A Brief History of Ancient Greece: Politics, Society, and Culture by Sarah Pomeroy, Stanley Burstein, Walter Donlan, Jennifer Roberts, and David Tandy

Some people loathe textbooks. A textbook tends to be good for gaining a broad overview of a subject and good ones tend to be more accurate than mass market popular histories, but they usually lack depth and vitality. They are best used when one wants to get a grasp of the larger picture of a subject. This textbook delivers in that regard, but like most textbooks wasn’t the most engaging read. The post was tricky to write because I was trying to capture the most important aspects of Ancient Greece history that I learned from the book from an already “brief history” on the topic, condensing hundreds of pages into a post just short of 5000 words.

    Bronze Age Greece

Humans first arrived in Greece over 40,000 years ago. Obsidian found at Francthi Cave reveals that by 10,000 BC these early humans could cross the seas to acquire volcanic materials from the nearby island of Melos. As villages grew in size and complexity, local men obtained leadership roles as chieftains and over time these chieftains consolidated power to become hereditary kings, which led to the two major Bronze Age cultures in Greece.

By 2000 BC, the first of these major civilizations had developed on the island of Crete. Today we call this civilization Minoan after the myths about King Minos. Although we aren’t sure if the Minoans were one single unified society, we do know that they built monumental maze-like royal palaces at many different sites on Crete. The most famous and biggest of these palaces was at Knossos. These palaces all had the same basic design with a central courtyard surrounded by administrative buildings on one side and private chambers on the other. The palaces were decorated with beautiful frescos of plants, animals, and youthful human figures, which indicates a strong aesthetic appreciation of nature. Behind the administrative buildings there was vast rooms to store grains in large jars called pithoi. These palaces served as the administrative, political, economic, and religious centers of the town. They were at the heart of a redistributive economy in which farmers who lived in more modest homes in the area outside the palace and surrounding villages sent their grain and other produce to the palace to be stored and redistributed back to the population as needed. Surplus was traded with other societies across the Mediterranean, while the Minoan upper-class received rare metals and luxury items in return. Archaeological evidence suggests that Minoans worshipped on mountain tops, caves, and house sanctuaries, while the palace also seems to have played an important role in religious rituals. Some writing survives in the form of Linear A, which has remained largely untranslated, and is presumed to deal with mostly economic matters. Unfortunately, this means there is no literary evidence from this time period, making it difficult to interpret important cultural aspects.

The other major Bronze Age culture was the Mycenaens. Around 2100 – 1600 BCE, the Greek mainland may have experienced an invasion by speakers of an Indo-European language that would form the basis of early Greek. Some of the evidence for this is the sudden appearance of pottery work similar in style to the type of pottery found in Anatolia (associated with Indo-European speaker migrations), the sudden appearance of Greek on the mainland in written records with its linguistic links to other Indo-European languages, and the sudden appearance of destruction sites in Southern and Central Greece at thriving towns such as at Lerna in Argolis.

Heinrich Schliemann was the pioneering excavator at Mycenae. During his excavations he found elaborate shaft graves of Mycenaean royalty, one of which contained the so-called Mask of Agamemnon. Subsequent archeological work, however, has shown that the golden mask predates by 300 years the supposed events of the Trojan War. The Mycenaeans would bury their leaders in deep shaft graves surrounded by rich burial offerings such as ceremonial swords, fancy drinking vessels, and other elaborate gold work. Archeologist have found a lot of gold objects at Mycenae, but mainland Greece is not rich in gold, which suggests that it was brought in from elsewhere. This piece of evidence shows that Mycenae was a major power in the larger Mediterranean trading network. Unlike Crete, Mycenae had huge stone walls around their palaces, which Greeks of the classical period thought were built by the cyclops. These vast walls, chariot grave stones, and the ceremonial swords buried with the dead leaders suggest that Mycenaean society was controlled by an elite class of warrior-kings. The palaces functioned much like Minoan palaces, revealing Cretan cultural influence on Mycenae. However, this influence didn’t last forever.

Around 1700 BC, the palaces at Crete were destroyed. A second destruction followed around 1450 BC – 1375 BC. Knossos was burned and looted, which corresponded with the rise of Mycenae on the mainland and the appearance of Linear B tablets, an early form of Ancient Greek. Excavations at many archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean reveal an abundance of pottery in the Minoan style in the early Bronze Age, but if you excavate many of those sites 200 years later the pottery is Mycenaean in style, suggesting Mycenaean got a stronger control of the Aegean trade and eclipsed Minoan culture. The destruction layers as well as the sudden appearance of Linear B on Crete after these destruction levels suggest that the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans.

There are many theories about why the Mycenaean culture collapsed. Some believe the volcanic explosion at the island of Thera was the cause, while other theories involve Dorian invasions, speakers of a Greek dialect, and sometimes identified with the sons of the Herakles, returning to take back their land. Modern historians now believe Mycenaean culture experienced a total systems collapse. Shortage of food may have led to lower classes uprising against the warrior class or simply abandoning the town centers. Around this time Egyptians record invasions by sea peoples, which list names that may be Egyptian for the Achaeans (Homer’s name for the Greeks in the Iliad). Likewise, around this time the Philistines settled in Palestine and the earliest Philistine archaeological layers have Mycenaean pottery, and it was also at this time that the Hittite Empire disintegrated from invasions. There is some archaeological evidence that the Trojan War may have happened. However, one shouldn’t confuse The Iliad, a poetic and mythical presentation of a part of these events, which may have an historical kernel, with real history.

A “dark age” followed the fall of the Mycenaean culture. People abandoned society and ran to the hills. Many perhaps becoming itinerant herdsmen. No longer was Greek life centered on kings and palace culture, but chieftains arose again, controlling a single house with few smaller houses of retainers around him. However, historians now think the decay wasn’t uniform. Excavations at Lefkandi on the island of Euboea show evidence of a wealthy town. Archaeologists have discovered an elaborate burial shaft there where they found the body of a warrior and his wife with horses sacrificed to him, weapons, and other items revealing wealth. Towards the end of this period, a Protogeometric style of pottery appears and transforms into the Geometric style around 900 – 700 B. C. This style features new shapes with circles and semicircle patterns being replaced with angular patterns such as the “meander pattern,” zigzags, triangles, and crosshatches. Although there was no written records, this period also saw the rise of oral poets. These poets would travel around Greece, telling stories about heroes and the cycles of myths. These skilled storytellers would incorporate changes every time they told a particular story in order to appeal to the local lords and accommodate local tastes. It was in these oral stories that we have the origin of Homer’s epics that would serve as a cultural document for all the Greeks.

    Classical Greece

Classic Greece and the City-States begin in the 8th century through a process called Synoecism. Households turn into small villages, which turn into towns, and eventually into City-States. Synoecism involved various smaller communities uniting together into a single political entity usually centered on a single major city. The City-States, however, included all the surrounding territory around the city walls and sometimes smaller nearby towns and islands. Initially most City-States were controlled by an elite aristocracy who had also taken control of the best land during the Dark Ages. Unlike in the Dark Ages where the rule of individual towns or villages was usually held by a single aristocratic household, the City-States saw these aristocrats sharing power and administrative roles. Unfortunately this led to endemic class strife and aristocratic feuding between families known as stasis, which became a dominant feature of many City-States throughout the Classical Age.

This period also featured an extensive colonization effort by these new City-States in which members would set out an expedition to found a new City-State on a different piece of land. Each of these colonies was initially sponsored by their parent city-state and received a foundation charter with divine approval from an oracle. If the colony was successful, any members who left the mother city-state for the colony would renounce their citizenship and become citizens of the new colony. One explanation of the extensive colonization that followed the formation of City-States was that founding new colonies served as an outlet for surplus population, food shortages, and aristocratic feuding. Greece is a relatively rocky infertile land and much of the good farming areas were controlled by the aristocracy. The creation of new colonies helped control overpopulation, send away troublesome members of aristocratic families prone to feuds, and giving an opportunity for younger siblings who would inherit only minor property from their parents to acquire new fertile land and potential new wealth.
This period also witnesses the reappearance of written language. It is during this time that the Homeric poems are written down. The epic poems of Homer were the closest equivalent the Greeks had to a sacred text. They formed the basis for their code of moral behavior. It was a code that encouraged excellence in character, which posited that the worst thing that could befall a person was to be seen as inferior. It was a code that celebrated valor in battle. It was the basis of what all Greek men thought they should be and how they ought to act, their ideal. In order to write these epics, the Greeks had adopted Phoenician letters for their writing system, which they likely encountered during colonization. Unlike the heroes in Homer’s epics, the military structure changed from a loose formation of single warrior aristocratic elites to hoplite warfare. These hoplite soldiers would dress in helmets, breastplates, and grieves constructed of bronze and would stand shoulder to shoulder in a formation of multiple ranks that stood one right behind the other. These soldiers were equipped with a long spear for jabbing and a short sword for close combat, while carrying a large shield called a hoplon, which was big enough to protect the man on the left of the holder. The goal was to push forward and break the enemy’s ranks.

The class tensions that pitted the oligarchic-ruled city-states against the middle-class hoplite farmers, and the poor culminated in 670 – 500 BC in the “age of tyrants.” In many city-states, individuals, usually of the aristocratic class, but often marginalized members or those not part of the elite groups within that class, seized power for themselves with the help of the other classes. The tyrants supported the poor by redistributing portions of aristocratic lands and sponsoring laws to curtail aristocratic privileges. The tyrants also spent money on civic projects such as temples, fortifications, and improved infrastructure. They decorated these projects with lavish paintings of mythological scenes, and the sculptors of this period borrowed artistic forms from the Egyptians to carve stone and bronze statues. It was during the reign of Cypselus, the tyrant of Corinth, that the city-state invented the “black figure” technique of pottery, which became one of Corinth’s major exports. As other city-states started copying this innovative style, the Athenians invented the “red figure” style of pottery around 530 BC. When Peisistratus made himself tyrant of Athens in in 560 BC he had silver coins with the image of Athena and owl minted, which later developed into one of the strongest currencies in the Aegean. He also instituted the rebuilding of the temple to Athena on the Acropolis and founded the festival of Dionysia in honor of the deity of the same name, which would be the festival in the 5th century that featured Greek tragedies as part of its celebration. The tyrants also supported the writing of lyric poetry.

The 6th century also featured the first philosophers known as the pre-socratics who speculated about the ultimate nature of the universe. Although the city-states were divided politically, there were panhellenic institutions such as certain sacred sites like the oracle of the Apollo at Delphi and the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia shared by all Greeks. Athletic competitions brought the various Greek city-states together to compete at the Olympics; its popularity spawned similar contests at Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia, along with many other less notable ones. The main events at the Olympics were foot races, pankration (a mix of boxing and wrestling), and the pentathlon (five events that included: a short foot race, javelin, discuss throws, the long jump, and wrestling).

    Sparta and Athens

The two most famous city-states were Sparta and Athens. Prior to the 6th century Sparta was a typical Greek city-state, not much different than its neighbors with sophisticated artwork in pottery and poetry and celebrated female choruses. Somewhere in the 8th to 7th century, they engaged in warfare with their neighbors in Messenia, which forever changed the social and political destiny of Sparta. Unlike most Greek warfare where the combatants fought, one side fled, and usually some sort of agreement was hashed out after the fact, around 650 – 600 B. C., the Spartans enslaved the Messenians and took their land. The Messenians were reduced to the lowly status of helots, a social class somewhere between a slave and a medieval serf, and had to work the land they once owned, but which was now owned and controlled by a Spartan overlord. They were beaten once a year and forced to wear ridiculous clothes to illustrate their inferiority to the Spartans. Unlike a traditional slave in other Greek city-states, they were communal property and couldn’t be sold by individual owners. This event led Sparta to drastically change their society into a rigidly military-oriented one, which legend says was handed down to them by the fabled Lycurgus. The impetus for this change was having a helot population of Messenians who greatly outnumbered the Spartans. In order to maintain control, they had to rearrange society along militaristic lines. Spartans were taken as children at a young age to be educated in the military arts. Up until the age of thirty they lived in mess halls with their comrades away from their wives. They had to provide a certain proportion of food and drink to their mess halls from their property; if they failed to do this, they could lose their status at the top of society. The government was controlled by two hereditary kings who each had equal authority. While one led troops out in the field, the other would stay at home and run domestic affairs. The kings had military authority, performed religious services, and judicial powers. There was also a council of elders composed on twenty-eight men over the age of sixty who served for life. Any societal change to law had to be debated first by the council of elders before it went to the assembly and the council could overrule the assembly’s decisions by dismissing it. It could also judge criminal court cases. Another important office was the five Ephors who had the power to depose the kings, monitor his activities, and two of these Ephors always accompanied a king on military campaigns. As a check to their own power, Ephors only served one year and could not be reelected to the position. They were also in charge of a secret police, which consisted of young men who went out for a year to spy on the helots and could kill any helot with impunity caught fomenting rebellion or not on their assigned land. Unlike the Athenian assembly, the Spartan Assembly didn’t get the opportunity to discuss a new law, but they did vote on them. Through much of Western culture, Sparta was seen in an idealistic light. Plato, for example, adopts many of their ideas of eugenics and communal life for his Republic. The Greeks viewed it as a society of good order and harmony. In reality, it was a coercive and rigidly conservative society. This intense military life came at a cost; the sudden disappearance of pottery and artistic achievements and other important hallmarks of culture disappears shortly after these major societal changes.

Like most city-states, early Athens was governed by aristocrats. A series of legal reformers and important political leaders instituted the democratic reforms moderns associate with the city-state. In 620 BC, Draco (from whom we get the word “Draconian”) published his laws, the most important of which transformed homicide from a personal act that had to be avenged by the victim’s family to a trail run by a state magistrate. This law transferred the authority from the family in making laws and enacting justice to the state. Solon’s laws in the 590s addressed economic equality and the growing problem of debt slavery. No longer could poor sharecroppers be enslaved or have their property confiscated for being unable to pay back a loan. He revised the political representation system so that the middle-class could now hold lower offices in the government and the poorer classes could participate in the assembly, although slaves, resident aliens, and women were still excluded from participation. His most radical reform was that any citizen who believed a crime had been committed could bring forth an indictment against an individual; originally only the victim or the victim’s family could do so. This transformed justice from a personal and private matter to a societal matter.

    The Persian Wars

In the East, the Persian Empire arose in the 7th century and became a major world power. When Cyrus II conquered Lydia and defeated King Croesus he also captured the Greek city-states of Ionia that had begun as colonies. He placed puppet tyrants in charge of these city-states, which the Greeks resented. Eventually one of these tyrants, Aristagoras resigned his tyranny and led a rebellion that freed the city-states. However, six years into the rebellion the Ionian revolt was put down in a naval battle. The city of Miletus (a major cultural center where pre-socratic philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes had all lived and thrived) was destroyed, while the Persian King, Darius, desire for revenge for the destruction of Sardis led him to invade the Greek mainland. Many city-states such as Argos and Thebes submitted to Persian rule, believing they stood no chance against such a mighty empire, but the Athenians and Spartans held strong. The Persians had success at Eretria, burning the temples and exiling its people, but at the Battle of Marathon, the Athenians won a major victory against the Persians. Although they were outnumbered, they were more heavily armored than the Persians and they surprised them. The Persian king Xerxes continued his father’s war. In 481, thirty-one Greek states met and formed the Hellenic League. The Athenians abandoned Attica and waited out the war on the island of Salamis. King Leonidas of Sparta brought seven thousand men to Thermopylae, but eventually dismissed the bulk of his forces, keeping only three hundred Spartans and a contingent of Thebans and Thespians to defend the pass. Although the Greeks were eventually defeated at the Battle of Thermopylae, they took an enormous amount of Persian troops with them, including many of the elite “Immortals,” the personal guard of the Persian king. The Battle of Salamis was a major naval victory against the Persians in which the Persians lost over two hundred ships. In 479, the Greeks assembled a massive army that defeated the Persian ground forces at Plataea and the naval ships liberated the Ionian city-states during the Battle of Mycale.

    The Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian War

The aftermath of the Persian Wars led to the founding of the Delian League. In 477 BC Athens and other Greek city-states met at Delos to unite in their fight against the Persians. Originally Sparta led the league, but dissatisfaction with Pausanias who served as commander of the league opened the door for Athenian leadership. The members of the league contributed either ships or monetary payments in which Athens held military command. However, when the island of Naxos attempted to leave the league, the Athenians and allies invaded and confiscated their ships, forcing the Naxians to continue making payments to the league. A similar fate happened to the Thracians when the island of Thasos rebelled against the league in 465 BC. The Athenians refusal to let any members leave and transformation of ships to money as payment for membership signaled the change from a temporarily alliance to the roots of an Athenian Empire based in the city-state’s superior naval power. At home, Athenains disagreed whether they should ally themselves with the Spartans. Cimon wanted to honor the alliance between Athens and Sparta. Cimon led a force of Athenians to Sparta to assist them against some rebelling helots who had taken advantage of the chaos brought on by a massive earthquake that occurred in 460 BC in the region. However, the conservative Spartans dismissed the Athenians, perhaps disturbed by their democratic notion so at odds with the Spartan mentality, which caused a breakdown of this alliance. Athens allied themselves with Argos, and Cimon was ostracized from the city. Cimon’s political rival, Ephialtes instituted democratic politic reforms, especially weakening the traditional Council of the Areopagus.

The early 5th century was a fecund period in art and literature. Simonides and Pindar developed epinician odes (poems about athletic victory). There was a transformation in the visual arts from stylistic archaic art inspired by Egypt to one that featured more action and naturalistic forms. It was this period that saw the birth of tragedy. The three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote their plays during this time. Aeschylus created an innovation by adding a second actor with a speaking role that enhanced the dramatic quality of Ancient Greek plays. Greek drama came in sets of four plays per day during the festival of Dionysus in March. Over the course of the festival, the audience would watch a new set of four plays each day and eventually vote on one playwright to win a prize for the best set of work. From Aeschylus we have the only surviving Greek trilogy intact, The Oresteia, which has three plays that are thematically linked.

The Peloponnesian War was a series of three separate wars stretching from 460 to 404. The famous leader, Pericles convinced the countryside farmers to take refuge in the city with the hopes that the enemy’s ground forces would tire of attacking unoccupied villages and ask for peace, which is a good strategy for a short-term war. Unfortunately a devastating plague broke out in the city in 430 BC, which took Pericles’ life. This left a political hole that allowed the rise of demagogues like Cleon, a tanner, whose success in business and anti-aristocratic attitudes brought him to power. As the fighting ensued, Sparta sent soldiers to the Island of Sphacteria in response to a fortress the Athenians were building at Pylos. An Athenian naval victory left these Spartan soldiers stranded and captive to Athens. Not wishing to lose any men, the Spartans sought an armistice that would have ended the war, but Athenian overconfidence and advantage prevented them from accepting. In 424, the Spartans had renewed success in the war with the rise of Brasidas, charismatic military leader. He persuaded Acanthus, Stagirus, and Argilus to revolt, but his most important achievement was bringing over Amphipolis, which was an important Athenian territory that protected their grain shipments. Cleon and Brasidas died in the Battle of Amphipolis. Shortly after, the Spartans and Athenians signed the Peace of Nicias (named after the Athenian negotiator of same name) and Aristophanes, a major comic playwright, wrote his play Peace. The terms of the treaty not only brought a temporary end to the fighting, but mostly maintained the status quo. Although Sparta wanted to sign it, most of its major allies—Corinth, Megara, and Boeotia—refused to sign.

The Athenians had their own members of society who wanted a return to war. Alcibiades, a student of Socrates and a flamboyant handsome aristocrat, wanted to rekindle the war in order to make a name for himself. He convinced the Athenians to invade Sicily in 415. The Athenians sent a huge navy and military force. On the way there, Alcibiades changed sides to Sparta in order to avoid trial at Athens for a sacrilegious prank that many Athenians blamed on him, although he may not have been responsible, involving the dismembering of herms outside Athenian homes (statues in front that bore Hermes face and phallus). Alcibiades convinced the Spartans that Athens was planning to conquer Sicily and Italy. Sparta reentered the war, and after underestimating Sicilian forces, Athens lost a bulk of their military forces, while gaining nothing for their troubles. Sparta defeated Athens eight years later. Although a huge loss, the war oscillated over the next few years with Athens looking like it would achieve victory only for Sparta to come back, then Athens, then Sparta. Finally the war ended at the Battle at Aegospotami, which was won by Lysander of Sparta who cut off Athens from their major source of grain and captured many ships. Thebans, Corinthians, and Spartan allies wanted to punish Athens by destroying the city, killing all the males, and selling the women and children into slavery (like the Athenians did the Melos earlier in the war), but Sparta spared Athens out of respect for their service to Greece’s earlier wars with Persia.
The Peloponnesian war drained city-states of resources and dwindled trade. This deadly war caused Greeks to rethink some of their treasured values and unsurprisingly this was the time of Socrates and the sophists who questioned traditional values, including at times, the system of democracy itself. Statis (class warfare) continued to plague most of the city-states and oligarchic forces vied with democratic forces for control, while Sparta often interfered in many city-states affairs and propped up pro-Spartan aristocrats.

    The Macedonians: Philip II and Alexander the Great

Persistent warfare and the city-states inability to unite left an opening for Philip II and the Macedonians. Although the Macedonians spoke a dialect of Greek, the Greeks considered them barbarians. Macedonian kings practiced polygamy, drank unmixed wine, and had tumulus burial rather than cremation and internment. Macedonian culture was not focused on city-states, but rural lands beholden to nobility. Born in 382 BC, Philip II stabilized Macedon by defeating neighboring enemies and dynastic rivals by introducing new military tactics. These tactics followed the principles of hoplite phalanx formation, but armed troops with long pikes that they could use to strike down enemies from a distance. When opposing armies would try to adjust to these tactics, Philip employed a reserve cavalry force to attack the confused forces. Philip not only united Macedon and his neighbors, but extended his influence over Greece. It was the Battle of Chaeronea in Boetia that established his dominance over Greece. Despite his military success, Philip was assassinated at Aegae in 336 by a member of his bodyguard who had grievances over his treatment at the hands of Philip’s 7th wife Cleopatra and her family. The marriage to Cleopatra also threatened Alexander’s position as heir.

Nevertheless, Alexander did ascend to the throne and became a great military leader who defeated the Persian Empire in a series of campaigns. The Battle of Granicus (334 BC) won him Anatolia from Persia, while the Battle of Issus (333 BC) destroyed the main forces of Persia and forced Darius III to flee. Alexander’s success and pursuit of Darius III led Darius’ own generals to assassinate him. Alexander in his victory over Persia also destroyed Persepolis, the spiritual heart of the Persian Empire. Alexander’s legendary military prowess could easily be described as recklessness and in many battles he was only seconds away from being killed. At various points of his campaign his own soldiers mutinied, resenting their extensive time away from Macedon and the growing importance of former Persian citizens in Alexander’s army. Alexander died 323 BC likely from a disease contracted from wounds gained on the battlefield.


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