iliad, Homer sometime between 750 and 700 BC epic of the Trojan War.

Iliad and the Odyssey supposedly deal with the heroes of the Mycenaean age of the thirteenth century B.C.E., many scholars believe that they really describe the social conditions of the Dark Age.

According to the Homeric view, Greece was a society based on agriculture in which a landed warrior-aristocracy controlled much wealth and exercised considerable power. Homer’s world reflects the values of aristocratic heroes. Speilvogel.

The Iliad tells the story of war between Sparta and Troy (a city in what is now Turkey). The war was sparked by Paris, a prince of Troy. By kidnapping Helen, wife of the king of the Greek state of Sparta, he outraged all the Greeks. Under the leadership of the Spartan king’s brother, Agamemnon of Mycenae, the Greeks attacked Troy. Ten years later, the Greeks finally won and sacked the city.

The Odyssey, Homer’s other masterpiece, is an epic romance that recounts the journeys of one of the Greek heroes, Odysseus (oh-DISS-ee-uss), after the fall of Troy, and his ultimate return to his wife. But there is a larger vision here as well: the testing of the heroic stature of Odysseus until, by both cunning and patience, he prevails. In the course of this testing, the underlying moral message is ‘‘that virtue isa better policy than vice. Spielvogel

Richard Miles writes that The very first word of this epic poem is menin, meaning rage, and that is what the poem explores … the rage of men fighting for honour, vengeance and personal gain, for victory, survival and the intoxicating adrenaline rush of licensed savagery. Miles.

Here is an exemplary passage:

Achilles drew his sharp sword and struck him on the collarbone by the neck, and the whole length of the two-edged sword sank inside him and lay stretched on the earth: and the dark blood ran from him, soaking the ground. Achilles took him by the foot and flung him to float in the river, and spoke winged words in triumph over him: ‘Now lie there among the fish. They will lick the blood from your wound and give you no loving burial. Your mother will not lay you out on the bier and lament for you … Death take you all, all the way till we reach the city of sacred Ilios, you Trojans running in flight and I behind you cutting you down.’

The Iliad gave the Greeks a conceptual framework with which to think about themselves and the kind of societies they were creating …

  • Well-walled’ Troy, with its ‘lofty gates’, ‘wide streets’ and ‘fine towers’, is in many ways the ideal city-state to which the Greeks aspired.
  • And Hector, the noble, doomed warrior who fights and dies for its survival, is civilization’s champion and the true hero of the Iliad. Richard miles

The Greeks regarded the Iliad and the Odyssey as authentic history as recorded by one poet, Homer. These masterpieces gave the Greeks an ideal past with a cast of heroes and came to be used as standard texts for the education of generations of Greek males. As one Athenian stated, ‘‘My father was anxious to see me develop into a good man . . . and as a means to this end he compelled me to memorize all of Homer.’’3

The values Homer taught were essentially the aristocratic values of courage and honor (see the reading on ‘excellence’).

A hero strives for excellence, which the Greeks called arete (ahr-ih-TAY). In the warrior-aristocratic world of Homer,

Arete is won in a struggle or contest. Through his willingness to fight, the hero protects his family and friends, preserves his own honor and that of his family, and earns his reputation.

In the Homeric world, aristocratic women, too, were expected to pursue excellence. Penelope, for example, the wife of Odysseus, the hero of the Odyssey, remains faithful to her husband and displays great courage and intelligence in preserving their household during her husband’s long absence. Spielvogel

The rise of individualism and the valuing of ‘excellence’

Membership in the elite of a polis came, ideally at least, to be something men earned by their success, rather than inherited as members of the aristocracy. This flourishing of the role of the (for example, worthy, or excellent) individual was tied to the competitive character of ancient Greek society, and the Olympics give us a great example of that culture.


The first Olympic Games were held in 776 BC and the first event was a 200-metre sprint. In contemporary western culture there is an idea that ‘it isn’t winning that counts, what’s really important is taking part’. The ancient Greeks were not like that, for them winning was everything.

The kudos of victory brought material rewards and political power. For the losers there was no silver or bronze – all they could expect were derision and ignominy. The poet Pindar describes them slinking back home, spurned by their mothers and girlfriends, ‘lurking in byways, hoping to avoid their enemies, stung by their ill fortune’. (Miles)

Greeks saw a direct link between prowess on the sports field and on the battlefield. Greek athletes competed as individuals. It was every man for himself. This accorded with the view given to Achilles who was said to believed that glory cannot be shared (it can only be earned by an individual winner).

Let’s have a look at Homer’s idea of excellence (from Jason Spielvogel)

This passage from the Iliad, describing a conversation between Hector, prince of Troy, and his wife, Andromache (an- DRAHM-uh-kee), illustrates the Greek ideal of gaining honor through combat. At the end of the passage, Homer also reveals what became the Greek attitude toward women: women are supposed to spin and weave and take care of their households and their children.

Homer, the Iliad

Hector looked at his son and smiled, but said nothing. Andromache, bursting into tears, went up to him and put her hand in his. ‘‘Hector,’’ she said, ‘‘you are possessed. This bravery of yours will be your end. You do not think of your little boy or your unhappy wife, whom you will make a widow soon. Some day the Achaeans [Greeks] are bound to kill you in a massed attack. And when I lose you I might as well be dead. . . . I have no father, no mother, now. . . . I had seven brothers too at home. In one day all of them went down to Hades’ House. The great Achilles of the swift feet killed them all. . . .

‘‘So you, Hector, are father and mother and brother to me, as well as my beloved husband. Have pity on me now; stay here on the tower; and do not make your boy an orphan and your wife a widow. . . .’’

‘‘All that, my dear,’’ said the great Hector of the glittering helmet, ‘‘is surely my concern. But if I hid myself like a coward and refused to fight, I could never face the Trojans and the Trojan ladies in their trailing gowns. Besides, it would go against the grain, for I have trained myself always, like a good soldier, to take my place in the front line and win glory for my father and myself. . . .’’

As he finished, glorious Hector held out his arms to take his boy. But the child shrank back with a cry to the bosom of his girdled nurse, alarmed by his father’s appearance. He was frightened by the bronze of the helmet and the horsehair plume that he saw nodding grimly down at him. His father and his lady mother had to laugh. But noble Hector quickly took his helmet off and put the dazzling thing on the ground. Then he kissed his son, dandled him in his arms, and prayed to Zeus and the other gods: ‘‘Zeus, and you other gods, grant that this boy of mine may be, like me, preeminent in Troy; as strong and brave as I; a mighty king of Ilium. May people say, when he comes back from battle, ‘Here is a better man than his father.’ Let him bring home the bloodstained armor of the enemy he has killed, and make his mother happy.’’

Hector handed the boy to his wife, who took him to her fragrant breast. She was smiling through her tears, and when her husband saw this he was moved. He stroked her with his hand and said: ‘‘My dear, I beg you not to be too much distressed. No one is going to send me down to Hades before my proper time. But Fate is a thing that no man born of woman, coward or hero, can escape. Go home now, and attend to your own work, the loom and the spindle, and see that the maidservants get on with theirs. War is men’s business; and this war is the business of every man in Ilium, myself above all.’’

Another place we can find the Greek idea of the individual is in their art where we find a celebration of physical beauty. Recall what we learned from the historians Mary Beard and Jonathan Jones and colleagues: (clips from Civilizations, How do we Look?)

The Body Beautiful

Jackson Spielvogel notes the resemblance of early Greek statues, the kouros to Egyptian statues of the New Kingdom. The figures are not realistic but stiff, with a slight smile; one leg is advanced ahead of the other, and the arms are held rigidly at the sides of the body.

Life-size stone statues of young male nudes known as kouros (KOO-rohss) figures.

Mary Beard (in the film) observed that early Greek sculpture was gave an ideal form of the virtues of deities and types, but the sculptures were not realistic representations.

Phrasikleia (the maiden) tomb stone circa 550BCE

The subsequent transformation in Greek sculpture was more realistic in style. Famous works of Greek sculpture such as the Parthenon Marbles and Discobolos (the discus thrower) epitomize the artist’s interest in depicting human emotion, beauty, and accomplishment realistically, even if those qualities are presented in works featuring immortals. (Mary Beard and Jonathan Jones and colleagues).

What we can see developing is a new, more realistic form of idealism, where the ideal is the perfect beauty of the human body. This is true of the individuals celebrated in sculpture, like the disc thrower, and of the Gods (whose perfection takes the form of the beautiful human).


It’s a kind of realism, but still idealized (the ideal is beauty). Compare, the realism of the modern British Lucien Freud’s painting below with the Ancient Greek sculptures.

Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, 1996 (oil on canvas)
Lucien Freud, seated nude.

Harmony in architecture

The arts in Classical Greece were designed to express the eternal ideals of reason, moderation, symmetry, balance, and harmony.

In architecture, the most important form was the temple, and the classic example of this kind of architecture is the Parthenon, built between 447 and 432 B.C.E

The Parthenon
Ancient Greek Temple Columns Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The size and shape of a column constituted key aspects of Greek temple architecture. The Doric order, with plain capitals and no base, developed first in the Dorian Peloponnesus and was rather simple in comparison to the
slender Ionic column, which had an elaborate base and spiral-shaped capitals, and the Corinthian column, which featured leaf-shaped capitals.

Much important classical architecture was built in the 5th century using funds from the Delian League. The Parthenon, built between 447 and 432 B.C.E. was consecrated to Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. The Parthenon typifies the principles of Classical architecture: the search for calm, clarity, and freedom from superfluous detail.

The individual parts of the temple were constructed in accordance with certain mathematical ratios found in nature. The architects’ concern with these laws of proportion is paralleled by the attempt of Greek philosophers to understand the general laws of nature, and of artists like Polyclitus (pahl-ee-KLY-tuss), whose sought to find the ratios that would express the ideal beauty of the human body.

This statue, known as the Doryphoros, or spear carrier,
is by the fifth-century B.C.E. sculptor
Polyclitus, who believed it illustrated the ideal proportionof the
human figure.

Religion and mythology


Greek religion was based on twelve chief gods who supposedly lived on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece.

The Olympian gods, and Zeus in particular, gained supremacy over the cosmos after a long war in heaven with the previous ruling gods, the Titans, led by Cronus. However, the Titans had actually won an earlier rebellion against a primordial god, Uranus (sky/heaven).

These primordial gods seem to have been personifications and concepts, such as heaven, earth, sea, light, darkness, time, etc. According to (one  version from) Greek mythology, Cronus wanted the power of his father, Uranus. Uranus had angered Gaia (earth, mother goddess) after placing some of their children (Titans) in the darkness of Tartarus (the abyss) because he was angry at them. Gaia then created a gigantic stone sickle and organized Cronus and others of the lesser gods to defeat Uranus (Hesiod, Theogany). Cronus then ambushed Uranus and attacked him with the sickle, castrating him.

The victory resulted in a period in which Cronus and the Titans ruled, and was called the Golden Age (Hesiod, Days and Times). This was a period of peace, leisure and virtue. After this though, Zeus led a rebellion of the Olympians, defeated Cronus and imprisoned him for eternity, and became the ruler of the gods. … This same war in heaven concept in which the original god or gods suffered defeat after a rebellion of some of the created lesser gods is found in the even more ancient literature of the Near East. (DTH)



Each polis usually chose one of the twelve Olympians as a guardian of its community.

Because it was desirable to have the gods look favorably on one’s activities, ritual prayers and gifts were practiced, involving sacrifices (animals or agricultural products).

Divination was a common practice (seeking to know the will of the Gods). Oracles were used, sacred shrines dedicated to a god or goddess who revealed the future.

Ancient Greeks understood their gods through myths, (myths were often performed by bards) Homer’s works were an expression of the eternal order of the world and his conception of the individual striving for excellence form the foundations of the Greek outlook. In time, his epic poems formed the basis of the Olympian religion accepted throughout Greece. [Perry, M].

The legends of gods and heroes like Athena, Zeus, and Oedipus embodied the central ideals and values of Greek civilization notions like civic responsibility, the primacy of male authority, and humility before the gods.

The stories weretrue” not in a literal sense but as reflections of important cultural beliefs. These myths assured the Greeks of the nobility of their origins; they provided models for the roles that Greeks would play in their public and private lives; they justified inequities in Greek society; they helped the Greeks understand human life and destiny in terms thatmade sensewithin the framework of that culture. (Colombo et al.,)

Legacies of Greek mythology

Greek mythology has many legacies for western societies (civilization). We can trace some of those through culture (poetry, drama), and in language.

Living in the twenty-first century we are constantly surrounded by the resonances of Greek mythology, and, though we seldom pause to reflect on it, we talk the language of myth all the time. We inhabit a chaotic world (Khaos was the primal void) where Trojan horses threaten our computers and Ajax is a cleaning product and a Dutch football team. Politicians dismiss their opponents’ opinions as ‘myths’ (i.e. lies), while at the same time television archaeologists try to unearth ‘the truth behind the myth’ of Atlantis. Centaurs grace the pages of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series; football managers say their star strikers have the Midas touch; a man can be an Adonis, a woman a siren or a harpy; and we all have our Achilles heel. Others are nymphomaniacs, use aphrodisiacs and read erotic literature – all activities with Greek mythological semantic roots. Meanwhile we undertake Herculean tasks, wrestle with our Oedipus complexes, make personal odysseys, and should certainly beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

There is nothing new in our fascination with the myths: no self-respecting Renaissance palazzo was complete without an array of mythological paintings, perhaps with underlying meanings referring to the politics of the day; opera has constantly drawn on the corpus of Greek myths, from Monteverdi’s Orfeo through to Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex and beyond; dance has done the same, be it classical ballet or more contemporary pieces such as Martha Graham’s Andromache’s Lament. Film thrives on a Greek background, drawing directly on such myths as Jason (Jason and the Argonauts, directed by Don Chaffey, 1963) and the Trojan War (Troy, Wolfgang Petersen, 2004, where the abduction of Helen becomes an excuse for an attack on an eastern state by a ‘Greek superpower’ and has been seen as analogous to the recent American-led invasion of Iraq, which some commentators think has opened a Pandora’s box in the Middle East), or operating more allusively as in Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite (1995), which deals with the power of love and parodies Greek tragedy at the same time. Rock, jazz and other contemporary music styles draw on the myths too, from Led Zeppelin’s sublime ‘Achilles’ Last Stand’ to Virgin Steele’s ridiculous ‘symphonic metal’ The House of Atreus, from Ivo Papasov and his Bulgarian Wedding Band’s Orpheus Ascending to the tumbling chords of the Anglo-Scandinavian jazz trio Stekpanna’s ‘Ikaros’. Ian Hamilton Finlay created a stunning garden at Little Sparta, Joe Tilson produced a series of Nine Muses at the most recent Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. There is no escape from Greek mythology. (Kershaw)



Greek theatre began in the 6th century BCE in Athens with the performance of tragedy plays at religious festivals. These, in turn, inspired the genre of Greek comedy plays. The two types of Greek drama would be hugely popular and performances spread around the Mediterranean and influenced Hellenistic and Roman theatre. Thus the works of such great playwrights as Sophocles and Aristophanes formed the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based. (Cartwright)

Drama was used to educate citizens and was supported by the state for that reason. Plays were presented in outdoor theaters as part of religious festivals.

Ruins of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens.

The form of Greek plays three male actors who wore masks acted all the parts.

Ancient Greek dramatic masks
Ancient Greek costumes

A chorus, also male, spoke the important lines that explained what was going on. Action was very limited because the emphasis was on the story and its meaning.

The first Greek dramas were tragedies (trag?ida), plays based on the suffering of a hero and usually ending in disaster.

The exact origins of tragedy (trag?ida) are debated amongst scholars. Some have linked the rise of the genre to an earlier art form, the lyrical performance of epic poetry. Others suggest a strong link with the rituals performed in the worship of Dionysos such as the sacrifice of goats – a song ritual called trag-?dia – and the wearing of masks. Indeed, Dionysos became known as the god of theatre and perhaps there is another connection – the drinking rites which resulted in the worshippers losing full control of their emotions and in effect becoming another person, much as actors (hupokritai) hope to do when performing. The music and dance of Dionysiac ritual was most evident in the role of the chorus and the music provided by an aulos player, but rhythmic elements were also preserved in the use of first, trochaic tetrameter and then iambic trimeter in the delivery of the spoken words. (Cartwright)

Aeschylus (525–456 B.C.E.) is the first tragedian whose plays are known to us. His plots focus on a single tragic event and its meaning. Greek tragedies were sometimes presented in a trilogy (a set of three plays) built around a common theme. The only complete trilogy we possess, called the Oresteia (uh-res-TY-uh), was composed by Aeschylus.

The theme of this trilogy is derived from Homer. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, returns a hero after the defeat of Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, avenges the sacrificial death of her daughter Iphigenia by murdering Agamemnon, who had been responsible for Iphigenia’s death.

In the second play, Agamemnon’s son Orestes (uh-RES-teez) avenges his father by killing his mother. Orestes is now pursued by the avenging Furies, who torment him for killing his mother. Evil acts breed evil acts, and suffering is one’s lot, suggests Aeschylus.

In the third play, Orestes is put on trial and acquitted by Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Personal vendetta has been eliminated, and law has prevailed.

Athenian playwright Sophocles (SAHF-uh-kleez) (c. 496–406 B.C.E.) was very successful. His most famous play was Oedipus the King. The oracle of Apollo foretells that a man (Oedipus) will kill his own father and marry his mother. Despite all attempts at prevention, the tragic events occur. Although iOedipus suffered the fate determined by the gods, Oedipus also accepts that he himself as a free man must bear responsibility for his actions: ‘‘It was Apollo, friends, Apollo, that brought this bitter bitterness, my sorrows to completion. But the hand that struck me was none but my own.’’15

In Sophocles’s play Antigone, Antigone (an-TIG-uh-nee), the daughter of Oedipus, is caught in a terrible dilemma. Her brother Polynices (pol-uh-NY-seez) has died in an attempt to seize the throne of Thebes, and now the king of Thebes, Antigone’s uncle Cleon, has forbidden his burial as a traitor to the state. Should Antigone adhere to her principles and fulfill her obligation to the gods by burying her brother or face death by defying the authority of the state? In the confrontation between Cleon and Antigone, Sophocles bears witness to the complexity of human existence.

Euripides (uoo-RIP-i-deez) (c. 485–406 B.C.E.), moved beyond his predecessors in creating more realistic characters and plots. His play The Bacchae deals with the introduction of the hysterical rites associated with Dionysus (dy-uh-NY-suss), god of wine. Euripides is often seen as a skeptic who questioned traditional moral and religious values.

Euripides was also critical of the traditional view that war was glorious. He portrayed war as brutal and expressed deep compassion for the women and children who suffered from it.

Greek tragedies dealt with universal themes that are still relevant in our day.

the nature of good and evil,

the conflict between spiritual values and the demands of the state or family,

the rights of the individual,

the nature of divine forces, and the nature of human beings.

The lessons of tragedy were that humans were free and yet could operate only within limitations imposed by the gods. The real task was to cultivate the balance and moderation that led to awareness of one’s limited position. (Spielvogel)

However they also celebrated the achievements and independence of humanity. As the chorus chants in Sophocles’s Antigone: ‘‘Is there anything more wonderful on earth, our marvelous planet, than the miracle of man?’’16

Greek Comedy

Greek comedy developed later than tragedy and was often satirical and political.

The plays of Aristophanes (ar-is-STAH-fuh-neez) (c. 450–c. 385 B.C.E.), used both grotesque masks and obscene jokes to entertain the Athenian audience, and to attack or satirize politicians and intellectuals. In The Clouds, for example, Aristophanes characterizes the philosopher Socrates as the operator of a thought factory where people could learn deceitful ways to handle other people.

Aristophanes was opposed to the Peloponnesian War. His play Lysistrata, performed in 411 B.C.E., at a time when Athens was in serious danger of defeat, has a comic but effective message against the war.

The birth of history

History as we know it, the systematic analysis of past events, was a Greek creation. The Greek word historia (from which we derive our word history) means ‘‘research’’ or ‘‘investigation,’

Herodotus (huh-ROD-uh-tuss) (c. 484–c. 425 B.C.E.), wrote The Persian Wars, the first real history in Western civilization. he viewed the wars as a struggle between Greek freedom and Persian despotism.

Herodotus traveled widely for his information and was dependent for his sources on what we today would call oral history. His history was a combination of sometimes fantastical storytelling and critical reflection.

THUCYDIDES Thucydides (c. 460–c. 400 B.C.E.) Thucydides was an Athenian
and a participant in the Peloponnesian War who drew on his experiences to write his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Unlike Herodotus, Thucydides was not concerned with underlying divine forces or gods as explanatory causal factors in history. He saw war and politics in purely rational terms,
as the activities of human beings. He examined the long-range and immediate causes of the Peloponnesian War in a clear, methodical, objective fashion. Thucydides placed much emphasis on accuracy and the precision of his facts. As he stated:

And with regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I heard of them from eyewitnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible.(Thucydides, 1954, 24)

Thucydides thereby gave us one of the fundamental principles of research and investigation (relevant to history and other social sciences), that of fact-checking, or corroboration.

For Thucydides, studying history aided understanding the present. He thought that past events were likely to be repeated in some way as human nature was unchanging.


Religion and mythology pervaded daily life, but in time, traditional religion was challenged and undermined by a growing secular and rational spirit.That transition was in part the work of the philosophers. [Perry, M]

Philosophy is a Greek word that literally means ‘‘love of wisdom.’’

Early Greek philosophers were concerned with the development of critical or rational thought about the nature of the universe and the place of divine forces and souls in it.
Much of early Greek philosophy focused on the attempt to explain the universe on the basis of unifying principles. Their theories eliminated the role of the gods as portrayed in Greek myths, but they did not eliminate divinity itself from the world, tending instead
identifying divinity with the underlying, unchanging forces that govern the universe.

Thales of Miletus (circa 600BCE), postulated the unity of the universe. All things were linked by water as the basic substance.

Pythagoras (c. 580–c. 490 B.C.E.), taught that the essence of the universe could be found in music and number.

Sophists (SAHF-ists) were a group of philosophical teachers in the fifth century who thought the only worthwhile object of study was human behavior and, especially, self-improvement.

The Sophists stressed the importance of rhetoric in winning debates and swaying an audience, a skill that was especially valuable in democratic Athens. We get the word sophistry from them (the art of persuasive speaking).

Sophists were what we call relativists. They believed that there was no absolute right or wrong—what was right for one individual might be wrong for another. Wisdom consisted of being able to perceive and pursue one’s own good.

Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.) developed a teaching method employing a question-
and-answer technique to lead pupils to see things for themselves using their own reason (we still call this the Socratic method). Socrates believed that all real knowledge is within each person and that ‘‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’’

Socrates’s questioning of authority and public demonstrations of others’ lack of knowledge led him into trouble. Athens had had a tradition of free thought and inquiry (in or modern terms we might think of that as free speech). However, at times Athens became intolerant of open debate and soul-searching. Socrates lived in one of those periods, following Athens’ defeat in the Peloponnesian War. He was accused and convicted of corrupting youth by his teaching, and an Athenian jury sentenced him to death.

Plato (c. 429–347 B.C.E.), one of Socrates’s students, is considered to be one of or perhaps the greatest philosopher of Western civilization.

Plato’s works were concerned with questioning of reality: How do we know what is real?
According to Plato, a higher world of eternal, unchanging Ideas or Forms has always existed. To know these Forms is to know truth. These ideal Forms constitute reality  The objects that we perceive with our senses are simply reflections of the ideal Forms. The objects we perceive are just shadows, and reality is actually the Forms themselves.

Plato believed that the ideal Forms could only be recognized by by a trained (i.e., philosophical) mind (a very different idea from Socrates’ belief that we all have the truth within us and can and should seek it).

Aristotle. Aristotle’s philosophical and political ideas became important to important role in the evolution of Western thought during the Middle Ages (as we wil see in a later lesson).

Aristotle was a polygot, whose subjects included ethics, logic, politics, poetry, astronomy, geology, biology, and physics.

He was interested in analyzing and classifying things based on thorough research and investigation. He believed that by examining individual objects, we can perceive their form and arrive at universal principles, but they do not exist as a separate higher world of reality beyond material things (as Plato thought); rather the principles are a part of things themselves.

Aristotle was the first philosopher to developed a systematic study of logic. His framework would become an authority in deductive reasoning for over two thousand years. The doctrine of syllogism is his most influential contribution to logic. He defined the syllogism as a discourse in which certain things having been stated, something else follows of necessity from their being so. A well-known example is:

  1. All men are mortal.  (major premise)
  2. Socrates is a man.  (minor premise)
  3. Socrates is mortal.  (conclusion)  [Violatti]

Aristotle wrote about gender relations and his ideas about women and their role in society later became influential (especially in the Middle Ages). Aristotle believed  marriage was a good, as it provided mutual comfort between man and woman and contributed to the overall happiness of a community:

‘‘The community needs both male and female excellences or it can only be half-blessed.’’

However, men were more excellent than women, Aristotle argued that women
were biologically inferior to men:

‘‘A woman is, as it were, an infertile male. She is female in fact on account of a kind of

Therefore women must be subordinated to men (in the community and in marriage).

In these beliefs he was aligned with the beliefs of many Ancient Greeks that a woman’s place was in the home, bearing and raising children and managing the household. Yet there were exceptions. The Spartans believed in the independence of woman, allowed women to own property in their own right and manage their households, and celebrated and encouraged female strength and power.

After the fall of ancient Greece and the rise of Hellenic society women enjoyed fewer restrictions, and women of all classes had a new freedom of movement. The most notable gains, especially for upper-class women, came in the economic area.


Building on Egyptian and Babylonian knowledge, figures such as Thales of Miletus, Pythagoras, and Aristotle developed ideas in mathematics, astronomy, and logic that would influence Western thought, science, and philosophy for centuries to come. Aristotle was the first philosopher who developed a systematic study of logic, an early form of evolution was taught by such figures of Greek philosophy as Anaximander and Empedocles, and Pythagoras’ mathematical theorem is still used today. 

Scientific explanations for the world

Thales of Miletus, c. 600 BCE

He first developed the idea that the world can be explained without resorting to supernatural (mythical) explanations.

It is likely that the astronomical knowledge that Thales got from Egyptian and Babylonian astronomy allowed him to predict a solar eclipse which took place on 28 May 585 BCE.

Anaximander, another Ionian, argued that since human infants are helpless at birth, if the first human had somehow appeared on earth as an infant, it would not have survived. Anaximander reasoned that people must, therefore, have evolved from other animals whose young are hardier.

Empedocles who first taught an early form of evolution and survival of the fittest. He believed that originally “countless tribes of mortal creatures were scattered abroad endowed with all manner of forms, a wonder to behold”, but in the end, only certain forms were able to survive.


Ancient Greek Mathematics was aided by the influence of Egyptian mathematics; itsastronomy was, aided the influence of Babylon.

The Greeks derived rules of thumbs with specific applications from Egyptian mathematics and furthered them into general principles with broad applications

Egyptians knew, for example, that a triangle whose sides are in a 3:4:5 ratio is a right triangle.

Pythagoras took this concept and stretched it to its limit by deducting a mathematical theorem that bears his name: that, in a right triangle, the square on the opposite side of the right angle (the hypotenuse) is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.


Limits of the ancient Greek method

Besides its great achievements, Greek science had its flaws. Observation was undervalued by the Greeks in favour of the deductive process, where knowledge is built by means of pure thought. This method is key in mathematics, and the Greeks put their emphasis on it. The starting point to discover principles was always an idea in the mind of the thinker: sometimes observations were undervalued and some other times the Greeks were not able to make a sharp distinction between empirical observations and logical arguments. Modern scientific method no longer relies on this technique; today science seeks to discover principles based on observations as a starting point. Likewise, the logical method of science today favours induction over deduction: instead of building conclusions on an assumed set of self-evident generalizations, induction starts with observations of particular facts and derives generalizations from them.

Imagining Greek superiority and Eastern inferiority

For the ancient Greeks – the story of heroic resistance and the ultimate victory over a regional superpower (Persia) showed that ‘the Greek thing’ produced a different and superior class of human being.

In Athens, Aeschylus would write the first The Persians, which marks a critical break between a reconstituted ‘Greek’ culture and the Near East that had spawned it.

Greece would default on the cultural debt that it owed to the East, insisting that it owed nothing to anybody.

The virtues of Greece were now juxtaposed with the supposed oriental barbarity of the East as represented by Persians, the ‘East’ would come to stand for everything Greece was not – an anti-type to be despised and parodied.

Greek Eastern
Liberty Despotic, slave-like
Reason Irrational
Civilization Barbaric
Virility Effeminate, hen-pecked
Courageous Cowardly
Noble/honorable Treacherous



Cartwright, M. ‘Ancient Greek Theatre’, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2016.

Colombo et al., Reareading America, 11th ed. 2019.

Kershaw, S. A Brief Guide to the Greek Myths, Robinson, London, 2007.

Perry, M. Western Civilization, A Brief History, Volume 1. Cenage Learning, 2011.

Spielvogel, J. Western Civilization, 9th edition. Cenage Learning. 2013.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner, Harmondsworth, England, 1954

Violatti, ‘Ancient Greek Science’, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2013.




Reading: the brutality of Golden Age Athens

The tutoring of the Mytlinese

An Example of the ruthlessness that governed Athenian imperial policy took place in 427 BC, after a revolt by the city of Mytilene, an Athenian ‘ally’ that attempted to defect to the Spartans at a critical point in the Peloponnesian War. Once the uprising was suppressed, the Athenian populist politician Cleon (a tanner by trade, a butcher by nature) proposed that every man, woman and child there should be slaughtered. The motion was passed and a ship was sent, carrying the orders for the massacre.

The following day, the debate was revived and, mercurial as ever, the Athenians decided that only the ringleaders should be put to death (though with a thousand names on the list, the Athenians cast the ring pretty wide). So a second ship was dispatched with the new orders.

The historian Thucydides gives a vivid description of the scene on this second boat, with the anxious Mytilenean envoys supplying the Athenian rowers with barley mixed with oil and wine to keep them going so they could overtake the first ship. They only just made it in time, but the people of Mytilene were saved.

Mercy had its own propaganda value: this dramatic story crisscrossed the Aegean and mainland Greece and served as yet another emphatic reminder of the disaster that awaited any city tempted to try to leave the alliance. The episode was the final instalment in the Delian League’s transformation from mutual protection alliance to Athenian protection racket.

(extract from Ancient Worlds, Richard Miles).

Lesson 4a: Ancient Greek civilization. The rise and fall of the Polis and democracy

The Greek (Mycenaen) Dark ages and the route back to civilization

The Dark Age collapse had hit the Mycenaean kingdoms of ancient Greece hard.

From the time of the breakdown of the Mycenaean civilization in the twelfth century BC, Greece regressed.

  • Farming practices reverted from agriculture to pastoralism, and almost all contact with the outside world ceased.
  • In the last centuries of the second millennium BC, the population dropped by 75 per cent.
  • Its inhabitants had abandoned sophisticated settlements
  • they forgot many of the facets of civilized life/complex society: monumental architecture, figurative art and the ability to write.

Ancient Greece: renewal via diffusion

When society began to develop again, it was by way of diffusion.

Herodotus (Greek, the first historian) wrote the multi-volume Histories. In it he acknowledged the debt the Greeks owed to the Phoenicians for the alphabet (phoinikeia grammata, Phoenician letters).

Later historians have added more items to this diffusion of Phoenician innovations:

  • the cultivation of olive trees and vines (for olive oil and wine),
  • the use of weights and measures,
  • interest-bearing loans and banking,
  • gods like Heracles
  • political concepts like kingship

By the tenth century BC, the goods, skills and ideas brought by the Phoenicians essentially revived Greece. The resumption of trade in Greece and beyond, with networks spanning from Syria in the east to Italy in the west., a dramatic rise in the population, great increase in private wealth, growing economic and social distinctions that would provide the foundation stone for the Greek polis, or city-state, the entity that gave birth to forms of democracy.

The Greek colonial world


Ancient Greece was the home of many important innovations that came to be diffused throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.

Greek expansion overseas developed during  the Archaic Age. Between 750 and 550 B.C.E., large numbers of Greeks left their homeland to settle in distant lands. Poverty
and land hunger created by the growing gulf between rich and poor, overpopulation, and the development of trade were all factors that led to the establishment of colonies.

Most Greek colonies were larger settlements that included fertile agricultural land taken from the native populations in those areas. Some Greek colonies were simply trading posts or centers for the transshipment of goods to Greece. . Each colony was founded as
a polis and was usually independent of the mother polis (the metropolis) that had established it.

In the western Mediterranean, new Greek settlements were established along the coastline of southern Italy, including the cities of Tarentum (Taranto) and Neapolis (Naples) (see Map above). So many Greek communities were established in southern
Italy that the Romans later called it Magna Graecia (MAG-nuh GREE-shuh) (‘‘Great Greece’’). Greek settlements were also established at Syracuse in eastern Sicily in 734 B.C.E. in southern France at Massilia—modern Marseilles (mar-SAY)— in eastern Spain, and in northern Africa west of Egypt. A trading post was also established in Egypt, giving the Greeks access to both the products and the advanced culture of the East.

To the north, the Greeks set up colonies in Thrace, where they sought good agricultural lands to grow grains. Greeks also settled along the shores of the Black Sea including cities on the Hellespont and Bosporus, most notably Byzantium, site of the later Constantinople (Istanbul).

Greek colonies contributed to the diffusion of Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean basin. The later Romans had their first contacts with the Greeks through the settlements in southern Italy. Furthermore, colonization helped the Greeks foster a greater sense of Greek identity.

Colonization also led to increased trade and industry. The Greeks sent their pottery, wine, and olive oil to these areas; in return, they received grains and metals from the west
and fish, timber, wheat, metals, and slaves from the Black Sea region.

Chronology of ancient Greece

Archaic Period (800-500 BCE)

  • the introduction of republics instead of monarchies (which, in Athens, moved toward democratic rule) organized as a single city-state or polis.
  • the institution of laws (Draco’s reforms in Athens),
  • the great Panathenaic Festival was established,
  • distinctive Greek pottery and Greek sculpture were born,
  • Homer’s Iliad and Odysseus
  • the first coins minted on the island kingdom of Aegina.

Classical Period 480-323 BCE

Greece reached the heights in almost every area of human learning during this time and the great thinkers and artists of antiquity (Phidias, Plato, Aristophanes, to mention only three) flourished.

Golden Age of Athens, when Pericles initiated the building of the Acropolis and spoke his famous eulogy for the men who died defending Greece at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE.

Greek victory at the Battle of Salamis

Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fell at Thermopylae  (480 BCE),

Themistocles won victory over the superior Persian naval fleet at Salamis leading to the final defeat of the Persians at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE.

Democracy (literally Demos = people and Kratos = power, so power of the people) was established in Athens allowing all male citizens over the age of twenty a voice in the Greek government.

The Pre-Socratic philosophers, following Thales’ lead, initiated what would become the scientific method in exploring natural phenomena. Men like Anaximander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Democritus, Xenophanes, and Heraclitus abandoned the theistic model of the universe and strove to uncover the underlying, first cause of life and the universe. Their successors, among whom were Euclid and Archimedes, continued to advance Greek science and philosophical inquiry and further established mathematics as a serious discipline.

The example of Socrates and the writings of Plato and Aristotle after him have influenced western culture and society for over two thousand years.


This period also saw advances in architecture and art with a movement away from the spiritual ideal to a more realistic form with its own new ideal (human beauty). See Lesson 4b for more on this)


Late classical period: A tale of two cities (c. 400-330 BCE).

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

The city-state of Sparta, however, doubted Athenian sincerity and formed their own association for protection against their enemies, the Peloponnesian League (so named for the Peloponnese region where Sparta and the others were located). The city-states which sided with Sparta increasingly perceived Athens as a bully and a tyrant, while those cities which sided with Athens viewed Sparta and its allies with growing distrust.

The tension between these two parties eventually erupted in what has become known as the Peloponnesian Wars. The first conflict (c. 460-445 BCE) ended in a truce and continued prosperity for both parties while the second (431-404 BCE) left Athens in ruins and Sparta, the victor, bankrupt after her protracted war with Thebes.

The power vacuum left by the fall of these two cities was filled by Philip II of Macedon (382-336 BCE) after his victory over the Athenian forces and their allies at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. Philip united the Greek city-states under Macedonian rule and, upon his assassination in 336 BCE, his son Alexander assumed the throne.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) carried on his father’s plans for a full scale invasion of Persia in retaliation for their invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. As he had almost the whole of Greece under his command, a standing army of considerable size and strength, and a full treasury, Alexander led his army into Egypt, across Asia Minor, through Persia, and finally to India. Tutored in his youth by Aristotle, Alexander would spread the ideals of Greek civilization through his conquests and, in so doing, transmitted Greek art, philosophy, culture, and language to every region he came in contact with.

Hellenist period

In 323 BCE Alexander died and his vast empire was divided between four of his generals. This initiated what has come to be known to historians as the Hellenistic Period (323-31 BCE) during which Greek thought and culture became dominant in the various regions under these generals’ influence.

After the wars of the Diadochi (‘the successors’ as Alexander’s generals came to be known), Antigonus I established the Antigonid Dynasty in Greece which he then lost. It was regained by his grandson, Antigonus II Gonatus, by 276 BCE who ruled the country from his palace at Macedon.

The Roman Republic became increasingly involved in the affairs of Greece during this time and, in 168 BCE, defeated Macedon at the Battle of Pydna. After this date, Greece steadily came under the influence of Rome.

In 146 BCE, the region was designated a Protectorate of Rome and Romans began to emulate Greek fashion, philosophy and, to a certain extent, sensibilities.

In 31 BCE Octavian Caesar annexed the country as a province of Rome following his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Octavian became Augustus Caesar and Greece a part of the Roman Empire.

Greek achievements

In the West we associate ancient Greece:

  • rationally ordered city-states
  • rise of democracy
  • poetry, Homer and Hesiod
  • drama, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes
  • history Herodotus
  • philosophy (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle)
  • The process of today’s scientific method was first introduced through the work of Thales of Miletus and those who followed him; The concept of an atomic universe was first posited in Greece through the work of Democritus and Leucippus
  • Maths Pythagoras and Euclid
  • Physics and engineering: Archimedes, of the Greek colony of Syracuse, among others.
  • The individual (in art, literature, social structures of city-states)
  • Sport the Olympic Games,
  • “superb statues of the human body at its most powerful and beautiful” (Miles)
  • perfectly proportioned buildings, classical columns
  • The Latin alphabet also comes from ancient Greece, having been introduced to the region during the Phoenician colonization in the 8th century BCE,

Greeks took the Phoenician alphabet and developed it, devising five new letters to represent vowel sounds. No longer confined to the abbreviated text-speak of the Phoenician alphabet, the Greek alphabet became an even more expressive tool, better at capturing the melodies and rhythms of speech – poems as well as cargo manifests. (Richard Miles)

(list based on Joshua Marks, “Ancient Greece”, AHE, and Richard Miles, Ancient Worlds)

The polis (poh-liss) City-state

The Greek polis (plural, poleis) developed slowly during the Dark Age but by the eighth century B.C.E. had emerged as a unique and fundamental institution in Greek society.

The polis = a town or city or even a village and its surrounding countryside. Each had a central place where the citizens of the polis could assemble for political, social, and religious activities.

Most poleis were small, consisting of only a few hundred to several thousand people. A few like Athens were exceptionally large (by the 5th century BCE it had around 250,000 people).

Poleis were communities of citizens involving all political, economic, social, cultural, and religious activities. A polis consisted of citizens with political rights (adult males), citizens with no political rights (women and children), and noncitizens (slaves and resident aliens).

All citizens of a polis possessed rights and these rights were coupled with responsibilities. The Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that the citizen did not belong just to himself: ‘‘We must rather regard every citizen as belonging to the state”.

The Hoplite revolution

Warfare was an inescapable part of the life of the Greek city-states. Plato, who lived in the aftermath of decades of destructive inter-city war, wrote bluntly: ‘Peace is nothing more than a name; every State is, by a law of nature, engaged in a war with every other State.’

The way that war was fought changed, and that change in the way of fighting caused social and political changes.


The ‘hoplite revolution’, as it has been called, was partially about military tactics.

Wars had traditionally been fought by aristocratic cavalry— nobles on horseback. These aristocrats, who were large landowners, also dominated the political and economic life of their poleis. (Speilvogel)

At the end of the eighth century, a new military order came into being based on hoplites (HAHP-lyts), heavily armed infantrymen, some of whom were aristocrats, but many of whom were local farmers and other kinds of ordinary workers from the poleis.

Fighting for your polis was a privilege rather than an obligation, but the introduction of hoplite tactics made it possible for more people to take part than ever before: a spear, a helmet, some body armour, and most importantly a shield to protect your neighbor.

Hoplites advanced into battle as a unit, shoulder to shoulder, forming a phalanx (a rectangular formation) in tight order, usually eight ranks deep. As long as the hoplites kept their order, were not outflanked, and did not break, they either secured victory or, at the very least, suffered no harm. The phalanx was easily routed, however, if it broke its order.

The Hoplite revolution was part of the Greek development of warfare, which contributed to the wider Western way of fighting.

  • devised excellent weapons and body armor, making effective use of technological improvements.
  • Armies of citizen-soldiers, training and discipline, giving them an edge over their opponents’ often far-larger armies of mercenaries.
  • Greeks displayed a willingness to engage the enemy head-on, thus deciding a battle quickly and
  • with as few casualties as possible.
  • Greeks demonstrated the effectiveness of heavy infantry in determining the outcome of a battle.

The Hoplite revolution brought profound political changes as well, because, as Aristotle would later observe,

‘The class that does the fighting wields the power.’

With more and more ordinary citizens finding their place in the phalanx, standing shoulder to shoulder and shield to shield with the well-to-do, the unequal distribution of power within a city-state would have been called into question every time the battle flutes sounded. Richard Miles

Those who could become hoplites and fight for the state could also challenge aristocratic control. Thus, the development of the hoplite and phalanx became an important factor in the rise of democracy in Greece. Spielvogel

Sparta and Athens: Homoioi, Helots, Demos

Greeks city states rejected monarchy and tried different systems of government all with the aim of system that might achieve eunomia and autarchy – good order and self-sufficiency.

Sparta was unusual. Aristotle described it as having a ‘mixed constitution’. It was partly radical and democratic, partly conservative and authoritarian. It had:

  • two royal dynasties, antagonistic towards each other,
  • a council of elders, all of them over sixty,
  • a public assembly that voted but rarely debated
  • five annually elected ephors who squabbled over the levers of this political structure

its aim was to create and sustain a stable society based on the absolute equality of all its male citizens, known as the homoioi, or the Equals.

This ideal was reinforced by strict codes of behaviour that suppressed all outward displays of wealth and status, from food to clothes to houses. There was to be no ‘us and them’ threatening the unity of this totalitarian Utopia (Miles)

Underlying their egalitarian values were the pressures of warfare, and particularly, competition from neighbouring city-state of Messenia (whom they fought and defeated after a 20 year war). The Spartans believed they had achieved good order and self-sufficiency (eunomia and autarchy) in the Eurotas valley and needed to be militant to protect them and equal to realise and maintain them. They made their city-state into a full-time military training camp, where the needs of the individuals were sacrificed to the good of the collective with the aim of defending themselves.

Sparta’s cultural revolution of the early eighth century BC, led by the law-giver Lycurgus, centred on the principles of extreme egalitarianism, severe austerity and obsessional physical fitness. They practised eugenics at birth, killing off any male child deemed to be weak or infirm. Those who survived were sent, at the age of seven to the agoge for thirteen years of savage training to prepare them as full-time warriors. Spartans lived and died for fighting. Their men trained, fought and hung out together in their all-male messes, where homosexuality was obligatory.

Spartan women were free to enjoy economic, educational and sexual freedoms unheard of in the ancient world, and indeed, in many parts of the world today. (Watch Bettany Hughe’s film on Helen of Troy).

The Spartans enjoyed equality between citizens, but turned the defeated rivals into slaves (they called them Helots), and relied on these for servants, shield-carriers, potters, cooks, agricultural labourers and breeding machines. The helots surrendered half their harvest to the Spartan military elite. They had no rights and were obliged to wear dog-skin caps and animal skins, making them objects of mockery. Every year the Spartans declared war on the helots, and were allowed to kill any of the with impunity. Despite subjecting them, Spartans also relied on them for soldiers during war, and in this way some helots became parts of the Spartan polis.


As the Greek city-states emerged from the Dark Age and began to reconnect with the rest of the ancient world through colonization and trade, the rich inevitably got richer. In Athens and elsewhere these enterprises were financed by private wealth rather than the common purse, and the profits were distributed accordingly. As the poor got poorer, many were forced to sell themselves and their families into slavery to service their debts. Towards the end of the seventh century BC, the Athenian poor were in danger of becoming the helots of the Athenian rich.

Sparta had solved the problem of rising inequality through extreme measures, a combination of absolute equality, a warrior culture, and subjugation (of the people they called helots).

Athenians also felt the pressures of inequality. The risks from below were severe and some city states witnessed very violent mass revolts.

Instead of extreme measures, the Athenian elites made a series of reforming accommodations. Conceding protections, rights and privileges to the demos, the people. Solon, a statesman who lived from about 638 to 558 BC, was the first of a series of cautious aristocratic reformers (he made debt slavery illegal, and made wealth rather than birth the deciding factor for the social hierarchy for example). The aim, for the elite, was to buy stability as cheaply as possible. Over the 7th to 5th centuries BCE, these gradual reforms ultimately led to the establishment of a form of democracy.

Athenian democracy was limited to the elite, except for the times when the city state was ruled by populist tyrannos tyrants, a ruler who has come to power by illegitimate means and who maintains his power with support from the demos rather than the governing structures of the elites.Peisistratos was one such tyrannos (ruling from 546 to about 527 BC) and under his rule Athens first became one of the dominant city-states of ancient Greece. He embellished the scope and number of the city’s cult celebrations, commissioned the first definitive edition of the Iliad, and built the first Parthenon, the remnants of which can be seen today in the new Acropolis Museum.

Eventually, the dominance of the tyrranus came to an end and aristocratic reformers came to rule Athens again. In the last decade of the sixth century BC, Kleisthenes introduced a series of reforms based on isonomia – equality before the law.

These reforms laid the foundations of the first democratic system in Athens.

  • Election to public bodies, political and judicial, was thrown open to all citizens chosen by lot.
  • The deme, or district, where you lived now gave the Athenians their political identity instead of tribal allegiances to old aristocratic families.
  • Members of the boule, or council of citizens, swore an oath ‘to advise according to the laws what was best for the people’.
  • A system called ostraca (487 BC) to guard against the return of tyrants like Peisistratos. If you earned 6,000 ostraca pottery shards with your name scratched on them, you would be ostracized, exiled, from Athens for ten years. The system came to be abused, being used against legitimate political opponents instead of actual/potential tyrranus. Still, it was an early form of what the current Westminster system of democracy calls ‘checks and balances’ that seek to limit excessive power and maintain democratic rule.


Creating West versus East: The Persian Wars and their aftermath

The general consensus among historians is that Western Civilization, including the Ancient Greeks, owes a vast debt to Eastern culture. Even historians famous for celebrating Western civilization acknowledge these debts.

The ancient Greek view that it’s own achievements (it’s Greekness, Hellenikon) was in fact entirely self-made and not a legacy of earlier and ongoing Eastern culture emerged at the end of the Persian wars.

The Persian Empire

The Great Kings of Persia, Xerxes and Darius had the territorial wherewithal to justify their claim to be a ‘universal empire’,

By the time of Kleisthenes’ reforms (see above), the Persians ruled in the East. The Persian Empire was a monster: 13 million square kilometres spanning three continents, from Afghanistan in the east to the west coast of Turkey, from Libya in the south to Macedonia in the north. Forged by Cyrus the Great in the mid sixth century BC, it became the greatest empire the ancient world would ever know.

Rather than stamping a centralizing authority on their vast dominions, Persian kings embraced the cultural and political diversity of their subject peoples. Nowhere was this better symbolized than at their magnificent new capital, Persepolis, in what is now western Iran.

Herodotus, the so-called ‘Father of History’:

And although it [the Persian Empire] was of such magnitude, it was governed by the single will of Cyrus [the king]; and he honoured his subjects and cared for them as if they were his own children; and they, on their part, revered Cyrus as a father.

The Persian regime had an enlightened attitude towards its subject peoples. As long as taxes were paid and military levies met, the constituent parts of the Persian Empire were autonomous.

Greek cities of western Asia Minor (known as the Ionian cities) became part of the Persian empire during the 540s BC.  The story of Greek relations with Persia would be recast later into one of total resistance against the incursions of a barbarous power. In fact:

  • During the rebellion of the Ionians against Persian rule many Greeks chose to abstain and even sided with the Persians.
  • Large numbers of free Greeks were employed at Persepolis
  • The Persian army, which would eventually attempt to invade Greece, was full of Greeks.
  • Most of the Greek states maintained friendly relations with their new neighbours.

The Persian Wars

This conflict was the first great war pitting a Western civilization against a Western civilization.

The Greeks provided the provocation and the justification for Persians to attack.

Aristagoras, tyrant of the city of Miletus, one of the Ionian cities, offered to annex the Greek island of Naxos for the Persian Empire, in 499 BC. When this enterprise failed and he was threatened with imperial displeasure, he decided to foment rebellion among the Ionian cities.

Darius defeated the Ionian Revolt and then sought to secure his empire and punish the cities on mainland Greece for the destruction of Sardis.

The first Persian invasion of Greece took place in 494 BC but, after early successes in Macedon and Thrace, was pushed back in 490 BC, on the plain of Marathon where the larger Persian force was defeated by a mixed force of 9,000 Athenian and 1,000 Plataean hoplites.

Xerxes, the new Persian monarch, returned to attack Greece a decade later, with 150,000 men and a fleet of 600 ships. The Persians crossed from Asia into Europe by way of an enormous floating pontoon, which his engineers built to bridge the Bosphorus.

At the narrow pass of Thermopylae, 300 Spartan hoplites under the command of the Spartan king Leonidas went on a suicide mission, attempting to keep the Persians at bay for as long as possible while the remainder of the Greeks tried to organize themselves. The Spartans were vanquished through treachery, but Leonidas became famous for his gallows humour when he encouraged his men to breakfast well as they would be having their dinner in the Underworld. (The 700 Thespians, 400 Thebans and Sparta’s shield-carrying helots who also got their dinner there would be routinely overlooked in the retelling of this glorious defeat.)

Eventually, the Persian land army was destroyed and their commander Mardonius was killed by a huge Greek army led by the Spartan king Pausanias at Plataea (479 BC). The Persian army retreated in disarray, never to return to the Greek mainland.

Imagining Greek superiority and Eastern inferiority

For the ancient Greeks – the story of heroic resistance and the ultimate victory over a regional superpower (Persia) showed that ‘the Greek thing’ produced a different and superior class of human being.

In Athens, Aeschylus would write the first The Persians, which marks a critical break between a reconstituted ‘Greek’ culture and the Near East that had spawned it.

Greece would default on the cultural debt that it owed to the East, insisting that it owed nothing to anybody.

The virtues of Greece were now juxtaposed with the supposed oriental barbarity of the East as represented by Persians, the ‘East’ would come to stand for everything Greece was not – an anti-type to be despised and parodied.

Greek Eastern
Liberty Despotic, slavelike
Reason Irrational
Civilization Barbaric
Virility Effeminate, hen-pecked
Courageous Cowardly
Noble/honorable Treacherous

Democracy and the golden age of Athens.

Sparta and Athens evolved into very different societies. After the Persian War victories, Athens embarked on more radical experiments in democracy.

During the wars, Athenian men of fighting age had taken their places on the rowing benches of the triremes moored at the port of Piraeus, from where they set out to face the enemy in the bay of Salamis. On the rowing benches, the richest citizens sat next to the poorest (the thetes), and the sweat of hoi oligoi (elite) mixed with the sweat of hoi polloi (commoners). After the war the thetes were able to claim greater sway over the political structure of the polis.

So, the democratising momentum of the hoplite revolution continued in the Persian wars. (Remember Aristotle’s dictum: ‘The class that does the fighting wields the power.’)

Post-war Athens was the scene of a radical experiment in government that, at that time, was an extraordinary departure from the way that other states had organized their affairs.

By the middle of the fifth century BC, the city was no longer ruled by an aristocratic, elite like other states, but by its whole citizen body, whether they be young or old, rich or poor.

The exceptions were females and those who could not prove that both their parents were Athenians.

Really democratic?

Athenian democracy left the rich in control.

  • In the city, many workers were unable to participate the political process because they had to work.
  • Many Athenian citizens who worked the land and lived too far away to travel into the city each day.
  • Participation in democratic politics required skills which were usually possessed only by those with an expensive education – oratory, legal training and sophism.
  • The elite were concerned that democracy should not allow the people (the masses) too much power.
  • Aristotle argued that democracy could lead directly to tyranny if the rule of law was ignored. In his famous treatise Politics, Aristotle warned of a harmful alliance between the ignorant mob and the manipulative politician (nowadays we call this idea, ‘the rule of the mob’, or populism).
  • Plato’s (circa 428 to 348 BC) ideas of government were set out in a dialogue titled The Republic. Plato was opposed to democracy and offered an alternative model of socio-political organization that he called the Ideal State.For individuals to be able to live an ethical life they needed to live in a just and rational state. An ideal state would divide its people into three basic groups, the elite, the warrior class, and the masses.

    At the top was a ruling elite, the philosopher-kings, the embodiment of wisdom:

    Unless either philosophers become kings in their countries or those who are
    now called kings and rulers come to be sufficiently inspired with a genuine desire for wisdom; unless, that is to say, political power and philosophy meet together . . . there can be no rest from troubles . . . for states, nor yet, as I believe, for all mankind.

    Plato, The Republic, trans. F. M. Cornford (New York, 1945), pp. 178–179

    The second group consisted of the warriors who protected the society, who Plato considered as the embodiment of courage.

    The third groups was the masses (the artisans, tradesmen, and farmers). Plato thought of the masses as people driven not by wisdom or courage but by desire (or self-interest).

    For Plato, democracy represented the rule of desire and self-interest, and thus a constant state of trouble, and poor grounds for individuals to realize the aim of living an ethical life.

The Golden Age and its dark underside.

The second half of the fifth century BC is known as the Golden Age of Classical Greece.

Athenian democracy, although not equitable, did create a society in which free speech was encouraged, including that of the Philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle (despite their anti-democratic sympathies).

The development of drama thrived in an environment where freedom of speech was enshrined in law, and where the audience was involved in the political process.

So in this period in Athens, there was a flourishing of arts and literature, philosophy and science and exchange of opinion.

Athenian democracy could exist only because of slavery, just as Sparta’s warrior society could exist only because of the helots,

Aristotle and other Athenian intellectuals believed that freedom for the few could be built only on the slavery (the denial of freedom) of the many.

The arguments were economic and military.

Democracy was expensive. the land surrounding Athens was good for little more than growing olives and much food had to be imported and paid for. Money was also needed to pay for the poorer citizens to skip work and exercise their democratic rights in the assemblies and law courts. Costs could be managed with free labour (slaves) to do the menial work.

Because food had to be imported, Athens was vulnerable to military blockade, and needed to be in a constant state of readiness for defense. Again this required expensive manpower and the Athenians decided that was best achieved by slavery.

In (historical) hindsight, we might note that Athenian democracy was inequitable among citizens (for example, iequality existed between the elite and the poor, its men and its women, and in terms of ethnicity and residence), and the degree of freedom its citizens enjoyed was based on the enslavement of others.

Who were the slaves?

The Persian Wars the Athenians led an anti-Persian alliance, the Delian League (forged in 478 BC), which brought together an alliance of 173 city-states.

The Athenians imposed financial, political and military enslavement on their allies as a form of payment for their leadership in the wars. ‘Allies’ that resisted suffered threats, economic embargoes, political indoctrination, murder, rape and starvation.

Why were the Athenians so ruthless?

Democracy relied on a fragile consensus of its richest and poorest citizens. To keep everybody happy (to prevent revolt), democratic governments drew on the resources of others, they used the extra wealth and benefits so that different groups of citizens would feel that they were sufficiently (if not perfectly) equal.

(For an example of Athenian brutality, see the reading ‘The tutoring of the Mytlinese‘ from Ancient Worlds, Richard Miles).

 The fall of Athens

As we noted briefly last week, the polis of Sparta and Athens came into conflict in nearly sixty years of the Peloponnesian Wars (1. c. 460-445 BCE, and 2. 431-404 BCE). The wars eventually left Athens in ruins and Sparta bankrupt.

In Athens, war fatally destabilized the fragile political consensus on which its democracy relied.

In 411 BC, a group of 400 wealthy citizens mounted an oligarchic coup.  Democracy was briefly restored because of war against the Spartans (the elites had to include the thetes because they were essential to the fighting).

In 404. Athens lost its empire across Greece and was forced to join the Peloponnesian League under the leadership of the Spartans who had won, in part, because they’d gained financial backing from the Persians. Athens subsequently suffered the violent rule of ‘the thirty tyrants’ before democracy was once more restored, through a violent revolt.

The Fall of Sparta

Sparta declined through a combination of internal problems and the loss of a war against Thebes.

Sparta was a city-state built on the exclusivity of its Spartiate (elite warrior class) combined with strong rights and privileges for women.

The tradition of late marriage caused a low birth rate. Additionally, women inheriting property and choosing their own husbands had a cumulative effect. More and more property fell into the hands of heiresses, with the result that by the fourth century BC two fifths of Spartan land was in female hands.

The Spartiate’s status relied on them holding enough land to produce an agricultural surplus to pay their mess bills. As the warriors became impoverished, they were forced were forced to drop down to an inferior (non-Spartiate) class. Upward mobility into the Spartiate class was virtually impossible, so the Spartiate virtually moved toward self-inflicted extinction.

Finally, the Thebans, in defeating Sparta, freed the helots from the submission to Sparta. This took away the economic basis of the Spartan policy, and Sparta went bankrupt and declined.

Failure to achieve unity

The next seventy years (404–338 B.C.E.) witnessed continuing warfare among the Greeks, with the leading roles shifting among Sparta, Athens, and a new Greek power, the city-state of Thebes.

Aristotle, like many Greeks of his time, looked back with regret at the wasted opportunities of the fifth century. He wrote:

‘If only the Greeks could achieve a single politeia, or constitution, they would rule the world.’

It had remained the big ‘if only’ of ancient Greece. Neither the democracy of Athens nor the warrior code of Sparta had been able to weld the Greeks into a single politeia.

Hellenistic Age: Return to Monarchy

Aristotle and other fourth-century BC Greek writers and thinkers noticed the enviable cohesion and stability of some of their near neighbours. Under the rule of kings, Macedon and Persia had become major powers, while the city-states of Greece remained mired in inter-communal violence and endless wars. The Peloponnesian War had not only damaged the belief that oligarchy or democracy could produce a well-governed state but also made many in Greece re-evaluate the relative merits of political freedom against those of personal security.

Greeky city-states were suffering from stasis; political or ideological disputes that descended into inter-communal violence. So, as well as fighting their enemies, the citizens of the polis were turned upon themselves.

Greeks were aware of the paradox that the polis, the very thing that made them great, also made them weak and divided. The strength and democratic character of their separate city-states made it difficult to unite in any kind of Pan-Hellenic form.

In the end, it actually took an outsider with no  polis and citizenry to unite them.

Macedon was part of northern Greece, and often viewed by Athenians as being part of an older, barbaric Greece. Entering Macedon in the fourth century BC would have been like stepping back to a time before the emergence of the citizen-led Greek city-state, to the tribal, warrior society described in the epic myths of Homer. Although the influence of Greek literature, art and architecture had long reached Macedon, the political systems of Classical Greece held no sway. In Macedon, powerful clans ruled, under a single monarch. Kings were judged on their military prowess as much as on their political acumen. The Macedonians excelled in hunting, horse riding and fighting; they were a warlike people.

Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, was the king who led Macedon’s ascent from percieved barbarism to regional supremacy, in the process  reunifying Greece into a formidable imperial power during his reign (359 to 336 BC).

One of his first acts as king was to rebuild the Macedonian army, inspiring the unity of both the military and the people as a whole.  In the 350s, Philip’s armies conquered a series of Greek armies. By 346, Philip had much of the land to the north of Greece either under his control or in alliance. He had also subjugated the region of Thessaly, in northern Greece.

Macedon had become so powerful that there was little that the Athenians and the other Greeks could do but join an alliance with the Macedonians.

The Athenian statesman Isocrates, with others, then called on various Greek leaders to launch the first fully united Western ‘crusade’ against the ‘East’ (against Persia). None of the major polis-leaders wanted to lead the Pan-Hellenic campaign, so Isocrates turned to Philip of Macedon.

The Macedonian-led Pan-Hellenic League came about after Philip routed a combined Athenian and Theban force at the battle of Chaeronea in 338. League of Corinth, established by Philip in 337, was a confederation of Greek states, excluding Sparta, with the underlying purpose of a unified Greek campaign against Persia. However, before any expedition against Persia could be launched, Philip was assassinated (in 336).

Phillip’s son Alexander, who became Macedonian king at the age of 20, grew up loving Homer’s myths of the Illiad. It was rumored that his tutor, the famous Aristotle, had helped prepare a special text of the poem, which Alexander kept under his pillow along with a dagger. Alexander’s identity and ambitions were defined by Homeric values: he self-consciously lived by the heroic quality of philotimo, the competitive urge to win honour and glory, and modelled himself on the poem’s hero Achilles and the strongman Heracles. At that time this kind of belief seemed outdated to the polis-dwelling Greeks. For example, the Athenian Demosthenes ridiculed him as a kind of village idiot from the barbarous north. Yet, Alexander was tutored by Aristotle, and he was very well versed in Hellenikon (he was totally familiar with ‘the Greek thing’).

In fact in expressing support for the polis and Pan Hellenism, Alexander was able to garner much support from the Greeks. He was elected leader of the League of Corinth, and then under the banner of the League’s Pan Hellenism, brutally supressed a Theban revolt (massacred most of the city’s inhabitants, enslaved the [approx.] 30,000 survivors, destroyed the city). Greece was suitably terrified and submitted to rule by one of his lieutenants.

Alexander then undertook a Pan Hellenic crusade in which he conquered Persia (over a period of 5 years, routing them at the battle of Granicus river, 334BCE). He then restored democracy in western Asia Minor where many Greeks lived and worked, in order to undermine the pro-Persian regimes in the Greek cities.

Alexander however, did not have democratic ambitions and in fact had himself declared King of Asia. His rule represented the death knell of Ancient Greece democracy. After his reign, Greece declined and eventually came under Roman rule. Despite this decline, the influence of ancient Greek society continued and it became thought of as a foundation of Western civilization.









Bettany Hughes Ancient Worlds 4: the chariot and the warrior culture 30+? 50

Mary Beard, Jonathon Jones at al., Civilizations, How do we look? 11.00-13.15;  29.40+ the Greek body beautiful … 40.30 up to legacy of the renaissance and enlightenment …

Ancient Greece Timeline (AHE)

Ancient Greece Timeline (from Ancient History Encyclopedia)


Civilization, social development, east-west geography

Dear students,

in a recent lesson I talked a little about the ways that historians understand the idea of civilization (see also this week’s reading).

The archeologist and historian Ian Morris argues that we can compare societies in terms of the extent of their social development (we might think in terms of developing complexity).

Social development—basically, a group’s ability to master its physical and intellectual environment to get things done.* Putting it more formally, social development is the bundle of technological, subsistence, organizational, and cultural accomplishments through which people feed, clothe, house, and reproduce themselves, explain the world around them, resolve disputes within their communities, extend their power at the expense of other communities, and defend themselves against others’ attempts to extend power. Social development, we might say, measures a community’s ability to get things done, which, in principle, can be compared across time and space.

Measuring and comparing social development is not a method for passing moral judgment on different communities. For example, twenty-first-century Japan is a land of air-conditioning, computerized factories, and bustling cities. It has cars and planes, libraries and museums, high-tech healthcare and a literate population. The contemporary Japanese have mastered their physical and intellectual environment far more thoroughly than their ancestors a thousand years ago, who had none of these things. It therefore makes sense to say that modern Japan is more developed than medieval Japan. Yet this implies nothing about whether the people of modern Japan are smarter, worthier, or luckier (let alone happier) than the Japanese of the Middle Ages. Nor does it imply anything about the moral, environmental, or other costs of social development. Social development is a neutral analytical category. Measuring it is one thing; praising or blaming it is another altogether.

Jeffrey Sachs describes 7 drivers of change and development

  1. Technology
  2. Physical environment
  3. Demography
  4. War
  5. Ideology
  6. Political institutions
  7. Cultural institutions

He argues that societies develop through different combinations of some or all of these drivers via innovation and/or diffusion (spreading). We can see that these driver scan be used to make sense of historians indicators of civilization (complex societies).

These ways of understanding social change can be applied to our understanding of the development of western civilization (and also to eastern civilization).

Ian Morris argues that the idea of ‘the west’ has been problematic for historians, as it has involved picking on some supposedly uniquely “Western” values such as freedom, rationality, or tolerance, and then arguing about where these values came from and which parts of the world have them. That ‘picking’ potentially involves discriminatory judgements about different societies.

Instead, he proposes that social development can be thought of in terms of geography (combined with biology and sociology). In his approach “the West” is simply a geographical term, referring to those societies that descended from the westernmost Eurasian core of domestication at the end of the Ice Age, in the Hilly Flanks.

Hilly Flanks

“The East,” means those societies that descended from the easternmost core of domestication that began developing in China by 7500 BCE.


e-w shifting cores figure3.2

“The West” emerged as a distinctive region before about 11,000 BCE, when cultivation began making the Hilly Flanks unusual. The core areas have shifted and changed across time. The Western core was geographically actually very stable from 11,000 BCE until about 1400 CE, remaining firmly at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea except for the five hundred years between about 250 BCE and 250 CE, when the Roman Empire drew it westward to include Italy. Otherwise, it always lay within a triangle formed by what are now Iraq, Egypt, and Greece.

Since 1400 CE it has moved relentlessly north and west, first to northern Italy, then to Spain and France, then broadening to include Britain, Belgium, Holland, and Germany.

By 1900 it straddled the Atlantic and by 2000 was firmly planted in North America.

In the East the core that began around 7500BCE remained in the original Yellow-Yangzi zone right up until 1800 CE, although its center of gravity shifted northward toward the Yellow River’s central plain after about 4000 BCE, back south to the Yangzi Valley after 500 CE, and gradually north again after 1400. It expanded to include Japan by 1900 and southeast China by 2000 (Figure 3.2)

Other cores developed in the New World, South Asia, New Guinean, and Africa. But it is the east-west cores and the relationships between them that are most useful for thinking about the origins and development of western complex societies/civilizations.

Part of the reason for this is geographical. The western and eastern cores emerged along the lucky latitudes of Eurasia where knowledge diffused from west to east and east to west.

lucky latitudes

This … map that has roughly defined the so-called lucky latitudes, because an enormous amount of human history, population, and technological innovation has occurred in those lucky latitudes. It is in those lucky latitudes that ideas have not only been innovated, but have been able to diffuse within a band that shares enough commonality of climate zone, of transport conditions, of disease burden and other characteristics to make it similar enough to be not a homogeneous region by any means, but a region that can share ideas and that has exchanged ideas for millennia (Sachs, ‘Eurasia’)

The historians Dennis Sherman and Joyce Salisbury (2014, 4) note that

one of the hallmarks of Western civilization was that it never developed in isolation. Throughout its recorded history, the peoples of the Mediterranean basin traded with other societies, and the resulting cultural diffusion strengthened all the cultures involved. For example, crops from the ancient Middle East spread westward as far as Britain as early as about 4000 B.C.E., and by the second millennium B.C.E., wheat, barley, and horses from the Middle East reached as far east as China. In fact, the trade routes from the Middle East to India and China, and west and south to Africa and Europe, have a permanence that dwarfs the accomplishments of conquerors and empire builders. These constant and fruitful interactions with other cultures perhaps gave Western civilization its greatest advantage.

One example is the diffusion of technology from Song Dynasty China to Europe (Sachs, video, the Chinese Medieval Miracle, 6-11mins).

perhaps one of the most remarkable periods of human history, technological innovation, and technological diffusion, in a way forgotten now in our common discussion, but one of the pinnacles of civilization was the period of the Chinese Song Dynasty from 970 A.D. till 1279 A.D., until the Song Dynasty fell to the Mongol conquest. And what makes this period of Chinese history, the Song Dynasty so remarkable is that it was in its way an apogee of global technological innovation and the diffusion of those technologies, which took centuries in many cases, was absolutely fundamental to the rise of Europe that would follow. (Sachs)

Professor Sachs is suggesting the some of the origins of key components of Western civilization are Chinese. We are currently looking further west than that, at the ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean (which Professor Morris identifies as the sometimes core of the West), where we can also find some of the origins of Western civilization.


The Mediterranean turned into a new frontier, rising social development changed what geography meant. In the fourth millennium BCE the rise of irrigation and cities had made the great river valleys in Egypt and Mesopotamia into more valuable real estate than the old core in the Hilly Flanks.

By 2230 BCE the twin Western cores in Sumer and Egypt had massively eclipsed the original core in the Hilly Flanks. Responding to ecological problems, people had created cities; responding to competition between cities, they had created million-strong states, ruled by gods or godlike kings and managed by bureaucracies. As struggles in the core drove social development upward, a network of cities spread over the simpler farming villages of Syria and the Levant and through Iran to the borders of modern Turkmenistan.

In the second millennium the explosion of long-distance trade made access to the Mediterranean’s broad waterways more valuable still, and after 1500 BCE the turbulent Western core entered a whole new age of expansion. On Crete people would soon start building palaces too; imposing stone temples rose upward on Malta; and fortified towns began dotting the southeastern coast of Spain. Farther north and west farmers had filled every ecologically viable niche, and on the farthest fringe of the Western world … the most enigmatic monument of all … Stonehenge.


Dennis Sherman and Joyce Salisbury (2014), The West in the World. A History of Western Civilization.

Morris, Ian, (2010), Why the West Rules for Now: The Patterns of History and What they Reveal about the Future, Profile and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, London.

Sachs, J. Globalization, EDX (online course).




Civilization definitions (AHE)


Cristian Violatti
Ancient History Encyclopedia, published on 04 December 2014
The meaning of the term civilization has changed several times during its history, and even today it is used in several ways. It is commonly used to describe human societies “with a high level of cultural and technological development”, as opposed to what many consider to be less “advanced” societies. This definition, however, is unclear, subjective, and it carries with it assumptions no longer accepted by modern scholarship on how human societies have changed during their long past.Etymologically, the word civilization relates to the Latin term civitas, or city”, which is why it sometimes refers to urban state-level societies, setting aside the nomadic people who lack a permanent settlement and those who live in settlements that are not considered urban or do not have a state-level organization. Sometimes it can be used as a label for human societies which have attained a specific degree of complexity.
In a wide sense, civilization often means nearly the same thing as culture or even regional traditions including one or more separate states. In this sense, we sometimes speak of the “Aegean civilization”, “Chinese civilization”, “Egyptian civilization”, or “Mesoamerican civilization”, but each of these may include several cities or regions, for example: “Mesoamerican civilization” includes groups such as the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Aztec, and others; “Aegean civilization” includes the Minoan, Mycenaean, and other societies of the Cycladic islands and western Anatolia.

A behaviour considered “civilized”by a particular culture may be judged senseless or even seen with horror by another culture.

Development of the term “Civilization”

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries CE, it was widely believed among European scholars that all human communities were involved in a process of straightforward progression by which the conditions of a society were gradually improving. As part of these changes, it was believed, societies experienced different stages: savagery, barbarism and, finally, civilization. Civilization, in this context, was understood as the last stop in the long journey of human society. The different stages of this social evolution were equated to specific human communities: Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherer communities were considered part of the savagery stage, Neolithic and Bronze Age farmers as part of the barbarism stage, and finally Bronze Age urban communities (particularly those in the Near East) were considered an early phase of the civilized world. Today, this approach is no longer valid since it is linked to an attitude of cultural superiority, by which human communities which are not yet “civilized” are seen as somehow inferior.

Roman Aqueduct of Pont du Gard

Ethnocentric views

In everyday conversation, there is a tendency to use the word “civilization” to refer to a type of society that displays a set of moral values, such as respect for human rights or a compassionate attitude for the sick and the elderly. This can be problematic, since moral values are inevitably one-sided and ethnocentric.

A behaviour considered “civilized” by a particular culture may be judged senseless or even seen with horror by another culture. History records an abundant number of examples of this issue. A famous one is reported by Herodotus, who describes the conflicting funerary practices of a group of Greeks, who cremated their dead, and the Indians known as the Kallatiai, who ate their dead:

During his reign, Darius summoned the Hellenes at his court and asked them how much money they would accept for eating the bodies of their dead fathers. They answered that they would not do that for any amount of money. Later Darius summoned some Indians called Kallatiai, who do eat their parents. […], he [Darius] asked the Indians how much money they would accept to burn the bodies of their dead fathers. They responded with an outcry, ordering him to shut his mouth lest he offended the gods. Well, then, that is how people think, and so it seems to me that Pindar was right when he said in his poetry that custom is king of all (Herodotus 3.38.3-4).

xiuhtecuhtli1400 1521CE
Xiuhtecuhtli 1400-1521CE

Attributes of a Civilization

An influential scholar named Gordon Childe identified a list of ten attributes that distinguish a civilization from other kind of societies; his list was reviewed and rewritten many times. What follows is the version of Charles Redman, an American archaeologist:

Primary characteristics

1. Urban settlements
2. Full-time specialists not involved in agricultural activities
3. Concentration of surplus production
4. Class structure
5. State-level organization (government)

Secondary characteristics

6. Monumental public building
7. Extensive trading networks
8. Standardized monumental artwork
9. Writing
10. Development of exact sciences

Today it is acknowledged that these criteria can be problematic for a number of reasons, mainly because the archaeological criteria used to define a civilization are not always clear-cut: reality is indifferent to our intellectual distinctions. We know of complex civilizations, like the Incas, who did not have a writing system; we know of societies which produced monumental buildings, like in the Eastern Islands or Stonehenge, where neither state-level organization nor writing existed; and we even know urban centres, like the Preceramic Civilization in the Andes (c. 3000-1800 BCE) long before the time of the Incas, which were established before the development of extensive agriculture.

This list, however, offers a framework by which the attributes of any society can be objectively compared. If a society displays most of these attributes (or even all of them), it will enable us to refer to it as a civilization no matter how alien, unpleasant, or archaic we might find its way of life and values.


Up until 1970’s CE, the explanations accounting for how civilizations developed tended to be monocausal, and civilizations were considered an inevitable end product of social or political evolution. Today, it is acknowledged that multi-causal explanations are likely to better explain the development of civilizations: we know that many of the social forces that in the past were believed to inevitably lead to the development of cities and states (such as long distance trade, irrigation systems, or population increase) do not always lead to that result. The diversity of human experience seems too complex and vast for our concepts to fit reality perfectly. It might be wiser, and perhaps closer to the truth, to realize that each human society is shaped by its own unique set of circumstances, and that universal explanations or general concepts do not always make perfect sense. Only if we keep these limitations in mind, the concept of civilization gains strength and becomes a useful conceptual tool.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

About the Author

Cristian Violatti

Cristian is a public speaker and independent author with a strong passion for the human past. Inspired by the rich lessons of history, Cristian’s goal is to stimulate ideas and to spark the intellectual curiosity of his audience

Extract from the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Cristian Violatti, 2014.

Extract shared privately with students for educational purposes only. Please see the Ancient History Encyclopedia website above for membership details.