Ancient History & Civilisation


Achaemenid – Dynasty founded by Cyrus II the Great c. 550, named after legendary king Achaemenes, lasted till 330 BCE.

acropolis – High city or citadel, common to many Greek cities, including Sparta (a modest affair compared to that of Athens).

Agiads and Eurypontids – The two hereditary Spartan royal families, descended notionally from Agis and Eurypon (tenth century BCE?), each provided one of the two reigning kings; lineal father–son succession often broke down, as in the case of Eurypontid King Leotychidas (r. 490–478), who was a distant relative of his predecessor Demaratus, and regencies were sometimes necessary to cover minorities, as in the case of Agiad Regent Pausanias who led the Greeks to victory at Plataea in 479.

agôgê – Sparta’s unique state education, compulsory for all males from age 7 to 17 inclusive; a less formal counterpart existed for girls at the same ages, leading to their marriage at age 18.

agôn – The ancient Greek word for ‘contest’ or ‘competition’, both peaceful (e.g. the Olympic Games) and not (war was an agôn); the concept was central to ancient Greek culture, which has therefore been characterized as ‘agonal’ or ‘agonistic’; the English word ‘agony’ comes from the Greek word for ‘competitiveness’.

agora – Originally any place of gathering; with the rise of the polis became specialized political-cum-commercial space, the civic centre.

Ahura Mazda – Single supreme god of the Zoroastrians, who created all things and stood for truth and light as symbolized by fire.

alphabet, Greek – Graphic sign-system borrowed, probably in 8th century BCE, from the Phoenician (north-west Semitic) language, with addition of signs for vowels; local variants ran from 24 to 28 signs; in Greek alpha (from Phoenician aleph) and beta (beit) were the names for the first two letters, hence ‘alphabet’.

Amphictyonic League – Representatives of mainly central Greek communities formed Council of League to oversee the sanctuary of Delphi and the holding of the Pythian Games every four years (first in 582).

andreia – Literally ‘maleness’, but by extension ‘masculinity’ as a moral value, and also by further extension ‘courage’, the prime quality of pugnacity required in Greek warfare.

aristocracy – Power (kratos) of the ‘best’ men (aristoi), i.e. the richest and those with the most imposing family pedigrees, normally involving claims to linear descent from a founding hero and/or god.

Asia Minor – That part of the continent of Asia that is now formed by the western half of Turkey (sometimes also called ‘Anatolia’); it includes Ionia among much else.

Assembly (Ecclesia) – All Greek poleis (cities) were composed of citizens, who were entitled to attend the regular meetings of its Assembly; the Assembly of both Sparta and Athens met at least once a month, Sparta’s on a feast-day of Apollo, hence Assembly meetings were also called Apellai (after Apellon, the Doric form of Apollo). See also dêmos.

Atheno-Peloponnesian War – Hugely destructive war between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies, 431–404 BCE, with intervals.

Attica – Home territory of Athens, c. 2,400 sq. km.

daric – Gold coin of the realm of the Persian Empire named after Darius I (r. 522–486), who is represented as an archer, the first ruler in known history to be imaged on a coin.

Delian League – Anti-Persian alliance founded and dominated by Athens, 478–404; oaths of eternal alliance, symbolized by dropping lumps of iron into the sea (the alliance would last until the lumps floated to the surface …), were first sworn on Apollo’s sacred isle of Delos in winter 478/7; peace was probably made with Persia c. 449, but the Empire posed a constant threat to Greek liberty; the alliance was eventually dissolved by Sparta, then in alliance with Persia, in 404.

democracy – Literally, power (kratos) of the dêmos (people), first instituted at Athens 508/7 BCE through the reforms attributed to Cleisthenes, and further developed in 462/1 through the reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles; the word dêmokratia is first attested in the 420s but certainly existed much earlier.

dêmos – People, the entire citizen body, the municipality, or the masses, the majority, the common people.

Dorians – Ethnic division of Greeks, based – as Ionians – on dialect of spoken and written Greek (Doric) and on some distinctive customs, e.g. the annual religious festival of the Carneia in honour of Apollo was common to all Dorians.

ephor – Literally ‘supervisor’ or ‘overseer’, title of the five chief popularly elected officials of Sparta; any Spartan might apply for election, but the office, though powerful, was annual and could be held only once in a lifetime.

Eurypontids – see Agiads.

Gerousia – Literally ‘Senate’, or Council of Elders, the supreme council of Sparta, thirty in number, including the two reigning kings ex officio; admission was by popular election, open only to members of certain aristocratic families aged sixty or over, and membership was for life.

Greekness (to hellênikon) – Famously (or notoriously) the ancient Greeks could rarely be persuaded to bury their ethnic or national differences, preferring to give their primary allegiance to their own individual polis; but they usually agreed on who was a Greek and who was not (‘barbarian’), based on shared concepts of nomos; see also Hellas.

hêgemôn – Literally ‘leader’, especially of a multistate military alliance, such as Sparta of the Peloponnesian League.

Hellas – The name for the combined totality of Greeks settled all round the Mediterranean and Black Seas, with a focus on the southern Balkan peninsula and the Aegean; Hellas never became the single state of ‘Greece’, and Greeks found it very difficult to maintain permanently any other than local religious associations, such as the Amphictyonic League.

Hellenistic age – Conventionally dated from death of Alexander the Great of Macedon, 323 BCE, to death of Cleopatra of Egypt, the last of the Ptolemy dynasty, in 30 BCE.

Helots – Indentured serf-like populations of Laconia and Messenia, perhaps 50–100,000 in all; subjugated native Greeks unlike the vast majority of the Greeks’ slaves, e.g. at Athens (where there may have been as many as 100,000 chattel-type slaves).

Herodotus – ‘Father of history’ (according to Cicero), born Halicarnassus c. 484, published c. 425 his Histories, or ‘research’ (historiê, whence our ‘history’), on Graeco-barbarian relations c. 550–479 in both oral and written form; later the work was subdivided into 9 books, each named after one of the Muses.

historiê – Literally ‘enquiry’; by extension applied to the results of enquiry into the human past and so ‘history’ in our sense (the ending in -ê is in the Ionic dialect used by Herodotus; in Attic – Athenian – Greek, the form used was historia).

homoioi – Literally ‘same-ish’, so alike or equal in some, but not in all, respects; a technical term for the full citizens of Sparta, who distinguished themselves from various categories of ‘Inferiors’ (sub-homoioi), including degraded ex-Spartans, demoted for economic or other reasons.

hoplite – Heavily armed Greek infantryman; probably took his name from heavy, basically wooden two-handled shield (hoplon); fought in interlocked phalanx formation usually 8 or more ranks deep.

hubris – Technical Greek term for stepping over the fixed boundary line dividing men from gods, or criminally violating another human’s status, especially with accompanying violence; English ‘hubris’ has a looser meaning of any behaviour or attitude deemed excessively ambitious or overweening.

Immortals – The 10,000-strong elite Persian infantry body that served both as the Great King’s bodyguard and as a crack commando force, as at Thermopylae; the Greeks erroneously called them ‘Immortals’ as they supposed that, in order to keep the number constant, the Great King always had available with him reserves who could be substituted whenever one of the 10,000 fell.

Ionia/Ionians – Ionia in the geographical sense was the central area of western Asia Minor, including such cities as Miletus and Ephesus; Ionians in the wider sense were an ethnic division of Greeks, sharing – as Dorians – a dialect of spoken and written Greek and some distinctive customs (nomoi, q.v.), e.g. the annual religious festival of the Apaturia.

Lacedaemon – (1) Official name of the polis of Sparta; (2) territory of Spartan polis, including Messenia as well as Laconia (Laconia is the Roman and modern name for the area of south-east Peloponnese east of Mt Taygetus), measuring 8,000 sq. km., easily the largest in the Greek world. From Lacedaemon, Spartans and Perioeci were called Lacedaemonians. Non-Spartan devotees of Sparta and all things Spartan were known as laconizers.

Magi – Iranian, originally Median, priests, whence our ‘magic’.

Medes – Indo-European-speaking people of northern Iran related to and regularly confused (by Greeks) with Persians (hence medizing), with capital city at Ecbatana (Hamadan).

medizing/medism – Taking the Persian side politically and so betraying some notion of Hellas; notorious medizers include Spartan ex-King Demaratus.

nemesis – Divinely inspired vengeance, righteous anger.

nomos – From a root verb ‘to distribute’, used to mean either ‘custom’ or ‘law’; nomoi (pl.) were what Greeks had in common and made them Greek (see Greekness, Ionia/Ionians).

oikos – Household, comprising property and livestock as well as family members, both free and unfree.

oligarchy – Rule (archê) of the wealthy few (oligoi), a variant of aristocracy.

Olympia – Sanctuary in north-west Peloponnese dedicated to Zeus Olympios (of Mt Olympus in southern Macedonia, the highest mountain in Greece, on the summit of which the gods were supposed to live) and site of quadrennial Olympic Games, both managed by the city of Elis.

Olympiad – Method of time-reckoning according to four-year periods from one Olympic Games to the next, the first conventionally dated to what we call 776 BCE; 480, an Olympic year, was thus the first of the 75th Olympiad.

ostracism – Enforced exile from Athens for ten years, applied to leading political figures (such as Themistocles, in c. 471) and decided by counting names of ‘candidates’ on inscribed or incised potsherds (ostraka) submitted by a minimum of 6,000 citizen voters whenever the AthenianAssembly voted to exercise the procedure (as they regularly did in the 480s).

Peloponnese – ‘Island of Pelops’, landmass linked to central Greece by Isthmus of Corinth; the Isthmus’s central and key position explains why it was the site of the meeting in 481 at which the few Greek loyalists led by Sparta swore to resist Xerxes.

Peloponnesian League – A multi-ethnic grouping of Peloponnesian and central Greek states brought into alliance by and under the leadership of their hêgemôn (military leader) Sparta, to whom each ally swore to have the same friends and enemies and to follow Sparta wherever she might lead them.

Peloponnesian War – see Atheno-Peloponnesian War.

Perioeci – ‘Outdwellers’ or ‘dwellers around’, the formal description of the inhabitants of 80 or so small towns and villages around Sparta in Laconia and Messenia who were not unfree (like the Helots) but were not full citizens of the Spartan state either; they were required or might volunteer to serve in war, when they were called generically ‘Lacedaemonians’.

Persians – Indo-European-speaking people of central and southern Iran related to and regularly confused (by Greeks) with Medes, with capital cities at Pasargadae, Susa and Persepolis.

Plataea – Small town on border of Boeotia with Attica, allied with Athens since 519 and site of decisive land battle of the Graeco-Persian Wars, 479.

polis (pl. poleis) – City (both political entity of state and urban centre of state, sometimes also its acropolis – ‘high city’), best translated as ‘citizen-state’; there were well over 1,000 poleis stretching from Spain to Georgia, which collectively constituted Hellas.

politeia – Citizenship, constitution (e.g. democracy).

proskunêsis – Obeisance, the kowtow, a gesture that Greeks thought appropriate only towards gods but which all Persians were socially obliged to perform in the presence of the Great King (who was not deemed by the Persians to be a living god).

Pythia – Vatic priestess, an elderly lady in our period, of Apollo’s oracular shrine at Delphi in central Greece.

Sacred Band – Elite Theban infantry force of 300, consisting of 150 homosexual pairs, founded 378.

satrap – Persian viceroy, governor of a satrapy, often a member of the Achaemenid royal family, directly appointed by and responsible to the Great King.

satrapy – Administrative province of Persian Empire, one of 20 or more, such as Hellespontine Phrygia (satrapal capital, Dascyleum) and Lydia (capital, Sardis) in western Asia Minor.

Sparta – see Lacedaemon.

stasis – A process or state of ‘standing apart’, so faction, civil strife, civil war.

Thebes – Chief polis of the Boeotians and head of the Boeotian federal state (447–386, 378–338), notorious for medizing in 480–479.

Thirty Tyrants – Self-appointed junta of extreme oligarchs that ruled Athens with Spartan backing 404–403 after defeat of Athens in the Atheno-Peloponnesian War.

trireme – Oared warship, the ship of the line, borrowed in plan by Greeks from Phoenicians but turned against them to deadly effect at the Battle of Salamis; it was so called (triêrês in Greek) because it was a three-banker, rowed by some 170 oarsman disposed in three superimposed banks.

tyrant – Non-legitimate, absolute monarch ruling by usurpation and/or force; Persia tended to support Greek tyrants as a method of indirectly ruling the Greek cities within the satrapies of Hellespontine Phrygia and Lydia.

xenia/xenosXenia was a form of ritualized friendship between usually aristocratic or socially prominent men from different cities and/or cultures, which imposed strict, hereditary obligations, such as reciprocal hospitality, on the partner xenoi (pl. of xenos).

Zoroastrianism – Religion believing in Ahura Mazda as one supreme god, derived from teachings of prophet Zoroaster (Greek form of Zarathustra), who may have lived as early as 1000 BCE and come from Bactria (Balkh).

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