A Brief History of Ancient Greece

How did Athens get to be what it is today? Here’s the “Reader’s Digest” early history of the area. Hold on tight. Here we go.

People have lived in this part of the world for a long tome. There is evidence of Neanderthal life in the northern region of Macedonia dating back over 700,000 years ago. The central region of Greece saw the first Neolithic settlements beginning as early as 7000 BC. It was during this period that fired clay pots first began appearing in the region. I mention this only because the ceramic work of Ancient Greece is spectacular and deserves its own blog entry if I can get my act together. Around 3000 BC Indo European immigrants brought with them a process of combining copper and tin creating a much stronger and beautiful alloy, and Greece entered into the Bronze Age.

From here we get three branches of Greek civilization. I already wrote a bit about the Minoans who were primarily based in Crete (3000-1100 BC). Concurrent with the Minoan civilization was the Cycladic (sick-lad-ic) civilization based in the Cyclades islands, a string of volcanic islands to the east and south of mainland Greece. The most memorable accomplishments of these people seem to be the marble human figurine carvings. Their simplicity has influenced many modern artists including Picasso.

As the Minoan and Cycladic civilizations were winding down a group of mainlanders known as the Mycenaeans rose to prominence (1500-1200 BC). These people called themselves s the Achaeans (after their Indo European ancestors). They were masters of bronze work and warfare, and it was during their prominence that Homer’s epic poems/histories of the Iliad and the Odyssey took place. Early Greek writing, Linear B, began during this time as well. Fortified city-states developed during this time in places such as Corinth and Mycenae.

By the 12th century BC the Minoans, Cyclades, and Mycenaeans had all fallen from prominence. The Dorians, a group from north central Greece, ravaged the area and much of the accomplishments from the three earlier civilizations (ship building, bronze work, and writing) were forgotten. The next 400 years are often referred to as the Dark Ages. But it was during this time that Greek ceramics first started being recognized for their design work. They worked in simple geometric designs and so this time period is named after this advancement in ceramics, the Geometric Age.

By the 800s BC the earlier advancements of Greek culture had come back and the Dorians had more or less assimilated themselves into the city-state lifestyle. This period is known as the Archaic Age. Most city-states were no longer ruled by monarchies, but were now ruled by a few powerful wealthy landowners known as an aristocracy or oligarchy. Around 650 BC in Corinth, revolutionary leaders grabbed power usually with the support of ordinary citizens looking for a way to get out from under the rule of a rich overlord. These new rulers were referred to as tyrants. A common written alphabet, oral tradition ala Homer’s stories and mythology, quad-annual Olympic games, as well as neutral religious sanctuaries like Delphi helped bring about a common sense of national identity in the region.

Two city-states dominated the scene at this time, Athens and Sparta. Because of Athens’ strategic location along the Attica coast, it became very powerful through trade. Around 594 BC a new leader was appointed in Athens named Solon. In order to ease tensions between the rich and the poor, Solon forgave all debts and freed all slaves connected to debt. He then set up a class system of government that allowed rich and poor a voice in making law and ruling. He started democracy. On the Peloponnesian peninsula to the west, Sparta rose to power. What Sparta lacked in wealth it made up for in military strength. For the next several hundred years these two city-states intermittently attempted to slaughter each other or combined forces to drive back much stronger enemies. As allies the great and legendary battles of Marathon and Thermopylae (the movie 300) were fought. The combined city-states eventually drove the Persians back to Asia Minor but not before the city of Athens was burned to the ground.

After this victory the Spartans returned to their home on the Peloponnesus, and Athens took primary control of Attica by unifying many city-states into the Delian League in order to free other city-states still held by the Persians. In 461 BC, under the rule of Pericles, Athens began an extensive rebuilding program. The huge mesa of rock in the Athenian valley known as the Acropolis (high-city), under proclamation from the oracle of Delphi, was declared a vestige of the gods. The remains of the old temples and homes that once cluttered this fortress outcropping were taken down and replaced by the current Parthenon, Erechtheion, Propylaia, and Temple of Athena Nike. The city was completely rebuilt with public buildings, an agora (marketplace) and several other temples including the temple of Hephaestus. This was the beginning of the Classical Age.

It was during this period of reconstruction that Athens entered into a series of disputes and subsequent wars with Sparta. In the first war, from 431-421 BC, Athens basically holed up inside its walled city while Sparta laid siege. The Athenian navy in turn laid siege to the Spartan Peloponnesian peninsula. While both sides suffered great loss and eventually signed a truce, it was Athens who suffered most when a plague broke out in the city and killed one third of the population including Pericles. A second war between these two broke out just eight years later. Athens finally surrendered to Sparta in 404 BC, and even though they were heavily pressured by city-states like Corinth to raze the city, they decided instead to let it remain out of a sense of honor for Athens leading the area against the Persians some 75 years earlier. I guess in the long run it pays to do good!

Even under Spartan rule Athens continued to prosper. The Acropolis reconstruction began anew. Around this time the great philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle taught in the streets and schools of the city. The Theater of Dionysus was built on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis and could easily seat 17,000 people. Dramas written by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides as well as comedies by Aristophanes were sponsored and performed here. The lesser annual and greater every-four-years Panathenaic Festivals culminated here. It was a grand time to be an Athenian.

But once again war broke out in the region with Sparta and Athens as allies against the Theban city-state. Thebes won the war with the overall result being a much-weakened Greece. This set the stage for Macedonian rule under Philip II. Macedon is to the north and east of Greece and was largely ignored by the city-states to the south. Philip was a great leader and master of strategy and warfare. He invented the catapult! In 336 BC a Macedonian noble assassinated him and his 20-year-old son Alexander became king in his place. Alexander was everything his father was and more. He put down revolts in the Greek peninsulas and turned his forces towards Persia. He conquered everywhere he went: Persia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and northern India, before turning back to settle in Babylon. He died a year later at 33 years old in 323 BC. He had no heir to the empire he had won and so his three main generals divided up the land. General Antigonus took Asia Minor and Macedonia, General Seleucid claimed Persia and Syria, and General Ptolemy took Egypt and established the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ended with Cleopatra committing suicide in 30 BC. By 146 BC Rome had colonized Greece by laying waste to Corinth as an example of what would happen to rebellion city-states. Even still, Rome loved Greek culture and adopted much of the Hellenistic lifestyle thus prolonging and continuing the influence of Ancient Greece for centuries to come.

Whew! Greece in a nutshell. My apologies for so much writing.

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