Ancient Greek Civilization


The seed for the great civilization of Greece was laid down almost 40,000 years ago. These very first inhabitants were mostly hunters and gatherers using well-crafted tools and weapons. The very first settlement began with the cultivation of cereals and plants, domestication of animals and weaving of clothes in looms. Small villages sprang along the farmlands which later developed to polis or city states.

Another major technological innovation was the use of bronze and other materials that further distinguished them from other cultures. With this, the economy expanded and the settlements grew larger along with wealth, power, and authority. This stage also marked the growth of leaders in the society.

The setting of the civilization

The cradle of Greek Civilization that influenced many other western civilizations was in a large peninsula that was surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean Sea. Many smaller islands in the Aegean Sea also were under the Greek Civilization. These islands were the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, the Ionian Islands, and the Isle of Crete along with southern peninsula of Peloponnese. Other than these main islands, Greece also included thousands of smaller islands.

A major portion of the Greece was also constituted by the mountains and there were rugged landscapes between the Mountains and the sea.  Along with the distance, lack of large rivers made transportation a challenge which made it impossible to unite the entire Greek under one ruler.

Only about 30 percent of the land was classifiable as cultivable, in which 20 percent were classified as good agriculture land. The Greeks colonized a number of villages to meet their agriculture requirement.

The best way for travel and trade was the sea routes. Many of the islands in the Aegean Sea facilitated these voyages. Locations that offered good harbor developed as ports. Trade was an important means for all raw materials except building stone and clay.

The beginning of the Greek Culture

Mesopotamia which the Greeks named as the land between the two rivers marked the beginning of an advanced civilization. It had large-scale irrigation, large cities, bureaucratic government, and trade networks. On the other hand, Egyptian civilization along the river Nile was a united kingdom ruled by a single leader, the Pharaoh. In Mesopotamia, however, societies evolved around great cities which took over surrounding towns and villages to become a single political unit. With time, powerful political unit conquered the weaker ones. The society had clear class distinctions and leader deployed a huge amount of labor, surplus wealth to build massive walls, temples, luxurious palaces, and tombs. These civilizations had an enormous impact on the cultural development of Greeks.

The Cretans also influence the Southern and Western Greece through trading contacts which became a base for the development of the Mycenaean Greek Civilization. The Greeks adopted the Cretan State including the writing system. The Greeks, however, invaded them and the civilization came crashing down.

The Greece and the Aegean

Trading contacts influenced the Southern and Central Greece by the Cretans. This relationship played an important role in the development of the early Mycenaean Greek Civilization. The Greeks borrowed almost everything from the Minoan culture right to the writing system.

Around the Middle Bronze Age, the population rose, productivity increased and trade further expanded in the mainland Greece which helped in further strengthening of the economic and political power of the leaders. Warriors evolved into monarchs. The settlements of Mycenae, Pylos, Thebes and Athens are believed to be major cities of this time.

During the fourteenth and thirteenth century, a number of palace complexes were built that was also considered the final phase of Mycenaean wealth and power. The architecture and decoration of this period could see a close linkage to the Minoan style. These palaces, unlike the unfortified Cretan palaces, were located on hills or higher mounds protected by thick walls. Although there was a lot of cultural similarities, the Mycenaean were not united and were divided into a number of smaller kingdoms.  However, in spite of their highly divided political background, they were a strong presence in the Mediterranean world.

The palace was the center of the kingdom’s economy, employed a large number of workers to produce finished goods for domestic use as well as export. Major exports included textiles and metal-works.

The Minoans and the Mycenaean believed in supernatural forces. They paid respect to their gods with processions, music and sacrificing of animals. The palace also acted as the center of religious activities. The priest and priestesses who were considered as the direct connection to the gods were gifted with lands, animals, precious objects etc.

Many of its palace complexes, towns and villages were either attacked or abandoned. Not only Mycenae, the entire Mediterranean area suffered many catastrophes during this time.  The end of this stage marked the beginning of a new era which was very different to the earlier civilization.

With the end of this civilization, Greece entered what is commonly known as the Dark Ages. Many cities disappeared, the population decreased and communications ended leading to failure in trade and travel as well.

The Dark Ages and revival of Greece

The elaborate socio-political structure collapsed with no kings, officials, scribes, palace staff and armies. There was no progress in architecture, art or even in furniture which was a common sight in the earlier period.  Towns and villages were abandoned. Some areas suffered a longer stagnation period while areas around the Aegean Sea suffered a lesser period of decline. Most major centers including Athens continued to survive through the dark ages without much disturbance and other cities which suffered abandonment were reoccupied in a generation or two.

Life continued in Greece much like before however in simpler ways. One of the most important aspects of the revival of Greece was important technological innovations like a faster potter’s wheel that improved the shape of the vases. Superior potteries were produced that were elaborately decorated. There were vast improvements in metal works too.

Around 1050, there was increased movement from Greek mainland across the Aegean Sea to the Anatolian coast. Numerous settlements emerged such as the Miletus, Ephesus, and Colophon that grew to major urban centers. This also created a large presence in the East, colonizing the Aegean Sea as Greek Sea. While in the mainland, Athens and Corinth were growing as major centers too.

Around 8th century also called as the “Greek Renaissance” was a period of population growth, technological innovations and increase in political structuring. This phase was also considered as the revival of the glorious time of Mycenaean Period. There were tremendous growths in trade and communications with the East. Neighboring and isolated regions met frequently to celebrate festivals and take part in rituals along with athletic events.

The beginning of the regime of land ownership

The growth of population put an additional pressure on land. The elite class owned most of the land. These lands were mostly lush green meadows which were slowly converted to farms to grow grain and other crops. The elite class established themselves into an aristocracy of landowners. With the scarcity of land and ownership of land concentrated to a few, Greece was entering into a point of saturation.

Establishing new colonies for new farmlands became the new answer to the current problem of land. The second half of the Eight Century saw an increase in the number of colonies in southern Italy and Sicily. During this time, there were also tremendous growths in trade and commerce. Large numbers of Greek ships were plying across the Mediterranean resulting into a rise in many Greek Colonies in the west too.

The increase in the number of colonies and trade boost the economy of Greece. There was a tremendous increase in the work of craftsmen, sailors, shipbuilders etc.  Farmers too took advantage in the growth of the economy and started trading their surplus production. The elite landowners were the most benefited from the lot as they could produce large surplus owing to its vast ownership of land.

With the increase in networking, there were significant influences on the culture especially in the alphabet and the writing system. The Greeks took its inspiration mostly from the Phoenician alphabet. They made modifications to their own language and with adaptations from other cultures came up with their own writings and language. However, information is believed to have passed on from mouth to ear even during the Classical and Hellenistic Period.

Another significant improvement was art and architecture. Major changes were seen in the art depiction on pottery. Greek temples, the signature architecture form also emerged during this time. The elites found a way to flaunt their richness in the form of architecture.

The Archaic Greece: Greek city-state establishment

This period in the history of Greece is marked with frequent wars with warfare becoming more lethal. While leaders fought to rise among themselves, poor citizens fought for economic stability and their civic rights. This gave rise to a new social and political framework popularly known as the city-state.

On the other hand, the population continued to rise resulting in the founding of more colonies spreading through the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Trading increased manifold. On the cultural front, the Greek established a common identity. A number of shrines, festivals oracle grew along with new forms of literature, art, and expressions.

However, the most important phase of this period was the city-state. A city-state is a geographical area comprising of a central city and the territory around it. It is governed by a single political unit. The central city or the capital city was the focal point of the state. People of a higher class or the elite lived in the capital city while people of the lower social order lived outside the city. One could see cases of regional unification of several city-states lying in close proximity to each other.

The leaders of the city-states became the planners and the architects of the newly emerging city-states. A complex system and organization of social order were developed to respond to the changing structure of the society. The main aim of this organization was to mobilize men and resources for warfare as there were constant wars among polis with rising power. These leaders of the city-state also ensured that they preserve their economic and political power. Each city-state developed their own system of magistrates based on their needs, circumstances and the size of the polis. However, the main power remained in the hands of the council of elders.

As the economic power rested in the hands of the few land owning aristocrats, they became even richer as they had a greater share of land. They were also known to exploit the poorer section of the society. The social order during this phase could be divided into three categories: the elite few, middle class and poor. Even though all free-born members of the polis were citizens, there were no equal rights other than in religious worship. Women were denied of any participation in public affairs. The end of the archaic period saw a civil movement for full participation by all citizens in the governance of their polis. The main struggle was for re-establishment of land ownership.  By the early sixth century, the position of the ruling members weakened and an inclusive form of government was taking shape.

Architecture excelled during this period and was centered on religious structures, temples, monuments, and treasuries which were mostly dedicated to the gods. The sixth century also saw the addition of large stone temples which was an inspiration from Egyptian techniques. Capital cities became major urban centers with the addition of all these monumental temples.  A number of free-standing sculptures came up which was clearly another inspiration from Egyptian culture. Another major advancement in this period was the monumental architecture where marble and limestone replaced mud and brick construction. The concept of Agora which became the urban center of many activities solidified during this time with the building of monumental temples and public buildings around it. Agora also became an active marketplace and a public space. It was also a place where male citizens congregated for various activities and discussions. During the sixth century, there was also a rise in Greek Philosophy. Pythagoras is one of the most influential cosmologists which are known for its geometric theorem.

Greek even though was politically divided was culturally united. Most gatherings happened in PanHellenic sanctuaries and a number of people came for worship, consult oracles and attend other functions and athletic competition. The sanctuary of the Zeus was the greatest attraction at Olympia. Athletic games were organized in the honor of Zeus which later became Olympics.

The co-existence of city-states became critical with raids turning into major warfare. With the growth of population, land became scarce and the attempt for extending their boundaries gave rise to conflicts. Such interstate tensions were especially more in the Greek city states of Sparta, Argos, and Corinth. In the sixth century, Greek city-states realized the need to come to a conclusion to formally avoid wars. Cooperative institutions were regularized in the Archaic Period. Leaders made foreign policy for peaceful existence either through marriage alliances or pacts of political friendships. There was existence of Military alliance which became more long lasting during this time.

The Sparta

Sparta considered the most powerful city in the Greek world was constituted of the city of Sparta as the city center and the surrounding territories. Spartans were known to be hardcore patriotic with a lot of pride in their city-state. Spartans were also known for its selflessness and their unified image. Sparta being located inland and far from the port encouraged the city to tackle the issue of land crisis due to rising population. The Spartans did not establish colonies except for one but conquered its surrounding territory. The conquering of the surrounding areas especially Laconia and Messenia made Sparta one of the largest and the richest Greek city states. It was also famous for its pottery and metal works.

The Spartans put a special emphasis on education and upbringing of boys. Every man was expected to be skilled in warfare and give up his life for the city. Every Spartan was liable for military service till the age of sixty. Every man was trained for only military service and no other profession. Male infants were examined by officials and decided whether to be raised or abandoned. All children received education under state supervision. Spartans were the only society in Greek where women’s upbringing was prescribed by the state and were educated by the state at its expense.

The government was divided between two rulers. These two rulers or kings were both competitive and cooperative with one another. They exercised military, religious and judicial powers. One king took care of the military services while the other took care of the domestic affairs. Sparta also had an assembly which was highly democratic. Spartans was respected far and wide for its government which consisted of monarchical, oligarchical and democratic elements.

The growth of Athens and the rise of Persia

Athens which was a cluster of villages around the Acropolis, new settlements appeared around it with a sharp rise in population around eight century. There were cases of internal colonization but Athens hardly colonized overseas. The early government of Athens was aristocratic. However, during the latter part of the eighth century three civic officials who divided the duties equally among themselves. At a later stage, six judicial officers were added making a governing body of nine members. These nine members were elected annually from aristocratic families. Leaders such as Solon strengthen the weak agricultural system of the economy of Athens so it could raise enough grain to meet the demands of the growing population. While on the other hand, Peisistratus key focus was to strengthen the economy. Like Solon, he focused on growing both agriculture as well as commerce. He encouraged cultivation of olive and gave land for a loan to the needy. The trade in Athens improved greatly during his leadership. Peisistratus building projects gave employment to the poor people of the Athens while building it as the cultural center.

The Persians were among the many Indo-European people that were settled in Iran in first millennium BC. The Medes built the first Iranian empire by overthrowing the Assyrian Empire. The conquest of Greeks of Asia Minor by Cyrus II led to the re-definition of the course of Greek History. Cyrus was acclaimed as a talented ruler who supported local cultures and religions. After Cyrus, it was the reorganization of the empire by Darius I that ensured the long-term survival of the empire.

The political scenario changed in Athens after the Battle of Marathon which was fought between the Greeks and the Persian. Strategic council was selected to cater to the need for capable military commanders. In the spring of around 479, the Greeks fleet pursued the Persians navy at the Battle of Mycale finally ending the Persian threat to Greece Forever.

The Growth of Athenian Democracy

In order to prevent another invasion, a number of Greek city-states entered into a military alliance led by Athens. It was the Athenians naval strength due to which the Greeks won the war. The dependence on the lower class citizens that was part of the naval fleet became increasing pivotal to city’s security and well-being reducing the monopoly of the elite aristocrat. Democratic reforms hence took place to remove or undermined the wealthy that enjoyed control over Greece. However, there was no change in the status of women or slaves. Indeed with the rise of Imperialism, there was growth in the number of bonded slaves and the status of women decreased more with the rise in democracy among male members. Athens became a major cultural hub and tourists from all over Greece arrived to be part of cultural events and theatricals. Olympia, on the other hand, remained a religious center. Democracy similar of Athens developed in many places in Greece and many intellectuals were bringing in new ideas to birth. The Culture of Greece continued to flourish under the reign of Alexander the Great and influenced many medieval civilizations and the culture of Western Europe and the Americas.


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