Category Archives: Lesson4a. AncientGreece Polis + Democracy

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 …