Greece, Ancient, an early civilization, occupying much of the territory of modern Greece in the southwestern Balkan Peninsula, that had a profound influence on all aspects of Western culture. It reached its zenith in the 5th century B.C. and was taken over by Rome in the 2d century B.C.
The history of ancient Greece can be broadly divided into two eras—before and after about 1000 B.C. The evidence for all Greek prehistory (to about 1000 B.C.) is essentially the archaeological material provided by pottery styles, grave customs, and settlement patterns, although in the Middle and Late Bronze ages, writing was used, first in Crete and then on the mainland. Classical Greek civilization, which began to rise on the ruins of the Mycenaean culture after about 1000 B.C., left a rich legacy of art and architecture and an extensive literature.
The prehistoric era in Greece falls into two ages. The Neolithic period lasted from about 6000 B.C. to past 3000 B.C. Archaeologists call the rest of the prehistoric era to about 1000 B.C. the Bronze Age, after the main metal used for weapons and tools. This is subdivided into three cultural phases, Early, Middle, and Late. Geographically there is also a threefold division: in mainland Greece the culture of the Bronze Age is called Helladic; in Crete, Minoan; on the other islands, Cycladic. In the Early Bronze Age all three areas were quite similar; in the Middle Bronze Age, Crete possessed the outstanding culture; and in the Late Bronze Age, the mainland became the dominant region.
In the prehistoric era ideas came to Greece from the Near East, and people came from the north; the amalgam laid the foundation for historical Greek culture. Aegean progress was slower than that of the Near East, partly because Greece did not provide as rich crops as the Nile and the Tigris–Euphrates did, and also because Greece was subjected to several invasions from the north.
Humans have lived in Greece since Paleolithic times. Villages of the 7th millennium B.C. that did not make pottery have been found in Thessaly and Macedonia. Extensive settlement, however, becomes visible only with the agricultural settlements of the Neolithic period. After about 6000 B.C. farmers who did use pottery lived in most areas of Greece, Crete, and some Aegean islands. Coastal settlements also engaged in fishing and seafaring for obsidian. Farmers cultivated wheat and barley and had domesticated dogs, goats, sheep, and other animals. They probably learned these skills from the Near East, along with styles of pottery decoration and the making of female figurines.
In the Early Bronze Age, Greece lagged far behind the Near East, where civilized states arose. The use of bronze was adopted, and large gold treasures have been found on the island of Lemnos and at Troy. Early Cycladic culture is marked by the creation of marble abstract figurines such as those of women and lyre players. Some of these figurines have been found in the western Mediterranean and are a token of far-flung seafaring. On the mainland, Early Helladic culture occurs at many sites, but it has been studied especially at Lerna, near Argos, where the House of the Tiles seems to have been the abode of a chieftain. The pottery of the period had a high burnish.
Before the close of the Early Helladic period several mainland sites, including Lerna, were destroyed and abandoned; others fell shortly before 2000. The most likely explanation is a wave of northern invaders, who probably spoke an early form of the Greek language. Early Bronze Age peoples had used some other language in which the elements ss and nth were prominent. Such place names as Corinth and Assos in later Greece are relics of those people.
The invading conquerors tended to live inland on hilltops, which they fortified with rough walls made of the largest movable stones, piled on top of each other; the approach to the gate was designed to expose the unshielded side of attackers. Middle Helladic pottery, which was made in two major styles, the Minyan and the mat-painted, was very different from earlier vases. Toward the end of the Middle Helladic period a number of coastal areas came under the influence of the advanced Cretan artistic style.
Crete had not been reached by these invaders of about 2000. Crete's culture progressed without interruption from the Early Minoan into the Middle Minoan period, which witnessed an extraordinary outburst of activity. A number of independent kingdoms emerged, each centered on a palace (Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia, Kato Zakro, and others). A Cretan palace, built around a central courtyard, was a maze of storerooms and living apartments; the latter were decorated with handsome frescoes and had running water and bathrooms. These palaces, which were protected by the seas around the island, were not fortified.
The earlier diversity of cultural patterns yielded to a fairly uniform Middle Minoan artistic style, which is particularly evident in the central and eastern parts of Crete. Among the beautiful products of skillful craftsmen were ivory figurines, stone seals, stone vases, and pottery that was as thin as eggshell and decorated in several colors (Kamares ware). Although Cretan civilization was influenced by the Near East, it was not as monumental or solemn, and it was not dominated completely by kings and priests. In Cretan art human figures are secondary to animals, fish, and plants, which are drawn in a lithe, impressionistic style.
Most Cretan natives remained farmers, but traders sailed to Egypt, Syria, Sicily, and the Lipari Islands. True urban centers or cities existed at Knossos and Gournia and elsewhere. For royal records, a form of syllabic writing called Linear A was developed after an earlier hieroglyphic experiment, but it has not been interpreted.
Cretan civilization has been highly praised for its grace and modernity. Its fundamental importance, however, lay in its handing on the ideas of civilization from the Near East to Greece proper. Historic Greece retained a dim memory of a king named Minos and his labyrinth (palace) of Knossos, so-called because a favorite Cretan religious motif was a double ax (labrys); classical Greece, however, was more directly influenced by mainland developments.
From the 16th century B.C. the center of activity in the Aegean was the palaces of the mainland. A great volcanic eruption on the island of Thera may have helped destroy the Minoan palaces; but it also seems clear that mainlanders held Knossos throughout the Late Minoan period.
In Greece proper the Late Helladic era is more often named the Mycenaean age after the great center of Mycenae. Here Middle Helladic lords, living in their rock fortress, began to be acquainted with Minoan culture soon after 1600, by way of the Cyclades. A group of graves, called "Grave Circle B," which were cut into the rock outside the fortress, were found to contain some Minoan objects alongside native products. Later, the masters of Mycenae constructed another set of shaft graves ("Grave Circle A") inside the fortress. They were found by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 and produced the richest store of gold face masks, bracelets, ivory gaming boards, inlaid daggers, and other precious objects ever discovered in the Aegean area.
The two major architectural achievements of the Mycenaean world after 1400 were tholos tombs and palaces. Tholos tombs were great false domes made of squared masonry, with an entry corridor; the most famous is the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, but many others have been found. Unlike Cretan palaces, those of Greece were focused on a "megaron," a large room with a hearth in the center and a foreporch with columns; this arrangement is generally agreed to be the origin of the historic temple plan.
Greece, at the time, was evidently divided into a number of independent kingdoms. Near Mycenae a palace with bathroom and casemented walls was built at Tiryns; and other palaces existed at Pylos on the west coast of Greece, Athens (on the Acropolis), Thebes, and as far north as Iolkos in Thessaly, the legendary home of Achilles. In these palaces the rulers lived in luxurious surroundings; peasants and artisans dwelt in surrounding villages. (There is as yet no evidence that real cities existed on the mainland.)
Nevertheless, the Mycenaean kings advanced so far toward civilization that they needed a form of writing, at least for financial records, which were incised on clay tablets. A storeroom of these tablets, in the syllabic script called Linear B, was found at Pylos just before World War II; others have turned up at Knossos, Mycenae, Tiryns, and Thebes. This writing was deciphered in 1953 by Michael Ventris and proved to be an early form of Greek.
Mycenaean culture, as can be known from its abundant pottery and other products, was a somewhat mechanical derivative from Crete and appears rather uniform everywhere down to 1200 B.C. Mycenaean pottery has been found in Egypt, in many sites on the Syrian coast, and in southern Italy and Sicily; Mycenaean metalwork also appears as far from Greece as Wessex in England. In Mycenaean graves are found quantities of amber, which came down from the Baltic across central Europe to the Adriatic.
The prosperity of Mycenaean Greece rested partly on its local farmers and artisans, but it also appears likely that Mycenaean warriors raided abroad for booty with great zeal. One of these attacks was on the fortress of Troy, an action that eventually was elaborated by epic bards in the Homeric poems. It is, however, unlikely that these great epics throw any light on the Mycenaean period itself or that legends told centuries later about heroes of the Trojan period can be trusted. But archaeological evidence does show that Mycenaean warriors had an abundance of arms, armor, and chariots, and Hittite records of Asia Minor seem to refer to Aegean residents as disrupting life on the coasts.
After 1300, however, the strength of the Mycenaean world ebbed. The palace of Pylos was destroyed before 1200 and was never rebuilt. The rulers of Mycenae, Athens, and other areas hurriedly strengthened their walls and built covered access passages to springs; there was even an effort to fortify the Isthmus of Corinth. The defense was in vain, for Mycenae itself fell about 1150. Writing and the advanced arts centered in the Mycenaean palaces disappeared, and the population of Greece declined sharply as men hid in mountain villages or became nomads. Only a few places continued to be inhabited.
The most likely explanation for this collapse is a continuing series of infiltrations and attacks by Greek-speaking barbarian peoples from the Balkan edge of the Mycenaean world. These peoples, later called Dorians, pushed some of the Mycenaeans across the Aegean to the coast of Asia Minor and even to Cyprus; they themselves occupied much of Crete and the neighboring islands as far as Rhodes and southwestern Asia Minor. Thenceforth almost all the shores of the Aegean were occupied by peoples who spoke one or another dialect of the Greek language.
Although Greece had thus sunk back by 1000 B.C. to as barbarous a level as in 2000, not everything of the past was lost. For example, pottery developed from the Mycenaean style, after a period of decadence, into the new vigor of the Protogeometric style by 1000; in this latter type of pottery the major characteristics of historic Greek art are already clearly visible in their basic outlines. The Linear B tablets indicate that in the Mycenaean period, major gods of later Greece such as Poseidon, Dionysus, and Athena were already being worshiped, though it is not known whether they were visualized in as sharp a form as they were in historic times. Names such as Hector appear for slaves on Linear B tablets as well, but it is unlikely that the epic tradition was beyond its early infancy at this time. The breakdown at the close of the Late Bronze Age wiped out the higher evidences of civilization in Greece but left a base on which the Greeks were to build a truly great civilization.
Chester G. Starr
University of Illinois
The development of the Greek city-state may be divided into four periods: 1) the period in which the foundations were laid (1000–800 B.C.); 2) growth of the city-state (800–500 B.C.); 3) the apex of city-state civilization (500–404 B.C.); 4) decline (404–338 B.C.).; and
After the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, human settlements throughout the Aegean area reverted to the level of villages. The barbarian invaders jettisoned the higher culture centered in the palaces, and began to build afresh on the foundations of the tribal traditions that they had brought with them from the north.
Primarily a pastoral people during the period of their migrations, the Greeks returned to subsistence farming, combining their pastoral tradition with agriculture. The result was a strong tendency toward small, economically self-sufficient units. Although the Greeks never lost the techniques of seamanship that they had acquired from the Cretan civilization, the Cretan-Mycenaean seaborne commerce atrophied.
The new technology of iron strongly reinforced the tendency toward small, self-sufficient economic units. Bronze was always an expensive metal to produce because the constituent elements, copper and tin, are relatively scarce; furthermore, because copper and tin are rarely found together, the production of bronze promoted the economic unification of diverse areas by commerce or conquest. Iron, on the other hand, is widely distributed and easily accessible. The result was a decentralization of industry, agriculture, and warfare. The metalworker was emancipated from dependence on the palace; operating on his own, he could supply a village with cheap tools for agriculture and cheap weapons for defense.
The network of peasant villages thus established remained the foundation of Greek economic life throughout classical antiquity. The trend toward decentralization of economic life, which continued through the early Iron Age down to about 500 B.C., also made it possible for Greek civilization to develop a phenomenally large number (several hundred) of small cities and to cultivate in each of these the ideals of economic self-sufficiency and political autonomy.
The reversion to an economy of self-sufficient villages resuscitated the tribal social organization that the Greeks had brought with them on their migrations but that had been temporarily eclipsed by the individualism of Mycenaean kingship. The ultimate social unit was the patriarchal household–"a house and a wife and an ox to plough," as the peasant-poet Hesiod says. Except in some Dorian states, such as Sparta, the patriarchal tradition was strongly entrenched in Greek culture: the active citizens of a city-state (polis) were adult males only. The patriarchal family was enclosed within a series of concentric kinship circles—the clan (genos), the phratry, the tribe.
The Greek city-state of classical times inherited from this earlier period the notion that citizenship connoted some kind of blood brotherhood, sanctified by participation in ancestral religious rites. It is therefore the tradition of primitive tribalism that provided the basis for the Greek concept of citizenship, which, like the Roman concept of the respublica, made the state a collective enterprise belonging to a body of men rather than the property of a king or of a god, as in the Bronze Age civilizations. In spite of the survival in classical times of certain restrictions on individual ownership of land, in early Greece the economy was based essentially on private property, and subsequent developments consolidated the system.
From the start this tribal tradition was complicated by economic inequalities and a social stratification inherited from the Mycenaean age. At the top of the social scale was a group of landholding warriors; after 800 B.C. this group became a conscious aristocracy that developed a distinct way of life centering on athletics, more luxurious surroundings, and social pride. At the bottom of the social scale there was slavery, though this remained very limited until after 800. In the middle there were various gradations of free persons. The most important distinction in the middle stratum of free persons was that between members of the community (tribe or city) and resident aliens, who even in classical times were not only debarred from the political life of the community, but also did not enjoy full equality before the law. The second main distinction was that between landholders and the landless. The original tribal notion was that all members of the tribe and only members of the tribe would have a share in the tribal land; landless craftsmen and day laborers tended to drop out of the tribal system and become assimilated in status to resident aliens. Thus early Greece had already developed a definite social stratification–a landed aristocracy at the top; a middle stratum with free farmers at the top, landless merchants, craftsmen, and agricultural laborers in the middle, and resident aliens at the bottom; and at the very bottom, slaves and serfs.
Although no two of the several hundred Greek city-states had identical constitutions, they all represented variations of a basic pattern that was evolved in the earliest period of Greek history. The essential organs of a Greek city-state were (1) a magistracy, (2) a council or senate, and (3) an assembly. The magistracy grew out of tribal kingship, while the council and the assembly grew out of the tradition of tribal collectivism: the fusion of the two traditions can be seen in the Homeric epics. The Homeric king is the priest of the community in religious matters, the leader in war, and the dispenser of justice; he is surrounded by a council of elders, whom he consults for advice; his decisions are communicated to an assembly of the people. Although the earliest city-states all conformed to the Homeric pattern, kingship began to decline as soon as a landed aristocracy had consolidated itself at the top of the Greek social structure. This aristocracy monopolized the magistracy and subordinated it to the council, which was in effect the aristocracy itself meeting in plenary session.
Despite the relapse of Greece into a local and feudal particularism, the tradition of political centralization was not lost. The kernel that was to grow into the city-state of classical times was a Mycenaean legacy. Although city life in the strict sense of the word did not exist in the early period, nevertheless certain localities already stood out from the mass of peasant villages and were called polis. These localities were fortified heights, at the foot of which were settlements that later grew into commercial and industrial towns. In most cases they had been originally the site of the castle of the Mycenaean war lord, the Acropolis of Athens being a perfect example. These fortified points served a group of surrounding villages as centers for military defense, religious observances, and political administration. The term polis was originally restricted to the fortified acropolis; later the term and the fortifications were extended to embrace the lower town; in classical times the term designated the entire area and civic body governed by a city-state. This consolidation of the city-state's regime proceeded at an unequal rate and took different forms in different territories.
The particularist tendencies of Greek civilization were so strong that even in classical times it was the exception when the political boundaries coincided with the cultural and geographic ones. The outstanding exceptions were the political unification of Laconia under Sparta and of Attica under Athens. Elsewhere, regions with common interests and cultural homogeneity contained a plurality of city-states, which either attempted to cover their lack of political unity by establishing leagues (Thessaly, Arcadia), or dissipated their energies in mutual rivalries (Boeotia, Argolis, Euboea), or slumbered in political insignificance (Achaea, Phocis, Locris, Aetolia, Acarnania). To appreciate the intensity of Greek urban civilization, one must always remember the smallness, both in territory and in population, of the city-states. Sparta (3,360 square miles, or 8,700 sq km) and Athens (1,060 square miles, or 2,750 sq km) were the largest. Some idea of the average size may be had from the fact that in Boeotia, a prosperous agricultural area, there were, apart from Thebes, 12 cities, each averaging about 52 square miles (134 sq km). Athens, with 43,000 adult male citizens at its peak in the 5th century B.C., had the largest population and was in a class by itself. The majority of cities, including Sparta, had less than 5,000 citizens.
The internal transformation and external expansion of Greek civilization in the so-called archaic age (800–500 B.C.) were set in motion by economic developments as a result of which Greece became once more a commercial and industrial civilization, as it had been in the Bronze Age. This trend first showed itself in the proliferation of Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea areas (750–600 B.C.). Although Greek colonization had a revolutionary effect on Greek commerce, it was caused not by any need for trade outlets, but by land hunger. The stability of the peasant village economy of early Greek history broke down in the face of a growth in population, aggravated by inequalities in the distribution of land. One solution was to embark on territorial expansion: border warfare became constant in some areas, such as, for example, the Peloponnesus, where Sparta conquered Messenia in the west (725–668 B.C.) and expanded northward at the expense of Arcadia (560–550 B.C.).
The alternative solution of overseas colonization was resorted to by nearly all the important Greek cities, although certain cities (Chalcis, Megara, Corinth, Miletus) stand out as exceptionally prolific in colonies. The areas most intensively colonized were southern Italy and Sicily in the west, and the coasts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara in the east. The effects of colonization on the economy of Greece were far-reaching. The new colonies and the barbarian tribes in the hinterland provided a market that stimulated a great expansion of commerce and industry. After about 700 B.C., manufactured articles, of which metal utensils and weapons, textiles, and pottery were the most important, were produced by Greece and exported in mass quantities to all parts of the Mediterranean and Black Sea.
This commercial and industrial revolution was concentrated in a few localities favored by geographic position and natural resources or stimulated by the poverty of the land—the Isthmus of Corinth (Corinth, Megara), the Saronic Gulf (Aegina, Athens), and the coast of Asia Minor (Rhodes, Miletus, Samos). In these localities the rudimentary cities of early Greece grew into real cities. Commerce also reoriented agriculture. The colonies opened access to areas with an exportable supply of staple cereal foodstuffs. As the commercial cities began to rely on imports of food, their agriculture switched from subsistence farming to specialized production, either for consumption in the city or for export. Athens went further along this road than any other city; Attica became a country of vines and olive trees, and in the 4th century B.C., the amount of cereals imported into Attica was four times the home production. The economic changes that followed the colonization movement had the effect of doing away with the need for colonization: commerce and industry absorbed surplus population, and small farms were made profitable by the intensive production of specialized crops.
The new commercial and industrial economy retained the decentralized organization characteristic of the early Iron Age. Industry was in the hands of small, independent owners, mostly craftsmen working in small shops and assisted by four or five slaves. Similarly, trade was in the hands of a large number of small, independent merchants and shipowners.
The decentralized style of Greek commerce and industry exploited a recent invention—coined money. In the 7th century the kingdom of Lydia, inland from the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor, began issuing pieces of electrum stamped by the state to guarantee uniformity of weight and quality. This coinage may have been used chiefly to pay mercenary soldiers; its units were so high in value that they could not have been used for general trade. The really revolutionary development was the introduction of silver coins of smaller value, issued for the first time at Aegina, Corinth, and other states early in the 6th century B.C. This type of coinage made it possible to place the entire economy, and not just international trade, on a money basis.
The effect of the new coinage can be measured by the transformation of the agora of the Greek city, originally the place for political and religious assembly, into a marketplace. The small landowner could now switch from subsistence farming to specialized agriculture; the craftsman and trader not only profited from the new market for cheap goods, but were emancipated from the limitations on the accumulation of profit inherent in a natural economy of exchange in kind. Acquisitive individualism, once the pastime of Bronze Age kings, now became the general watchword of the age: for the first time in world history it is said that "money makes the man."
The introduction of a money economy in Greece in the 6th century B.C. was accompanied by social and political upheavals. The supremacy of the landed aristocracy was undermined by the emancipation of the small peasants and craftsmen from the village and their reorientation toward the market in the city. This social leveling tendency was intensified by a simultaneous change in military technology: the decisive role in warfare passed from aristocratic elites to the mass of the citizenry financially able to equip themselves as hoplites (heavy-armed infantry). The main immediate beneficiaries were a new plutocracy of successful craftsmen and merchants who possessed wealth as great as the landed wealth of the old aristocracy, and who aspired to social and political equality with the self-styled "best men."
Although in the long run the commercial revolution laid the basis for the prosperity of small, intensively cultivated farms in the 5th century B.C., the immediate effects on the small farmer were disastrous. The general economic dislocation that accompanied the transition from subsistence to specialized farming caused an agricultural crisis, and the only solution offered by the new money economy was usury. The small farmers were forced to borrow on the security not only of their lands, but also of their persons, and, as a result, large numbers were threatened with reduction to the status of sharecropping serfs. At the bottom of the social scale there was a great expansion of the slave labor force. The new market for industrial products stimulated the need for them; the new money economy facilitated their acquisition. The immediate effect was to place the acquisition of one or two slaves within the reach of the small craftsman and the small farmer, and thus to diffuse the exploitation of slave labor and a modest increment of leisure through a large segment of the population.
These socioeconomic developments not only cut the ground from under the aristocratic political system, but also set the stage for a more or less permanent state of conflict over the division of political privileges among the different social classes within the citizenry–the large landowners, the small peasant farmers, and the landless group of merchants, craftsmen, and day laborers. This conflict, fought out separately in each city-state, every one with its own special adaptation of its local environment, produced the infinite variety of Greek constitutions.
Greek constitutions may be roughly classified into aristocracies, oligarchies, democracies, and tyrannies. Again roughly speaking, aristocracy meant the rule of the large landowners; oligarchies were in effect plutocracies in which the wealthy landowners shared political privileges with the wealthy businessmen; democracies meant the diffusion of political privileges to the poorer classes in the citizen body. Tyrannies represented attempts to solve the social conflict not by constitutional adjustment, but by setting up a personal dictatorship. In actuality most Greek constitutions were complicated mixtures of aristocratic, oligarchic, and democratic features, depending on the local situation. The fundamental political institutions of the city-state—the assembly, the council, the magistracy—were extremely flexible. The general rule was that in democracies the sovereign authority was the assembly, while in aristocracies or oligarchies the powers of the assembly were curtailed in favor of the council.
The new problems of economic, social, and political readjustment could be solved only by a vigorous assertion of the central authority of the city-state itself. One of the first consequences of the social crisis was the expansion of the judicial role of the state at the expense of the autonomy of the clan, and the substitution of codified systems of positive law in place of the orally transmitted body of customary law, which traditionally had been dispensed by the aristocracy. In many cities, however, a new set of laws was needed to meet the new circumstances. With a faith in reason and a willingness to experiment that are characteristically Greek, city-states entrusted their destinies to lawgivers who were granted full powers to revise not only the constitution, but also the entire way of life of the community.
Solon (c. 594 B.C.) not only gave Athens a new law code and the rudiments of a democratically oriented constitution but also attacked the economic problem by encouraging industry and above all by canceling the mortgages that were turning the small farmers into a class of sharecropping serfs. The same vigorous assertion of the power of the state is seen in the tyrannies that proliferated in the commercial and industrial cities, such as Corinth, Sicyon, Megara, and Athens, in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. These tyrants, or dictators, who seized power by force, with the support of some combination among the underprivileged classes, exploited their position to assist their followers, not so much by constitutional reforms as by social and economic policies. They divided the estates of their aristocratic opponents among landless peasants; they fostered foreign trade by establishing new colonies and by building a network of commercial alliances; they encouraged domestic industry by instituting large programs of public works; and they broke the aristocratic monopoly on higher culture by expanding the festivals and centers, which gave the entire citizen body access to gymnastics and the arts.
In different ways both the lawgivers and the tyrants introduced a larger measure of social and political equality than had previously existed, and if their work did not last, it was because it had not gone far enough in that direction. Athens is the classic example: after the limited reform of Solon came the tyranny of Pisistratus and his sons, which ended in 510 B.C.; after the tyranny came the final democratic constitution established by Cleisthenes in 508–507 B.C.
The 5th century B.C. was both the high point and the crisis of Greek city-state civilization. It began with the great victory of Greece in the Persian Wars (499–479 B.C.), which frustrated the attempt of the Persian Empire to expand into European Greece. It also liberated the Greek cities in Asia Minor, which had fallen under the domination of the kingdom of Lydia in the second half of the 7th century B.C., and which had been absorbed, along with Lydia, into the Persian Empire in 546 B.C.
Intermittent fighting between Greeks and Persians continued until 449 B.C., when a peace treaty was made in which the Persian king, Artaxerxes I (reigned 464–424 B.C.), agreed to stay away from the Aegean Sea and its coasts. Meanwhile, in 480 B.C., the Greeks in the western Mediterranean had halted the expansion in Sicily of the Phoenician empire of Carthage. These victories, which demonstrated the superiority in morale and military technology of Greek city-state civilization, not only made it possible for Greece to continue its political and cultural development undisturbed by Oriental interference, but also, by securing access to areas vital to Greek commerce, laid the basis for the attainment of a level of prosperity that surpassed the highest achievements of the Bronze Age.
The crisis of the Persian Wars also stimulated the greatest single achievement of Greek city-state civilization, the Athenian experiment in internal democracy and external imperialism. The Persian threat stimulated Athens to build a considerable navy (482 B.C.), which not only proved vital in the defense of the Greek mainland in 480-479 B.C., but also was the crucial factor in the defense of the newly liberated cities on the coast of Asia Minor. Hence Athens became the head of a maritime confederation, organized in 478 B.C. on a voluntary basis as the Delian League, which grew to include some 200 cities in the Aegean Islands and along the coasts of Asia Minor, the Thracian Chersonese, and the rest of Thrace. The financial contributions made by all but a few (ship-contributing) members of the confederation maintained the Athenian navy. The maintenance of the navy became a vital necessity for Athens, since its food was imported, its prosperity depended on trade, and a very large number of its citizens were financially dependent on employment in the navy. Athens soon (470 B.C.) began to use its naval preponderance to prevent secession from the league, and the process of transforming it into an empire began.
After 449 B.C., Athens used the funds of the league not only to maintain its navy, but also to raise the standard of living at Athens. Payment for the performance of public service was introduced about 450 B.C. for jurymen, and extended thereafter to other services. Employment was given to Athenian artisans by the public works program that was responsible for the famous series of temples on the Acropolis.
At the same time Athens, by a series of treaties with its "allies," established Athenian garrisons throughout the empire, imposed democratic constitutions, transferred jurisdiction from local courts to the Athenian courts, and controlled the movement of vital commodities, such as grain and timber. Thus the Athenian Empire represents a reversal of the Iron Age tendency toward economic and political decentralization, and an attempt to assert centralized control over a large part of the area already economically unified by the development of commerce.
The development of the Athenian Empire changed the character of Athenian democracy. When Cleisthenes had established a democratic constitution for Athens, the mass of the citizens had still been working farmers, who of necessity left wide powers to the magistrates they elected and to the council of ex-magistrates (the Areopagus). The development of the empire increased the number of citizens who lived in the city, and the development of the navy made their contribution to the military power of the state at least as important as that of the farmer class, who supplied the infantry.
Pericles was placed in power in 461 B.C. by the urban segment of the Athenian citizen population, who depended on the maintenance and expansion of the navy, the empire, and commerce. When in power (461–429 B.C.), Pericles carried two principles already established in the Athenian constitution to their logical conclusion: election of magistrates by lot and the supremacy of the assembly. He introduced as a third principle payment (from the imperial funds) for public service. On this basis, Periclean democracy drew the average citizen into a more active governmental role than ever before or since. Periclean democracy thus represents the widest possible diffusion of political power among the citizen body, which still remained a privileged minority (numbering about 43,000). It excluded women (about 43,000), resident aliens (about 28,500), and slaves (about 110,000), not to mention the population of the Athenian Empire outside Attica. In actual practice, policy was shaped by "leaders of the people," who established a moral ascendancy and a voting majority in the debates in the assembly. The Athenian historian Thucydides says that under Pericles's leadership "what was nominally a democracy became in fact one-man rule."
The 5th century ended with the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.), as a result of which Sparta and its allies destroyed the Athenian Empire. Since the end of the 6th century B.C., Sparta's citizen aristocracy had been able to devote full time to military training as the sharecropping serfs (helots) had been force to assume all the burdens of farming. The Spartans formed the most powerful land army in Greece. Sparta had also placed itself at the head of a military alliance known as the Peloponnesian League, which embraced all the cities of Peloponnesus with the exception of Argos and Achaea. Thus in the years (479–431 B.C.), between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War, Sparta and Athens stood at the head of rival coalitions–Sparta a land power, agrarian in its economy, oligarchical in its politics, and conservative in its customs; Athens a sea power, commercial in its economy, democratic in its politics, and radical in its cultural innovations.
The basic cause of the conflict between Sparta and Athens was the inherent tendency of the Athenian Empire toward dynamic expansion. From 458 to 446 B.C., Athens actually attempted to become the foremost power on the Greek mainland as well as in the Aegean Sea, although Pericles abandoned this policy in 446 B.C. after a series of defeats on land.
The Peloponnesian War was provoked by Athenian interference in the Ionian Sea, which Corinth, the great maritime state in the Peloponnesian League, regarded as its sphere. Athens, after the death of Pericles in 429 B.C., abandoned his cautious defensive strategy in favor of expansionist adventures on the mainland of Greece (426–424 B.C.), in the Peloponnesus (419–418), and in Sicily (415–413). This tendency to precipitate expansion, combined with the degeneration of Athenian politics into open class struggle under the strain of the war, and the disaffection of the subject cities in the Athenian Empire, gave the victory to Sparta. The 5th century thus ended with the victory of reaction over the city-state that represented economic progress, political liberalism, and cultural enlightenment and that, in the given historical circumstances, was the only city-state capable of achieving the political unification of Greece.
Although the economy of Greece, badly shattered in the Peloponnesian War, staged a remarkable recovery in the 4th century B.C., it never regained the level of prosperity attained in the 5th century. Athens became once more the most important port in the Mediterranean, although it now faced competition from other expanding centers of commerce and industry (Corinth, Megara, Boeotia on the mainland; Rhodes, Chios, Thasos in the Aegean). But the revival of commerce was accompanied by a sharp inflation of prices, widespread unemployment, and chronic food shortages.
Although this economic crisis was aggravated by unsettled political conditions, there were two underlying causes in particular: the contraction of the foreign market as local imitations began to replace Greek imports; and the contraction of the domestic market due to the depressing effects of slave labor on free labor, as larger establishments, wholly operated by slaves, became common in both industry and agriculture. The effect was to undermine the middle stratum of small farmers and craftsmen, which had been the backbone of the polis, to concentrate the wealth in the hands of the few, and to pauperize the mass of the citizen body.
The mass of paupers could find no outlet in colonization until Alexander's conquest of the East. The only opportunity for employment was in warfare: Greek mercenary soldiers became standard in both Greek and Eastern armies. Class war assumed ugly proportions in many cities, the poor demanding redivision of the land and cancellation of debts. More liberal states, such as Athens, avoided social revolution by enlarging the subsidies for poor citizens that had been introduced in the 5th century. To finance the dole, since there was no longer a tribute-paying Athenian Empire, heavier burdens were placed on the rich.
While these economic developments weakened the internal structure of the Greek cities, the really decisive deterioration was in their external relations. The defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War had eliminated the one city capable of achieving the political unification of Greece, without eliminating the need for it. Various cities attempted to establish their leadership in Greece; none of them succeeded, and all of them exhausted themselves in internecine warfare. Sparta fell heir to the Athenian Empire in 404 B.C., but was not strong enough to prevent spasmodic revivals of Athenian sea power (394 B.C.; 377 B.C.) and the appearance of a rival land power in Thebes (378 B.C.). After the decisive defeat of Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra (371 B.C.), there was a decade of Theban hegemony in Greece until the destructive and indecisive Battle of Mantinea (362 B.C.), which left no city strong enough to exercise more than local leadership.
This disunity brought Greece under the domination of outside influences. The Peloponnesian War had reintroduced Persia as a factor in Greek politics, since Sparta had secured Persian support at the price of the surrender of the Greek cities of Asia Minor. From the end of the Peloponnesian War to 355 B.C., Persia held the balance of power in Greece, ratifying Spartan hegemony in 386 B.C., and Theban hegemony in 368 B.C., and always successfully organizing resistance to any city that threatened to oust it from the Aegean.
After 357 B.C., Greek disunity was exploited with equal success by the kingdom of Macedonia, which, under the aggressive leadership of Philip II (reigned 359–336 B.C.), embarked on a career of dynamic expansion. Unlike Persia, which was content to keep Greece weak, Macedonia needed to bring Greece directly under its domination. By 346 B.C., Philip had extended the Macedonian sphere of influence as far south as Delphi. In the final battle at Chaeronea (338 B.C.), the last-ditch resistance organized by Athens and the Athenian statesman Demosthenes was crushed, and Greece was reduced to that dependent status in which she remained throughout antiquity.
The foundations on which classical Greek culture was built were, on the one hand, a legacy of primitive tribalism reinforced by the relapse of Greece to an agrarian village economy about 1000–800 B.C.; and, on the other hand, a legacy from the enlightened Mycenaean civilization that had taken root on the mainland about 1600–1200 B.C. These two traditions were fused and became the general property of all citizens.
In the primitive folk culture of Greece, as in other primitive cultures, science, philosophy, literature, and art in the modern sense did not exist. The tribal lore was orally transmitted and, while containing elements of scientific knowledge, philosophical speculation, and aesthetic expression, it was essentially a system of magical practices and mythical thought. Magical practices survived in classical times not only in the superstitions of farmers and craftsmen, but also in the official religion of the city-state, which was for the most part constructed out of the traditional cycle of agrarian magic—springtime and harvesttime festivals and the like.
Until the birth of Greek science and philosophy in the 6th century B.C., Greek explanations of natural and social phenomena were entirely mythical; even thereafter myth remained central in Greek religion and poetry, and philosophy and science never fully got rid of its influence. Greek drama and lyric poetry evolved out of the traditional songs and dances that were an integral part of the tribal cycle of magic ceremonies—funeral dirges, marriage songs, initiation rites, and harvest songs. Even in classical times the connection between poetry and magico-religious ceremony was preserved, as well as the combination of poetry with music and dancing, and the organization of the whole as a group performance by a chorus. Similarly in the visual arts, aesthetic expression was subordinated to either practical utility (the decoration of useful articles), or magical purposes (funeral urns, votive offerings, and ritual masks); classical Greek art was likewise never "art for art's sake." The style of early Greek art (9th and 8th centuries B.C.), known as Geometric, has the same kind of rigid formalism and schematized conventions as are characteristic of the art of primitive peoples today.
Mycenaean palace architecture gave the basic plan for the temple of classical times, and the gods worshiped in these temples were at least in part known in Mycenaean times. But the most important legacy consisted of mythology and epic poetry. The Mycenaean warrior-kings may have employed professional minstrels to entertain their courts with short lays celebrating contemporary heroic exploits; certainly minstrels' guilds recited stories about the Trojan War and other great deeds.
Probably some time after 800 a great poet called Homer pulled together some of those tales in the Iliad; possibly another poet, who goes under the same name, composed the Odyssey perhaps as much as a generation later. The Homeric epics are large-scale panoramas of an earlier heroic age, but they are also artistic masterpieces. Their authors established a genre of poetry recited on essentially secular occasions, with a technique dictated by essentially artistic considerations, and with an essentially human interest in its subject matter. At the same time they regarded their poetry as the repository of a higher culture—the culture of the heroic age of the past—and therefore as having a vital educational mission. They thus prepared the way for the rise of the poet as the primary source of spiritual guidance in Greek culture.
In an age when tribal traditions imprisoned the individual in the magic circle of the village and the clan, the Iliad and the Odyssey unfolded a spectacle of unfettered individualism with the whole of Greece and all the seas around it as the field of action. Along with the individualism went a humanistic ethics of self-fulfillment through achievement, and an emancipated theology that robbed the spirit world of its mysterious terrors by thoroughly anthropomorphizing its denizens. The Homeric epics became the "Bible of Greece."
Greek culture was transformed by the development that came in the wake of the commercial revolution of about 800–500 B.C. The diffusion of purchasing power and political power was accompanied by the diffusion of leisure and higher culture among the entire citizenry. Classical Greek culture presupposed a wide diffusion of elementary education in reading, writing, arithmetic, poetry, music, and gymnastics. Whereas in the ancient Middle East literacy had been a highly difficult achievement and the monopoly of a specialized caste of scribes, the Greeks adopted in the 8th century B.C. the simpler alphabet invented by Phoenician merchants and increasingly spread the knowledge of it among the citizenry. Not only the enjoyment but also the creation of culture became diffused. Although art and architecture remained in the hands of professional craftsmen, amateurs entered the field of poetry and invented the new genre of prose.
The collapse of the old tribal norms created the need for new ideological systems and left the task of constructing them to individuals who were now free to develop idiosyncratic solutions. Poetry became a vehicle of self-expression for strong personalities with a sense of mission. Hesiod, who lived around 700 B.C., attempted to use the epic poetical technique to express an ideology for independent farmers; in his Works and Days he transformed the heroic ethics of individual achievement into a gospel of hard work, and in his Theogony he gave the epic theology a new moral content by showing the evolution of the spirit world from chaos to a system of order and justice under the supremacy of Zeus. Political propagandists like Tyrtaeus (c. 640 B.C.), Solon (c. 594 B.C.), and Theognis (c. 540 B.C.) transformed elegiac poetry, the after-dinner relaxation of the aristocracy, into a vehicle for manifestos to their fellow citizens. Politically frustrated individuals, such as Alcaeus (c. 600 B.C.) and Sappho (c. 590 B.C.), invented the new genre of personal lyric poetry to express the universal significance of their private experiences and emotions.
New dimensions were added to religious beliefs. The Dionysiac initiation rituals were transformed into an escapist religion popular among those who suffered as a result of the social and economic dislocations of the age. The fertility ritual of Demeter at Eleusis was transformed into a mystery religion guaranteeing a better fate in the afterworld to the initiate. The oracular priesthood at Delphi became the sponsors of an aristocratic ethical system of conservatism, law, and order.
Others sought to place their system of values on a more objective foundation. In the advanced cities of Asia Minor, with their political debates, commercial relations, and cultural contacts, new canons of authority were advanced—reason and experience—and gave birth to philosophy and science. The Ionian school of natural philosophers—Thales (c. 585 B.C.), Anaximander (610?–?546 B.C.), Anaximenes (c. 540 B.C.), Heraclitus (c. 500 B.C.)—and their successors in the Greek cities of southern Italy, the Pythagoreans, or followers of Pythagoras (c. 510 B.C.), and the Eleatics—Xenophanes (c. 500 B.C.) and Parmenides (c. 450 B.C.)—sought to provide a more solid norm for human behavior by discovering a principle of order in nature. The speculations of these natural philosophers formed a brilliant interlude between the age of mythical speculation and the age of philosophical speculation inaugurated by Socrates and Plato. Like mythical speculation, their speculation took the form of cosmologies; the difference was that they dispensed with supernatural machinery, appealed to reason and observation, and for the most part wrote prose.
The expanding city-state took the place vacated by the tribe and became the center of a more humane culture. Especially under the influence of the tyrants and lawgivers, the cycle of religious festivals sponsored by the state was expanded by the absorption into the state religion of deities formerly patronized only by particular local, family, or professional groups. Sacred hymns—for example, the so-called Homeric Hymns, a collection for the most part composed for performance at religious festivals—attained a new level of formal perfection and expressed a new kind of civic consciousness.
The temple was perfected in the 6th century B.C.; with its open colonnade, its exterior decoration, and the modest dignity of its proportions, it became the classic expression of civic consciousness in architecture. At the same time, the sites of old intervillage festivals were transformed into magnificent centers, as at Olympia and Delphi, where the Greek cities competed with each other with dedications of works of art as well as in musical and athletic competitions. Here civic consciousness was merged in a wider Panhellenic consciousness, which was fostered by the colonization movement and by increasing contact with barbarians whose culture was manifestly inferior.
The emancipation of the individual and the growth of a new community consciousness in the city gave rise to a new sense of the dignity of humankind as represented by the average citizen of the city-state. This humanism is most clearly reflected in the evolution of Greek art. The rigid formalism of Geometric art gave way to a freer representation of movement in a luxuriantly decorative style borrowed from the East, the Orientalizing style (700–600 B.C.). Subsequent developments (the archaic style of about 600–480 B.C.) subordinated the newly acquired freedom to a demand for naturalism. Representations of the human figure came to life as they shed their stiffnesses and distortions; representations of the gods became as consistently anthropomorphized in art as they had been in Homeric literature. The images in the temple and the profusion of anthropomorphic mythology in art and poetry assured the citizen that there was in heaven and on earth nothing more divine than human nature.
The prosperity and freedom enjoyed by the Greek cities as a result of victory in the Persian Wars enabled them to carry to completion the cultural development that had been launched in the archaic age. The wide diffusion of a demand for the best in art, combined with an intensified national consciousness as a result of the Persian Wars, tended to undermine cultural particularism and unify taste and style. The choral lyric poetry of Simonides of Ceos (556–468 B.C.), Bacchylides (died about 431 B.C.), and Pindar (518–438 B.C.) found a market not only in their own home cities, but all over Greece, as well as in Macedonia, Sicily, and Cyrenaica.
The same diffusion of a high standard of craftsmanship is shown in the visual arts. Variations of style in sculpture were reduced to a few main regional schools (Athens, Aegina, Argos); in vase painting, standardization of style was promoted by the predominance of Athenian products. The art of the 5th century B.C. retained the freedom and naturalism of archaic art, but subordinated them to the principle of rational harmony, rooted in the civic consciousness of Greek culture. Its greatest achievements—the sculptures of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (456 B.C.) and of the Parthenon at Athens (432 B.C.)—show a unique balance between energy and order, between the whole and the part, between concrete representation and universal significance.
The expanding needs of civilization fostered the growth of science. The tradition of natural philosophy, along the lines laid down by the pioneers of the 6th century B.C., was continued by Empedocles (c. 493–c. 433 B.C.) and Anaxagoras (c. 500–c. 428 B.C.). It culminated in the atomistic theory of Leucippus (c. 440 B.C.) and Democritus (460?–?370 B.C.), which reduced nature (and by implication society) to individual particles united into larger aggregates by mechanical collision.
At the same time, the all-inclusive subject matter of the natural philosophers was broken up into a number of particular positive sciences, all of them based on the rational and empirical method that the natural philosophers had introduced. The growth of the natural sciences was inhibited by the divorce between "liberal" theoretical studies and "vulgar" technology: the practical lore of the craftsman was not put on a scientific basis; mathematics flourished as a pure science; the only successful combination of theoretical sophistication and practicality was in the medical school of Hippocrates (late 5th–early 4th centuries B.C.).
The social sciences, stimulated by a practical interest in politics, made greater progress. Greek myths about their own history and Greek misconceptions about foreign countries were subjected to criticism by men who had seen the world. Herodotus (about 485–430 B.C.) became the father of history when he constructed a narrative of the Persian Wars using critical methods and an interpretative framework derived partly from the Ionian natural philosophers. Sophists like Protagoras (c. 435 B.C.) formulated general theories of the nature of humankind and society as part of their program of education for would-be politicians. Thucydides (c. 460–c. 400 B.C.) became the father of scientific history when he wrote a narrative of the Peloponnesian War using analytical methods derived from the Sophists and the Hippocratic school of medicine, and making it his aim to produce "an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future."
The imperial position and democratic social structure of Athens combined to make it the cultural center of the Greek world. The muralist Polygnotus migrated from Thasos to Athens about 470 B.C., and exercised a decisive influence on Athenian vase painting; Anaxagoras of Clazomenae brought the Ionian tradition of natural philosophy to Athens about 480 B.C.; Herodotus of Halicarnassus brought the Ionian tradition of scientific investigation of social phenomena about 445 B.C. Athens became the chief port of call for the wandering professors known as Sophists—among them Protagoras of Abdera, Hippias of Elis, Gorgias of Leontini, and Prodicus of Ceos—who earned a living by catering to the demand for higher education in social theory, rhetoric, and other subjects. At the same time, Attic style began to exercise a decisive influence throughout the Greek world.
The peculiar historical experience of Athens stimulated the creation of new forms of higher culture. The revolution in philosophy pioneered by the Athenian Socrates (469–399 B.C.), who turned rational inquiry away from the external world toward the inner soul and problems of personal conduct, could only have come out of Athens. For Socrates, philosophy was a civic mission to his fellow citizens. His appeal for a turn from material power to moral principles grew out of his experience as an Athenian citizen; and if in the end democratic Athens executed him for alleged impiety, only democratic Athens would have permitted his activity so long.
The most original creation of Athenian culture was drama. Attic drama originated in the 6th century B.C., growing out of primitive rituals of agrarian magic and tribal initiation connected with the god Dionysus, and consisting largely of groups singing and dancing in animal costumes. When these rituals were reorganized in the 6th century B.C. as public performances included in state festivals, the element of acting was separated from the singing and dancing of the chorus, and the plot was permitted to explore subjects other than the traditional myth of Dionysus.
Although Attic drama proceeded from a partial secularization of religious rituals, the dramatic festivals continued to be religious occasions, and dramatic form continued to be governed by strict conventions derived from its ritualistic origins. Attic drama thus came into being as part of an essentially democratic policy of providing the citizenry with a common core of culture. The dramatic masterpieces of the 5th century B.C. gave the Athenian citizenry spiritual enlightenment through poetry, in the tradition of Homer and Hesiod, as well as a cathartic emotional experience, sublimating the acute tensions in the life of the community. Hence the historical drama of 5th century Athens is always in the background of the stage drama.
In tragedy, Aeschylus (524?–456 B.C.), in the triumphant period of Athenian expansion, makes his theme progress through suffering toward a harmony based on law and reason; Sophocles (496?–406 B.C.), at the peak of Athenian greatness, makes his theme the fragility of human success; Euripides (485–406 B.C.), in the period of decline during the Peloponnesian War, presents insoluble conflicts occasionally relieved by romantic happy endings. Similarly in comedy, Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 385 B.C.) shifts from earnest polemics to gay fantasy as the darkness of the Peloponnesian War closes in. This kind of civic drama could not and did not survive the defeat of the city that had produced it.
The decline of Greek city-state civilization in the 4th century B.C. did not arrest the diffusion of Greek culture or prevent the creation of cultural products of the first class. On the contrary, the refinements developed at Athens in the 5th century B.C. spread to other Greek cities. All over Greece theaters were built, and dramatic festivals introduced. Barbarian monarchies in Macedonia, Asia Minor, and the Black Sea area Hellenized their courts and patronized Greek artists, poets, and professors.
Meanwhile Athens, still the cultural leader of Greece, developed new refinements in higher learning. Rhetoric, introduced as a systematic discipline by the Sophists in the 5th century, became a highly elaborate art in the hands of professional politicians (Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, Lycurgus) and professional writers of judicial speeches (Lysias, Isaeus). In the hands of Isocrates (436–338 B.C.), it became the core of a program of higher education, institutionalized in a school that turned out not only orators such as Hyperides and Lycurgus, but also historians such as Ephorus and Theopompus of Chios.
Another institution of higher learning grew out of the Socratic style of philosophizing, as developed by Socrates's pupil Plato (427?–?347 B.C.). Like the school of Isocrates, the Platonic Academy, founded about 385 B.C., offered general education as a preparation for leadership in public life, but the program of studies centered on mathematics in the Pythagorean tradition and dialectics (in problems of moral and political philosophy) in the Socratic tradition.
Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), Plato's most famous pupil, in later life founded his own school (the Lyceum, 335 B.C.), which attempted an encyclopedic synthesis of all the higher learning developed in Greek city-state culture. Aristotle's own lectures covered logic, metaphysics, pyschology, ethics, politics, rhetoric, poetry, mathematics, astronomy, physics, meteorology, geography, zoology, and botany. All of these schools attracted pupils from all over Greece, thus not only contributing to the diffusion of higher learning but also turning Athens into a university town and the Attic dialect into the common language of educated men.
At the same time, the decline of Greek city-state civilization was reflected in a general disintegration of the cultural unity of the citizenry. The management of public affairs was increasingly monopolized by highly trained experts; the higher learning of the new "universities" at Athens was a privilege open only to a few. Although the cultural life of the pauperized masses was raised by the diffusion of the Athenian practice of state-sponsored and state-subsidized drama, yet drama tended to become mere popular entertainment. Comedy shed its ritualistic form and political content and evolved into comedy of manners; tragedy was unable to put forth any new growth, and revivals of the 5th century masters became frequent. While Plato and Aristotle were devising intricate systems of monotheistic metaphysics, the religion of the lower classes remained full of superstition and was increasingly influenced by Oriental gospels of salvation. While sculpture, patronized by the intellectual aristocracy, attained new refinements, the popular art of vase painting declined.
Not only was there a divorce between the higher learning of the governing plutocracy and the popular culture of the masses, but the governing plutocracy itself was split by ideological rifts produced by the crisis in the city-state. The execution (399 B.C.) of Socrates shows the depth of the schism between the politicians who accepted the status quo and the philosophic reformers. The schism was institutionalized in the conflict between the school of Isocrates and the Platonic Academy. The former made rhetoric the core of an education designed to turn out practical men who would make the best of the real world. The latter tried to educate "philosopher-kings" in the knowledge of an ideal pattern that would supplant the status quo.
Aristotle's attempt to compromise the difference between these two approaches and to evolve a flexible ideology of conservative idealism was vitiated by its unquestioning acceptance of the finality of the basic institutions of the Greek city-state. His view was also shared by the great architect of Greek resistance to the Macedonian conquest, the orator Demosthenes. The only intellectual who discerned the need for national unification was Isocrates, but this insight led him to accept the rule of Macedonia.
The ideological confusion was accentuated by the increased division of the body of knowledge into specialized departments. Aristotle's encyclopedic expertise was a heroic attempt to overcome the trend. Xenophon (c. 430–c. 354 B.C.), who was an experienced general as well as a writer, and whose writings included history in the Thucydidean tradition, bellettristic prose in the rhetorical tradition, and philosophical treatises in the Socratic tradition, was a quixotic anachronism.
The crisis of the city-state was also reflected in a widespread trend to withdraw attention from the city and focus it on the individual. The substitution of social manners for political affairs as the central theme of comedy is one example. In art the masterpieces of Lysippus, Scopas, and Praxiteles lack the social significance of 5th century art, but gain in individual realism and psychology. In philosophy the political orientation of Plato was challenged by other pupils of Socrates—Aristippus the hedonist and Antisthenes and Diogenes the Cynics—who advocated withdrawal from politics and the cultivation of individual self-sufficiency.
The Battle of Chaeronea (338 B.C.) resulted in the complete subjection of Greece to Macedonia. The Hellenic League of Corinth, into which Philip II organized all the cities of Greece, in spite of its lip service to the principle of autonomy, in fact subordinated the foreign policy and the domestic politics of the Greek cities to the requirements of the Macedonian monarchy. The rebellions that were started by Greek cities at every crisis in Macedonian affairs led to the adoption of forcible and dictatorial methods by Alexander III (Alexander the Great, reigned 336–323 B.C.), for example, the destruction of Thebes (335 B.C.), and by his regent in Greece, Antipater, who established narrow, pro-Macedonian oligarchies and garrisons to keep them in power.
This period of outright Macedonian domination was as brief as the unity of the Macedonian Empire itself. In the wars (321–280 B.C.) between the rival contenders for the succession to Alexander and in the wars (280–200 B.C.) between the resultant Hellenistic monarchies of Macedonia, Asia, and Egypt, the Macedonian monarchy was so weakened that it had to content itself with indirect control. For this reason, it could not prevent the Greek cities from constantly embarking on fresh efforts to liberate themselves completely.
The Greek struggle for independence was, however, interwoven with an internecine struggle for leadership among the Greeks themselves. The most effective resistance to Macedonia was offered by states that succeeded in unifying large areas of Greece under their control—the Aetolian League (290?–189 B.C.), the Achaean League (280–198 B.C.), and Sparta (227–221 B.C.). But they thereby became involved in war with each other as well as against recalcitrant cities that defended their own autonomy at all costs. In addition, the anti-Macedonian struggle of the Greek cities was exploited by Macedonia's rivals among the big powers, especially Egypt. Thus the balance of power between the Hellenistic monarchies gave Greece an illusory autonomy and turned it into a battleground for intermittent, indecisive, and devastating wars.
While the Greek cities kept their traditional governmental structures unchanged, their exhaustion in futile wars of liberation and their incapacity to develop any national cohesion undermined republican patriotism and tended to reduce city-states to mere cities. Rhodes, favored by its geographical position, commercial wealth, and alliance with Egypt, was at the end of the 3d century B.C. the only Greek city playing an active and independent role in Aegean affairs. Otherwise the republican tradition survived only in the modified form of autonomous federations such as the Aetolian and Achaean leagues.
While the Greek city-states were losing their role in international affairs, they were faced by increasingly serious internal social problems. Alexander's conquest of the East temporarily alleviated the economic crisis of the 4th century B.C. Soldiers who had been in his army returned to Greece rich men; the new colonies all over the East absorbed a considerable part of the surplus population of Greece, and an immense market for Greek exports was opened up. Greece enjoyed a period of prosperity that lasted until about 280 B.C. Thereafter the same conditions that had led to the crisis of the 4th century came to the fore again, aggravated now by perpetual and increasingly devastating wars. Wealth was concentrated in fewer hands; the market for Greek exports contracted as the new Greco-Oriental communities in the East began to compete with Greece. The wages of free laborers were sharply depressed; the middle class, owners of moderate-sized farms or factories, likewise became impoverished. Infanticide and abortion became common among both rich and poor. Class war became acute and open in many Greek cities, apart from those, like Rhodes and Athens, still rich enough to subsidize the proletariat.
The chief points in the program of the social revolutionists were still, as in the 4th century B.C., cancellation of debts and redistribution of land. The only novelty was the demand for the emancipation of the slaves, whose support was needed if the revolution was to have a chance against the powerful mercenary armies of the day.
From the start the Macedonian monarchy sought to gain support for itself as the bulwark of the social order against revolution. Consequently the social revolution became interwoven with the struggle for national liberation, although the Macedonian monarchy on occasions exploited a social revolutionary situation in order to place a puppet tyrant in power. A combination of the Macedonian monarchy and the Achaean League in the end defeated the social revolutionary regime at Sparta (221 B.C.), which was the only place where the revolution had more than ephemeral success.
In the Hellenistic age, Greece and the Hellenized cities and courts of Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Egypt formed a cultural unity that transcended their political divisions. The courts competed with each other to attract artists and intellectuals; young men circulated freely from city to city in search of an education; the Greek monopoly of Egyptian papyrus multiplied the copies of books, and the new institution of public libraries (the largest being those at Alexandria and Pergamum) promoted their circulation. As a result, Greek culture underwent a process of standardization, supervised by scholarly experts in various fields, who collected, systematized, and attempted to work out a common set of critical canons for the Greco-Oriental urban aristocracy. At the same time, Greek parochial civic patriotism was disappearing, and the Hellenistic monarchies, although they introduced the cult of the god-king in order to transfer to themselves the devotion formerly absorbed by the city-state, never succeeded in creating a real national consciousness. As a consequence, Greek culture became cosmopolitan and individualistic in outlook.
Greece itself occupied a special position in the Hellenistic world, and its cultural products retained their individuality. In the first place, Greece was not so prosperous or so liberally endowed by the Hellenistic kings as such cities as Alexandria and Antioch. Consequently there were few new public buildings in Greece, except in the areas benefiting from the rise of the Aetolian and Achaean leagues—for example, the temples at Pleuron and Lycosura. It is on the coast of Asia Minor that the Hellenistic refinements in town planning appeared (Priene), or a really opulent Hellenistic temple (Magnesia) could be built. Even the less expensive art of sculpture declined in productivity except on the prosperous island of Rhodes.
Economic stagnation and the lack of royal patronage also explain why Greece made little contribution to the remarkable progress of science in the Hellenistic age. The great names of Hellenistic science were products of Alexandria or of Syracuse, with the exception of Aristarchus of Samos (310?–230 B.C.), the author of the heliocentric hypothesis in astronomy. At Athens, Theophrastus (370?–286 B.C.), the head of the Peripatetic school after the death of Aristotle, did continue his master's empirical investigations, especially in the field of botany; but the scientifically minded Peripatetics were the least influential of the Athenian schools of philosophy in the 3d century B.C., and the real heir to the Aristotelian scientific tradition was the Museum established about 280 B.C. at Alexandria with the support of the Egyptian monarchy.
In the second place, Greece was more conservative in outlook than the new cities in the East. It had no vast metropolis like Alexandria or Antioch, and the political struggles of the period demonstrate the obstinate attachment of Greece to the city-state ideal. In literature Greece remained attached to the traditional forms and did not actively participate in the innovations of the Alexandrian school of poets (Callimachus, Theocritus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Aratus of Soli). In art the terra-cotta figurines from Tanagra and Athenian sculpture, academically faithful to the Praxitelean style, avoid the exaggerated realism and baroque theatricality that is to be found in the schools of Pergamum and even Rhodes. In history, while the Alexandrians chronicled the careers of Alexander and his successors, Phylarchus of Athens took as his subject the contemporary resistance of Greece to Macedonian domination; a whole school, in which the most prominent figure is Philochorus (died about 260 B.C.), did research on local Athenian antiquities.
In the third place, Greece experienced a greater measure of political freedom and social unrest. The Museum at Alexandria was founded by the Egyptian monarchy in order to counterbalance freethinking tendencies radiating from Greece, especially Athens. The moralizing and satiric literature that was inspired by the anarchistic philosophy of Cynicism and was spread by itinerant Cynic preachers was especially popular in Greece, as is shown by the contributions to this genre made by Crates of Thebes (365–285 B.C.), Cercidas of Megalopolis (290–220 B.C.), and Timon of Phlius (320–230 B.C.).
The position of Greece, and its own peculiar traditions, enabled Athens to make two unique contributions to Hellenistic culture—the New Comedy and the philosophic schools. The New comedy was the only original drama produced in the Hellenistic period. In it the trend of the Middle Comedy of the 4th century B.C. is carried to its logical conclusion: it is completely secular in form and completely devoid of political content. In New Comedy the plot revolves around the fortunes of love; the characters are universal, everyday types; the style is witty and urbane. New Comedy thus reflects the cosmopolitan individualism of Hellenistic culture. Only at Athens was significant drama produced: Menander (c. 342–292 B.C.), the leading exponent of New Comedy, rejected handsome offers from the Macedonian and Egyptian kings.
In philosophy Athens enjoyed the advantage of a head start with the Platonic and Aristotelian schools already established in the 4th century B.C. These two older establishments were joined by two new rivals—the Epicurean school founded by Epicurus (342?–270 B.C.) in 306 B.C., and the Stoic school founded by Zeno (335–263 B.C.) in 301 B.C. These four Athenian schools monopolized philosophy in the Hellenistic age. The two new schools were cosmopolitan in outlook: Epicurus drew on the atomistic materialism of Democritus in order to emancipate the individual from religious superstitions and political allegiances; Zeno put forward the ideal of the self-sufficient sage. While the Aristotelian Peripatetics concentrated on empirical research, the Platonic Academy responded to the challenge of Stoicism by transforming itself, under the leadership of Arcesilaus (316–241 B.C.), into a stronghold of epistemological skepticism and pragmatic conformism.
The most dynamic and the most constructive of the schools was Stoicism. Whereas Zeno's self-sufficient sage had considerable affinities with the Hellenistic monarch, Zeno's successor, Cleanthes (c. 330–c. 231 B.C.), emphasized the religious side of the Stoic creed. Chrysippus (c. 280–c. 205 B.C.) answered the destructive criticism of the Platonic Academy by systematizing Stoic logic and metaphysics and making them the basis for an uncompromising ethic of public service marked by strong republican tendencies.
The conflict between Rome and Macedonia began when Rome established a bridgehead on the eastern Adriatic after two wars against Illyrian pirates (229–228; 219 B.C.). It broke out into war (First Macedonian War, 215–205 B.C.) when Philip V (reigned 221–179 B.C.), king of Macedonia, formed an alliance with Carthage, and it resulted in the emergence of Rome as the paramount power in Greece after the Second Macedonian War (200–197 B.C.). As the enemy of Macedonia, Rome was actively supported in the First and Second Macedonian wars by such states as the Aetolian League, Athens, Sparta, and Rhodes.
When the victorious Roman general Titus Quinctius Flamininus, in 196 B.C., proclaimed the complete independence of all Greek cities, he was greeted with enthusiasm. The decision not to organize Greece as a province meant that tribute was not imposed, garrisons were not installed, and there was no appeal from local courts to a provincial governor. On the other hand, from the outset the Romans acted as sovereigns over the Greek cities liberated from Macedonian rule, imposing territorial adjustments to reward their friends and punish their enemies, dictating internal constitutional arrangements for some cities, and expecting a pro-Roman foreign policy from all.
It was not long before the other "free" cities of Greece, which had been neutral or pro-Roman in the Macedonian wars, realized the fact of their subjection. Anti-Roman sentiment was particularly strong among the socially revolutionary lower classes, since Rome, like Macedon before, used her influence to strengthen the political position of the rich, notably by insisting on property qualifications for magistrates. Every champion of resistance to Rome in the Aegean area found support in Greece: first Antiochus III of Syria in the Syrian War (192–189 B.C.); then Perseus of Macedonia in the Third Macedonian War (171–168 B.C.); and finally Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus in the First Mithridatic War (88–84 B.C.). The Achaean League even started a mad rebellion by itself in 146 B.C. The net result was, of course, further restrictions on Greek liberty.
After the revolt of the Achaean League, tribute was levied from most Greek cities. Their internal constitutions reflected Roman influence, although there was no prescribed uniformity. Rome isolated cities from each other by dissolving all leagues and by forbidding individuals to own property in more than one community. The fiction that Greece was free was preserved until Emperor Augustus established the province of Achaea in 27 B.C.
Meanwhile the effect of Roman domination on the economy of Greece was catastrophic. The Romans were superior to the Macedonians in crushing opposition by ruthless devastation: the complete destruction of Corinth in 146 B.C. and the general massacre of Athenians ordered by Sulla in 86 B.C. are extreme examples, but no part of the country was left untouched. The devastation continued after all Greek resistance had disappeared, since Greece was a major battleground in the Roman civil wars, as the battles of Pharsalus (48 B.C.), Philippi (42 B.C.), and Actium (31 B.C.) show.
No economic recovery compensated for this devastation. The Roman administration under the republic not only did nothing for Greece, but it sacrificed the economy of the country to its own imperial interests. As long as the Hellenistic monarchies in the East survived, it was part of Rome's strategy to isolate these monarchies from each other and from Greece. The implementation of this policy destroyed forever the commercial relations that were the root of whatever prosperity Greece had enjoyed. Rome's willingness to punish disloyalty by completely destroying vital centers of commerce shows its indifference to the economic welfare of Greece. Even more significant than the destruction of Corinth and Athens was the crippling of Rhodes after the Third Macedonian War, which left pirates free to ravage the Aegean area. So catastrophic was the economic collapse that in the 1st century B.C. oil and wine, the traditional Greek exports, were imported by Greece from Italy, and in the reign (27 B.C.–14 A.D.) of Augustus the only flourishing towns were new colonies established by him.
The Roman emperors of the first two centuries A.D. gave Greece a more generous and more responsible government, which alleviated but could not cure the mortal sickness of the country. Although Greece was organized as a province called Achaea in 27 B.C., from the beginning a number of cities were declared "free" (and therefore exempt from tribute), and others were added to the list by the philhellenic emperors of the 2d century A.D. Individual Greeks were assimilated into the imperial governing class and appear in the Roman Senate in the 2d century A.D. Decayed sites (Corinth and Patrae) were restored by establishing them as Roman colonies, and a new city was founded by Augustus at Nicopolis. Existing cities and religious centers (particularly Athens, Olympia, and Delphi) were adorned with public buildings, especially by Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117–138 A.D.). Public works programs such as the canal across the Isthmus of Corinth, left unfinished by Julius Caesar, and the draining of Lake Copais by Hadrian, testify to the imperial concern for the economy of the region. Hadrian also subsidized religious festivals while Antoninus Pius (reigned 138–161 A.D.) and Marcus Aurelius (reigned 161–180 A.D.) endowed chairs in rhetoric and philosophy at Athens. Greek solidarity was even permitted to express itself once more in the revived leagues (the Achaean League, the Delphic Amphictyony), and Hadrian founded a new Panhellenic league, centered in Athens, open to Greek communities in any part of the Roman world.
But Greece remained without the commerce necessary to compensate for its natural poverty. Its plight was aggravated by an incredible concentration of such wealth as there was in the hands of a few, and by the unenterprising investment policy pursued by the wealthy. Estates which had been intensively cultivated in the 1st century B.C. were now turned over to pasturage. The only sources from which Greece could hope to gain income were the students who came to Athens for higher learning, and the tourists who came to all of Greece, like so many others since. The mass of the citizens were demoralized by poverty—hysterically grateful for any bounty, rioting when it was not forthcoming.
Under the circumstances Greece remained depopulated: in the 2d century perhaps a dozen cities in Greece attained the proportions of modest small towns. When, in the 3d century, the barbarian Goths and Heruli captured Athens (267 A.D.) and spread destruction as far south as Sparta, the emperors were no longer in a position to subsidize restoration. In the 4th century only Corinth and Athens could be classified as towns.
The Romans made no attempt to Romanize Greece or the Hellenistic East. But Roman culture was Hellenized, and the aristocracy, hitherto preoccupied with conquest, began to enjoy the refinements they now could afford to cultivate. Greek culture therefore survived both as the vehicle of a subject people in the Roman Empire and as an ingredient in the life of the ruling people.
In the 2d and 1st centuries B.C., the integrity of Greek culture in Greece was almost extinguished by the eagerness of the Romans to make it their own. Although the Romans did reduce the cultural legacy of Greece by wholesale appropriation of works of art and wholesale importation of Greek artists and intellectuals to Rome, Roman purchasing power also stimulated cultural productivity in Greece. Roman demand for Greek art revived Athenian sculpture; the philosophical schools at Athens were patronized by the youth of Rome, and Roman interest in oratory stimulated a revival of Greek schools of rhetoric (especially at Rhodes) and the inclusion of rhetoric in the curriculum of the schools of philosophy.
This dependence on the Roman market was accompanied by an acceptance in Greece of the Roman point of view. In 155 B.C., Athens advertised its higher learning in the Roman market by making the heads of the three main schools of philosophy its representatives in an embassy to Rome. Thereafter philosophic doctrines show increasing accommodation to the needs of the imperial bureaucracy. The skepticism of Arcesilaus had already made the Platonic Academy an instrument for rigorous intellectual training adjustable to any creed. Arcesilaus's successor, Carneades (c. 214–c. 128 B.C.), took the same skeptical position, but by developing a doctrine of pragmatic probability opened the door to eclecticism, attractive to the gross practicality of the Roman mind. The eclecticism of Carneades was fully developed by Antiochus, who was head of the Academy around 79 B.C., and the degeneration of the Platonic tradition into commonplaces can be seen in the philosophic writings of Cicero, who was Antiochus's pupil. In the Stoic school, Panaetius (185?–109 B.C.), who traveled back and forth between Rome and Athens, abandoned the Stoic ideal of independence and fortitude in favor of an ethic of public service, which was so close to the creed of the Roman bureaucrat that Cicero could follow it in his De officiis. Panaetius's even more influential pupil, Posidonius (135?–?51 B.C.), identified the Stoic ideal of a universal commonwealth with the Roman Empire, and accommodated Roman religiosity by introducing an elaborate demonology into the Stoic metaphysics. The Epicureans continued to preach withdrawal from politics; the attraction of their position was discovered by Romans such as Lucretius in the chaotic period of the Roman civil wars. The Peripatetic school remained unimportant. In historiography, Polybius (died about 120 B.C.) of Megalopolis, the friend of Scipio the Younger and a Roman agent in Greece after the Achaean War, achieved greatness by his acute analysis of the causes of the success of Rome.
Under the Roman emperors cultural life in Greece took the form of an antiquarian study of the great past of the country. This antiquarianism, often precious, always remote from contemporary life, and sometimes attuned to the tastes of the Roman tourist, nevertheless sustained the self-respect of the remnants of the Greek bourgeoisie. The Greeks in Greece not only did not learn Latin, they even revived archaic dialects of their own language. Local magistrates prided themselves on performing their duties "according to the ways of our ancestors" and the remnants of the aristocracy solemnly celebrated their pedigrees, traced through 40 generations or more to a hero or a god. In religion, at least in the upper classes, the inclination toward Oriental innovations that had been rife in the troubled times of the 4th and 3d centuries B.C. was replaced by a patriotic conservatism devoted to the antique cults as symbols of the national culture.
Roman cultural innovations were resisted: Greece was the last province to admit gladiatorial shows, and for a long time they were confined to the Roman colony of Corinth. Instead of Roman baths, the Greek cities continued to build gymnasiums. In architecture the Roman arch was rarely attempted, and when Greek builders did attempt it, as in the Arch of Hadrian at Athens, they failed to master the form. In sculpture the workshops of Athens supported themselves by the wholesale manufacture of copies of classical statues for export throughout the Roman world. The literary products of Greece in this period have an archaistic flavor. In the philosophic schools at Athens the only creative activity was among the Peripatetics, who pursued a fruitful kind of antiquarianism by turning out a series of commentaries on the text of Aristotle, culminating in those of Alexander of Aphrodisias (200 A.D.). Outside the schools and enjoying a wider appeal, Stoic and Cynic preachers like Epictetus (55?–?135 A.D.) and Dio (or Dion) Chrysostom (c. 40–c. 112 A.D.) urged the unhappy Greeks to be content with little, undisturbed by the persecutions which drove Epictetus from Rome to Nicopolis, and uncorrupted by the worldly entanglements that make the Stoicism of Seneca so fraudulent.
In the archaistic rhetoric of the so-called Second Sophistic, which was the most influential literary movement from the 2d to the 4th century A.D., the antiquarianism of the age degenerated into preciosity, though it did stimulate serious critical study of the classics of Greek literature. The great archaeological description of Greece by Pausanias (c. 150 A.D.) is a monument of sober scholarship devoted to the glory that was Greece.
All that is best in the culture of the aristocracy of Greece in the 2d century A.D. is reflected in the life and writings of Plutarch (46?–?120 A.D.), who though wealthy and influential at Rome, preferred to live out his life in provincial Chaeronea, serving as a petty local magistrate and as a priest of Delphi. In his numerous writings on history, religion, ethics, and philosophy, Plutarch elevated Hellenism to a religion which, like Judaism, perpetuated the values of a politically broken people.
The rival religion of Christianity had been spreading in Greece ever since St. Paul established the church at Corinth in 51 A.D. In the 2d century, Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, addressed letters to the churches at Athens and Sparta as well as at Knossos and Gortyna on the island of Crete. Greek intellectual converts also begin to appear in the 2d century: Aristides and Athenagoras, two of the earliest apologists, were Athenians, and Clement of Alexandria probably came originally from Athens. In the 3d century, bishop of Achaea was a recognized title in the church.
Norman O. Brown
University of California at Santa Cruz
How to cite this article:
MLA (Modern Language Association) style:
"Greece, Ancient." Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Online, 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.
Chicago Manual of Style:
"Greece, Ancient." Encyclopedia Americana. Grolier Online http://ea.grolier.com/article?id=0431778-00 (accessed August 25, 2016).
APA (American Psychological Association) style:
Greece, Ancient. (2016). Encyclopedia Americana. Retrieved August 25, 2016, from Grolier Online http://ea.grolier.com/article?id=0431778-00
SOURCE: Encyclopedia Americana
Back to Top