Around 800 B.C.E., a second civilization center began to
develop around the islands of the Aegean Sea and the Greek
mainland. With modifications, Greek civilization lasted
until about 400 B.C.E., when it was replaced by an imperial
state under Macedonian kings. Greek civilization built on
previous accomplishments of both Egyptian and Middle Eastern
civilizations, as well as the early civilizations of Crete
and Mycenae located in the eastern Mediterranean and on the
Greek mainland. By 1100 B.C.E., these two formative
civilizations had entered a period of prolonged decline from
which Greece emerged after three centuries.
- The Persian Empire: Parallel Power in the Middle East
Following the decline of the successive empires in the Middle
East, Cyrus the Great established a Persian Empire in 550
B.C.E. that incorporated all of the Middle East as well as
portions of India. Within this new empire, a new religion,
Zoroastrianism, emerged to replace the more typical
polytheism of the Middle East. Zoroastrianism regarded life
as a struggle between forces of good and evil. Unable to
conquer the Greek mainland, the Persian Empire eventually
fell to Alexander the Great. While it lasted, the Persian
Empire paralleled the classical development of Greece.
- The Political Character of Classical Greece
There were two primary catalysts for the development of Greek
civilization. Despite the Indo-European invasions that
destroyed Mycenae and other early Greek cities, the heritage
of the earlier civilizations were retained through oral
traditions and myths. The second impetus to the development
of Greek civilization after 800 B.C.E. was the general
renewal of trade in the eastern Mediterranean. Economic
growth prompted the expansion of the population and social
change, which encouraged the development of new political
- The Emergence of Greek Forms
Greek political and cultural evolution began in the eighth
century B.C.E. Political evolution was interrupted by
internal warfare in the fifth century B.C.E., but cultural
evolution continued with little break into the Hellenistic
period. The Greek adaptation of the Phoenician alphabet
facilitated cultural and economic development. The Homeric
epics, the Iliad and Odyssey were recorded at this time and
strongly influenced the common mythology of Greek culture. A
distinctive Greek art, initially derivative from Egyptian
culture, also began to emerge.
- The City-State as a Political Unit
In the period immediately after 800 B.C.E., Greek political
structures centered on the city-state a regional government
centered in a major city but including the agricultural
hinterland. City-states varied in territory and population.
When Greeks colonized other regions of the eastern
Mediterranean, they carried the distinctive city-state form
of government with them. The city-state format made
political centralization in Greece virtually impossible, but
it did encourage active participation in local government.
In the early stages of city-state development, land-owning
aristocrats were most powerful. Some of the early city-
states had kings, most recognized free farmers as citizens,
and the governments often contained councils.
After 700 B.C.E., the dominance of the aristocracies was
challenged. Particularly in areas with strong commercial
activity, merchants and urban artisans sought to break the
political monopoly of the landowners. Increasingly wealthy
landowners also began to squeeze out small farmers. By the
sixth century B.C.E., urban groups and small farmers saw
themselves as politically disadvantaged. In some city-states
these groups supported tyrants against aristocratic clans.
Because tyranny contradicted the accepted concept of self-
government, reformers arose who attempted to ameliorate the
social and political inequities through legal innovation
while still maintaining public participation in government.
The growing need for strong military forces also produced
incentive to increase the number of citizens within the city-
states. Participation in public life, either politically or
militarily, became the norm within the Greek city-state.
Identification with individual gods also produced a sense of
- The Rise of Democracy in Athens
Although city-state constitutions varied, democracy tended to
become more common by the fifth century. Athens was the
chief example of democratic government. Athens had passed
from aristocratic dominance, through civil dispute to tyranny
under Pisastratus. After the tyrant's death, the reformer
Cleisthenes reestablished a council, elected by all citizens,
that prepared an agenda for an assembly of all citizens of
the city-state. All decisions of the state emanated from the
public assembly, although a small group of leading
politicians often dominated the group.
Citizens were expected to serve in the army, served as jurors
for trials, and were eligible for the many councils that
comprised the city-state administration. Despite the active
participation of many adult males in the Athenian democracy,
many people were excluded. Women, slaves, and foreigners
were excluded from civic life. Aristocratic politicians,
such as Pericles, controlled much of the government, even
when they did not hold public office. Athenian democracy
provided for the exile (ostracism) of politicians considered
likely to establish tyrannies.
- A Comparison of Greek and Chinese Political Styles
The Greek system, which emphasized political virtue and
responsibility and which maintained a hierarchic social
system, in some ways mirrored the Confucian concept of social
and political harmony. But the decentralized nature of the
Greek polis was conceptually different than the Chinese
insistence on a single, centralized government. The Greeks
also placed more weight on individual participation in
government than on a formal bureaucracy.
- Greek Diplomacy and the Tensions of United Effort
During the four centuries of Greek political evolution,
individual city-states established colonies throughout the
eastern Mediterranean. These colonies exported Greek culture
and political ideas. There were some things in which Greek
city-states participated as a group. Most city-states
participated in the annual Olympic games and recognized the
religious significance of the oracle priests at Delphi.
A coalition of city-states led by Athens and Sparta defeated
two Persian invasions of the Greek mainland at the beginning
of the fifth century B.C.E. In the decades after the Persian
Wars, Athens came to dominate a confederation of city-states
initially formed to control the Aegean Sea. Athens was able
to covert the Delian League into an empire. The empire
complicated the internal politics of Athens and produced
division and strife.
- Athens versus Sparta
The creation of the Athenian empire aroused the suspicion and
opposition of Sparta. More agrarian and aristocratic than
Athens, Sparta had its own confederation of allied city-
states. The two rivals began a prolonged conflict, the
Peloponnesian War, in 431 B.C.E. Although both sides
suffered enormous losses, the war continued until 404 B.C.E.,
when Sparta finally defeated Athens.
- The Hellenistic Period
The Spartan defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War did not
result in political unity. Athens and Thebes successfully
broke the Spartan hegemony, but soon began to make war on
each other. The resultant political confusion prepared the
way for the Macedonian conquest of the Greek city-states and
the establishment of the Macedonian empire.
- Macedonian Conquest
King Philip II of Macedonia (359-336 B.C.E.) strengthened the
Macedonian armed forces just as the attempts at unity in the
Greek mainland failed. By 338 B.C.E., Philip II was able to
conquer the city-states of southern Greece and created a
Macedonian hegemony. Although Greek city-states technically
continued to exist, they were subjected to a Macedonian
- Alexander the Great
When Philip died, Greece and the kingdom of Macedonia fell to
his son, Alexander. Alexander launched an assault on the
Persian Empire that resulted in the conquest of Persia,
Egypt, and the Middle East. Alexander's armies actually
penetrated as far as India before turning back. It was
Alexander's purpose to unite the centralized political
tradition of the East with Greek culture. To this end, he
established cities throughout the conquered region. Before
his scheme could be finalized, Alexander died at the age of
- Later Hellenistic States
Alexander's empire fragmented into three successor states:
Seleucid Asia, Antigonid Macedonia and Greece, and Ptolemaic
Egypt. Initially these states shared with the Greek world a
renewed prosperity based on commerce and cultural exchange.
Eventually the favorable position of the Hellenistic cities
produced political dissatisfaction in the agricultural
hinterlands. By the second century B.C.E., the Hellenistic
successor kingdoms weakened. The Hellenistic Middle East was
characterized by the exchange of ideas between Greece,
Persia, India, Egypt, and Africa. The spread of Greek
culture was a significant factor in creating an intellectual
framework in this part of the civilized world.
- Creativity in Greek and Hellenistic Culture
Art and philosophy were the key cultural contributions of
- Religion, Philosophy, and Science
Greek religion featured a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods
and goddesses. Individual deities patronized human
activities or represented forces of nature. Greek religion
did not emphasize the afterworld, as did other Indo-European
religions, nor did they direct believers to more esoteric or
spiritual considerations. Greek religion failed to excite
much emotion, and popular "mystery" religions arose that
offered greater spiritual intimacy. The existence of mystery
religions in Greek culture is somewhat similar to Daoism in
Frustrated by the limitations of Greek religion, some
thinkers turned to philosophical systems that offered better
opportunities for explanation of natural phenomena. Some
thinkers, such as Socrates and Plato, were concerned with
development of ethical systems offering logical analysis of
social and political action. In the Hellenistic period
Stoics taught that human independence could be achieved
through strict discipline of the body and physical bravery.
These ethical systems were later blended with Christian
Philosophers gave various answers to the question of
political organization. Plato suggested a state ruled by
philosopher/kings. Most Greek political theory emphasized
the concept of a balanced constitution with outlets for both
aristocratic and popular influence. The principle measure of
political ethics was the utility of the individual
constitution. Classical Greek philosophy stressed both
rationalism and skepticism. Plato suggested that man could
approach knowledge of absolute truth through an understanding
of ideal forms. Greek emphasis on rationalism bore some
resemblance to Chinese Confucianism.
Greek emphasis on rationalism gave rise to scientific
exploration, although little experimentation. Greek thinkers
were interested in the elements from which the cosmos was
created, which in turn led to interest in mathematics and
geometry. Empirical discoveries were made in medicine and
astronomy, although the astronomical observations of Ptolemy
stressed the position of the earth at the center of the
universe. Archimedes developed theories of physics relating
to water power and mathematics.
- Literature and the Visual Arts
Science and mathematics were less important than the arts in
conveying key aspects of Greek culture. Drama, vital to
religious festivals, took a central role in Greek expression.
Greek dramatists produced both comedies and tragedies, with
the latter receiving greater emphasis. Dramatists, both
comedians and tragedians, illustrated the limits of human
reason and the consequences of becoming ensnared in powerful
passions. Greek drama provided the rules that governed later
playwrights. The Greeks also developed history as a form of
literature. Greek artists were most advanced in sculpture
and architecture. Over time, the Greeks formulated three
distinct architectural styles Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian.
Greek art and literature was a product of contemporary
society, and individual works were often functional.
- The Principles of Greek Culture
Greek cultural achievement rested on four major principles.
Greek political life was encapsulated in political theory,
which allowed it to survive and influence subsequent
civilizations. Art and sculpture served to glorify human
achievement. Greek drama and philosophy emphasized the
centrality of the human and the secular. Greek philosophy
stressed the logical and rational aspects within the natural
world. Despite its importance to later western
civilizations, Greek culture did have limitations. Greek
science was often more speculative than experimental and,
thus, was often filled with error. Greek culture was
predicated on the dominance of a literate, aristocratic
elite. It was little interested in adopting popular values.
- Hellenistic Culture During and After Alexander
Greek culture did change over the centuries. The decline of
the independent city-states in the fourth century B.C.E.
produced a distinctive Hellenistic style. There was little
innovation in literature. The wealth of the Hellenistic
states contributed to vast amounts of monumental-scale
building, although no new architectural styles were
developed. Hellenistic thinkers were particularly interested
in science and mathematics. Contributions were made in
astronomy and geography. There were few innovations in
either medicine or biology.
- Patterns of Greek and Hellenistic Society
Greek society was typical of ancient agricultural economies.
Distinctive features were the emphasis on slavery and a
distinct ambivalence toward the status of women.
- Economic and Social Structure
Greek civilization closely resembles other civilizations in
which invading peoples settled down to agriculture.
Initially society was divided into a militarized aristocracy
and a larger group of free landowners. As the Greek economy
became more commercialized, the society became more diverse
and hierarchic. The mountainous geography of Greece produced
a greater reliance on trade and colonization than in India or
China. Frequent war produced a greater dependence on slavery
and reduced emphasis on improved manufacturing technology.
Greek society remained dominated by an aristocratic, land-
owning elite. Greek politics and art was largely
aristocratic in tone. Greek society depended on commerce,
but assigned relatively low social status to merchants.
Greek merchants were regarded as socially more acceptable
than their counterparts in China, but perhaps enjoyed less
status than merchants in India.
- Rural Life and Agriculture
The Greek population was predominantly rural and
agricultural, despite the political and cultural dominance of
the cities. From the eighth century B.C.E., there was a
tendency for aristocrats to force small farmers to become
tenants or laborers. Aristocrats were better able to convert
their operations to commercial crops olives and grapes thus
giving them a competitive advantage over their less wealthy
neighbors. Mediterranean agriculture was particularly market
oriented, with the result that basic food supplies often had
to be imported.
The purpose of Greek colonization was, in part, to develop
new sources of grain. Commercial forms of agriculture
continued to dominate in the Hellenistic period. Commercial
agriculture stimulated the development of small towns rather
than rural villages. Small towns offered peasants market
opportunities, but remained sufficiently close to the fields
to allow continued employment as agricultural laborers.
- Slavery and Production
Slavery was a key component of the classical Mediterranean
economy. City-states used slaves for all types of labor from
agriculture to mining. Manumission of slaves was relatively
common. Control of slave labor systems required extensive
military controls. Use of slaves discouraged investment in
technological improvement. As a result, Greece lagged behind
both China and India in technological development.
- Men, Women, and Social Divisions
In Greek law and culture, women were inferior to men. Female
infanticide was practiced. Despite their low social status,
some Greek women were active in business and did control
urban property. Greek marriages were arranged by the
patriarchal household head, and husbands could divorce their
wives at will. Women were restricted to certain portions of
the household. Conditions for women appear to have improved in
the Hellenistic era.
- Conclusion: A Complex Legacy
Greek civilization established certain cultural
characteristics for western civilization. Greek political
ideas were more enduring than the actual political
constitutions of the city-states. Slavery was an important
component of the classical West. Perhaps the most
significant contributions were in art and philosophy. Like
India, cultural cohesion in Greece rested more in the realm
of ideas than in political empire. Greek civilization has
often been considered an integral foundation for American
culture. For a truly world perspective, it is necessary to
see Greek civilization in the context of other world