The history of ancient Greece spans thousands of years, from the shadowy era before written records to the A.D. 500s, when Christian emperors put an end to old pagan* traditions. In addition to a long history, ancient Greece had a wide reach. Although Greece is located at the foot of a peninsula in southeastern Europe, key events in its history took place elsewhere in the Mediterranean world, in western Asia and in northern Africa.

Greece’s history was shaped by its geography. It is a small area, about as large as the state of Alabama. The southern portion of Greece is a region of islands and peninsulas separated by long arms of the sea that form deep gulfs and bays. The north is a mass of mountain highlands bordered by coastal plains. The ancient Greeks tended to settle in the country’s valleys and plains, which offered flat, fertile land for building and farming. The sea and the rugged mountain ranges separated these pockets of settlement from one another. As a result, Greek civilization arose in a patchwork of related but independent states, not in a single, unified nation.

The failure of the Greek city-states* to form a lasting unity is a theme of Greek history. Time and again over the centuries, city-states and regions combined in various ways to form leagues or alliances. Sometimes, they joined together for protection against outside enemies. Sometimes, the alliances temporarily maintained the uneasy balance of power in the peninsula. But never did the Greek city-states unite for long. Instead, they repeatedly undermined their own brilliant achievements by warring among themselves.

Greek history was a long tug-of-war between two opposing forces. One force was endless conflict and competition among city-states, such as Athens, Sparta, and Thebes, or regions, such as Achaea and Aetolia. The other force was Panhellenism, which means “the unity of all the Greeks.” Some of the shared features of Greek life tended to bring people from all regions together. Among these features were games, festivals, and ceremonies at religious shrines and temples. On such occasions the inhabitants of the peninsula were a single people—the Hellenes, as they called themselves, united by what the Athenians described as “our common Hellenic blood and language and religion and ways of life.” Yet this Panhellenic patriotism never led to real or lasting political unity.

* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

The ancient Greeks experimented with different kinds of government, including the first attempts at democracy. They also developed a questioning approach to the natural world that was the origin of modern science, and they created masterpieces of literature, sculpture, and architecture that outlasted their civilization. Greek learning and culture influenced the civilizations that followed, helping to shape the modern world. In that sense, the history of Greece is not yet ended.

EARLY GREEKS (2000-776 B.C.)

A series of early civilizations rose and fell in the region that would later become the Greek world. Between 3500 and 2000 B.C., during the early Bronze Age, the inhabitants of islands in the Aegean Sea developed a culture that historians call the Cycladic culture because it appeared in the Cyclades. These are the islands of the southern Aegean between Greece and Asia Minor, now known as Turkey.

The Minoan civilization flourished between 2000 and 1470 B.C. on Crete, a large island south of Greece. The Minoans were seafaring traders. Their society was organized around large, sprawling structures that archaeologists* call palace-complexes. These many-roomed buildings were home not just to rulers and royalty but also to priests, tax collectors and other government officials, and skilled artists and crafts workers. The Minoans possessed the art of writing, but modern scholars have been unable to decipher their written records. Their language remains a mystery.

Ancestors of the Greeks. As the Minoan civilization reached its peak on Crete, another culture emerged on the Greek mainland. Historians call it the Mycenaean civilization because archaeologists found the first evidence of its existence at Mycenae on the Peloponnese, Greece’s southern peninsula. Other Mycenaean population centers were Tiryns and Pylos, also on the Peloponnese, and Athens.

The Minoans influenced the Mycenaeans, whose culture was similar to the Minoan in many ways. The Mycenaeans were seafarers, part of a trade network that linked Egypt, the island of Cyprus, Greece, and ports in the Near East and Asia Minor. Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans built large palace-complexes. They perched these stone fortresses on cliff tops or bluffs and called them acropolises, or “top cities.” The Mycenaeans used a form of writing borrowed from the Minoans, but their language was different. In A.D. 1952, a scholar deciphered Mycenaean writing and discovered that it was a form of Greek. This meant that the Mycenaeans were ancestors of the people known as the Greeks.

The Mycenaeans had well-crafted weapons. They built strong walls around their palace-complexes. Many of their artistic images are of battle scenes. They seem to have been a military-minded people, frequently at war. Historians believe that, in all likelihood, it was the Mycenaeans who fought the Trojan War. By the 1300s B.C., they dominated the Aegean Sea. They even seized control of what remained of the Minoans after Crete suffered a series of earthquakes and other disasters. Soon, however, the Mycenaeans met their own downfall.

* archaeologist scientist who studies past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins

Greece's Dark Age. Between 1250 and 1100 B.C., the great Mycenaean palace-complexes burned. People deserted their farms and settlements. Mycenae, the last major fortress to fall, may have held out until about 1100 B.C. Then Mycenaean civilization vanished into a Dark Age that lasted for about 300 years.

Historians do not know exactly why Mycenaean civilization collapsed. It may have grown weak because of internal revolts, environmental troubles caused by drought, or both. Some scholars believe that weakness and disorganization left the Mycenaeans open to invasion. Thucydides, a Greek historian of the 400s B.C., said that the Greek world he knew had emerged from an age of migrations, or mass movements of whole peoples. Peace and economic progress came slowly after this disorderly, and sometimes violent, era. “Only after a long time,” wrote Thucydides, “did Greece settle down firmly.”

Archaeologists have found that Thucydides was right about Greece’s Dark Age—it was a time of restless migration. Occasionally, a wandering band of people settled in the ruins of a burned or abandoned village or fortress. Parts of Greece, such as the southern Peloponnese, remained uninhabited for many years. Athens is the only place on the entire Greek mainland where people lived without interruption from Mycenaean times onward.

The general direction of movement was from northwest to southeast. Groups of Greek-speaking people from the wild northern mountains migrated south into the coastal plains, driving out the local inhabitants. According to later Greek historians, one of these invading groups—the Dorians—settled in the Peloponnese. Some modern scholars suggest that exiled Mycenaean princes, thrown out of the palaces after rebellions or feuds, may have encouraged the migrations and even led attacks on the palaces.

As the migrations swept across Greece, the newcomers stormed the strongholds of the Mycenaeans and seized their religious shrines. The invaders gave one of the old holy places the new name of Olympia after Mt. Olympus, the home of their gods in the north. Some Mycenaeans fled to a narrow coastal plain near the Gulf of Corinth, a region that became known as Achaea. Other scattered groups of Mycenaeans settled along the east coast, seeking refuge from the invaders and the general upheaval.

The 1000s B.C. brought the deepest poverty and distress of the Dark Age, but also the first signs of recovery. People rebuilt some communities and founded several new ones. They settled in the Aegean islands and in Ionia, a region on the southwestern coast of Asia Minor that would greatly influence later Greek culture. Crafts revived when pottery-makers set up workshops, and the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age, as iron tools and weapons replaced those made of bronze.

The surviving elements of Mycenaean culture blended with the customs and art forms of the northern tribes to establish a new Hellenic, or Greek, culture. The new culture rose slowly and unevenly, appearing first in Athens and the Aegean. One glorious feature of Hellenic culture was its oral literature. Although written language had disappeared from Greece with the Mycenaean collapse, generations of storytellers passed along tales that combined legend and myth with local history. They told of a great war in Troy, of fierce battles, and of the wanderings of heroes from a time past.


The village of Lefkandi is on the large island of Euboea, near Greece's east coast. In A.D. 1980, a Lefkandi landowner, fearing that archaeologists would prevent him from developing his property, bulldozed a hill. The luckless man was punished for damaging an archaeological site—but his bulldozer opened the tomb of a warrior whom scholars call the Hero of Lefkandi. The warrior's cloth-wrapped bones lay in a bronze jar. Nearby were a spear and sword of iron and the skeleton of a woman adorned with golden ornaments. The grave dates from the 900s B.C., and it is proof that tradition and wealth did not disappear entirely during Greece’s Dark Age.


As Greece began to “settle down,” in the words of Thucydides, its inhabitants began once more to trade with the rest of the Mediterranean world. Although trade was on a much smaller scale than it had been during the height of Mycenaean power, it still exposed the people of Greece to outside influences. One such influence was the Phoenician alphabet. The Phoenicians, a people of the Near East, had developed a useful system of writing. Sometime around 750 B.C., the Greeks adopted it. With the réintroduction of writing, Greece stepped from the Dark Age into history.

Around 750 B.C., Homer, a poet in Ionia, composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. These epics, linked the emerging Greek culture and its long-lost heritage. The works were based upon the oral tales of heroic events from the Mycenaean world. By about 700 B.C., poets were writing sequels to the Homeric epics. Around the same time, the farmer-poet Hesiod composed accounts of Greek mythology and of daily life. Together these two great poets—Homer and Hesiod—launched European literature.

Some historians date the beginning of Greek history from the first Olympic Games, which were held in 776 B.C. The games remain a symbol for the eternal Greek struggle between unity and conflict. On one hand, the games represented the emerging spirit of Panhellenism, the recognition of a shared national identity. On the other hand, they were a setting for the competitive spirit that pitted one group of Greeks against another. In the same way, the Greeks shared the costs of building and maintaining Panhellenic temples and shrines, but they also quarreled—and even went to war—over control of these sanctuaries.

Forms of Government. The 700s B.C. were the age of the polis. Originally, a polis was a city built around a citadel or fortress. City officials controlled the farms and villages of the surrounding countryside as well as the urban center. The term polis eventually came to mean the entire city-state.

The Greeks developed several methods of governing their city-states. In the ancient Mycenaean days, kings ruled the palace-complexes. The end of the migrations also ended the rule of kings, or monarchies. Without large-scale raiding, local monarchs lacked the funds to maintain the personal armies that enabled them to control an area.

At the same time, a growing number of wealthy farmers could afford to buy weapons and participate in local turf wars. Aristocratic* families might have been able to hold onto power if they themselves had not been divided by conflicts and feuds. In the midst of such conflicts, power-hungry noblemen turned to the rising class of soldiers for support.

The early history of Corinth shows the typical path that many city-states followed in creating a new kind of government. First, there was rule by kings and the upper class, descendants of the Dorian conquerors. Then, according to history, the monarchy was overthrown (in 747 B.C.) and an oligarchy (rule by a few) was established in Corinth. After about a century, a popular general, the legendary Kypselos, overthrew the oligarchs and gave their lands to his supporters. Kypselos ruled Corinth for 30 years, after which power passed to his son, Periandros, and then to his son’s nephew, Psammetichos. All three were tyrants* who controlled Corinth for a total of 75 years. Eventually, a revolution toppled the nephew.

After the revolt against the tyrants, Corinthians established a republic, a form of government in which the people chose their leaders. It was not a true democracy because not everyone was allowed to take part in government. Voting was limited to men who had achieved a certain level of wealth and prosperity; the requirements for holding office were still higher. Even so, the republic was a system in which a citizen—if he was able to accumulate great wealth and property—could rise in government. It was not a closed system based on heredity, as the preceding forms of government had been.

Many city-states followed the same pattern—from monarchy, to aristocracy, to tyranny, and to revolt. Although tyranny did not last long anywhere, it served an important function: tyranny broke the long traditions of rule by kings and aristocrats. Once the tyrants were deposed, the Greeks felt free to experiment with new forms of government. In early Greece, the monarchies and aristocracies were able to hold onto their power longer in northern regions, such as Thessaly, than in the south.

* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class

* tyrant absolute ruler

Two of the most powerful city-states, Sparta and Athens, followed different political courses. Sparta thrived by conquering nearby territories and turning their inhabitants into helots, state-owned slaves who worked the land to support the city. Sparta modernized its government early in its history and had one of the first written constitutions in Greece. Under that constitution, Sparta continued to have kings—in fact, it had two kings at a time, a Spartan tradition. The two kings shared power with the Spartiates (male citizens) who were descended from the five Dorian villages that had come together to form Sparta.

Sparta made steps toward democracy by giving some responsibility to elected officials and by creating a constitution. But in reality, Sparta remained an aristocracy* in which the Spartiates held final authority. It was a military state, organized to train warriors whose overriding purpose in life was to protect the state’s interests. Sparta eventually dominated the Peloponnese and pressured lesser cities in the area into joining an alliance called the Peloponnesian League.

Athens, on the other hand, did not go to war against its neighbors to acquire territory. Like Sparta, Athens avoided tyranny as it moved from a monarchy to a republic. The first step in this process was to increase the power of the old aristocratic families, called the eupatridai or “best people.”

The Athenians kept their king for a while, but his role was mainly ceremonial. He was accountable to an official called an archon*. A council of eupatridai appointed the archon. The archonship was later expanded to include nine judges who were selected annually from the Athenian upper classes. This system worked until the mid-600s B.C., when a young aristocrat named Kylon tried to seize power and declare himself tyrant. He failed, but his attempt made the Athenians recognize the stresses in their society. Peasants were grindingly poor and deeply in debt to the wealthy nobles. Common folk were growing impatient with aristocratic rule. Around 594 B.C., the eupatridai ordered the archon to overhaul the laws.

The archon’s name was Solon, and he instituted some spectacular reforms. He canceled debts and used state funds to buy back Athenians who had been sold into slavery because of their debts. Most important, he introduced a new constitution. It gave all free men, even those who did not own land, the right to vote in the assembly that elected the archons, who came from the noble class. The nobles held many important powers, but Solon’s constitution gave some rights to the common man and created a sense of citizenship. Ironically, 50 years after Solon’s reforms, Athens became a tyranny, ruled first by a general named Pisistratos and later by his sons. The Pisistratid dynasty* improved the roads, enlarged the navy, and constructed many public buildings before Sparta, aided by Athenian exiles, drove it out in 510 B.C.

It was at about that time that Athens had its real revolution. An aristocrat named Cleisthenes took the side of the common people and revised Solon’s constitution, making the city-state considerably more democratic. All free men of Attica became Athenian citizens. Cleisthenes replaced the four traditional clans* of the Athenians with ten new ones. Each of the ten new clans included people from the city, countryside, and sea coast in various parts of the state. This organization was meant to wipe out old loyalties and rivalries and replace them with connections among broader segments of the population. The Areopagus—the high council of kings, war chiefs, and archons—remained important. It retained the power to decide whether a proposed law was legal under the constitution. Cleisthenes’ reforms gave Athens a much larger and more democratic-minded voting body.

* aristocracy rule by the nobility or privileged upper class

* archon in ancient Greece, the highest office of state

* dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group

* clan group of people descended from a common ancestor or united by a common interest

Foreign Affairs. While the Greeks were forming new governments at home, they were also involved in activities beyond their peninsula. One of these activities was colonization, the founding of new Greek city-states on foreign shores. As city-states in Greece and Ionia became crowded, they established “daughter” cities in Italy, Sicily, and North Africa. The old city became the metropolis, or “mother city,” to the new colony. Colonies in the north Aegean and on the Black Sea coast became important producers of wheat and dried fish for their parent cities. Colonies in Sicily and Italy produced wheat, timber for shipbuilding, and metals.

One colonial venture gave the Greeks the name by which they are now known. Members of a tribe called the Graioi settled in Italy in the 700s B.C. In the language of the local people, they became the Graeci from Graecia, or the Greeks from Greece.

Although the Greeks did not establish colonies in Egypt, which had its own ancient civilization, they did go to Egypt as mercenaries* and commercial traders. The chief importance of this contact for Greek civilization was the powerful impression made on Greek visitors by the huge stone pyramids, temples, and statues of Egypt. These influenced the Greek artisans*, who began sculpting and building large stone monuments around 600 B.C.

The 500s B.C. were a time of prosperity and cultural excitement in Greece. Colonization had provided land and food for all. Contact with Egypt and Asia had introduced new ideas and fashions. The arts pulsed with energy; new styles of pottery, poetry, and decoration appeared. Festivals became splendid occasions. Soon, however, events in Asia Minor plunged the Greeks into a 20-year series of conflicts known as the Persian Wars.

The Persian Wars. In the late 500s B.C., the fast-growing Persian Empire, based in what is now Iran, advanced into Asia Minor and overran the Greek cities of Ionia. In 499 B.C., the Ionians rose in revolt against the Persians and asked the mainland Greeks for help. Sparta refused to become involved. The Athenians, closely linked to the Ionians by cultural and ethnic ties, sent 20 ships. The Ionian rebels and their supporters won some early victories, but by 493 B.C., the Persians had soundly defeated them.

Now the Persian Empire turned its attention to the Greek mainland. In 490 B.C., it sent a strong force across the Aegean Sea. The Persians landed at a place called Marathon, near Athens. There, 10,000 Greek soldiers, mostly Athenians, defeated a much larger force. The Persian threat was over—for the moment. But the Persians were more determined than ever to enter Greece by force. In 480 B.C., Xerxes, the emperor of Persia, came to Greece from the northeast with a huge force of ships and men.

Outnumbered and desperate, the Greeks put aside their internal disputes and united against this formidable foe. Through daring, courage, and the inspired leadership of Leonidas, king of Sparta, and Themistocles, the Athenian commander in chief, the Greeks defeated the Persians in a series of crucial battles. At Thermopylae, a small Spartan force fought to the death to delay the Persian advance. Military historians consider the fight at Salamis, where Themistocles sank a Persian fleet, to be one of the most decisive battles in world history.

* mercenary soldier; usually a foreigner; who fights for payment rather than out of loyalty to a nation

* artisan skilled craftsperson


Today, a person who carved his or her name on a public statue would be ailed a vandal and probably arrested or fined. If vandalism lasts long enough, however, it becomes history, like the words arved into the legs of a giant statue of Pharaoh Rameses II at Abu Simbel, Egypt. In 592 B.C., some Greek soldiers were on their way home from an expedition up the Nile River when they arved the inscription that records their passage. It ends with the words "Archon, son of Amoibichos, and Axe, son of Nobody, wrote us." This was Archon’s joking way of saying that he had "written" the letters with his axe.


The year 478 B.C. marks a turning point in Greek history. The Greeks had driven the Persians from their shores. They had cooperated to fight the Persians, and when the wars had ended, they gathered together in ceremonies of thanksgiving and dedication at the religious sanctuaries of Delphiand Olympia. There was even a chance that cooperation might lead to unity. Although the next 150 years would bring Greece’s greatest achievements in art and literature, the political history of those years is a sad tale of lost opportunities and internal strife.

The Golden Age. Historians sometimes call the 400s B.C. the Golden Age of Greek civilization, particularly in Athens. Cultural advances and political changes engendered confidence, pride, a sense of citizenship, and strong devotion to the polis and to Athena, its patron goddess. Athenians felt that they were the leaders of the Greek world. They prospered from the discovery of a large deposit of silver in their territory, and their influence spread over a widening area in the form of Athenian coins, weights and measures, and exported goods.

Around 462 B.C., Athens became even more democratic, governed directly by its citizens. A reformer named Ephialtes stripped the Athenian Areopagus (high council) of most of its powers. The archonships, no longer politically important, were open to almost any citizen. From 487 B.C., the most important magistrates in Athens were the strategoi, ten generals who were elected each year. In practice, the real leaders of Athens were powerful and influential speakers who won the support of the people. Pericles, who came to power after an assassin killed Ephialtes, was such a speaker. He dominated Athenian politics for nearly 30 years, winning 20 elections before his death in 429 B.C. Pericles limited democracy somewhat when he restricted citizenship to people whose parents were both Athenian. This made citizenship an ethnic privilege at the very time Athens was enlarging its influence over other peoples.

Athens attracted notable people from elsewhere in the Greek world. The historian Herodotus and the philosopher Anaxagoras were among many who visited Athens or took up residence there. Athenian writers of the period produced works that are still considered classics of world literature. Among these were the tragic dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (which drew upon the events of Greek mythology and heroic legends from the Mycenaean age), the comic plays of Aristophanes, and the histories of Thucydides. Socrates, a thinker whose questions about the nature of goodness and truth set the course for much of Western philosophy, was active in the city until his death in 399 B.C. With the support of Pericles and his ambitious building programs, architecture and sculpture thrived. The Athenians built two remarkable temple complexes, the Parthenon and the Propylaea, on the Acropolis. The triumphs of the Golden Age, however, were accomplished in a background of tension and war.

Athens and Sparta. Athens had been badly damaged in the Persian Wars. Following the wars, the Athenians turned their city into a fortress by building thick defensive walls that ran all the way to Piraeus, the seaport of Athens. Sparta objected, claiming that a peaceful state did not need such heavy fortifications, but the Athenians continued to build the Long Walls.

The Athenians were also determined to protect the Aegean islands and Ionia against a new assault from Persia. To do so, they created a system of alliances, which they called the Delian League because the allies met regularly on the island of Delos. The league consisted of Athens and several Ionian states. With a powerful navy of 200 ships to contribute, Athens was the league leader but vowed to respect each member’s independence. The other city-states contributed money, ships, and troops. Athens set the amount of each city-state’s contribution, commanded the entire fleet, and received half of all booty*. The fleet could be used to protect any member city-state. Athens and its new allies began driving the last Persian troops out of the north Aegean coast and raiding ports in Asia.

* booty riches or property gained through conquest


In 338 B.C., two armies met at Chaeronea, northwest of Athens, to decide the fate of Greece. Philip of Macedonia commanded 30,000 loot soldiers against 35,000 Athenians and their allies. The two forces lined up opposite each other. In a clever move, Philip ordered part of his line to fell back. Seeing the Macedonians retreat, some Athenians rushed eagerly forward, creating a gap in the Greek line. Into this breach charged a band of Macedonian horsemen led by Philip's beloved 18-year-old son, Alexander. At that moment Philip's troops attacked. Divided and caught by surprise, the Greek line fell apart. Macedonia's victory was complete.

With Athens’s attention focused eastward, Sparta was free to strengthen its hold on the northern Peloponnese. Soon, however, the growing power of Athens made the Spartans uneasy. The Athenians failed to respect the independence of the other city-states in the Delian League, ordering their allies to turn over territory to Athens and seizing it if they refused. Such treatment showed that Athens did not regard the league as an association of equals. Instead, Athens was building an empire.

While the Spartans warily watched these developments, trouble broke out in Sparta. A devastating earthquake in 464 B.C. killed many Spartiates. The helots seized their opportunity and revolted. Athens was one of several city-states that sent troops to help the Spartiates quell the revolt. While these troops were in the Peloponnese, Athens enacted the democratic reforms of Ephialtes. The reforms strengthened the nationalistic feelings of the Athenian soldiers, who scorned the Spartan system of government and had no enthusiasm for fighting helpless Greek peasants. The Spartans feared that the Athenians might switch sides, so they told them to leave. Insulted by the request, Athens broke its ties with Sparta and formed alliances with Thessaly and Argos, Sparta’s enemies. Cooperation between Greece’s two super-states was now officially over.

Struggle For Supremacy. In 460 B.C. , fighting broke out between Athens and two Spartan allies, Corinth and Aegina. The Delian League defeated the Peloponnesian naval forces and took control of the Gulf of Corinth, the waterway between the Peloponnese and the rest of Greece. Athenian and Spartan soldiers clashed for the first time at Tanagra in the region of Boeotia, northwest of Athens. Athens beat the Spartans and overran Boeotia, which it dominated for the next ten years. So strong and confident was Athens that, while fighting Sparta, it also conducted a war in Egypt against the Persians, who had invaded that country.

In 454 B.C., a series of disastrous events in Egypt changed everything. Persian reinforcements seized control of the Nile River. The Athenians held out on an island at the mouth of the river until the Persians cleverly changed the course of one of the river channels, leaving the Athenian fleet high and dry. The Persians captured many Athenians as well as the ships that were sent to rescue them.

While the Athenians were still reeling from this defeat, Sparta invaded their ally Argos. At the same time, some of the Aegean city-states rebelled against Athens and tried to leave the Delian League. Suddenly, Athens found itself on the defensive. It clamped down on the Aegean rebels with harsh treatment and carried the league’s funds from Delos to Athens. It also withdrew the Delian fleet from the Gulf of Corinth and made a temporary truce with Sparta, leaving itself free to settle its business with Persia. After several battles, each side decided that the other was still an enemy to be feared. Around 449 B.C., the Delian League and the Persian Empire made peace. The Persians agreed to independence for the Greeks in Asia, but few Greeks believed that the Persian threat had been banished forever.

Athens then faced trouble at home. Boeotia rebelled and threw off Athenian rule. Then, when the truce between Athens and Sparta ended, a Peloponnesian army marched on Athens. Angry Boeotians joined it along the way. On the eve of battle, however, the Spartan king in command of the troops led his men home. It is likely that Pericles offered him a large bribe to give up the war. Within a short time, Sparta and Athens signed a peace agreement that was intended to last for 30 years.

The treaty created a new balance of power between the Peloponnesian and Delian leagues. During this truce, however, Athens under the leadership of Pericles took a great leap forward in power and enlarged its empire. When Athens took sides in a fight between two Peloponnesian states, Sparta assumed that Athens intended to break the Peloponnesian League. Sparta acted first, threatening war unless Athens recognized the independence of the Greek states. At the urging of Pericles, the Athenians called for war.

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). The Spartan king, Archidamus, knew that Athens with its mighty fleet could not be defeated at sea, so he planned to wage a land assault. Pericles, knowing Sparta could defeat Athens on land, hoped to avoid battle by sheltering the citizens from the countryside inside the fortified city. By using Athenian naval power, Pericles planned to wear the enemy down and break its will to fight.

The historian Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote a detailed chronicle of the war. During the first years, the Spartans annually marched into Attica, laying waste to the land, cutting down olive groves, and burning villages— almost to the gates of Athens. Pericles, fearing a land battle that Athens would surely lose, patiently urged the city not to retaliate but to remain within the city’s strong defenses. Then in 430 B.C., a terrible plague struck Athens. The city was crowded with refugees and suffered from a lack of sanitation and water, and disease spread quickly. One-third of the population died in the plague, including Pericles.

Surrounded by death and destruction, the Athenians felt a lack of unity and of leadership. In this climate, a militant demagogue*, Cleon, rose to power. In 425 B.C., the Athenians won an impressive victory at Pylos (in the southwestern Peleponnese), and the Spartans were ready to discuss peace terms. The war might have ended at this point, but Cleon, hoping to win a complete military victory over Sparta, refused to negotiate seriously for peace. After Cleon and the Spartan general Brasidas were killed in battle, however, both sides were weary of war. In 421 B.C., they signed the Peace of Nicias, named for Athens’s new, conservative leader.

But the peace was short-lived. Both Sparta and Athens soon resumed efforts to consolidate and extend their interests. In 418 B.C., the Athenian commander Alcibiades persuaded Athens to attack the Peloponnesian League at Mantinea, but the Athenians were defeated. The Sicilian expedition, begun in 415 B.C., was even more disastrous. After two years and a huge outlay of ships and men, the battle for Syracuse on the island of Sicily collapsed with the loss of nearly 200 warships (two-thirds of the Athenian fleet), 4,500 Athenian soldiers, and about 40,000 mercenaries. The Athenian treasury was depleted.

Soon afterward, in Athens, a political revolution was in the making. Oligarchy (rule by a few people) was championed by the conservative upper class of farmers who were dissatisfied with the aggressive war policies of the democrats. Not only did they want an end to the war with Sparta, they wanted Athens to change to an oligarchical form of government.

* demagogue in ancient Greece, a leader who championed the cause of the common people

Remember: Consult the index at the end of volume 4 to find more Information on many topics.


The Achaean League on the Gulf of Corinth grew larger and more powerful after 251 B.C., thanks to Aratos, a native of the city-state of Sikyon who became a great warrior and a statesman. Aratos was an unusual hero, nervous and fearful before battle. Yet he managed to liberate his home city from Macedonian control and lead many other cities into the Achaean League. His most daring act of heroism came in 243 B.C., when he climbed the cliffs of Corinth's acropolis to free it from the Macedonians by a surprise attack at night.

They supported restricting citizenship to those who owned property, thereby taking political rights away from the lower class. The revolutionaries had some support among the middle class, who had also wearied of the war. In 411 B.C., the assembly was forced to surrender its power to a council of oligarchs, known as the 400. However, this group proved to be generally ineffective, and, after a few months, the Athenian fleet removed its oligarchic officers, and democracy was restored in Athens.

A turning point in the war came in 413 B.C., when Sparta accepted help from Persia. In exchange for money to rebuild his navy, the Spartan commander Lysander agreed that Persia should acquire the Greek cities of Ionia. With the fleet rebuilt, the Spartans attacked the Athenians at Aegospotami in the Hellespont in 405 B.C. It was the final sea battle of the war. With Athens’s ships destroyed and its vital grain route from the Black Sea cut off, Lysander then laid siege to the city of Athens through the autumn and winter of 404 B.C. Trapped inside their city’s mighty walls, the Athenians were starved into surrender.

Macedonian Power. The Peloponnesian War changed the political picture in the eastern Mediterranean. After a brief period of tyranny, Athens reestablished itself as a democracy, but the dream of Greece united under Athens was over. Sparta was now the supreme power in Greece, but it, too, failed to create lasting peace or unity among the city-states.

Faced with the question of whether the city-states should remain independent or combine into leagues, some political thinkers, such as Isocrates, believed that the survival of Greek civilization depended on cooperation and unity among the states. However, old rivalries remained, and each city-state was accustomed to looking after its own interests. In addition, some cities—such as Sparta and Thebes—wanted to dominate the leagues in which they were members. Throughout the 300s B.C., the city-states fought a series of wars over issues of independence or confederation*.

Some of those wars involved Persia. After the Peloponnesian War, the Persians reclaimed the right to rule the Asian Greeks. Sparta went to war with Persia, but Athens—as a way of striking a blow at Sparta—helped Persia. Several years later, Athens and Thebes united against Sparta, while Persia came to Sparta’s aid. By the 370s B.C., Athens and Sparta were forced to become allies against Thebes, which—with Persia’s help—was becoming a rising power in central Greece.

As the Greek city-states exhausted each other in war after war, other powers grew stronger. Carthage seized many Greek colonies in Sicily. And Macedonia, just northwest of Greece, became a unified kingdom with a strong and highly trained army. In 358 B.C., Philip II became the king of Macedonia. Philip knew much about Greece and its people, having lived at Thebes as a young man. And he knew that the aggressive Greek city-states were the biggest threat to Macedonian sovereignty*. He set out to gain influence over the Greeks, buying their friendship with gold and playing traditional enemies against one another.

At first, Philip did not seem dangerous, and the Greek city-states were too busy warring among themselves to worry about him. Then, through a combination of alliances and conquests, Philip brought much of northern Greece under Macedonian control. By the 340s B.C., Macedonia and Athens were at a standoff. Philip wanted a united Greece to help him attack Persia, and some Athenians favored this idea. But the fierce patriotism of the statesman Demosthenes convinced the Athenians to hold onto their liberty. In the end, Philip had to defeat an army of Athenians and Thebans to complete his conquest of Greece. Because he greatly admired Athenian culture, however, he treated Athens generously and respectfully. Although he did not officially make Greece part of the Macedonian empire, he established a union of the Greek states called the League of Corinth. The league was governed by “the council of the Greeks,” with Philip as its head. Sparta was the only city-state that refused to join the new league, but it was powerless to oppose Philip. For the first time in its long history, Greece was nearly united—in defeat.

* confederation group of states joined together for a purpose; an alliance

* sovereignty ultimate authority or rule

In 336 B.C., an assassin killed Philip. His son Alexander succeeded him as ruler of the Macedonian empire and the leader of the League of Corinth. When Thebes protested, Alexander destroyed the city as a warning to the rest of Greece. A few years later, Sparta attacked a Macedonian army. A combined force of Macedonian troops and soldiers from the League of Corinth subdued the Spartans, and Alexander forced them to enter the League of Corinth.

In 334 B.C., Alexander invaded Asia to carry out the long-planned war against the Persians. His conquest of the Persian Empire, and of the lands beyond it as far east as India, earned him the name Alexander the Great. He died after a brief illness in Asia in 323 B.C. The unity of his empire collapsed upon his death, and Greece entered a new era.


The period after Alexander’s death is called the Hellenistic* era, because it saw the flowering of a culture shaped by Greek, or Hellenic, influences. Hellenistic culture went far beyond the borders of Greece. It spread to wherever Alexander’s armies had traveled.

Although Greece is part of Europe, it has also been a bridge between Europe and Asia. For many centuries before Alexander, Ionia was an extension of Greece on the western coast of Asia Minor. Alexander, and those who ruled after him, brought Greek rule to the rest of Asia Minor. They built numerous cities and gave them Greek names, such as Apollonia. They also Hellenized some existing cities by settling Greek colonists there.

Alexander and his followers did the same across the vast territory once controlled by the Persian Empire—the Near East, Egypt, the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and Babylonia (present-day Iraq), and Persia itself. Some of the new settlements were little more than forts, but many were large cities of Greek and Ionian colonists, who brought with them the language, laws, architecture, and customs of their homeland. Several of these new cities bore the name Alexandria. The Hellenistic influence was strongest in Asia Minor and along the Mediterranean coast; it was weakest on the eastern frontier, in the remote and rugged regions of Afghanistan and central Asia. The Hellenistic cities were wealthy and worldly. They exchanged not only goods but also travelers, sometimes across great distances. An inscription found in an ancient Hellenistic town in Afghanistan, for example, tells of the arrival of a visiting lecturer from Greece. Hellenistic Greeks knew themselves to be part of a much larger world than the one that earlier generations of Greeks had known.

* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after the death of Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.

The Hellenistic era produced some important cultural achievements, especially in science, technology, and medicine. Euclid, Archimedes, and Eratosthenes made advances in mathematics and physics. New schools of philosophy arose. Two great centers of learning were the large libraries at Pergamum (in Asia Minor) and Alexandria (in Egypt). One important benefit of the spread of Greek culture at this time was the increased number of books, all written by hand, that were available to scholars. Students and librarians made numerous copies of old texts as well. Many ancient works are known to the modern world only because these copies survived.

Although the Hellenistic cities shared a common language and culture, they were not politically unified. Alexander the Great left neither a recognized heir nor instructions about who was to succeed him. He gave no sign of caring what would happen, even to his own country, when he was dead. His death created a world of shifting alliances, fragmented states, and power struggles.

After Alexander. When Alexander died, some of his top officials quickly seized control of the eastern regions of the empire. They are considered to be his successors, although they came to power by grabbing it rather than through an orderly process of succession*.

Ptolemy, Alexander’s best intelligence and security officer, won control of Egypt. He founded the Ptolemaic dynasty, which remained in power for several centuries. It was the most stable of the successor states. It was governed by Greek-Macedonian monarchs, who adopted the custom of marrying their sisters, as the ancient Egyptian pharaohs had done. The Ptolemies squeezed wealth from the Egyptian peasants and kept order through a Greek-speaking bureaucracy* and an army of Macedonian soldiers.

Farther east, a commander named Seleucis established the Seleucid dynasty that controlled a vast area in Persia and the Near East. The Seleucids also fought with the Ptolemies over territories in Asia Minor. Neither power gained a clear advantage, and gradually some independent states arose there, inland from the Ionian coast. These included Bithynia, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Armenia.

Such was the patchwork into which the former Persian Empire, shattered by Alexander, evolved in the two generations after his death. Macedonia itself suffered even worse violence and upheaval—nine rulers in 43 years, as well as an invasion by the Gauls. In 276 B.C., however, a king named Antigonos restored order and established a dynasty that ruled Macedonia for more than a century.

Alexander’s death changed things in Greece, too. As soon as the democratic leaders in Athens learned that Alexander was dead, they decided to throw off the restrictions that Macedonia and the League of Corinth had placed on them. They formed an alliance with the communities in the mountainous region of Aetolia. The other Greek states refused to join the alliance. They feared that if the Athenians won a war against Macedonia, they might once again desire to rule the rest of Greece—and domination by Athens could be as bad as domination by Macedonia, or even worse. Wealthy and powerful Greeks in most city-states wanted to remain on good terms with Macedonia. Not only would Macedonia’s influence prevent further democratic reforms, it also would keep gold from Alexander’s Persian conquests from flowing through the peninsula.

* succession transmission of authority on the death of one ruler to the next

* bureaucracy large departmental organization that performs the activities of government


One well-known Greek of the A.D. 100s was Henodes Atticus. Bom into a family of wealthy landholders who had become Roman citizens, Henodes Atticus taught history in Athens and shone in that city's intellectual life. The emperor Hadrian chose Henodes Atticus to tutor his adopted son Marcus Aurelius, who later became emperor. The career of Henodes Atticus reflects two aspects of life in Greece under Roman rule—the rise of a class of enormously rich Greeks and the Romans' high regard for Greek culture and learning.

The Athenians and their Aetolian allies attacked a Macedonian army in the fall of 323 B.C. It was too soon. They might have done better if they had waited a year or two, until Macedonia’s generals were deeply involved in the turmoil in their own country. Instead, the Macedonian general Antipater crushed the Athenian and Aetolian forces in less than a year. Athens was never again a world power, although its fame as a center of philosophy and learning would grow in the centuries ahead.

Before long, Macedonia’s attention turned to its internal troubles and to events in Asia. The Greek city-states regained some independence, but it was never complete. Antigonos and his dynasty were unable to establish direct military control over the whole country. But they were able to keep troops at key places, such as Piraeus and Corinth, so that they could quickly break up any uprisings. The Greeks called these Macedonian outposts the “Fetters of Greece.” (A fetter is a chain or shackle used to bind a prisoner.) After Macedonia withdrew its troops from Athens in 229 B.C.,Athens regained its independence on the condition that it remain neutral in future political or military conflicts. Athens played little part in the events of the next 150 years.

Throughout the 200s B.C., Hellenistic kings in Ionia, Egypt, and the Near East meddled in the affairs of the mainland Greek states. Although these kings always claimed that they were trying to restore the freedom of the Greeks, they were really trying to promote their own interests or interfere with those of their enemies. For example, the Seleucids and the Ptolemies used mainland city-states as pawns in their long conflict, attacking each other’s allies or trying to gain control over the Aegean.

Aside from these interruptions, the major development in Greece during the 200s B.C. was the growth of leagues and federations*. The regions of Arcadia, Boeotia, and Thessaly till had leagues. The largest and most important of the federations were the Aetolian League, which dominated central Greece, and the Achaean League, formed by the cities on the Gulf of Corinth. Each of these leagues held annual elections in which member communities elected a chief executive and an advisory council. The sovereignty of each league rested with a general assembly that met twice a year. Any free man who could travel to these meetings was permitted to attend.

The Achaean League was at war with Sparta in the 220s B.C. when Sparta finally underwent a social revolution. The dwindling number of Spartiates and the growing gap between rich and poor had brought tension to the breaking point. King Cleomenes III killed some state officials, canceled all debts, and redistributed the Spartiates’ huge landholdings in smaller parcels to increase the number of citizens. He then tried to take over the Achaean League, which turned to Macedonia for help.

The Macedonians crushed the army of Cleomenes, brought Sparta under control, and then tried to regain their earlier influence over all of Greece. They formed the Hellenic League, which included all of the other leagues except the Aetolian. From 220 to 217 B.C., King Philip V of Macedonia helped the Hellenic League fight an alliance of Aetolians and Spartans. The war ended without a clear victory for either side. By that time, however, Greece faced a new threat.

* federation political union of separate states with a central government

The Rise of Rome. In 217 B.C., representatives of the Hellenic and Aetolian leagues met on the island of Rhodes to discuss peace terms. Agelaos of Naupaktos, one of the members of the conference, spoke of the urgent need for peace, stating that “for if the cloud rising in the west should reach Greece, we shall be praying heaven to give us back the chance to call our very quarrels our own.”

The cloud of which Agelaos spoke was the growing might of Rome. And he was right to fear Rome, for if Rome ever turned its attention eastward, Greek liberty surely would be lost.

Roman contact with Greece was not new. Some of Greece’s early colonies had been in Italy As Rome extended its power over the Italian peninsula it absorbed these colonies. Over the centuries the Greek states traded with Rome, and Greek traders settled there, as did some teachers and artisans. The Romans read Greek books and admired and imitated Greek plays.

Yet, respect for Greek culture would not deter the Romans from attempting to conquer Greece. The first conflict between the two, however, came about because of Macedonia. To control the pirates who terrorized the Adriatic Sea east of Italy, Rome took control of part of Illyria, a wild region between the Adriatic and Macedonia—too close for Macedonia’s liking.

King Philip V of Macedonia seized the chance to strike back in 215 B.C., while Rome was involved in the Second Punic War with Carthage. The Romans had suffered some defeats at the hands of the Carthaginian general Hannibal, so Philip made an alliance with Hannibal. It was a fatal mistake. Rome’s mighty navy chased Philip’s fleet off the sea. Then the Romans allied with Macedonia’s restless enemies in Greece—Sparta and Aetolia. Fighting continued in Greece until 205 B.C., with neither side gaining the upper hand. Then, in 201 B.C., Rome achieved victory over Carthage, and the Roman Senate decided to negotiate with Philip. The Romans did not necessarily want to depose* him, but they intended to drive him out of Greece and confine him to Macedonia.

A Roman army—joined by soldiers from the Achaean League, the Aetolian League, Pergamum, and elsewhere in the Greek world—came to Greece. In 197 B.C., they fought the Macedonians near a mountain range in Thessaly known as Kynos Kephalai, or “dogs’ heads.” Philip’s forces were defeated and the Macedonians withdrew from Greece. A Roman consul declared that Greece was free—but not for long.

For 50 years, Rome played a role in Greece’s political affairs. The Romans burned towns that they suspected of being sympathetic to Macedonia and made slaves of the townsmen. Conflict grew between Rome and the Achaean League. One Achaean citizen captured the essence of that conflict when he told a Roman official, “We want you as friends, but not as masters.” In 148 B.C., Rome seized control of Macedonia and made it a Roman province*. Fearing a similar fate, the Achaean League went to war against Rome. Rome defeated the Achaean forces and then, in 146 B.C.,completely destroyed the city of Corinth as a warning to other cities.

* depose to remove from high office

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

ROMAN RULE (146 B.C.-a.d. 529)

Rome reorganized Greece, breaking up all the leagues and federations. To regulate trade among the cities, Rome established procedures and levied taxes. It also eliminated democratic governments by giving control to the wealthy landowners, who would be more likely to submit to Rome’s control.

Rome administered Greece as part of its province of Macedonia. Eventually, southern Greece and the Peloponnese were made a separate province called Achaea. Individual Greek cities continued to have some degree of self-government. Rome called Athens and Sparta “free cities.” They did not have to pay taxes or tribute* to Rome, and they continued to manage their own internal affairs.

Greece in Roman Wars. After 60 years of Roman rule, Greece was again ravaged by battle. King Mithradates of Pontus, a kingdom in Asia Minor, went to war against Rome, and the Greeks of Asia joined him. On the Greek mainland, Athens and several other cities sided with Mithradates, with disastrous results. The Roman general Sulla besieged Athens, starved its people, and broke its resistance. For the sake of Athens’s history, Sulla reluctantly agreed to spare the city from complete annihilation—“to spare the living for the sake of the dead.”

During the next 60 years, Rome gained control of the Near East and Egypt. From 49 to 30 B.C., Greece was a battleground in the civil wars that transformed Rome from a republic* into an empire. Roman leaders Pompey, Caesar, Augustus, and Brutus all led campaigns there. Caesar rebuilt Corinth and populated it with retired Roman soldiers. Both Caesar and Augustus donated handsome new buildings to Athens and other cities as monuments to Roman power. By 30 B.C., the last of the Hellenistic states founded by the successors of Alexander the Great had fallen. The Greek world had become part of the Roman world, and Greeks lived and worked in the Roman realm.

The Imperial Years. Greece remained quiet and peaceful for many years as part of the Roman Empire. Athens flourished as a center of learning. Its history and reputation attracted students from all over the Roman world. Among the noteworthy Romans who studied there were Cicero, who later became a famous orator, and the poet Horace. Sparta changed little, remaining a kind of living museum of worn-out customs.

Various Roman emperors made some significant changes in Greece. In A.D. 66-67, Nero made a lengthy tour of Greece, displaying at festivals what musical talents he possessed. The Greeks shrewdly flattered him, and he declared Greece free from Roman rule. But Vespasian, who became emperor in A.D. 69, promptly canceled Nero’s declaration. Hadrian made a long visit to Greece in the A.D. 120s, making Athens his headquarters. He reduced Greece’s tax burden, provided funds for building and road construction, and formed a new league called the Panhellenion to bring representatives from all over Greece to an annual congress. Although the Panhellenion had little real power, it did encourage feelings of national identity and unity. During the A.D. 100s and 200s, Greece attracted many Roman visitors. Also, a renewed interest in rhetoric* resulted in the flourishing of the so-called Second Sophistic, a movement in which orators became star performers.

Historians are not certain how the Greeks themselves fared at this time. Ancient writers speak of a major decline in population, of abandoned fields and empty farmhouses. Some of that decline, however, may have been caused by the migration of people to the cities. In addition, the growth of the class of extremely rich landowners meant that many peasants worked on great estates belonging to others rather than on their own small farms.

* tribute payment made to a dominant power or local government

* republic government in which the citizens elect officials to represent them and govern according to law

* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing

Throughout its history, the Roman Empire was troubled by the hostile tribes living near its northern borders. One Germanic tribe invaded Greece in A.D. 170, looting and pillaging as it came. The warriors reached almost as far south as Athens before local troops turned them back. Two other Germanic tribes—the Goths and the Heruli—renewed the attack on Greece in the mid-200s. The Heruli came by sea from southern Russia. In A.D. 267, they sacked* Ephesus and other cities in Ionia, then captured Athens and marched on Sparta. Roman armies drove them from Greece—but not forever. The Goths remained a permanent threat.

At the end of the A.D. 200s, the emperor Diocletian reorganized the Roman Empire by dividing it into two sections. The Western Roman Empire had its capital in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire had its capital in Constantinople, on the border between southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. Greece and Macedonia were part of the eastern empire.

A significant development in the next several centuries was the spread of Christianity throughout the empire, including Greece. The Christian emperors of the A.D. 300s tried to stamp out the old pagan religions and customs. Although paganism survived in some places—especially in the southern Peloponnese—for a long time, Christianity drove it out of the mainstream of Greek society. Modern archaeologists have found the remains of many large Christian churches built from the A.D. 300s to the 500s. In A.D. 529, the emperor Justinian ordered the pagan philosophical schools in Athens to close, bringing Greece’s long ancient civilization to an end.

By that time, attacks by the Germanic tribes had weakened Greece. Under the leadership of Alaric, the Visigoths invaded Greece in A.D. 395 and sacked Corinth, Argos, and Sparta. Vandal pirates raided and Ostrogoth warriors invaded in the A.D. 400s. The next great wave of attacks came from the Huns in the mid-500s. The empire was dying, and the passing of ancient Greece was just one of the changes sweeping through Europe. (See also Colonies, Greek; Democracy, Greek; Federalism; Golden Age of Greece; Government, Greek; Migrations, Early Greek; Monarchs, Greek.)

* sack to rob a captured city

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