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Introductory Note on Classical Greece

[This note has been prepared for students in Classics 101 by Ian Johnston, instructor at Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University). The text is in the public domain, released May 1999, last revised February 2004.

The note which follows concentrates on the historical and geographical background.  Those seeking a more wide-ranging introduction to Greek culture should try the following link: Greek Culture.]


Preliminary Remarks on Names

Students of Classics 101 need to understand that the terms Greece and Greek can be seriously misleading in the study of ancient classical culture, if people understand by this term some more or less homogeneous, politically united nation in a specific place. The following brief background description should help to explain this point in more detail.

But first a short comment on Greek names rendered into English. While a few names are easy to render (e.g., Zeus, Ares, Priam, Paris, and so on), others create certain problems, and hence people tend to turn Greek names into English equivalents in different ways. Some, for example, prefer -c to -k (e.g., Attica and Attika; Cassandra and Kassandra), -aus to -aos (e.g., Menelaus and Menelaos), -ch to -kh (e.g., Achilles, Akhilles, Akhilleus; Andromache, Andromakhe), -ae to -ai (e.g., Clytaemnestra, Klytaimnestra). Until fairly recent times, the conventional spelling tended to Latinize the names, preferring -us or -aus, for example, to -os or -aos, -ae to-ai, using -c rather than -k and -ch rather than -kh, and so on.  Hence in English literature, the common spellings reflect this tendency (e.g., Menelaus, Pandarus, Clytaemnestra, Achaeans, Atreidae, and so on). These pages follow that older tradition.

Sometime Greek names have more colloquial English equivalents. Some common ones, for example, are Ajax (for Aias), Hercules (for Herakles), and Greeks (for Hellenes). In each of these options the first spelling is the more traditional. 

Many Greek names have Latin equivalents (e.g., Jove for Zeus, Ulysses for Odysseus, Venus for Aphrodite). These you should never use, unless you are working with a Latin text which has these Latin equivalents. Students of English literature should note that until fairly recent times, writers commonly used the Latin names to refer to Greek literary characters and gods.


A Note on the Geography of Greece



When we talk about Classical Greece we are generally referring to a relatively small area in the Eastern Mediterranean, extending from present day southern Italy to the shores of the Black Sea and Asia Minor (now Turkey). This area includes various coastal regions, what we now recognize as Mainland Greece, and a large number of islands, some large (e.g., Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes) and some quite small.

Mainland Greece, which is an outward southern extension of the Balkan Mountains, falls into a number of clear geographical divisions. In the north is Macedonia (in classical Greek times not considered a full part of Greek civilization), Thessaly (immediately to the south of Macedonia), and Epirus (west of Thessaly, not labeled on the above map). Below Thessaly lies Central Greece, the most important regions of which is Boeotia and the city state of Thebes (home of Oedipus, Cadmus, Teiresias). Immediately off the east coast of Central Greece is a large island, Euboea.

Central Greece leads to a large southern promontory, called the Peloponnese, joined to the rest of Mainland Greece by a narrow isthmus, at the west end of which is the important city state of Corinth. Hence, the isthmus is called the Isthmus of Corinth, and it is a geographical feature of major strategic importance, since any land army seeking to conquer the region or to move from the Peloponnese to invade Attica or Boeotia must pass through this narrow neck of land. The region immediately to the east of the Isthmus of Corinth is called Attica, and the chief city of this region is Athens. Athens is a few miles inland from the sea; its port is called Pireus.

South of the Isthmus of Corinth is the large area of Mainland Greece called the Peloponnese. Immediately to the south of the isthmus is an area called the Argolid, a centre of Mycenaean civilization, with the important cities of Argos (home of Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra, and Orestes) and Mycenae.

The southernmost portion of the Peloponnese is called Laconia, and the chief city state of the region is Sparta, at some distance from the sea and largely hemmed in by mountains. Note that the distance from Macedonia to Sparta as the crow flies (i.e., the approximate length of Mainland Greece) is about 350 miles. The distance from Sparta to Athens by road is about 150 miles. A famous runner is said to have covered that distance in two days.

To the west of Mainland Greece is the Ionian Sea, containing a number of islands, some large like Corfu, and some smaller, like Ithaca (home of Odysseus). To the east of Mainland Greece is the Aegean Sea, with a chain of many islands between the mainland and the coast of Asia Minor.

The largest and most important of the Aegean Islands are Crete, Rhodes, Chios, and Lesbos. Another important Greek island, Cyprus, lies further east. Because of these islands, it is possible to sail from Mainland Greece to Asia Minor and stay within sight of land almost all the way.

Note the prominent feature of the northern Aegean in the large three-pronged promontory extending south just east of Macedonia. This important area is called Chalcidice (birth place of Aristotle).

In the north-east corner of the Aegean is the narrow entrance to the Propontis, an entrance called the Hellespont. To the north-east of the Propontis is the Black Sea, with the narrow channel, the Bosphorus, separating Asia and Eastern Europe (the present site of Istanbul). Located on the Asian mainland, just at the entrance to the Hellespont is the city of Troy (Ilium or Ilion).

To the south of Troy, all down the coast of Asia Minor, is a series of important Greek city-states (e.g., Miletus, Halicarnassus), several originally established as colonies of cities on the mainland. Many of the most important literary figures in classical Greek civilization came from this coast of Asia Minor (called Ionia) or the islands immediately adjacent to it (e.g., Thales, Anaximander, Sappho, Herodotus, Homer).

To the west of Mainland Greece, a number of Greek cities, originating as colonies, developed in Sicily and southern Italy. The most important of these is Syracuse, the largest city in Sicily.

We use the term Greece to include all these areas of Greek culture and civilization. But it is important not to be misled into thinking that the single name refers to a high degree of ethnic and political solidarity among a homogeneous people, the Greeks. The classical Greeks in this area thought of themselves as related and as superior to those who were not Greek, but the city-states tended to be fiercely independent of each other, spent much of their time fighting amongst themselves, and had distinctly different dialects. At times of extreme danger (e.g., from an invasion of the Persians) the city states might band together into a temporary alliance, but as soon as the danger passed, the city-states resumed their independent and frequently quarrelsome ways. The major cultural event they all celebrated together was the Olympian Games. They did share a more or less common religion (but a very flexible one) and regarded some of their traditions as common to all (e.g., Homer).  Within the people we call Greek were somewhat different cultural traditions and dialects.  One major difference is between the Dorians (headed by Sparta) and the Ionians (led by Athens).  Non-Greeks were called barbarians, because their language sounded crude and unsophisticated to Greek ears (like "bar-bar-bar" sounds).

Much of the territory included in the area we designate as Greek territory is very mountainous, with small fertile valleys cut off from neighbours. Land transportation was difficult and dangerous throughout the classical period. Hence, within Greece there were many small, independent city-states, fiercely protective of their territory and, as often as not, very suspicious of and hostile to their neighbours. We cannot speak of the Greeks in the classical period as a unified political entity. And it is almost impossible to keep track of the frequently bewildering shifts in the various alliances between city states from one year to the next.

The city-states (meaning the city and the adjacent land) were generally quite small in area and population (made up of citizens, slaves, resident aliens, women and children). The most populous city state, Athens, with an area of about 1000 square miles, had in 431 BC a population of about 310,000 (about 45,000 of whom were citizens). Sparta, by contrast, although occupying a larger and more fertile area of about 3000 square miles, had a population of about 12,000, the majority of whom were not citizens. Most of the city states were considerably smaller in area and population than Athens or Sparta.  The term city state (polis), incidentally, refers to the city and the surrounding territory.

For many city states the natural form of transportation was by sea. Hence, many city states quickly developed an expertise with ships, fishing, and overseas trading. The latter activity was especially important for those city states, like Athens, which had a relatively poor soil for agriculture. Early in historical time, some parts of Greece, like Attica and Corinth, were deforested. The resultant soil erosion and rapid off-flow of water made agriculture difficult and unprofitable. The inhabitants, therefore, imported grain from Euboea, Thessaly, and Sicily, and cultivated the olive and vine, to export oil and wine, or developed manufacture (especially pottery). Sparta, by contrast, located in a rich agricultural area, was much more self-contained and less committed to trade as essential to its way of life. Hence, its social and political structure remained far more static and conservative than in Athens, where the shifting population and the large number of resident aliens brought about constant pressures for political reform.

To the south of Greece lay Egypt, for much of the time the richest and most centralized culture in the Mediterranean area. To the east of the Ionian cities on the coast of Asia Minor, the Persian Empire developed in the 6th and 5th centuries. The complex relationship between this empire and the various Greek states is a key feature of Greek history up to the point where Alexander the Great (of Macedon) defeated the Persian Empire in the fourth century BC.

Throughout Classical Greek times, the Romans were expanding slowly, consolidating their hold on Italy and the central Mediterranean. But they did not challenge the Greeks seriously until after the time of Alexander, finally overcoming the Greek city states in the mid-second century (BC).

The most important geopolitical fact about this areain Classical Greek times up until modern timesis that it is the traditional meeting place of Europeans and Asians, often marked by the pressure of Eastern empires pushing to control the coast of Asia Minor and enter Europe across the Hellespont or of European powers to extend their control into Asia Minor.


The Origin of the Greeks

Minoan Civilization

Prior to what we call Archaic or Classical Greece, in addition to the highly developed Egyptians to the south, there existed flourishing non-Greek Bronze Age civilization in the Aegean. Especially significant is the Cretan civilization, called the Minoan after the legendary King Minos. This culture seems to have originated with a migration from Asia Minor to Crete about 3000 BC.

Minoan civilization prospered on Crete. The people built very large palaces (most famously, the palace of Knossos), developed a form of hieroglyphic and later linear writing (Linear Script A, not yet deciphered), created outstanding art (especially pottery and frescoes), and established a thriving trade over the eastern Mediterranean. The Minoans were obviously very wealthy and secure; they built their huge palaces without defensive walls. They also possessed a sophisticated religion which may have featured a Nature Goddess as its chief deity and a priest-king as the most important official.

In Greek legend, the most famous fact about Minoan civilization was the notorious labyrinth, at the centre of which was a ferocious wild beast, half bull, half human (the Minotaur), to whom human sacrifices were made. The Minotaur was alleged to the result of the sexual union between a fierce bull and queen Pasiphaea, the wife of Minos, the king. This beast was supposedly killed by the Athenian King Theseus, with the help of Ariadne, daughter of king Minos. Whatever the truth of this legend, the Minoans do seem to have practiced a form of bull jumping, with acrobats vaulting over the horns, either as a religious ceremony or for public entertainment. It seems highly unlikely, however, that this exercise involved the virtually impossible stunt of leaping through the bull's horns and along the animal's back (although that scene is depicted in Minoan frescoes).

One of the great mysteries of Minoan civilization is its sudden annihilation near the end of the 15th century (BC). Around 1600 BC the palaces were destroyed and rebuilt, and Minoan civilization reached its peak. Suddenly, however, around 1400 BC the great palaces were destroyed by fire again, and, although Crete remained an important force in the Aegean, it never regained the glory of the Minoan Age. The cause of the final destruction has been variously explained as an invasion by the Mycenaeans (from mainland Greece), a civil war, or a massive volcanic explosion of the island of Thera about 1500 BC (perhaps the greatest natural disaster to occur since settlements began and a possible source of the legend about Atlantis).


Civilization of Mycenae

Following the destruction of the Minoan palaces, the people of Mycenae, in the Peloponnese, came to dominate much of the Aegean. This culture was centred at Argos and Mycenae (in the Argolid). Where the Mycenaeans came from and whether or not they were among the first Greek-speaking peoples to reach Mainland Greece are disputed questions. It seems that they probably came from Anatolia (now in Western Turkey) either to escape or as part of the first great wave of Indo-European people (who in other places became the Hittites).

The Mycenaeans were clearly different from the Minoans, although much influenced by them. They were a more warlike people, physically larger, patriarchal in social structure, and with different burial customs. They had a form of writing, derived from the Minoans, Linear Script B, which in 1952 was deciphered as a form of Greek (but this fact is disputed).

The heroes of Homer's epics and the legends of Troy are based on Mycenaean oral history. The Greeks and modern scholarship date the Trojan War near the end of the 12th century (BC), traditionally ending in 1184 BC. Given the fundamental importance of these legends to the history of Greece, one can understand why the Greeks themselves and so many modern scholars have identified the Mycenaeans as early Greeks. However, the evidence for this is not conclusive.

Mycenaean civilization has left many outstanding archaeological treasures, largely because the Mycenaeans buried their dead in shaft graves and beehive tombs with a great many rich possessions. The discovery of these tombs by Schliemann in the late nineteenth century is one of the most outstanding achievements in archaeology and has led to a complete reinterpretation of pre-classical Greek history. Schliemann thought that he had uncovered the grave of Agamemnon. In fact, however, what he found is probably from about two hundred years before the traditional date for the Trojan War.

Mycenaean civilization flourished in the 14th and 13th centuries (BC). Near the end of the 12th century Mycenae and other centres were violently destroyed, perhaps by the Indo-European Greek-speaking invaders, or the latest wave of them. Following this destruction (around 1100 BC), the history of Greece enters what has been called the dark ages. The art of writing was lost. Of this era, we know almost nothing. The silence is not broken until the 8th century (BC), when the Homeric epics were composed.


The Arrival of the Greeks

Around 2500 to 2000 BC large groups of Indo-European peoples moved away from the Pontic regions near the Black Sea to the west and south, arriving in Macedonia around 2200 BC. In the thousand years which followed, scholars conjecture, three waves of Indo-Europeans populated Mainland Greece: the Ionians, the Aeolians, and the Dorians (the names indicate different dialects of Greek, which persisted throughout Classical times).

The actual development of the Greek language is disputed. It seems unlikely that the immigrants brought Greek (in one or more dialects) with them in a well-developed form. More likely, the language they had was fundamentally altered in the new territory by contact with the indigenous people, so that what we call Greek, in effect, evolved as a new language out of this mixture (rather like English emerging out of the indigenous language, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, French, and so on). According to this view, the different Greek dialects may not represent different languages of the invaders but may be the result of linguistic developments once the invaders had settled in the new lands.

The arrival of the Dorians (around 1100 BC) forced the earlier Ionians into the poorer sections of Mainland Greece (i.e., Attica) and beyond Attica into the islands and the coast of Asia Minor. The Dorian invaders settled largely in the fertile areas of the Peloponnese, subjugating or displacing the inhabitants, the Messenians.

Central to much of what we study in classical Greek literature evokes a contrast between the Spartan Greeks (of Dorian stock) and the Athenians (of Ionian stock). It is worth remembering that, in terms of their origins, the Athenians were Ionians, naturally related to many of the inhabitants of the Aegean Islands, and that the Spartans were Dorians. This ethnic difference was reinforced by the difference between the agricultural and conservative society in the Peloponnese and the more dynamic trading society of Attica.


A Brief Chronological Table

2500 to 2000 BC

Invasion of Greek-speaking Indo-Europeans into northern Greece (Macedonia) and gradual movement south in three waves (Ionians, Aeloians, Dorians); displacement of earlier Ionians into Attica and the Aegean Islands.

2000 to 1500 BC

The island of Crete was unified under one or two dynasties, which flourished in trade (with Egypt) and in art. Rise of Macedonian power in the Peloponnese.

Minoan Palaces constructed. Linear A Script developed, and later Linear B Script (Greek?)

1400 BC (approximately)

The destruction of the Minoan palaces, perhaps by the power of the Mycenaeans.

1184 BC

Traditional date for the Trojan War, an expedition of Mycenaean powers against Troy.

1100 BC

Destruction of the Mycenaean palaces (by Dorian invaders?). The Dorian invasion of southern Mainland Greece.

1100 to 750 BC

The Dark Ages. One important artistic legacy from this period is the development (around 900 BC) of the Geometric Style of pottery decoration, which emphasized a formal abstract repeating pattern of lines, bands, and shapes. Athens was the most important centre for this art, an important activity for trade.

800 to 600 BC

Extensive colonization from Mainland Greece to Asia Minor and the islands, fostered by distress and food shortages and by ruling aristocrats in the city states.

775 BC

The Dark Ages ended in the eighth century with a Renaissance of sorts, marked above all by the appearance of Homer's epics (composed as oral literature) and the works of Hesiod. Writing was rediscovered about this time. It is not clear whether or not Homer could or did write. By this time Greek colonies in Asia Minor were well established, and in this century the great panhellenic athletic festival at Olympia, the Olympian Games, started (first recorded celebration was in 776 BC).

683 BC

The hereditary kingship was abolished at Athens and the kingship was made into an annual office. The greatest power in the state was the Areopagus Council, made up of the nobles.

650 to 500 BC

Tyrannies arose in Greece, in which ambitious individuals, capitalizing on the distress of the majority of citizens seized power from the aristocrats. The tyrants tended to work against the interests of the big, rich families and to lessen racial differences. Most tyrannies were relatively short lived (about forty years). Sparta consistently opposed tyrannies.

610 BC

The Reforms of Lycurgus at Sparta made the state a severely military one, with a built-in conservative leading group and virtually no mechanism for change. This constitution lasted virtually unchanged for about 500 years.

600 BC

By this period the Athenians had developed the black-figure style in pottery decoration (a design established in dark paint on reddish clay background). Cultural figures of this age include Thales, traditionally the founder of philosophy (fl. 585), Anaximander, an important materialist philosopher (610 to 540), and the great poetess Sappho (b. circa 612).  Only fragments of their work remain.

594 BC

The reforms of Solon at Athens cancelled all debt and reformed the constitution to make it more democratic, shifting much power from the Areopagus Council to a democratic assembly. This period is traditionally the time in which Pythagoras (581 to 497) established his school of philosophy.

561 BC

Pisistratus made himself tyrant at Athens. He was expelled but returned in 546. He organized a number of the more important festivals and inaugurated building programs to celebrate the greatness of Athens. Under his rule, the Homeric epics were probably written more or less in the form which they have come down to us.

535 BC

Thespis, traditionally the first actor, won the first prize when tragedy was first performed in Athens at the feast of the Dionysia. This is the period of the philosopher Heraclitus (544 to 483).

530 BC

In Athens the red-figure style was introduced in pottery technique, in which the background is filled in with black, and the figures left in the original clay colour. This technique provided greater freedom for detail on the pottery designs. This is the period of Parmenides (b. circa 515) and Anaxagoras (500 to 428).

511 BC

Under the reforms of Cleisthenes, an Athenian statesman, the city became more democratic, breaking the power of the old families, by undercutting the regional or economic basis for selection to office. This step is generally taken as the decisive step in the establishment of democracy at Athens. The start of the fifth century ushers in what is referred to in the history of Greek art as the Classical Period.

498 BC

The Ionian cities on the coast of Asia Minor revolted against Persia (which had expanded to take them over). Athens sent some help to the Ionian cities, but the revolt was crushed by the Persians. This is the period of the famous poet Pindar (520 to 447).

493 BC

The Athenian statesman Themistocles began to fortify the Pireus (the port of Athens), linking Athens and Pireus with defensive walls, so as to protect the city against military invasion.

490 BC

In retaliation for the Athenian assistance to the Ionian cities in the revolt against Persia (see entry for 498 BC), the Persian king, Darius, sent an expedition by sea to attack Athens. The Persians landed in Euboea, and the Greek force there, under the leadership of Athens, defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490). The Spartans missed the battle because they had to observe a religious rite and were delayed. The messenger Pheidippides is said to have run from the battlefield to Athens, shouted out "Rejoice, we conquer!" and fallen dead. The defeat of the Persians at this battle was, for many Greeks, the most outstanding achievement of their culture. The length of the marathon race in modern athletics derives from this distance. Around this time lived Empedocles (490 to 430) and contests in comedy began in Athens (in 486).

480 BC

In order to avenge his father's defeat, Darius's son, Xerxes, King of Persia, launched a second invasion of Greece. He marched across the Hellespont with a huge army, down into Greece from the north, defeating the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, and started laying Attica to waste. The Athenians defeated Xerxes's navy at the Battle of Salamis (480) and the combined Greek forces (under Spartan leadership) defeated the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea (479) and, in Ionia, the Battle of Mycale (479), thus ending the second major threat from Persian invasion.

The cultural life of this period is marked by the major figures of Aeschylus (525 to 456), Sophocles (496 to 406), Herodotus (484 to 420). The Oresteia was first performed in the dramatic contest in 458..

479 to 432 BC

In this period the Athenians, under the leadership of Pericles (495 to 429), created their empire from an alliance of states first formed to combat the Persians. The Spartans, in response, developed their own system of alliances. The Athenians sought to bolster democracy at home by paying judges (assemblies of citizens). The cultural energy of the previous decade continued with the work of Hippocrates (b. 460), Democritus (b. 460), Euripides (485 to 406), Thucydides (460), Socrates (469 to 399). Sophocles's Antigone was performed in 443. Many of the major architectural buildings were created in this period: e.g., Zeus's Temple at Olympia (470 to 456), the Parthenon (447 to 433),

Pericles commissioned the building of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis using the money gathered as tribute from the allies of Athens. The leading sculptor was Phidias (500 to 435); the architects were Ictinus and Callicrates.

431 to 404 BC

The Peloponnesian War between the Greek city states broke out in 431, with Athens and its allies fighting Sparta and its allies. Right after the outbreak of war, there was a plague in Athens, in which Pericles died (in 429). During the war, a number of major works of literature were created including Euripides' Medea (431), Sophocles' Oedipus the King (429), Herodotus' Histories, and a number of plays by Aristophanes (The Clouds in 423, The Birds in 414, The Frogs in 405).

In 411 the oligarchs in Athens (a group of rich and powerful citizens) set up the Council of Four Hundred, trying to overthrow the democracy. But the Athenian fleet would not agree, so the attempted coup failed and democracy was restored quickly.

In 404, the oligarchs tried again, this time under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants. They subverted the democracy, seized power, and instituted a reign of terror against the democratic parties. This oligarchy was destroyed and democracy restored by the summer 403. Meanwhile, however, the Spartan navy had defeated the Athenian navy, bringing the Peloponnesian War to an end with the defeat of the Athenians. In the aftermath of all this political upheaval, Socrates was tried, condemned, and executed in 399 BC.

387 to 343

Plato began writing his Socratic dialogues, traveled to Italy and Sicily, and returned to Athens to found the Academy, the first "university" in Europe. Aristotle came to Athens (from Macedonia) in 367 to study at the Academy. He stayed until Plato's death in 348 BC.

Philip, King of Macedon, began extending his power, capturing Olynthus in 348. Philip invited Aristotle to become the tutor of his son Alexander (b. 356).

338 BC

Philip of Macedon defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Chaeronea, thus effectively making Macedon the major controlling power on the Greek mainland.

336 BC

Philip of Macedon was assassinated (perhaps by his wife). Alexander became king of Macedon. Greek city states rose in rebellion. Alexander destroyed Thebes (335) and left a garrison army (under Antipater) to control Greece while he prepared to invade Persia.

335 BC

Aristotle returned to Athens to found a school, the Lycaeum. While in Athens he composed the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics (or the notes on which those works are based).

333 to 323 BC

Alexander the Great invaded Asia, defeated the Persian King Darius as Issus (335), conquered Tyre and Jerusalem (332), defeated the Persians again and finally at Gaugamela (331), occupied Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis (330), invaded India (327). Forced by his army to turn back, he died in Babylon in 323. The Greeks rebelled against the Macedonian authorities in Greece. Aristotle was forced to leave Athens. He died the following year in Epirus.

The period following the death of Alexander the Great is called the Hellenistic Age (lasting until 30 BC). The centre of Greek Hellenism was Alexandria, in Egypt, founded by Alexander the Great and taken over by Ptolemy, one of Alexander's surviving generals.

321 to 311 BC

Wars among Alexander's successors over the division of his empire led to a break up of Alexander's achievement.

This chronology ends here since the literature we study belongs to the period outlined above. In the 4th and 3rd centuries (BC) Rome grew in power, until Roman armies overpowered the Greek city states, so that by about 150 BC Greece was a Roman province.


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