The Greek poet Hesiod was the first to refer to five ages of human history, four of which he named after the metals gold, silver, bronze, and iron. (The fourth age, between bronze and iron, he named the age of heroes.) The Golden Age was the earliest age, when an early race of humans lived a peaceful and trouble-free life. Since food was always available, people did not have to work to survive. Chronos, the father of the Greek god Zeus, was king during the Golden Age. The ages that came after the Golden Age were increasingly inferior. The Iron Age, the period in which Hesiod himself lived, was marked by hardship, sin, and pain. Many other ancient writers, including Plato, Horace, Vergil, and Ovid, wrote about an ideal Golden Age of happier times. They used the idea of a Golden Age to stress the miseries or shortcomings of the present age.
Some scholars use the phrase “The Golden Age of Greece” to refer to the period between 478 B.C. and 431 B.C., when Athens was at the height of its military and economic power. This was a period of great cultural achievement. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the three great Athenian writers of tragedy, wrote most of their plays during this age. The statesman Pericles, the leading figure in the democracy of Athens during much of the Golden Age, sponsored a building program that resulted in great works of architecture, such as the Parthenon. This building program was directed by the sculptor Phidias, whose sculptures of Zeus and of the goddess Athena were famous throughout the ancient world. The start of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta destroyed the power and wealth of Athens and brought about the end of the Golden Age of Greece. (See also Architecture, Greek; Art, Greek; Drama, Greek; Greece, History of; Literature, Greek; Literature, Roman; Sculpture, Greek.)