Classical Greece emerged right after the Archaic Period came to a conclusion. And for about 200 years thereafter, Greece enjoyed a period of unparalleled prominence and prosperity.
During the Classical period, Greece reached the summit of its glory and took the world by its breath. It was the time in which modern thinking, art, literature, science and philosophy began to take their first steps; it was when democracy literary took its first breath; the Classical era was the extraordinary period that gave life to the greatest thinkers of our world – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle where but a few.
Aristotle, by Francesco Hayez (1811)
But the Classical era wasn’t just about prosperity for Greece; it was also a time where conflict, turmoil and devastation inundated the inhabitants of this grand empire.
The Rise of Classical Greece
Classical Greece was born out of conflict and raised to the highest level of prosperity. The beginning of this phenomenal era is a rather controversial matter. Some historians say that it rose around 480 B.C. when the Greeks finally defeated the Persians at the Battle of Salamis.
Archer’s frieze Darius palace, by Jastrow (2005)
Defeating the Persian Empire was a great challenge for the Greeks. To halt the invasion of this mighty force and secure their sovereignty, the Greeks had to set aside their differences and unite. And with this unity, which was the most powerful weapon the Greeks had, victory was attained. The Athenians and Spartans were the most powerful forces during the Persian Wars.
After the war, Athens then established a defense alliance with other Greek city states to prevent future invasion attempts of the Persians. The league was called Delian League; it was named after the island on which its treasury was kept, Delos.
And as the host and head of the Delian League, Athens demanded tribute from other Greek states. With all this power and control, Athens then became a superpower, with a navy to be reckoned with, and notable growth in the political, economic and cultural arena.
These were the chronicled events that marshaled in the Classical era. According to other historians, however, what marked the beginning of Classical Greece was the fall of the last Athenian tyrant, Hippias (son of Peisistratus), and the proclamation of Cleisthenes’ reform.
In 508 B.C., Cleisthenes, a noble Athenian from the Alcmaeonid family, managed to oust the Athenian tyrant Hippias and rise to power. He then established a democratic government and gave the Classical era an eternal spot in world history.
Cleisthenes instituted a new administrative system called Demokratia, meaning Democracy or ‘Power of the People.’ This administration allowed for civilians aged above eighteen to exercise their power by taking part in the ecclesia (The Assembly). The ecclesia was chaired by a council of 500 sporadically selected individuals. All officials were sworn to act ‘according to the laws, what is best for the people.’
To create political diversity, the new government also divided the city of Athens in to thirty trittyes:
· Ten trittyes in Paralie, the coastal
· Ten trittyes in Asty, the urban center
· Ten trittyes Mesogia, in rural
Because of this constitutional reform, which humanity still abides by, Cleisthenes and the hub of modern civilization, Greece, is known and adulated as ‘The Father of Democracy.’
“Our polity does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. It is called a democracy, because not the few but the many govern. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.”
-Thucydides, Pericles' Funeral Oration’
Athens Under Pericles
Pericles, whose name also means ‘surrounded by glory,’ was one of Greeks greatest statesman. He was also a famous orator, a patron of art, literature, and an extraordinary general that marshaled in the Athenian Golden Age.
He had the greatest influence in Athens, so much so that even the renowned historian, Thucydides, referred to him as ‘The first citizen of Athens.’
Pericles was born into a powerful and noble family, in 495 B.C. His father, Xanthippus, was one of the greatest heroes in the Persian War and his mother, Agariste, hailed from the wealthy and noble Alcmaeonidae family.
He spent most of his early years avoiding public appearance and focusing more on his studies, music, art, literature and philosophy. He surrounded himself with the era’s greatest thinkers and became close friends with most of them, as in Anaxagoras, Zeno of Elea, and Protagoras.
Pericles entered the political arena in 470 B.C. But his grand presence wasn’t consolidated until 463 B.C. when he became the leading prosecutor of Cimon, a political leader accused of treason, and managed to successfully ostracize him.
Then in 461 B.C., following the exile of Cimon, he presided over Athens’ Democratic Party. Pericles propagated a populist social policy. And highlighting this stand of his, the first decree he proposed was the free admission of the poor in theatrical plays. And from 458 – 457 B.C. he started giving out generous wages for all citizens serving as jurymen in the Heliaia (the supreme court of Athens), and he lessened the property requisites for the archonship.
Pericles also issued certain constitutions that had him face a heap of criticism. For instance, in 451 B.C. he set limitations on Athenian citizenship on those who didn’t have Athenian parentage on both sides.
“Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us.”
- Thucydides, Pericles' Funeral Oration’
Then in 454 B.C., Pericles chronicled one of his greatest accomplishments; he led a successful military campaign in Corinth and established Athenian colonies in Thrace and on the Black Sea coast.
Pericles then reached the summit of his political career when he became an elected General or a Strategos, in 443 B.C.
The Athenian Golden Age and Pericles
The years of the Athenian Golden Age is normally set between the end of the Persian war and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. Several sources, however, refer to the Golden Age of Athens as a period that took place during the ruling days of Pericles.
As earlier stated, the assets of the confederacy of allies, the Delian League, was based in Delos. But then in 454 B.C., after a failed attack on the Persians in Egypt, Athenian officials decided to transfer the League’s treasury from Delos to Athens.
Then during the mid-440 B.C., Pericles began to extort the League’s treasury and fund the construction of several projects in Athens.
1868 Lawrence Alma-Tadema -Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, by Lawrence Alma Tadema (1812-1912)
The buildings on the acropolis of Athens – the Athena Nike, the Erechtheum and the mighty Parthenon— were the most notable and the ones that marked the Golden Age of Athens. Following the completion of these projects, Pericles delivered his celebrated acclamation for veterans who died in defense of Greece at the Battle of Marathon.
“Remember, too, that if your country has the greatest name in all the world, it is because she never bent before disaster; because she has expended more life and effort in war than any other city, and has won for herself a power greater than any hitherto known, the memory of which will descend to the latest posterity.”
- Thucydides, Pericles' Third Oration’
For these projects, the greatest engineers, architects and artists in Greece were put to work.
He also funded the reconstruction of certain parts of Athens that were destroyed during the Persian Wars, which included the temple at Hephaestos, the Odeion concert hall, and the temple of Poseidon at Attica.
The strengthening of democracy was also a prime priority for this leader. He used these funds to pay generous wages to jurymen and members of the Ecclesia (Athenian assembly) to enable more civic participation.
Art and Philosophy in Classical Greece
Art, philosophy and architecture blossomed in Greece during the ruling days of Pericles.
From childhood, Pericles was a huge fan and advocate of art and philosophy. And when he got the unlimited access to the League’s treasury, almost instantly he leaped on to becoming a patron of the Arts.
He funded the annual production of dramatic and comedic plays at the Acropolis, which gave way for the world’s greatest writers like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides to flourish.
Sculptors like Phidias found the opportunity to create masterpieces such as the statue of the renowned Zeus at Olympia and the statue of the goddess Athena for the Parthenon.
Temple of Zeus (1999)
The master of marble and stone, Myron, structured the Discus Thrower. Hippocrates, ‘the Father of Medicine,’ began his practice. Historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides rose to glory.
As evidenced by the teaching of the world’s greatest thinkers such as Socrates, Plato and other sophists such as Protagoras, philosophy, which means ‘love of wisdom,’ also set its roots during this period.
Many more phenomenal creations and events took place during this time.
The Peloponnesian War
Under Pericles’ leadership, Athens self-evidently reached the summit of her glory. At the same time, however, Sparta along with other city states from the Peloponnesus region felt threatened by the growing power of the Athenian hegemony of Greece and thus established an alliance of their own called the Peloponnesian League.
In time, the suspicion, envy and animosity of the two powers then grew larger than expected and it wasn’t long before it reached a stage of eruption and resulted in the epic conflict called the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C.
Peloponnesian war alliances 431 BC, by The Anome (2009)
Who or what instigated the war is still a debatable matter. And as the Athenians have more account of the war than the Spartans or other Greek city states, it’s a challenge to verify anything.
According to historians, the conflict began when the Spartans demanded concessions from the Athenians. Pericles refused their demand and the war commenced.
Other historians, however, believe that it was the Athenian siege of Potidaea and the economic sanction, ‘Megarian Decrees,’ Athens decreed upon the Megarian people that triggered the war.
Athens was then accused of violating the Thirty Years Peace by the Peloponnesian League and war was soon declared.
For the first two years, Pericles oversaw the army of Athens. But then, in the summer of 430 B.C, while he was in a naval expedition to raze Peloponnese’s coasts, a callous plague broke out in the city of Athens and devastated the lives of many people.
In the autumn of 429 B.C. Pericles, along with his family died out of this epidemic.
“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart.”
- Thucydides, Pericles' Funeral Oration’
Pericles’ overall leadership and performance in the war was heavily criticized. Some historians such Thucydides, have defended his name by saying such things as, “he kept himself untainted by corruption, although he was not altogether indifferent to money-making.”
And others like Plato and Plutarch didn’t shy away from denouncing him:
"As I know, Pericles made the Athenians slothful, garrulous and avaricious, by starting the system of public fees"
"He was no longer the same man as before, nor alike submissive to the people and ready to yield and give in to the desires of the multitude as a steersman to the breezes…… Many others say that the people were first led on by him into allotments of public lands, festival-grants, and distributions of fees for public services, thereby falling into bad habits, and becoming luxurious and wanton under the influence of his public measures, instead of frugal and self-sufficing"
Athens was nevertheless weakened by the plague and Pericles’ death. According to Thucydides’ recordings, the leaders that followed lacked a great deal of competence. They were, as he said “committing even the conduct of state affairs to the whims of the multitude.”
The compatible strength of both forces perpetuated the war; Athens with a naval power and Sparta with a strong land-based military power. Then, in 421 B.C. the Athenian leader Nicias initiated a treaty with Sparta, the Peace of Nicias, which only lasted until 418 B.C.
Athens struggled throughout the war, and in some instances, did manage to survive. But after a dreadful defeat in Sicily in 413 B.C., it was impossible for Athens to resurrect.
The Peloponnesian War lasted for almost thirty years. And it ended in 404 B.C. with Sparta coming out the victor.
The End of Classical Greece
After the Peloponnesian War, Classical Greece began to march towards its end. With an enfeebled naval power and lost political supremacy, Athens was left in ruins and was forced to bid her glory days, farewell. Historians often refer to this period as the Late Classical Era.
Sparta then became a superpower and sustained that position for about thirty year. But the Peloponnesian War wasn’t the last conflict Sparta had to face. There was also another rival that threatened the welfare of this great city state – Thebes.
The long and arduous war with Thebes drove Sparta to bankruptcy, which led to its downfall.
The fragmented condition of the Athenian Empire and the weakening of Sparta and Thebes, paved the way for the Macedonian King Philip II to conquer Greece in 338 B.C.
Olympia Philip II of Macedon Temple, by pufacz (2006)
The Greeks considered the Macedonians as barbarians or ‘barbaros’ meaning ‘foreign.’ And to prevent their invasion, the Greeks yet again agreed to set their differences aside, unite and fight this new force with might and main. But Philip II was a force to be reckoned with. After a successful win at the Battle of Chaeronea, the Greek forces subsided and he asserted his authority.
In the following years, Philip II managed to unite the whole of Greece and station it under Macedonian rule.
Then in 336 B.C. Philip was assassinated and his son Alexander the Great acceded to the throne.
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great acceded to the throne right after his father was assassinated. He was the brave ruler that expanded the frontiers of Greece; his conquests included Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor, India and so forth. It was his military might that earned him the title ‘the Great.’
Aristotle tutoring Alexander, by J L G Ferris (1895)
In his youth, he was tutored by one of Greek’s greatest philosophers, Aristotle. And wherever he went Alexander made sure that the ideals of Greek civilization, culture, language, art and literature spread.
The end of Classical Greece is marked by the sudden death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.