We began in the aftermath of the Greeks’ defeat of the invading Persians in 480–479. This was to be a defi ning episode for classical Greece, producing a greater and more self - conscious Greek unity than had been achieved before, and identifying the Persians (whose empire, despite the failure of this attempt to expand into mainland Greece, was in other respects as strong as ever) as the national enemy par excellence . Sparta, the strongest Greek state hitherto and the leader in the resistance to Persia, for a variety of reasons was not prepared to continue, so those who did want to continue the war against Persia were organised in the Delian League under the leadership of Athens.
In the second quarter of the fi fth century Athens drove the Persians back from the Aegean as far as seemed worthwhile, until c. 449 regular fi ghting against Persia was discontinued. During and after this process the Delian League was increasingly turned into an Athenian empire, in which the member states were made subordinate to Athens as Greek states had never before been made subordinate to a dominant state. Internally Athens took the fi nal steps from a broadly based constitution to a democracy, in which basic political rights were extended to all free men of Athenian parentage, and the importance of the navy, whose ships were rowed by the poorer citizens, and of the empire meant that these rights were worth having and were proudly exercised. As democracy came to be distinguished from oligarchy, some other Greeks decided that they did not prefer democracy, and as Athens came to act as a champion of democracy in the Greek world Sparta, at the head of the Peloponnesian League, came to act as a champion of oligarchy. In this same period Athens came to be the economic centre of the Greek world, as the hub around which Aegean trade revolved, and the intellectual centre of the Greek world, with a large proportion of the best literature written by Athenians or by others living in Athens, and a large proportion of the best art and architecture produced for or in Athens.
Sparta had at fi rst been unworried by the Delian League, but worries began as after c. 460 Athens’ power was extended into mainland Greece. Rebellions in 447–446 seemed to have reversed the growth of Athens, and the Thirty Years’ Peace of 446/5 tried to establish a balance of power between an Athenian bloc based on the Aegean and a Spartan bloc based on the mainland. However, Athens’ ambitions were unchecked, and it became clear that the growing power of Athens would not be compatible with the continuing power of Sparta. In the 430’s Athens pursued risky policies which provoked, and may well have been intended to provoke, a confrontation.
In the Peloponnesian War, begun in 431, apparently but unsatisfactorily concluded in 421 and fi nally ended in 404, Sparta set out to break the power of Athens and ‘liberate the Greeks’ . Athens had the greater resources, and was largely invulnerable to what the mainland Greeks on their own could do to it; but Athens’ resources were squandered in a misguided attempt to conquer Sicily in 415–413. Since the beginning of the war Sparta had been trying to gain the support of Persia with its vast resources, and Athens had been trying at least to prevent that situation from coming to pass; after 413 Sparta saw a possibility of victory and was prepared to pay Persia’s price, that the Greeks of Asia Minor should not after all be liberated but should be handed back to Persia. That enabled Sparta to keep going until Athens’ resources were exhausted, and in 404 Athens had to acknowledge defeat and the Delian League was broken up.
Athens was made subordinate to Sparta, though Sparta’s allies would have liked to see it destroyed. Elsewhere Sparta began to follow Athens’ imperial example, both among its allies and among states ‘liberated’ from Athens. As for the Asiatic Greeks, Sparta may before the end of the war have negotiated successfully for something less than total abandonment; in the event, when in 400 Persia laid claim to the Greek cities of Asia Minor, they appealed to Sparta and Sparta began fi ghting against Persia on their behalf. In Greece, with fi nan-cial encouragement from Persia, a combination of Athens and Sparta’s former allies began fi ghting against Sparta in the Corinthian War. In the Aegean and Asia Minor a navy commanded by an Athenian for a Persian satrap fought against Sparta, and paradoxically was represented as fi ghting for the freedom of the Greeks. But as the Spartans made no headway they turned to diplomacy, and in 387/ 6 the King’s Peace or Peace of Antalcidas returned the Greeks of Asia Minor to Persia in exchange for a ruling that elsewhere all cities and islands were to be autonomous.
Sparta, which had obtained the treaty from Persia, proceeded to interpret it to suit its own interests, culminating in the occupation by Spartan troops of the major city of Thebes. In 379/8 Thebes was liberated with the support of Athens, and Athens then founded the Second Athenian League, aiming to defend the Greeks against Spartan imperialism and promising not to repeat the imperial practices of the Delian League. In 371 at Leuctra Sparta was overwhelmingly defeated by a Thebes which was already too strong for Athens’ comfort, and within a few years Messenia had been liberated from Sparta and the Peloponnesian League had broken up. In the 360’s, on the mainland Athens found it convenient to support Sparta against Thebes, while in the Aegean it could fi nd nothing to do with the League except try to recover fi fth - century possessions; and Thebes persuaded Persia that it was now the state most worthy of support, and set out to break Athens as it had broken Sparta.
Macedon, a marginally Greek kingdom in the north, had since the beginning of the fi fth century impinged on the southern Greeks, but as an entity for them to exploit rather than one capable of exploiting them. But in 359 it gained in Philip II a king who was able to pull the country together, and to satisfy his ambitions by a clever combination of fi ghting and diplomacy. Between 356 and 346 he took advantage of the Third Sacred War, provoked by the attempts of the Thebans to use the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi as a vehicle for Theban policies, to gain for himself a recognised position in Greece; and the Fourth Sacred War of 340–338 ended with his defeating a combination of Athens and Thebes, and creating the League of Corinth as a means of dressing his control of Greece in familiar and (to all but the most ambitious states) unworrying clothes.
Since the late fi fth century, and particularly after the King’s Peace, there had been those who complained that the Greeks had been at their best when united against the Persians, and that they ought to unite against the Persians once more rather than quarrel amongst themselves. After forming the League of Corinth, Philip planned to undertake a war against Persia at the head of the Greeks. He was assassinated in 336, but his son Alexander the Great undertook that war and conquered the whole of the Persian empire. But Alexander died in 323, contemplating further conquests rather than consolidation, and leaving no obvious heir.
What we call the hellenistic period, between Alexander’s death and the Roman conquest, began as Alexander’s generals started competing, at fi rst in theory on behalf of possible heirs, and with the aim of gaining possession of the whole empire, later to carve out separate dominions for themselves. In 306–305 the various claimants started calling themselves kings; by the 270’s three major kingdoms had been established, the Antigonids in Macedon, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in the near east. The Antigonids and the Ptolemies were both interested in Greece, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids were both interested in Asia Minor and the Levant. The Greek cities formed leagues and manoeuvred between the kings very much as in the past they had formed leagues and manoeuvred between the leading cities; in Asia Minor smaller kingdoms emerged, in particular that of the Attalids of Pergamum. The eastern provinces Arachosia and Gedrosia had been abandoned by Seleucus to Chandragupta, king of the Indian peninsula, in exchange for 500 elephants.
The rulers were Greek and Macedonian, and the whole area of the successors’ kingdoms came to form an extended Greek world. Greek cities of a kind were founded, especially in Asia; but of course outside Europe there were large bodies of non - European subject peoples. The Romans were prompted to take a military interest in Greece by the activities of the kings of Epirus towards the middle of the third century and by the alliance between Hannibal of Carthage and Philip V of Macedon at the end of the century; and it is because the Greek world had been extended in this way that, once they had become involved, the Romans did not stop until they had taken over all of these kingdoms, ending with Egypt in 30 after the death of Cleopatra VII. And, among other consequences of the development which began with Alexander’s conquests, it is because the near east had become part of the Greek world and then part of the Roman world that Christianity was to spread westwards into that Graeco -Roman world rather than eastwards into Asia.