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Classical Greece

Classical Greece

Ancient Greek civilization

Toward the end of the 6th century B.C. there was an event which was to have a profound influence on Greek History. The relations of Ionian Greek cities in Asia Minor and their in-land neighbors had been friendly until the end of the 7th century when they fell under the control of the in-land state of Lydia.

The Lydians in turn were defeated by the expanding state of Persia in 546 B.C. and the Greek cities of Ionia automatically became a part of the vast Persian Empire. But, in 499 B.C. these Greek cities revolted assisted by Athens. Darius, the Persian King, was determined to punish the cities which had defied him. He sent a fleet of transports to the coast of Attica (490 B.C.). The troops disembarked in the bay of Marathon, and were attacked by a small force of Athenians who had marched from Athens. The Persians were defeated and hastily re-embarked for home.

Ten years later Xerxes the successor of Darius dispatched another expedition. The army came by land through Macedonia, and the fleet sailed along the coast. The army was halted at the pass of Thermopylae by only 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians, whose heroic resistance held the whole army of 220,000 for 3 days until they were killed in battle. This small delay gave warning to the Greek states to prepare for defense.

The Persians pressed on to Attica. They took Athens and destroyed all of the buildings on the Acropolis. The Greek fleet, however, more than half of which was an Athenian, defeated the Persian fleet in the Bay of Salamis. In the following year, the Persian army, which had withdrawn to an entrenched camp on the North slope of the Mountain of Cithaeron near the town of Plataeai, was defeated by a Confederate Greek Army. Salamis and Plataeai were decisive and the Persian menace was thus effectively removed. Europe was saved at this time from Asiatic presence and influence. The 5 city-states, Athens, Sparta, Thebes, Argos and Corinth, each had acquired their individuality with which they were henceforth to be associated in later times. The subsequent history of Greece until the time of the Roman conquest was to be, in a great measure, the history of the interrelation of these 5 city-states.

Athens soon rose into power by taking advantage of the newly formed Delian League. The immense wealth that flowed into the city from its allies, in combination with the successful administration by Pericles, was the cause for the dawn of the Golden Age. Democracy, development, philosophical and artistic triumph were only some of the key features to characterize these years. This course of events provoked the envy of Athen’s greatest competitor, Sparta. In a quest to increase their sphere of influence, the two city states and their allies marched into a civil conflict, destined to be known as the Peloponnesian War. Although Sparta emerged victoriously, a turmoil of constant divisions was to dominate through the first half of the 4th century, where Thebes also began to get dynamically involved. The sway of power, the undecided outcomes and finally permitted to Macedonia to play a more active role.


The Persian Empire during the sixth century covered an enormous amount of land east of the Aegean Sea.

The Persian Empire during the sixth century covered an enormous amount of land east of the Aegean Sea. The Persians were ruled by one king whose task was to control the internal affairs of the entire empire. This unit consisted of many small places, including much of Asia Minor, Ethiopia, Persia, and as the Far East as India. They were competent administrators and their communication system was superior. They had paved streets and a relay system similar to the Pony Express. Because their empire spread over such a large amount of land, their military consisted of thousands of soldiers, making them somewhat invincible. Many others, including the Greeks, were frightened when the word “Persian” was mentioned. From the Greeks point of view, the Persians were uncivilized and were nicknamed “Barbarians” because most of their language seemed to consist of the words “Bar-Bar”. The Persians also differed from Greeks, in other cultural aspects. The main point is that the Persians and the Greeks were quite different groups of people.

Looking at the Greek side, Ionia, Sparta and Athens led the score. Ionia, located on the coast of Asia Minor, where Turkey is today, was named after Ion, the son of the Greek god, Apollo. The Ionians although Greek were considered part of the Persian Empire. Their intervention was crucial, as it shall be seen in the Ionian Revolt, which commenced the Persian Wars. Sparta was known for its great military power in the Hellenic world. They were of Dorian decent which captured most of Greece, in the early years, with their iron spears that were harder and more destructive than bronze. Young boys were trained for war and to be tough. Many times refrained from eating, sleeping, and were never allowed to cry. This would teach them how to be “street smart” and have cunning. They were brave men of few words. The Spartans ruled the Perioikoi and the Helots (suburban residents and slaves of previous wars). This was known as aristocratic power. Because their government was so unbalanced, that is the rich making all the decisions, much of the Spartans’ life consisted of keeping control of the Helots. They were afraid that they would get infuriated and attempt to revolt against their superiors. This is an important aspect, as we will see in up and coming battles. Athens, like Sparta, originally had an aristocratic system. Tyrants, however, took over in the late 600’s B.C. It wasn’t until the late 500’s B.C. that democracy was created. The Athenian Army, made up of Hoplites, but especially the Navy played a major role in many of the battles to come.

In 521 B.C Cambyses, the King of Persia, dies and the Darius succeeds him to the throne. Many of the smaller cities that consisted the Persian Empire claimed that King Darius and his immense army were invincible. They were kept under a grip of terror, never disobedient to his commands.

In 512 B.C Darius went on a field trip to Scythia, located north of the Black Sea. There are different reasons why Darius decided on this trip. Some say it was owned to his greed and arrogance, that demanded he conquered all of Europe. Taking Scythia was just a part of a plan that would assist him to win Greece. Others suggest he was attracted to the riches of the Ural mines, or to gain the fertile black-earth regions of southern Russia. Darius’ course involved a naval expedition to Greek towns around the Hellespont and the north coast of the Black Sea. Along for the ride were his infantry and cavalry which crossed on two bridges that were made by boats. As Darius got closer, the Scythians retreated burning everything to waste in front of Darius. This went on for several days and finally Darius got tired of advancing finding only scorched land everywhere. He decided to quit and head back to Persia. This was considered to be a victory for the Scythians and word spread quickly that the once invincible army had been defeated. The Ionians noted this failure and seized the moment to make the first attempt at a revolt. Although they were defeated easily, this was a significant attempt that would shape the future.

In 500 B.C, Aristagoras, the Persian tyrant of Miletus proposes to Lydia that they should conquer the Aegean islands starting with the richest of the Cyclades, Naxos. They were unaware of the strong defense of Naxos, which was due to the active organization of its democratic system. Twice in fifteen years the Persian Empire had demonstrated they were beatable. The Ionian tyrants were expelled from Persian rule. The Ionians once again took the opportunity to revolt, with Aristagoras as their leader. This time, they asked their Greek brothers for help. Sparta, always reluctant for distant expeditions, denies aid, fearing their Helots may revolt. Athens, on the other hand, supplies 20 ships (a considerable amount at this time) and Eretria, an Athenian ally, sends 5.

In 498 B.C these forces set out from Ephesus to Sardis, where they burned it, slaughtered the men, and took the women and children into slavery. Darius decides that he must stop this revolt at once and heads out to defeat the insurgents by sea. The royal army of Asia Minor arrives and holds the Ionian infantry in check, while the Phoenician squadron is dispatched to Cyprus. Athens decides to withdraw its troops which in turn cause the Ionians to be defeated.

The Ionian revolt lasted for six years and the fight for freedom and democracy had failed. Despite winning the battle, Darius knew the significance of this episode. There would always be constant upheavals among the Ionians if Greece was not conquered.

King Darius, dissatisfied with the size of his empire, decides to rule Greece. To prove his power he sends out heralds asking each city-state to give a token of earth and water. The message was said unto these cities that if they should agree, he leaves their city harmless when he passed through, but if they denied Persia would become their enemies. This was of course autarchic aggression. Most city-states gave in, due to fear and concern for their cities. However, Athens and Sparta were so outraged that they treated these messengers in a rude and cruel fashion, sometimes slaying them by having them thrown down wells.

Darius, upon learning this horrible news, proclaimed he would punish the Greeks. He was already upset with Athens, who assisted the Ionian revolt. So in 490 B.C, he heads out to discipline both Eretria and Athens. The fleet was under the command of 2 generals whose names were Datis and Sardis. They made a fine team, combining military expertise and political knowledge. On the way, the Persians stopped at Naxos to secure the command of the Cyclades and the Aegean Sea. The inhabitants, upon seeing the great fleet on the horizon, abandoned their city and fled towards the nearby hills. Next stop, Delos, one of the holiest places in Greece. Legends claimed that it was the birth place of Apollo. Here the Persians gave offerings and then continued their course, leaving Delos unharmed. At Eretria, all the people had run behind the walls of the city, shut the door and held on tight. Their defense held out for several days before they were betrayed. Someone had let the Persians in. From then on there was no contest. The enemy pillaged and destroyed the temples and got their revenge for the raid of Sardis. Their next target was Marathon. During the Ionian revolt, Athens had exiled her tyrant, Hippias. In the meantime Hippias had headed for Persia, where, he met King Darius and together they planned their revenge on Athens. Once in Attica, Hippias would provide military intelligence and political influence. It was at Marathon that Hippias was certain the Persians would finally have the Greeks at their mercy.

In Attica the war-rumors were starting to arrive from all directions. Before they knew it a ship from the Aegean Sea had brought the news. “The Persians are coming!” The generals assembled in Athens and agreed that help from Sparta would be required. The quickest way to get the message there was by sending a runner, Pheidippides, who had won the races in the Olympic Games. He actually managed to run 150 miles, from Athens to Sparta, in 2 days. When he gave the message to the Spartans, they agreed to send help to Marathon, but not before the full moon. This would not be for another 5 days. This was typical of the Spartans, always hesitating and having an excuse not to go far from their homeland, because of the fear of a Helot revolt.

In the meantime, the other Greek city-states, faced with disaster put their domestic disputes in the closet to unite and stop their common enemy. The Athenians decided not to stay in Athens and hide behind the walls, since the disaster of Eretria was still fresh on their minds. Although they were renowned for fighting in their cities, they assumed it would catch their enemy off guard if they met the Persians elsewhere.

So the Athenians decided to meet the Persians 22 miles away from Athens, at Marathon. Several thousand capable men of all ages, occupations, and wealth packed up and marched out to Marathon. They left behind a vulnerable city, with the women taking care of the children. Miltiades was the Athenian leader. He had gained many enemies, but his knowledge of violence and Persian war techniques were outstanding. The Athenian army consisted of part-time soldiers, for unlike Sparta, Athens had no full-time army. They were, however, skilled at arms and physical activities. They were strong, brilliantly trained, and well-equipped.

The Persians had just arrived at Marathon when the Athenian crew took their position high on the mountain range. There they observed the eastern enemies unloading their equipment, making camp, and searching for food. A stalemate occurred as the days and nights passed, both armies watching one another. The Persians would much rather battle on the long flat plain, rather than take the chance of going up the rugged hills, where the advantage would be to the Athenians. On the other hand, the Athenians were waiting for their Spartan allies to arrive before they attacked. After the Athenians heard from Pheidippides that the Spartans would not be coming for a while, the mood shifted. Miltiades feared the longer they waited, the more chance of his soldiers becoming panicked and not unwilling to fight. So, he gave a motivating speech to lift the morale of his troops. At the same time, the arrival of 600 Plataeans, another Athenian ally, boosted their spirits. The Greek people, being faithful to their gods, so the Athenians made an animal sacrifice to observe what the gods would reveal. The verdict was in, the omens were good.

Before attacking, the generals put their men into a strategic formation. Knowing that the Persian army was strong in the center, and weaker on the wings, the Athenians decided to counter by making their wings stronger than their center. The Plataeans held the left, while the Athenians took the right. They descended swiftly downhill, 9,000 in number, consisting mostly of Hoplites, headed toward the beaches of Marathon to take on the Persians. The Persians were caught somewhat unaware. They did not expect the Greeks to meet them on their favorable ground. The Persians were used to settling their battles from a distance, using their bows and arrows. When the Greeks, marching at a steady pace, were within 200 yards the Persians aimed high and shot their arrows. It was at this moment that the Greeks surged suddenly, causing the arrows to miss. This might have baffled the Persians and there was no time for a second shot, but only to get their side arms ready for hand-to-hand combat. The strategic plan had worked. The Greek wings held tough while the Persians invaded the center, continuing to slaughter the barbarians and then turning to help their center, engulfing the Persians. The easterners were not used to this situation, which provoked them quite a panic. They retreated in chaos, pushing one another into the marsh at the end of the plain, where they were still being attacked by the Greeks. In the end 6,400 Persians were killed compared to the 192 Greek deaths.

Although the mood of the Persian armada must have been very gloomy, they attempted to transform this defeat into an overall victory. Darius knew that Athens was defenseless with all of its soldiers at Marathon. The Persians decide to double around Cape Sunium to try to reach Athens by sea before the Athenian soldiers can return there on foot. However, the Greeks were clever enough to realize that this might be on their enemies’ minds. Thus, they left a group of people to tend to the wounded and all the able-bodied men would head back to save their city. The trip was very strenuous, but they soon appreciated their return. Their efforts rewarded them well, for the Persians were still not in sight when the marching army arrived. When Datis and his fleet arrived, they lingered awhile offshore, but had no intentions of fighting a second battle. Outsmarted twice in one day, the Persians took their way home.

Although the Ionians and the islands of the Cyclades didn’t rebel, the Persian Empire was still threatened by an independent Greece. The Athenians had now felt a sense of power, after defeating the Persians at Marathon. Before they had measured their success only against Boeotia, Megara, and Chalcis. The courage of her infantry had achieved great status, showing their mobility through rough terrain and in spite of heavy equipment.

In 486 B.C, four years after the defeat at Marathon, King Darius died, leaving his son Xerxes as the new Persian King. Almost immediately Xerxes began to plan his next move to Greece. It is stated, in his preparations for the attack, Xerxes abandoned his father’s pretence of aiming only at the punishment of Athens; the size of the new expedition proclaimed that it was designed to subdue all of Greece.

By 480 B.C, the army he assembled had approximately 100,000 to 180,000 men and a fleet of nearly 600 ships, quite a large army by Greek standards. This time, instead of an invasion by sea, this massive army would cross the Hellespont, which separated the Aegean and Black Seas. The army would then march around the Aegean and conquer Greece by land. An army this size would be too hard to ferry across the sea anyway. Crossing the Hellespont proved to be troublesome to Xerxes and his army. When the infuriated King Xerxes heard of this, he gave orders that the sea should receive 300 lashes with whips (!) The sea did calm down and the second attempt to build a bridge was successful.

Sparta’s first defense plan was to fall back to the thinnest part of Greece, which happened to be south of Athens and several other of the Greek city-states. This place was Thermopylae, a pass where it was only 60 feet wide! This is only wide enough so that a single chariot could fit through the pass. The Persian army finally arrived at Thermopylae and the Greeks were there waiting for a heroic battle.

The pass at Thermopylae was an ideal place to withstand an attack. Because of its natural narrowness, even with an army as large as the Persians had, only a small number could actually fight at any one time.

The Greek army, amounting to 10,000 soldiers, did manage to hold back the Persians for a time. Some believe that the Greeks could have stopped the invasion right there at Thermopylae. There are two reasons given why this did not happen. The first was that a traitor named Ephialtes showed the Persians a way to outflank the Greeks, by revealing to them a secret passage. The large Persian army was traveling in three groups, each taking different paths through the mountains. However, due to this turnover, the Greeks were outflanked and on the edge of defeat. In an amazing display of bravery, King Leonidas of Sparta remained behind with 300 of his troops and 700 Thespians in order to hold back the Persians while the rest made their retreat. Leonidas and his troops managed to hold the Persians just long enough for the rest of the Greek forces to fall back to a better position, although they all sacrificed their lives to do so. Moreover the losses suffered by the Persians in the meantime were extremely heavy.

After the defeat at Thermopylae, Sparta decided to fall back to the original plan of defense. Athens was quickly evacuated and her people fled to the island of Salamis. With nothing standing in the Persians’ way, they moved in, sacked and burned the entire city of Athens (including the Acropolis and the Parthenon). Once Xerxes learned where the people of Athens had fled to, he decided to launch a naval assault, a fight that would be called the Battle of Salamis.

Salamis, a city on an island off the southwestern coast of central Greece, where there was a narrow channel of water between the island and the mainland, was to be the final stand for the Athenians. Knowing that winter would soon be arriving, King Xerxes decided on a naval assault on the remaining Athenians and their ships stationed at Salamis. The Persian fleet was lessened somewhat thanks to a sudden storm, but still considerably a larger force than the Greeks. King Xerxes ordered for himself a marble throne to be placed upon a Cliffside overlooking the battle area, so that he could enjoy the spectacle. Or so he presumed…

The Athenian general Themistocles lured the Persian navy into the channel between the island and the mainland with a ruse. As the navy entered the narrow channel, they could only enter in three ships at a time, causing even the size advantage of the Persians to be of little help. After the Persians advanced, the Greek navy attacked, surrounding the front of the Persian navy and causing confusion within them. With little room for the Persians to maneuver, the front lines started to retreat from the ambush, only to cause the ranks behind them to ram the retreating ranks! Other ships were run aground or rammed by the Greek navy as they attacked. The Persian navy suffered heavy losses and was utterly defeated by the Greek tactics. King Xerxes, upon watching his ignominious defeat at Salamis, fled urgently back to Persia with what was left of his navy and part of his army.

Xerxes was not however done with Greece. He may have chosen to return to Persia, but he left behind a sizable force, including cavalry, under the command of the Persian general Mardonius. With winter approaching, the remaining Persian army withdrew from Athens after burning all that could be burned and settled in central Greece to spend the winter. The whole Greek army, numbering about 39,000 men, rallied up from Corinth, joining up with the remaining Athenian army to chase the remaining Persians from Greece. The battlefield was to be in the city of Plataea, in the spring of 479 B.C. The skilled Spartans fought sturdily and withstood the charge of the Persians. Victorious and free, the Greeks were able to drive the largest empire of the time out of their country not once, but twice! Never again did a Persian king dared to send an army or navy to Greece.


Rise of Democracy

The Archaic years were a period of experiment in methods of government in Athens, as well as in other areas. Athens passed from monarchy to archonship and to oligarchy. The rich industrialist Solon (638-588 B.C.) as one of the archons was given dictatorial power to introduce constitutional and social reforms on democratic lines (594 B.C.). This included the emancipation of the peasantry, curtailment of aristocratic power and the codification of Athenian law. From 560 to 528 B.C. the tyrant Peisistratos was in power, a period of great artistic and architectural activity. In 507 BC the reforms of Cleisthenes introduced a genuinely democratic constitution in which the assembly of citizens had sovereign power.

This led to the establishment of the fundamental principle of democracy, and that equality before the Law (isonomia). The other city-states after similar experiments, arrived at democratic governmental reform, with the exception of Sparta, which retained its peculiar dual kingship and constitution based on the rigid military code.

The founding fathers of the United States of America drew heavily upon the political and philosophical experience of Ancient Greece in forming representative democracy.

The league founded in 477 B.C. and was under the presidency of Athens. It included hardly any other state besides those that had conducted the defense of Greece. It was formed, almost entirely, of the states which had been liberated from Persian rule by the great victories of the war. The Delian League, even in the form in which it was first established, as a confederation of autonomous allies, marks an advance in political conceptions. Provision is made for annual revenue, for periodical meetings of the council, and for a permanent executive. It is a real federation, though an imperfect one. The fleet was mainly Athenian, the commanders entirely so; the assessment of the tribute was in Athenian hands; there was no federal court appointed to determine questions at issue between Athens and the other members; and, the worst omission of all, the right of secession was left undecided. By the middle of the century the Delian League has become the Athenian empire. Henceforward the imperial idea, in one form or another, dominates Greek politics. Athens failed to extend its authority over the whole of Greece. Her empire was overthrown after the Peloponnesian War; but the triumph of autonomy proved the triumph of imperialism. The Spartan empire succeeds to the Athenian, and, when it is finally shattered at Leuctra (371 B.C.), the hegemony of Thebes, which is established on its ruins, is an empire in all but name. The decay of Theban power paves the way for the rise of Macedon.

Pericles was born in 495 B.C. He was born into the family of the Alcmaeonids, who played a large political and financial role in Greece for many centuries. His mother was Agariste, the sister of Cleisthenes, and his father was Xanthippus. He commanded an Athenian contingent of the allied fleet. Because he belonged to a wealthy family, and had rich friends, he was able to travel and meet envoys. This travel and exploring gained him much experience.

Pericles gained power by way of the law courts after a hearing, because of his natural ability. He ran for office, to be a general. Pericles was chosen as a statesman, because this way his opinions counted considerably. This period is known as the “Age of Pericles”.

In 448 B.C., after Cimon’s death, peace had finally been concluded with Persia. Six years before this, the allied treasury had been transferred, and now the funds were under Athenian management. These funds were applied by Pericles for the rebuilding of temples that were destroyed by the Persians. After the peace with Sparta, a critical step in the transition from the league to the empire was taken in the year of 454-453 B.C., when the treasury of the Delian League was moved from Delos to the Acropolis of Athens. The Athenians took one-sixtieth of the tribute paid by the allies as first fruits for the goddess Athena Polias, patroness of the city. The Athenians began to grow exceptionally wealthy. The League was no longer at war with Persia and the tax money kept rolling in. When Cimon died in 448, Pericles replaced him as leader of the state. He married Aspasia which was most likely a woman of exceptional intellect and physical beauty.

In 443 B.C., his power became even greater by allowing no possible competitor to get in the way. In this year, Thucydides was ostracized and went into exile. Anaxagoras was also exiled from Athens, charged with immorality. Others experienced similar fates. This left Pericles in complete control. This left him in control during part of the Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 B.C.

Pericles possessed quite an affection for Athens. He was distinguished by lofty ideals for uplifting Athens culturally, and spent a lot of money to beautify the city. His love of Athens motivated the citizens to be good fighters during the battles. Despite all of his attempts at saving his great city, Athens finally lost. The men grew desperate, and democracy proved to be a failure. Pericles died in the year 429 B.C. of a plague that broke within the city walls, while war did not end before 404 B.C. A dictatorship was left behind.

While the war was raging, Pericles gave a memorable speech to the Athenians over who died in the war, his famous ‘Epitaph’. There he praised the freedom of the country, liberal education, and the love of beauty and wisdom which provided many pleasures, such as festivals and contests. When it came to fighting, Athenians were just as tough as Spartans.

With the wealth that poured into Athens from the Delian League, Pericles funded the restoration projects that repaired the damage that had been done during the Persian Wars. Athens experienced an unprecedented burst of artistic activity. It is said that the quality of these works was even more amazing than the quantity.

During this period, he introduced many innovations. He had proposed to the people that jurymen should be paid, and the people agreed through the process of voting. This allowed poor people to take the time from other business. Another law that he proposed was about citizenship. He refused citizenship to anyone if both of their parents were not Athenian-born.

Pericles funded many new building projects. The most splendid of these was the Parthenon. The Parthenon, dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, was the jewel in the crown of the Periclean building program. It carried architecture to a new height of refinement. Great comedies and tragedies were produced and acted out during religious festivals at the theatre of Dionysus. He also developed the Athenian agora, the city’s central marketplace. The agora fostered trade for spices, honey, olives, oil and slaves from all around the world. It was also the center of Athenian civic life and contained temples, courts, the council house, and other public buildings.

These new projects enabled the poorer citizens of Athens to work with abundant income. It also made Athens the most beautiful city in the ancient world. At the height of its time Athens may have had a population of 200,000 people. The thriving city had a democratic constitution and a prosperous way of life. Citizens gained respect for their wonderful city and they prided themselves on its achievements.