• Civilization: Ancient Greeks

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The civilization of Ancient Greece was one of the most brilliant in world history




Society and Politics





- Literature

- Art and Architecture

- Sculpture and Painting

- Philosophy

Mathematics and Science



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Greece and the Balkans 1500BC

Ancient Greece 1500 BC


This page deals with the civilization of Classical Greece. Other pages deal with the Minoan civilization which preceeded it, and with the Hellenistic civilization which followed it.


The civilization of Ancient Greece emerged into the light of history in the 8th century BC. Normally it is regarded as coming to an end when Greece fell to the Romans, in 146 BC. However, major Greek (or "Hellenistic", as modern scholars call them) kingdoms lasted longer than this. As a culture (as opposed to a political force), Greek civilization lasted longer still, continuing right to the end of the ancient world.

The history of Ancient Greece falls into four major divisions. The Archaic period , when the civilization's main features were evolving, lasted from the 8th to the 6th centuries BC. Classical Greece flourished during the 5th to 4th centuries BC. This was marked by the period of the Persian Wars (c. 510-479 BC), the Golden Age of Athens (c. 479-404 BC), and the later Classical era (404-338 BC). Then comes the Hellenistic period, opening with the conquests of Alexander the Great, and ending with the conquests of the different Hellenistic states by Rome (146-31 BC).

Greek civilization had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire. Indeed, some modern scholars see the Roman era as a continuation of the same civilization, which they label "Graeco-Roman". In any case, the Roman conquest carried many features of Greek civilization to far-flung parts of the Mediterranean world and Western Europe. Through the mediation of the Romans, therefore, Greek civilization came to be the founding culture of Western civilization.


Greek civilization underwent radical changes of geography during its life. Its origins were in the land of Greece, together with the islands of the Aegean sea, and the west coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). This is a landscape of mountains and sea. Land useful for farming is found in valley bottoms, hedged in by steep slopes, or on small islands, confined by water. As a result, ancient Greece consisted of many small territories, each with its own dialect, cultural peculiarities, and identity. Cities tended to be located in valleys between mountains, or on narrow coastal plains, and only dominated a limited area around them. These "city-states" were fiercely independent of each other.

From about 750 BC the Greeks began sending out colonies in all directions, settling the coasts and islands of the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. By around 600 BC Greek city-states could be found, "like frogs round a pond", as one Greek writer put it, from the coasts of Spain in the west to Cyprus in the east, and as far north as present day Ukraine and Russia and as far south as the Egypt and Libya. Sicily and Southern Italy above all became the locus for Greek colonization, and this region was known to the Romans as "Magna Graeca".

Later, the conquests of Alexander the Great took Greek civilization right across the Middle East. There it mingled with the more ancient cultures of that region, to form a hybrid civilization which scholars label "Hellenistic" civilization. This is described in a separate article; here we shall focus on the original Greek civilization.

Society and politics

Ancient Greece consisted of several hundred independent city states (poleis). The ancient Greeks certainly thought of themselves as 'one people' - they had the same religion, language and culture. Every four years all Greek city-states sent their young men and women to compete in the Olympic games. However, the city-states fiercely defended their independence from one another. Political unity was not an option, unless imposed from outside (which first occurred when Philip II, king of Macedonia, conquered the city-states of Greece in the mid-4th century BC.)

The City-State

A typical Greek city was built around a fortified hill, called an "acropolis". Here was located the city's chief temple, the city's treasury, and some other public buildings.

Walls surrounded the city; and at the centre was the "Agora" - the central space where public meetings were held, and where traders set up their stalls. The agora was often flanked by colonnades.

Another public space was the gymnasium, though this was situated outside the city walls. This is where athletes trained; covered porticoes allowed training to continue in bad weather, and also provided shaded areas for music, discussion and social meetings. Many gymnasia had public baths attached.

Also outside the walls would be the theatre, built into a hillside and semicircular in shape. The audience would sit on the tiered seats looking down on to a space called the "orchestra", where the performances took place. This space would be backed by columns and behind them, small buildings where actors changed clothing and masks, and for the props.

Social structure

The social framework varied significantly from city-state to city-state. Most cities had a large class of free, native-born peasant farmers. These owed small farms to subsist on. The adult males formed the citizen body of the state. They were entitled to vote in elections, participate in trials in the law courts, and hold public office; They also had a duty to fight in the city's army. They had a real say in how their city was run and what decisions were made.

Within this group of citizens was a smaller number of wealthier families, who owned more land than the rest. They were the aristocrats. As they could afford to keep horses, they were distinguished from the bulk of the citizens by fighting in the army of horse-back. Their older men were often the leading office-holders in the city, the magistrates and military commanders; they could often trace their families back through generations of office-holders, who had helped shape the city's history. They had a disproportionate influence on affairs of state. Indeed, in many city-states they formed an aristocratic council who played a leading role in the direction of the state. In those city-states which were democracies, however, it was the bulk of the citizens who held the power, through their assembly.

At the bottom of society was a large class of slaves. These were people who had been captured in war, or been condemned to slavery as a result of debts which they could not pay, or for crimes; or they had been born into slavery. In law they were the property of their owners. They worked as household servants or farm labourers for the wealthy, or miners and industrial workers for businessmen. Trained slaves could act as skilled craftsmen, or perhaps secretaries.

Most city-states also had a small group of "aliens" living within their walls. These were free men and women who had homes in the city, but had been born elsewhere (or their parents and grandparents had), usually in another Greek city-state. They were often merchants. They were not enrolled amongst the citizens and did not have their privileges; they were deemed to have the citizenship of the city they or their families had originally come from. In most cities, citizenship was jealously guarded by a hereditary group of native families.


The city-states relied on their own citizens to form their armies. Each citizen had to have his own armour and weapons, and spend a certain amount of time undergoing military training. The fact that the Greek world was fragmented into hundreds of small city-states, with only a few thousand citizens each, meant that wars, though frequent, were limited the scale. The duration of campaigns was determined by the need for most of the citizens to return to their farms for harvest time. Campaigns would therefore often be restricted to summer. Battles were fought between large formations of foot soldiers, fighting at close quarters: the majority of the casualties in a set-piece battle would obviously occur at the front of the two formations; if one of the sides turned and ran (a not infrequent occurrence) the all were in danger. Cavalry played a comparatively minor role in Greek warfare.

The scale of Greek warfare increased somewhat in the 6th century BC, when groups of city-sates formed alliances. The most famous of these was the Peloponnesian League, under the leadership of Sparta. During the Persian Wars, the Delian League emerged, under the leadership of Athens. These and other leagues (the Achaean, the Aetolian) increased the scale of Greek warfare further in the 5th and 4th centuries. Large armies were fielded, forces were deployed further from their homes, and campaigns grew longer. Naval warfare became more important, with several city-sates maintaining large fleets of galleys (the rowers of these galleys were usually the poorest of the citizens, who could not afford to pay for their own armour). Blockades and sieges became common.


The Greeks worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses, headed by the chief of the gods, Zeus. Other gods including Hera, Zeus's wife; Athena, goddess of wisdom and learning; Apollo, god of music and culture; Venus, goddess of love; Dionysus, god of wine; Hades, god of the underworld; and Diana, goddess of the hunt.

Greek religion placed little emphasis on ethical conduct - stories about the gods portrayed often them as lying, cheating, being unfaithful, getting drunk and so on. As in many traditional religions, a Greek god or goddess was seen more as a potential source of help, rather than as a focus of devotion.
Each city-state had its own festivals, but certain festivals were common to all the Greeks. The most famous of these were the Olympic games, held in honour of Zeus every four years (starting traditionally in 776 BC). There were much fewer events than in a modern Olympics, and there were competitions in music and poetry as well as in athletics. The winner of an Olympic event was awarded an olive wreath and won great honour in his home city.

The Greeks often consulted oracles - priests or priestesses at certain shrines who, in a trance, uttered messages from the gods. People would go to oracles for advice and guidance on specific matters. The most famous of these was the oracle at the shrine of Apollo at Delphi. Advice was sought by private individuals as well as by politicians and military commanders.

The Greek religion was not something to engage a person's spirituality, and various cults grew up to fell that void. The Eleusian Mysteries and the cult of Orpheus injected an emotional elements into worship. One joined these through initiation, and their beliefs were secret. Hence we know little about them. However, they stressed the importance of the afterlife - initiates were promised immortality - and the need for ethical standards of behaviour were emphasised.

Numerous myths have come down to us about the Greeks gods, goddesses and semi-divine heroes. They also have much to say about the origins and nature of the world. Many of these myths contradict one another, something that the Greeks found no problem with.


Most Greek cities did not have schools - Sparta was the exception. Education was therefore a private affair. Wealthy families would hire a private tutor to teach boys reading and writing; later, Greek literature. Children of both sexes also learned to sing and play music, and both boys and girls did athletics. Boys were being brought up to be effective citizen (and soldiers); or, in the case of wealthy families, to be effective leaders of their cities. Public speaking was an important skill, which would round off a boy's education. In later times this also involved logic, literature and philosophy. Girls from wealthy families, though not given formal education, were brought up to manage the household.



Even while the Greeks were emerging from their Dark Ages after the fall of Mycenae (c. 1200-750 BC), when they produced their greatest poet, Homer. Most modern scholars think that Homer's two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were composed around 750 BC. It was almost certainly first composed in oral form before being written perhaps a hundred years later. These poems have been studied by western scholars ever since.

Later poets included Hesiod (7th century BC), whose "Works and Days" portrays the tough life of an ordinary farmer; Sappho (6th century BC), whose love poetry uses beauty of language to explore intense personal feelings; and Pindar (late 6th century - early 5th century BC), who expressed emotion in lyrical poems praising famous athletes or gods, and mourning the dead.

The Greeks were the first to pioneer the art form of drama. This had its origins in the dances and songs of sacred rites, and was always associated with religious festivals. A chorus chanting words or singing songs replaced the dancers, and originally only one solo actor stood out from the rest. Actors wore different masks to depict various standard moods or characters.

Greek drama included both tragedy and comedy. It reached maturity in 5th century Athens. Aeschylus (525-456 BC) reduced the importance of the chorus, and increased the role of individual actors and dialogue. Sophocles (496-406 BC) took these innovations further, while Euripides (484-406 BC) used dialogue to portray deep human emotions.

The Greeks also pioneered the writing of History as not merely the chronicling of events, but in striving for accuracy, objectivity and meaning in their accounts. Herodotus (c. 485-425 BC) is known the "father of history" (in the West), and was the first to develop a coherent historical narrative (in his case, of the Persian Wars); but it was his successor, Thucydides (c.460-396 BC), who was the one to first write what we today would call proper history.

Art and Architecture

Greek architecture is known for its grace and simplicity. The finest buildings the Greeks erected were their temples; and the most famous of these is the Parthenon, in Athens.

The centre of each temple was space known as the "cella". Here was located the statue if the god. In front of the cella was the porch, and both porch and cella were surrounded by a colonnade of columns. Each column was topped by a "capitals", a carved block of stone. On top of these rested the "entablature", a band of carved stone on which, in turn, rested the roof. These elements went together to form a simple yet gracious building.

Sculpture and Painting

Greek sculpture - usually in stone and bronze; sometimes in gold and ivory -  was solid and formal, much like that of the ancient Middle East. In the Classical period, sculptures strove for realism, and their work became more graceful and elegant. They applied mathematical ratios to achieve aesthetic beauty. As time went by, and their skills improved still more, they sought to represent movement and emotion. In their best works they achieved a fluidity in stone which has seldom been matched.

In ancient times, statues would have been painted with vibrant, lifelike colours. Virtually no trace of this survives. The only paintings that have come down to us are on vases, where the images are of necessity simple and economic. We know of other painting as well from literary sources, for example on walls of palaces; and some painters achieved wide fame. However, none fo their work has come down to us.


The earliest school of Greek philosophers were those of the Ionian tradition (7th-5th centuries BC). Ionia was in what is today western Turkey, and it is tempting to see the influence of the ancient Middle East on their work. Much of this involved quasi-religious speculations about the origins and structure of the universe: but this led them on to quasi-scientific propositions, such as that all matter comes from water (reminiscent of Mesopotamian beliefs).

The Pythagoreans were another group of early Greek thinkers (6th-5th century BC). They formed a curious combination of philosophical school and religious brotherhood. They believed that all things could be explained by numbers. As a result, they did much mathematical speculation (see below, section on Science). However, they believed in such religious ideas as the transmigration of the soul. They lived simple, ascetic lives.

By the 5th century, Greek thinkers such as Parmenedes (c.504-456 BC) were advocating the idea that reason is the best way to reaching truth.

The Sophists - "teachers if wisdom" - were travelling teachers prominent in the 5th century, after the Persian Wars. They preferred to study man and worldly problems rather than speculate about universal truths. In fact, some claimed that truths were only meaningful when placed in a particular context, and seen from a particular point of view. They rejected the notion of the supernatural and universal standards of morality and justice. Some went on the state that nothing really exists, the material world is just an illusion. Some taught that all the meaning there is in the universe resides in the words we use. Language is therefore a tool to give things meaning. In due course sophists came to be associated with specious reasoning, using words to mean whatever one wants them to mean.

Greek philosophy reached its high point in the careers of three thinkers who lived and worked in Athens, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

Socrates (469-399 BC) challenged the thinking of his contemporaries by posing penetrating questions. In this way he aimed to strip away the prejudices we all bring to our thinking. He developed the "Socratic method", based on questions and discussion, rather than on lectures and received teaching. He that reason and clear thinking could lead men to truth and happiness. In 399 BC, he was put on trial in Athens for "corrupting the minds of the youth" and not revering the gods. He was executed by poisoning.

Plato (427-347 BC) was a disciple of Socrates; it is through him we know of Socrates' teaching. Plato believed that the material world is not real, but an imperfect image of the real, or ideal. He founded the "Academy", the first known institute of higher education in the West.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) was a student of Plato's. He spent some time as tutor to the future king of Macedon, who would become known to history as Alexander the Great. After this, he founded the Lyceum in Athens. Aristotle left behind a vast body of work. To help clear thinking, he developed a system of formal rules of logic. These became extremely influential in future Western thought. He believed ideas were indistinguishable from matter, in that they could exists only through material objects. He believed that God was the "first cause" of all things, and that the good life can be achieved through moderation.

Mathematics and Science

For the Greeks, science was indistinguishable from philosophy (in fact, science was called "natural philosophy" in the West right up to the 18th century).

Thales of Miletus is usually regarded as the first prominent Greek mathematician, and he is credited with developing the methodologies of observation, experimentation and deduction, which are still used today.  Thales' younger contemporaries, Pythagoras and his school, developed geometry as a branch of knowledge. They uncovered Pythagoras' theorem, that the sum of any three angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles.

One of the main concerns for Greek philosophers was the nature of the universe, and their thinking about this had theological dimensions - Heraclitus (533-475 BC), for example, believed that the universe pervaded by Logos, or divine will, and Xenophanes (540-485 BC) taught that was a supreme being, and attacked the idea of a pantheon of gods - and some was more along what we today would recognize as scientific lines.

Empedocles (495-430 BC) proposed that all matter was indestructible and eternal. He was the first to come up with the idea that matter exists in only four basic forms - earth, air, fire and water. Different balances lead to different kinds of materials. Democritus (c.460-362) developed this idea and anticipated modern physics by proposing that all matter consists of minute and indivisible units called atoms.

Anaximander (611-547 BC) asserted the theory of organic evolution, with the earliest animals being fish, which later adapted to different environments to become land animals and human beings.

In medicine, the Greeks dissected animals to refine their ideas on anatomy. They located the optic nerve and recognized the brain as the locus of thought. They discovered that blood flows to and from the heart. Hippocrates (c.460-377 BC) argued that diseases had natural rather than supernatural causes, and that they therefore could be treated by natural means. He advocated rest, proper diet, and exercise for a healthy life; he knew the uses of many drugs, and he helped improve surgical practices. He is considered one of the key figures in the history of Western medicine.

In astronomy, the first three-dimensional models to explain the apparent motion of the planets were developed in the 4th century BC.

Aristotle advanced the scientific method by his insistence on observation of the material world being an important root to knowledge. Together with his rules of logic (see the section above, Philosophy), this laid some important foundations for the scientific method in the West. He put this method into action himself by classified many plants and animals, so making a great contribution to botany and zoology. He developed Empedocles' ideas on matter by adding a fifth element, ether, to the other four.

Greek mathematics and science continued to make advances in Hellenitsic times.


The civilization of ancient Greece has been immensely influential on language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, science, and the arts. Through the Roman Empire, Greek culture became the foundation of Western culture. The Byzantine Empire inherited Classical Greek culture directly, without Latin intermediation, and the preservation of classical Greek learning in medieval Byzantine tradition further exerted strong influence on the Slavs and later on the Islamic Golden Age and the Western European Renaissance. A modern revival of Classical Greek learning took place in the Neoclassical movement in 18th and 19th century Europe and the Americas.

The art and architecture of ancient Greece have had an enormous influence on later cultures, from ancient times to the present day. This is particularly the case with sculpture and architecture. Roman art was largely a continuation of Greek - in fact, in many cases it was actually executed by Greek artists. In the East, Alexander the Great's conquests led to a mingling of Greek and Asian styles. The distinctive Persian art of the medieval period incorporated the plasticity of Greek art and solidity of Mesopotamian. The Ghandara style of northern India similarly embodied the artistic heritage of two quite different civilizations, ancient India and Greece, and had a huge impact on the Buddhist art of northern India, central Asia and Eastern Asia.

In the West, following the Italian Renaissance (after c. 1400), the technical brilliance of Greek (and its offspring, Roman) art and architecture stimulated artists to look to these ancient models for inspiration. From that time until well into the 19th century, the classical tradition derived from Greece and Rome was the dominant strand in Western civilization.

Ancient Greek mathematics contributed many important developments, including the basic rules of geometry, the idea of formal mathematical proof, and discoveries in number theory and applied mathematics. It is now increasingly recognized that Greek mathematics owed a great deal to Mesopotamia; however, the Greeks made many advances of their own. The discoveries of several Greek mathematicians, including Pythagoras, Euclid, and Archimedes, are foundational to modern mathematics.

Greek science provided Islamic and medieval European thought with its world view. The Greeks came up with a huge range of rationally argued propositions about nature and the universe, which, even when dramatically wrong, provided hypotheses which modern Western thinkers have been able to test, often demolish, and in some cases corroborate.


Read here a comprehensive overview of the history of the Ancient Greeks.



Map of Ancient Greece and the Aegean during the Dark Ages, 1000 BC

Map of Ancient Greece and the Aegean at the time of the Persian Wars, 500 BC

Map of Ancient Greece and the Aegean after the time of Alexander the Great, 200 BC