Classical Greece

This book covers the classical period of Greece, from 478 to 323, in which the Greeks (and particularly the Athenians and others living in Athens: Athens in this period was culturally dominant, as it was not earlier or later) produced exceptionally good work in literature, philosophy and the visual arts. Politically, it is the period in which the concept of democracy appeared, as the culmination of what had been developing in the archaic period, and there was serious thought and discussion about how states ought to be governed and how states and individuals ought to behave.

In the half - century after the Persian Wars Sparta withdrew into the Peloponnese while Athens in an alliance known as the Delian League took over the continuing struggle against Persia but increasingly turned that League into an Athenian empire. There was an increasing polarisation between Athens, innovative, a naval power, democratic and cultured, and Sparta, conservative, a land power, a champion of oligarchy and becoming self - consciously uncul-tured. For a time it seemed that there might be room for the two leading states in Greece; but Athens became too powerful for Sparta to coexist with it, and so the years 431–404 saw the Peloponnesian War, in which Sparta and its allies set out to break the power of Athens. They did so, but only by enlisting the help of the former enemy Persia, which in return wanted to recover domination over the Greeks of Asia Minor.

After the Peloponnesian War Athens made a remarkable recovery. In the first forty years of the fourth century Sparta, Athens and an increasingly ambi-tious Thebes manoeuvred around one another and around the Persians, who finally regained the Asiatic Greeks in 387/6 and otherwise aimed for a Greece in which no state would be powerful enough to threaten Persia, and in which there would be peace so that Greek soldiers would be available to fight for Persia in its western provinces. Sparta was defeated by Thebes in 371, in fact irreversibly though it still hoped to recover its former power. But the Greek world was transformed by the rise of Macedon, a kingdom on its northern edge. Between 359 and 336 Philip II made Macedon a power to be reckoned with, and incorporated almost all of mainland Greece in a league of allies under his leadership; and between 336 and 323 Alexander the Great, with the forces of Macedon and of that league, conquered the Persian empire and brought it into an extended Greek world.

The survival of evidence for historians to work from was transformed by the invention of printing in the fifteenth century ad: there is a good chance that at any rate one copy will survive somewhere of work printed since then (but it will be for future generations to discover how much is retrievable of texts gener-ated on and transmitted by computers in our own age). From the ancient world there survives only a fraction of the material which we know was written, and much more must have been written of which we know nothing. But, by the standards of antiquity, the world of classical Greece is a world about which we are comparatively well informed.

The histories survive of three men writing in successive generations. Herodotus, the western world’s first surviving serious historian, wrote in the third quarter of the fifth century a history culminating in the Persian Wars at the beginning of the century: he provides a continuous narrative from 500 to 479, with a fair amount of material on the second half of the sixth century, a certain amount on earlier history, and a few allusions to later events down to

430. Thucydides in the last quarter of the fifth century wrote a history of the Peloponnesian War from the incidents of 435 and after which led up to the war, including also a short account of events from 478 onwards, designed to illustrate the growth of Athenian power; though he lived beyond the end of the war, his history breaks off abruptly in the autumn of 411. Xenophon, active in the first half of the fourth century, was one of the historians who deliberately started where Thucydides ended, and his Hellenica (Greek history) runs from 411 to 362. Later historical works include theAthenian Constitution written in the 330’s–320’s in the school of the philosopher Aristotle, drawing on a range of now - lost sources including local histories of Athens. There is the Library of Historyof Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus of Sicily), written between 60 and 30, of which not all survives but the portion from 478 to the end of the fourth century does: for this period it was based on fourth - century sources which no longer survive, particularly an Asiatic Greek, Ephorus; for 431–411 it is ulti-mately dependent on Thucydides, but after that it provides an account which is independent of Xenophon and derived from reputable sources, and which therefore deserves to be taken seriously. Many leading figures of the fifth and fourth centuries are among those given biographies in Plutarch’s series of Parallel Lives of famous Greeks and famous Romans, written around ad 100; and the career of Alexander the Great generated many accounts, though none of those which survive is earlier than that of Diodorus.

Other kinds of literature are useful to historians too. Athenian fifth - century drama is important: tragedies written throughout the century, and comedies written in and after the 420’s . In the century between about 420 and 320 many speeches for the Athenian lawcourts, and some speeches for the assembly, were written up and put into circulation, and they provide a valuable body of mate-rial. Some ‘speeches’ , notably those of the long - lived Isocrates, are in fact political pamphlets written in the form of speeches; and other pamphlets were written too, of which a surviving specimen is the Athenian Constitution preserved with the works of Xenophon.

In a world which lacked printing, broadcasting and the Internet, if texts were to be publicised they had to be displayed in a prominent place. Temporary notices tended to be written in charcoal on whitewashed boards, which have not survived but are known about from literary references; permanent texts were inscribed on stone slabs (stelai) or on bronze plates, and, conveniently for historians, Athens took to publishing documents of various kinds on stone in large quantities from the 450’s onwards. Coins – in the classical period the ‘owl’ coinage of Athens was the hardest currency of the Greek world – carried images but not much in the way of text: they usually identify the issuing state but not the date of issue, and linking changes in a state’s coinage with political changes is tempting but often dangerous. It is indeed true of archaeological finds in general that dates derived from purely archaeological criteria cannot be precise, and that buildings can be dated precisely only when we have evidence of other kinds, for instance dated accounts of expenditure, as with the buildings erected on the Athenian acropolis in the 440’ s–430’s. Archaeologists are studying the same world as historians, but both sides have to be careful not to misapply material of one kind when interpreting material of another kind.

Greek communities, both cities and other kinds of state formation, were communities of citizens, free adult males of local parentage: women were excluded from political participation (as was universal until 1893 in New Zealand; in Europe Liechtenstein in 1984 finally allowed women to vote on national issues but still not on local issues), and so were children (as is still universal, though there were then and are now disagreements over the age at which adulthood begins). Unless a state was short of citizens, when it might be more generous, immigrants had no right to acquire citizenship of the state to which they had migrated, though individuals might be given citizenship as a reward for major services; unless elevated to a more privileged status, free non - citizens were usually not allowed to own land or a house in the state in which they lived. There were also various non - free categories: chattel slaves, commonly non - Greek, who were the possessions of their owners, and Greeks in various conditions of servitude, of whom Sparta’s helots are the best - known but not the only instance. Quantitatively, the gap between the richest and the poorest was enormous; but, although horse - breeding was a sign of wealth and there were some luxury items, there was not a very wide range of expensive goods, and to some extent the richest tended to have more possessions than the poorest rather than better possessions. A man who owned a large quantity of land would own a number of separate fields rather than a single large estate. Because there were slaves available for menial work, it tended to be thought degrading for a free man to work for another (though nearly all our evidence comes from the rich end of the spectrum, and we do not know how many poor men did in fact have to endure that degradation). There was no large - scale ‘industry’ : on building projects, citizens, free non - citizens and slaves worked side by side, as sub - contractors rather than employees; there were workshops in which tens of men, mostly slaves, worked together, but not larger units; and a typical overseas trader was a man who owned one ship, and took other traders with him as passengers.

A typical city was governed by an assembly of citizens (which in an oligarchic as opposed to a democratic state would have its membership limited by a pro-perty qualification, and would have fewer matters referred to it and less freedom of debate), for which business would be prepared by a smaller council; officials were appointed annually, often (in oligarchies as well as democracies) with limits on reappointment to prevent a few men from becoming too powerful; there were no professional administrators and no professional lawyers, but administration and justice were included in the responsibilities shared among the citizens.

Religion was polytheistic, and religious correctness was more a matter of performing the correct rituals, in the community and in the household, than of holding the correct beliefs or being in a healthy spiritual state. There were not many (but there were some) professional religious specialists: religion was one aspect of the state’s life; priesthoods were among the state’s offices (though some were hereditary in particular families); the state regulated temples, their treasuries and so on (and could borrow from the temple treasuries for other purposes in times of need). Major religious festivals were important occasions for the whole community: they included not only what we should think of as religious ceremonies but also competitions in athletics, drama and the like.

Schools existed, but education was a private matter in which the state was not involved. Athens had institutions (the publication of documents; in the fifth century ostracism, where one voted against a man by handing in a potsherd with that man’s name written on it; in the fourth century the requirement for all 59 - year - old men on the military registers to serve as arbitrators in private lawsuits in which evidence was submitted in writing) which presupposed that the average citizen had a basic functional literacy, more so in the fourth century than in the fifth. It is likely that that presupposition was justified for the citizens who played an active part in politics; but we do not know what proportion of the citizens had that degree of literacy, and we know even less about places other than Athens. At the highest level, by the classical period there were skilful writers of literature in both verse and prose (but no prose literature survives from earlier than 450), and there were philosophers of great intellectual accomplishment.

In the wider world, a man was identified by his own name, his father’s name (patronymic) and his state, e.g. the historian Thucydides son of Olorus, of Athens. Within his state, if it was a larger one, he would be identified by a smaller unit to which he belonged, in Athens the deme (demotic): e.g. Thucydides son of Olorus, of Halimus.

Each state had its own calendar, with its own irregularities (so that it was hard to establish that an event on a particular date in one place occurred on the same day as an event on a particular date in another place). Usually the year consisted of twelve lunar months of 29–30 days, c.354 days in all, and from time to time a thirteenth, ‘intercalary’ month had to be added to keep the calendar in step with the seasons.Years were not numbered but were identified by an annual, ‘eponymous’ official, in Athens the archon, or by the year of reign/office of a ruler or priest. Many states, including Athens, began their year in midsummer: a date in the form 478/7 denotes the Athenian (or other) official year which by our reckoning began in 478 and ended in 477 (at Athens this was the archonship of Timosthenes), and underlining, e.g. 478/ 7, is a conven-tion to indicate the earlier or later part of that year.

Ill. 1 Athens: owl and Athena (reverse and obverse of two coins, c.480; 4 dr.). Department of Ancient History and Classics, Trent University, © Michael Cullen, Trent Photographics


Likewise different states had different standards of measurement, weight and currency (coins were of silver or, less often, gold or the alloy of gold and silver known as electrum, and took their names from the weight of precious metal which they contained). The main unit of distance was the stade, usually in the range 165–220 yards = 150–200 metres, and in Athens 193 yards = 176 metres (but usually estimated rather than precisely measured). As a measure of capa city the Athenian medimnos was about 11images UK gallons = 14 US gallons = 52.5 litres. The Athenian scale of weights and coins was: 6 obols = 1 drachma, 100 drach-mae = 1 mina, 60 minas = 1 talent (there were no coins of as high a value as the mina or the talent; sums of money are often expressed in drachmae and talents without the use of minas); a standard 4 - drachma silver coin (cf. ill. 1) weighed about 0.6 oz.= 17.2 grammes, implying a talent of about 57 lb. = 25.8 kg., but by the fourth century Athens’ general weights were slightly heavier, with a talent of about 60 lb. = 27.6 kg.The difference in circumstances is so great that ancient currency cannot meaningfully be translated into modern, but the following will give some idea of the value of money in Athens. In the late fifth century an unskilled worker could earn images drachma a day and a skilled 1 drachma; in the late fourth century an unskilled worker could earn 1images drachmae and a skilled 2–2images. In the fourth century an invalid was entitled to a mainteance grant if his property was worth less than 300 drachmae; a man was considered rich enough to be liable for the burden of liturgies (cf. pp. 369–71) if his property was worth about 4 talents; one of the largest fifth - century estates is said to have been worth 200 talents, but there cannot have been many worth more than 20 talents. In the fourth century the total valuation of the property of all Athenians or else of all liable to the property tax called eisphora was about 6,000 talents (cf. p. 369). At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War in 431, the total annual revenue of Athens, including the tribute paid by member states of the Delian League, was about 1,000 talents; at that time the largest annual tribute paid by an individual member state was 30 talents.


In the second edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, vol. v, entitled ‘The Fifth Century BC’, covers the period 478–404; vol. vi, entitled ‘The Fourth Century BC’, covers 404–323, and also includes regional surveys spanning the fifth century and the fourth. Of the standard histories from an earlier generation, the most reliable is J. B. Bury, rev. R. Meiggs, History of Greece. V. Ehrenberg, From Solon to Socrates [sixth and fifth centuries], makes the greatest effort to integrate political and cultural history. Hornblower, The Greek World, 479–323BC, is the volume corresponding to this in a series comparable to that to which this book belongs. Sealey, History of the Greek City States, ca. 700–338 BC, has a political emphasis. Buckley, Aspects of Greek History, 750–323 BC, is not a systematic history but covers a series of topics; and Kinzl (ed.), A Companion to the Classical Greek World, contains a series of topic - based chapters. Davies, Democracy and Classical Greece, is a good stimulus to further thought on the fifth and fourth centuries for those who already know the basic outline. These books are important throughout, but will not normally be cited in the notes at the ends of individual chapters.

De Ste. Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, ranges more widely over the fifth century and even the fourth than its title might lead one to expect. The four volumes by Kagan – The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, The Archidamian War, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, The Fall of the Athenian Empire – together provide a detailed history from 478 (and on some topics before) to 404 which usefully surveys the work of earlier scholars. Powell, Athens and Sparta, is of general relevance to the fifth century.

For the fourth century, Buckler, Aegean Greece in the Fourth Century BC, is a detailed diplomatic and military history. Tritle (ed.), The Greek World in the Fourth Century, contains chapters by different authors on the main fourth - century themes.

As for the source material, the main collections of Greek and Latin texts are the Oxford Classical Texts (texts), the Bibliotheca Scriptorum Graecorum et Romanorum Teubneriana (texts), the Collection des Universités de France, often referred to as the Budé series (texts, French translations, short notes), and the Loeb Classical Library (texts, English translations, short notes). The more popular texts are translated into English in the Penguin Classics series and in various other series; some texts which are less popular but of particular use to historians are translated with commentaries in the Clarendon Ancient History Series (Oxford University Press). On the problems of using texts of different kinds as historical sources Pelling, Literary Texts and the Greek Historian, provides a discussion based on test cases from the fifth century.

Commentaries on literary texts include: those on Thucydides by Gomme, Andrewes and Dover, and by Hornblower; that on the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (lacking the most recent, Cairo fragments) by Bruce, and an edition of all the fragments with translation and commentary by McKechnie and Kern;1 a now elderly commentary on Xenophon’s Hellenica by Underhill; that on Diod. Sic. XV by Stylianou; that on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia by Rhodes; that on Arrian’s Anabasis by Bosworth.

There are collections, with commentaries, of Greek inscriptions of particular histori-cal importance – Meiggs and Lewis, A Selection of Greek Historical Inscriptions to the End of the Fifth Century BC; Rhodes and Osborne, Greek Historical Inscriptions, 404–323 BC(the latter including translations) – and the two volumes by Fornara (to the end of the fifth century) and Harding (fourth century) in the series Translated Documents of Greece and Rome provide translations, with a few notes, of inscriptions and some other texts. Osborne, The Athenian Empire, translates and discusses inscribed and other texts rele-vant to that subject; and the revised edition of Hill, Sources for Greek History, 478–431 BC, provides a well - indexed collection of Greek and Latin texts. Bodel (ed.), Epigraphic Evidence, is an account of the uses of inscriptions, based largely on Roman material but relevant to Greek history too;Woodhead, The Study of Greek Inscriptions, is the standard handbook on that subject. The standard handbook on Greek coins is Kraay, Archaic and Classical Greek Coins.

Among classical encyclopaedias in English the most authoritative is the Oxford Classical Dictionary. An exhaustive study of the many city states in the Greek world is Hansen and Nielsen (eds.), An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis. There are chap-ters on various aspects of warfare in van Wees, Greek Warfare: Myths and Realities, and in Sabin et al. (eds.), The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Warfare, vol. i.

The largest - scale and most authoritative classical atlas, of an austere kind showing topography and locating sites, is Talbert (ed.), Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World. Smaller and cheaper, and containing in addition some thematic maps and plans of battle sites, is Hammond (ed.),Atlas of the Greek and Roman World in Antiquity.

1 In this book I number the chapters as in the most recent Teubner text, ed. M. H. Chambers. However, McKechnie & Kern use the numbering of the previous Teubner text, ed. V. Bartoletti, in which Chambers’ ch. 4 is their ch. 1 and his chs. 6, 7, 8 are their chs. 5, 3, 4; Bruce has chs. 1–5 as in McKechnie & Kern and then (following the oldest editions) starts again from ch. 1 = 6 McKechnie & Kern = 9 Chambers.

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