Map 1 Greece and the Aegean

images images

Map 2 Carthage, Sicily, Southern Italy


Map 3 Athens and the Piraeus





Greece Before 478

Two large peninsulas project into the Mediterranean from Europe: Italy, divid-ing the whole into a western half and an eastern half, and Greece, subdividing the eastern half. What was to be the Greek world until the end of the fourth century BC comprised mainland Greece, with the islands off the west coast; and also the Aegean Sea, between mainland Greece and Asia Minor (present - day Turkey), with the coast of Asia Minor to the east, the coast of Thrace (part of present - day Greece) to the north, and the island of Crete (part of present - day Greece) closing it to the south. Mainland Greece is divided by mountains into many, mostly small, habitable areas, and by sea inlets (the Gulf of Corinth on the west and the Saronic Gulf on the east) into northern and central Greece and the southern part known as the Peloponnese, linked by the Isthmus of Corinth (where there is now a canal from one side to the other). Advanced civilisations developed earlier to the south and east of this area, in Egypt and the near east, than to the north and west; and in Greece the most important settlements were towards the south and east, and there was a tendency to look for outside contacts to the civilisations to the south and east and to absorb influences from them.

The first advanced civilisations in the Greek region arose in the bronze age of the second millennium: the Minoan civilisation of Crete (from c.2000: given its modern name after the legendary king Minos), the Cycladic civilisation of the Aegean (already important before c.2000 and flourishing after: named after the Cyclades, the large group of islands in the southern Aegean) and the Mycenaean civilisation of the mainland (from c.1600, with palaces from c.1400: named after Mycenae, near Argos, one of the main centres); from c.1400 Crete and the Cyclades came under the influence of the Mycenaeans. Life was based on substantial kingdoms, centred on large and rich palaces and served by bureaucratic administrations. The language of the Minoans was not Greek (their Linear A texts have not yet been deciphered); the language of the Mycenaeans was Greek (their Linear B texts were deciphered in the 1950’s); the Cycladic civilisation has not left texts of its own. This was the world in which the classical Greeks’ legends of their heroic past were ostensibly set (the Trojan War, the Oedipus story and so on).

That world broke up, in a period of destructions and population movements whose causes are still disputed, about 1200–1000.The classical Greeks believed that the Dorians, perceived as a separate strand of the Greek people, invaded from the north and drove out the earlier inhabitants to the islands and the coast of Asia Minor (e.g. Thuc. I. 2. vi, 12. iii). It is now thought unlikely that there was a phenomenon which deserves to be called the Dorian Invasion, but it does seem to be true that the Dorians were comparative newcomers in the Peloponnese and that the Greeks began migrating from the mainland to the islands and the coast of Asia Minor – from north to south, the Aeolians and Ionians from c.1000 and the Dorians slightly later.

Thucydides wrote of a continuous progress from the earliest and most primi-tive condition of Greece to the climax of the fifth century (I. 1–19), but modern scholars have thought in terms of a dark age between the end of the bronze - age civilisations and the ‘archaic’ period from c.800 to c.500: dark both in the sense that the size of the population and the level of civilisation were lower than before and after and in the sense that we know less about it than about the periods before and after. There is still some justice in that view, though the dark age now seems less dark in both those respects than it did half a century ago.

By c.800 the revival was well under way; but, in contrast to the bronze age, there developed a large number of separate, small communities, which often, and particularly towards the south and east, took the form of poleis, ‘city states’ , which comprised a town and the farm land around it and which aspired to a high degree of independence and self - sufficiency. If these communities were originally ruled by kings, the kings were not grand rulers like the oriental mon-archs but more like the chief aristocrats depicted by Homer, and before long kings gave way to officials mostly appointed annually from within the aristo-cracy of families which had emerged from the dark age owning the largest quantities of good land.

Rising prosperity brought complications. The population was growing once more, over time not dramatically but significantly (though occasional bursts of more rapid increase are not to be ruled out), and even after extending the land which they controlled and cultivated communities reached the point where the population (even though it was later to become still larger) seemed too large to survive a run of bad years, or by comparison with a generation earlier. The Greeks therefore took to trading on a larger scale, with one another and with the outside world, to import what was not available in sufficient quantities locally, and they also started founding colonies around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (sometimes joining with the pre - existing population) – in con-venient places for gaining access to what they wanted to import, and in places where men under pressure at home could make a new life and grow their own food. Most of the colonies became, technically, independent poleis, though they had familial and religious links with their mother states and the mother states hoped to retain influence over the colonies.

This process contributed to the pressures for political change. It was easier in a trading world than in self - sufficient agricultural communities for some men to become richer and others to become poorer, and for those who had become richer to think themselves as good as the established aristocracy. However, the citizen farmer was still a common ideal, and in many states many citizens con-tinued to own some land and to live at least partly off the produce of their land. Coinage, convenient as a medium of exchange and of reckoning and storing non - landed wealth, was not invented until the sixth century, and it is in Athens in the second half of the fifth that we first find a monetary economy in which the average citizen is likely to possess coins and engage in monetary transactions on a regular basis. There was a change in fighting (though how great and sudden a change is disputed), as cities took to relying on the heavy infantry known as hoplites, organised in a phalanx whose success depended on the cohesion of the whole body rather than the prowess of individual stars, so that all who could afford the equipment and fight in the phalanx might think that they were equally important to their city. The invention of the alphabet, a system of about two dozen characters (in contrast to the scripts with much larger numbers of characters used in bronze - age Greece and in the near east), made it possible for literacy to become an accomplishment of citizens in general rather than of a specialised class of scribes, and for laws to be written down and placed in the public domain – a development which at first may have been as valuable to aristocrats afraid that one of their number would step out of line as to lower - class people afraid of unfair treatment by the aristocrats. In some places there may have been tension between inhabitants perceived as belonging to different racial groups, for instance between Dorians and others in some cities in the Peloponnese. And within the aristocracy or on the fringes of the aristocracy there will have been ambitious or disaffected individuals who thought that they did not do well enough out of the principle of holding office when their turn came round.

Different factors were of differing importance in different places, but in many states in the seventh and sixth centuries power was seized by a tyrannos (‘tyrant’ ), trading on whatever grounds for discontent and groups of discontented people there were locally. The position of tyrant was not a formal office with defined powers: some tyrants ruled autocratically, others by manipulating the existing framework; some ruled cruelly, others mildly (it is only with Plato and Aristotle in the fourth century that a tyrant was automatically seen as a cruel autocrat). Tyrants were bad for the aristocrats, since they, like the lesser citizens, became subject to the tyrant. Periods of tyrannical rule tended not to last longer than two or three generations, as the original discontents were dealt with or forgotten and the dominance of the tyrant came to be a new cause of discontent; by the end of the sixth century most states had régimes in which basic political rights had been extended to all rich enough to fight as hoplites, and in several places pseudo - kinship organisations (tribes, phratries [ ‘brotherhoods’ ] and the like) through which the aristocrats had controlled the populace had been supplanted by new organisations.

Two cities developed in unusual ways, so as to become much larger than most, and in the fifth century to become rivals for supremacy in Greece.

Sparta, in the south of the Peloponnese, had not one king but two, probably a result of the amalgamation of neighbouring communities; it retained these into the classical period and beyond, though many of their powers were trans-ferred to an annually appointed board of five ephors (‘overseers’ ). By the eighth century it had conquered the whole of its region of Laconia, making some of the inhabitants perioikoi (‘dwellers - around’ , independent within their own com-munities but dependent on Sparta in foreign policy) and others helots (a word which probably means ‘captives’ , a serf class working the land of its Spartan owners: they are the best - known but not the only instance of a serf class in early Greece). In the late eighth and seventh centuries it expanded westwards into Messenia, making perioikoi and helots of its inhabitants too, and thus coming to control an area of about 2,400 sq. miles = 6,200 km 2. It thus did not need to found colonies overseas, apart from Taras in Italy, to accommodate men judged not entitled to a share in the conquered land at home.

Probably early in the seventh century, after the first round of conquests in Messenia, tension led to the core of a settlement attributed to a man called Lycurgus. The aristocrats came to an arrangement with the Spartan citizens to maintain solidarity and preserve their superiority over the perioikoiand helots: politically, the gerousia (council of elders, comprising twenty - eight men plus the two kings) and assembly were given defined roles in the running of the state; economically, the conquered land and helots to work it were apportioned among the ‘Spartiate’ citizens (but, despite what scholars used to believe, it now appears that the distributed land became ordinary private property); socially, the existence of the lower orders made a full - time military life for the citizens both possible and necessary. For a long time this seemed to be a success: Sparta avoided tyranny and became the strongest state in Greece, and people who lived elsewhere professed admiration for its disciplined life.

In the sixth century Sparta’s attempts to expand northwards into Arcadia were unsuccessful, and in the middle of the century there was a change of policy: instead of setting out to be a Dorian conqueror Sparta set out to be a Greek leader, binding other states to it by alliances. By the end of the century nearly all the Peloponnesian states (but not Argos, which could never accept Spartan leadership, and not Achaea, which had more to do with the north side of the Gulf of Corinth than with the rest of the Peloponnese) were linked to Sparta in an organisation for foreign policy which scholars call the Peloponnesian League, in which they were consulted about joint action and bound to accept majority decisions.

Originally Sparta’s culture had been like its neighbours’ ; but owing to the conquest of Messenia and the need to keep the subject population under control, and perhaps also to the failure to conquer Arcadia, austerity came to be prized as a Spartan virtue. It was perhaps more that Sparta did not partici-pate in developments enjoyed elsewhere than that Sparta became more austere, but when Sparta and Athens became rivals in the fifth century each was proud to emphasise that it was not like the other.

Athens it self was never totally abandoned during the dark age, and was one of the first places to recover, but in the eighth and seventh centuries it was overtaken by cities in the Peloponnese. Like Sparta it did not need to found colonies but was able to expand into its own region, Attica (about 1,000 sq. miles = 2,600 km 2); but the other inhabitants were not made subject to a ruling body of Athenians but all became Athenian citizens.

Athens rose to prominence in the sixth century. In the late seventh century an unsuccessful attempt at tyranny by Cylon was followed by Draco’s publica-tion of written laws. In 594/3 Solon tried to mediate between the advantaged and the disadvantaged: he liberated a class of dependent peasants; made wealth the sole qualification for office, enabling a wider range of rich men to challenge the landed aristocrats; formalised the decision - making process by creating a new council to prepare business for the citizens’ assembly; revised the laws, and modified the judicial processes to make it easier for underdogs to obtain justice. But his compromise was more than the rich aristocrats had feared yet less than the discontented had hoped for. After two earlier attempts, from 546/5 to 511/0 Athens was subjected to the tyranny of Pisistratus and his sons, who on the whole ruled constitutionally and mildly. During the sixth century Athens pros-pered, welcoming trade rather than trying to remain self - sufficient, and becom-ing the Greek world’s leading producer of fine pottery.

The tyranny was ended when the Alcmaeonid family, sometimes collaborat-ing with but at other times opposed to the tyrants, put pressure on Sparta to intervene. Rivalry between the Alcmaeonid Cleisthenes and another aristocrat led to the victory of Cleisthenes (and a quarrel with Sparta): Cleisthenes gave the Athenians a new, locally based articulation of the citizen body, in ten tribes, thirty trittyes (‘thirds’ of tribes) and 139 demes; and this supplanted the older organisations as the basis of Athens’ public life, so that (for instance) the army was organised in tribal regiments and the council which prepared the assembly’s business became a council of five hundred, comprising fifty members for each tribe, with the individual demes supplying members in proportion to their population. He also introduced the institution of ostracism, first used in the 480’s, by which each year the citizens had the opportunity to send one man into a kind of honourable exile for ten years without finding him guilty of any offence (each voter would write the name of his preferred victim on a potsherd, ostrakon).

In the course of the archaic period, as they had increasing contact with the outside world, the Greeks became conscious of what they had in common as Greeks in contrast to the barbarians (barbaroi, foreigners whose languages sounded to Greeks like bar - bar). Of the civilised barbarians to the east and south, those who impinged most on the Greeks were those who controlled western Asia Minor, inland from the Greek cities on the coast. For most of the archaic period, these were the Lydians, whose capital was at Sardis: they acquired a kind of overlordship over the Asiatic Greeks, but though foreign were sympathetic, and made dedications at Greek temples. But Cyrus II of Persia, who had begun as a minor king to the east of the Persian Gulf, in 550 conquered the Medes to his north (with the help of Babylon to his west, but in 539 he was to conquer Babylon too), and then c.546 conquered Croesus of Lydia, and with him the Asiatic Greeks; the islands near the coast perhaps made token submission at this point and were actually subjectedc.520–515.

In 525–522 the Persians conquered Egypt, which was a part of the Greeks’ world in the sense that Greek traders had operated there and Greek soldiers had been employed there as mercenaries since the seventh century. About 514 they penetrated Europe, going north of the Danube to campaign unsuccessfully against the Scythians (whom they believed to be a part of the same people that had troubled their northern frontier further east), and they established a rather insecure presence in Thrace, between the Aegean and the Danube. In 498–493 Miletus in Asia Minor (whose Persian - backed tyrant had incited the Persians to an unsuccessful attack on Naxos, in the middle of the Cyclades) led the Asiatic Greeks in the Ionian Revolt against Persia, and asked for support from mainland Greece. Sparta, which had solemnly forbidden Cyrus to harm the Asiatic Greeks but had taken no action against him, refused; but Athens, perhaps already regarding itself as the mother city of the Ionian Greeks in the Aegean and Asia Minor, did send help, and so did Eretria in Euboea. The Greeks started well, but were defeated when they failed to work together and the Persians brought in large forces.

The Persians wanted to expand anyway, and now had the excuse of revenge on Athens and Eretria for attacking Greece. In 492 an expedition sent into Thrace as the first stage of an attack on Greece from the north was abandoned when its ships were wrecked off Mount Athos. In 490 the Persians sailed through the Cyclades, captured Naxos and captured Eretria, but when they landed at Marathon in the north - east of Attica the Athenians, almost alone, defeated them. In 480 a full - scale force under King Xerxes invaded, once more around the north of the Aegean, and many but not all of the Greeks united to resist: Sparta acted as leader, and Athens, which had spent the profits from its silver mines on new warships, provided more than half of the Greek navy. The Persians proceeded successfully through Thrace, Macedon and Thessaly; attempts to halt their advance at Thermopylae on land and at Artemisium by sea were heroic but unsuccessful; but the Greek navy defeated the Persian in the strait between Attica and the island of Salamis.The Persians then withdrew their navy and most of their army; in 479 the remnant of the army was defeated at Plataea, while the Greek navy landed on Cape Mycale in Asia Minor and defeated the Persians there. Greece had been saved, but the Greeks must have assumed that the Persians would now be even more eager for revenge and would in due course return.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!