Ancient Greece:

Unit Notes and Commentary


I.                   Hellas: the land

A.     As ancient Greeks called their land, consists of the Greek Peninsula and the Aegean Sea.

B.     Extension of the Balkan Mountains.

C.     See quote p. 117

D.    Rivers are non-existent; thus we get our first non-river based civilization.  Thus, many of the idiosyncrasies of Greek civilization can be explained by the lack of a dynamic river system.

E.     A land blessed with great harbors and sea access

F.      Dynamic location between Europe and Asia Minor.

G.    Was Geography a hindrance for the Ancient Greeks?  What aspects were hindrances?  Helpful?


II.                The First Greeks:

A.     Archaeology has not revealed an exact date for the birth of Mycenaean (My-sin-e-an) Civilization.  Common belief is that the Mycenaean’s were an Indo European Group that migrated at roughly the same time that their Hittite, Persian, and Aryan counterparts infested Mesopotamia, Persia, and India respectively.

B.     1650 is one acceptable time scale given to Mycenaean beginnings.  Great city of Mycenae (My-scene-e)

C.     Greeks merged with these peoples and formed Modern Greek civilization.

D.    This epoch is known as the Heroic period and is recount in the works of Homer.  The Iliad and the Odyssey.  Both of which are available in my room for reading.

E.     Most of these legends deal with the semi-historical war; the Trojan War.

F.      Discovered by the legendary archaeological excavation in Turkey.

G.    Sir Arthur Evans also unveiled another civilization at the turn of the Century-the Minoans.  Named after the legendary Minoan (My-know-an) King; Minos.  This civilization existed on the island of Crete, they spoke a script unknown to modern scientists: Linear A.  Here is a Linear A script link…if you would like to take a crack at deciphering it!  Here is another one, comparing it to the early Greek/Mycenaean language of Linear B, which we have translated.

H.    Considering the unknown script all we know about Minoan civilization comes from excavation and scientific study of the island and the legendary castle that sits upon it; Knossos.

I.       The society dominated by kings and the nobles of their court.

J.      Minoans served as a cultural bridge (Diffusion) as they traded with Asia Minor, Europe, and Egypt.

K.    Mycenaean civilization began to flourish about 1650 with settlements in Athens, Thebes, Sparta and Pylos.

L.     The Political structure of Ancient Greece was the Kingdom, far from its later democratic roots.

M.  Kings drew their legacy and power from the splendor and size of their castle.  Scribes kept accurate records of taxation in Linear B a relative of Linear A. 

N.    An extensive division of labor tightly controlled from the palace controlled the economy.

O.    Minoan/Mycenaean contacts were initially peaceful and commercially productive however this relationship soured in the 1450 when Mycenaean’s attacked Crete destroying palaces and conquering Knossos (Cnossus).  The island was in foreign hands for the next 50 years.  The palace will be largely destroyed (see Greek PowerPoint for images) by whom the occupying Mycenaean’s or the revolting Minoans is uncertain.

P.      Whatever the reason the fall of Minoan civilization led to a further resurgence in trade for the Mycenaean’s and the early Greeks.  The civilization of the Minoans and Mycenaean’s is known collectively as Pre-Greek or Aegean civilization.

Q.    While this group certainly prospered, it quickly entered into a period of decline due to the likely invasion by foreigners known as Dorians.   However, the evidence points to a series of internal conflicts that are in response to the Mycenaean’s warlike nature, and it is likely that the Dark ages of 1100-800 BC were caused by Mycenaean’s themselves.  This period saw a decline in trade, farming, and even literacy!

R.    However, this Dark Age was not without its benefits as the age saw massive migrations of Greeks out of the centralized areas to Crete, Asia Minor and Turkey, spreading their ideas with them and creating the basis for a Greek Empire.


III.             Homer, Hesiod, and The Heroes of the Past:

A.     The Greeks unlike any of our civilizations had no single sacred series of religious texts that enhanced our historical understanding of them.

B.     They did however possess the writings of the legendary (fictional) blind poet Homer.

C.     The writings spoke of heroes, heroines, and a time where gods walked the earth and played with humans as if they were clay figurines.

                                                              i.      This represents much of the problems that relate to Greek history and that is that much of our awareness and understanding comes from fictitious accounts, and thus our analysis is not of a primary source basis rather is interpretive. 

D.    The basis of Greek religion, however can be traced to the epic poem Theogony by Hesiod. 

E.     The writings of Hesiod and Homer are dated to roughly the same time as Greece was emerging out of the Dark Ages and into the age of Heroes.

F.      Accounts-accounts of Achilles the tragic hero and his conflict with the Mycenaean king Agamemnon.

G.    Odyssey-the account of the hero Odysseus and his journey home from Troy encountering and surviving the gamesmanship of the God.

H.    It is in these stories and Theogony by Hesiod that we see glimpses of the Greek mythological beginnings and their pessimistic portrayal of their anthromophorbic gods.

I.       For more “divine” inspiration please see the information on Greek Mythology on the Greek PowerPoint on the website.

J.      Story of Hesiod and his familial dispute sums up the afterlife and the perspective of Greek Gods and Justice/Morality.


IV.              Polis:

A.     The basic political state in Greece, the Polis or Greek City-State

B.     Three dominant Polis’ Athens, Thebes and Sparta, the rest of the peninsula was dotted with small city-states who could not muster multi-regional support.  See map 5.1

C.     City, town and the countryside-definition.  Similar to a medieval fiefdom in geographical terms.

D.    Later in the 5th century these cities were walled, for protection from attack generated by other polis’.

E.     Polis contained (see PP for pictures) an Acropolis, or an elevated point of the Polis.

F.      Agora: market place

G.    Surrounding areas, farm and wasteland the objects of wealth in Greece.

H.    Given the roots of Greek Democracy it is widely believed that towns and Polis structures outside the big three were quite small.

I.       This small, cozy nature provided Greece with some of its character and mystique.  The close-knit society made for easy governance and a close knit personable society.  Unlike the vacuous empires of the past in which Kings were almost mythological.

J.      You will find no divine type emperor in Greek society due to this structure in Greece.

K.    Nor will you find armies, rather wealthy individuals kept cavalries in the name/good of the society.

L.     Greek Political Terms: (Founders of most things political)

                                                              i.      Monarchy: rule by one man

                                                            ii.      Aristocracy: “Best people”

                                                          iii.      Oligarchy: rule of a few (over the many)

                                                          iv.      Democracy: rule by all citizens.

                                                            v.      Tyranny: rule by one who had seized power via extra legal means.

                                                          vi.      Whoever controlled the power wealthy or poor dictated system; poor/commoners usually drove system to Democracy, wealthy to Oligarchy.

                                                        vii.      As a result of this intimate relationship…the Greeks allowed nearly no foreigners into their realm.

M.  Birth of Greek Federalism came with the creation of multiple-polis states, which inevitably led to one becoming more powerful.

N.    Greeks were so intensely individualistic that they had a very difficult time creating a large-scale society due to the intense feelings about Democracy and the freedom of individuals.


V.                 Lyric Age

A.     Based on the great literary genius of the post-dark age period.  Poets and politics dominated the era.

B.     Overseas expansion into the areas across the Mediterranean also crucial.  This period and the expansion were vital for the Greeks as had they not moved abroad they would not have survived given the agrarian handicaps of the peninsula.

C.     Given the climactic similarities of the region it was easy to adapt to any new surrounding whether on the Italian peninsula, Cyprus or The Eastern Mediterranean.

D.    Archilochus: a member of the colonial organizations and a brilliant poet.  Energetic, self-reliant, angry adventurous and obscene.

E.     Sappho: born on the island of Lesbos specialized in intense, personal, erotic poetry celebrating the homosexual relationships that marked her lifestyle.  From her birth island we get the phrase “Lesbian”.


VI.              The Growth of Sparta:

A.     During the Lyric Age; Sparta became the leading polis in Greece.  Faced same problems, tackled them differently.

B.     Problem: Overpopulation and Hunger-conquest not colonization.  Example Messenian wars a conquest of fertile lands in the Peloponnesus.  This conquest last for 20 years, turned the defeated Messenians into serfs of the Spartan State (Helots).

C.     The harsh treatment led to a second conflict known cleverly as the second Messenian war, which was a very violent horrific struggle.  Thirty years it took for the Spartans to subdue the Messenian Helots.

D.    Speaks volumes about Spartan society.

E.     Restructuring of society by non-nobles was a result of the 2nd Messenian war, brought on by the laws of Lycurgus who equalized laws.  Created a dual executive oligarchy (similar to France today in some political regards).  They also divided the defeated Messenian lands equally amongst all citizens.  Helots worked and slaved the land providing for Sparta.  Spartans used terrorism to subdue the ancient slaves.

F.      Also under the new rules of Lycurgan society Sparta became even more military in nature with the suppression of individual needs to the state (Fascism) and a barracks type military state.  All males over 12 were sent to a military company for preparation, at 24 they were ready.  Spartan mother’s perspective 127. 

G.    See comparison sheet/story on Athens Sparta.

H.    Spartan women deemed equal, in many regards as free as any in the ancient world.  A key cog in the military state of Sparta.


VII.           The Rise of Athens

A.     Athenian response to problems of Greek civilization markedly different from the Spartans.

B.     Colonization v. Conquest

C.     Democracy v. Oligarchy

D.    Philosophy v. Violence.

E.     Evolution

                                                              i.      Draco: first law code of Athenian Polis, harsh yet based in the hands of the people. (621 BC)  Conflict between Aristrocrats/Poor over land.  Debtors exiled, tyranny on rise until…

                                                            ii.      Solon: an aristocrat and poet who saw the rights of all as important, condemned greed in his poetry.  Oral citations called for justice and fairness, elected the Archon or Chief Magistrate of Athens in 594 implementing many of his policies by freeing debtors, canceling all debts and ending enslavement on the basis of debt.  Divided society into 4 legal groups all enjoying rights.   When people called for him to assume a tyrannical role he left Athens.

                                                          iii.      Pisastratus: returned to Athens conquered and established a tyranny when he realized that Aristocrats were the problem he reduced their power and supported the common people. 

                                                          iv.      Cleisthenes: emerged victorious in a brief battle over tyranny with the son of Pisastratus, Hippias.  Reorganized the Athenian democracy based on the will of the people, all had a say.  Created the Deme a local unit to serve as the basis of his political system.  Citizenship was tightly linked to the Deme.  All Demes were grouped into tribes (10), which worked with the assembly of all citizens and a council of 500.  World’s first bicameral political structure.

1.      Boule-council of 500

2.      Ecclesia-assembly of all (major power) open to all males over 18.

                                                            v.      Athenian democracy perfect for a small state (est. population during the rise of democracy 180-220K).  Women and slaves denied rights.  Compelling aspect the state existed for good of citizen.



VIII.        Using the Map in your book (page 118), prepare for the Map Quiz on Thursday the 11th:

A.     Identify the following:

                                                              i.      Macedonia

                                                            ii.      Ionia

                                                          iii.      Ithaca

                                                          iv.      Crete

                                                            v.      Mount Olympus

                                                          vi.      Cnossus

                                                        vii.      Delphi

                                                      viii.      Thessaly

                                                          ix.      Delphi

                                                            x.      Thebes

                                                          xi.      Athens

                                                        xii.      Sparta

                                                      xiii.      Corinth

                                                      xiv.      Mycenae

                                                        xv.      Byzantium

                                                      xvi.      Troy

                                                    xvii.      Rhodes

                                                  xviii.      Lesbos

                                                      xix.      Halicanarsus

                                                        xx.      Peloponnesus

                                                      xxi.      Messenia

                                                    xxii.      Hellespont

                                                  xxiii.      Aegean Sea

                                                  xxiv.      Mediterranean Sea

                                                    xxv.      Ionian Sea


IX.              The Classical Period: (500-338 BCE)

A.     Warfare: main rival the Persians and themselves.

B.     499 BCE the Greeks living on the edge of the Persian Empire rebelled against the pressing Persians.  490 the turning point arrived at the battle of Marathon (story of 26.1 mile race).

C.     Angered at the defeat of the Persian Empire in 490, ten years later Xerxes lead a powerful invasion force that was turned back by a Spartan led coalition on land and an Athenian led Naval force.   (Themistocles)

D.    Greek fighting forces known as Hoplites, showed their mettle at Thermopylae (pass in Euboea). 

E.     Key victory came at battle of Salmis an Island just west of Athens

F.      The victory ended the Persian threat and allowed for the continuation of Greek Civilization

G.    Result II: The establishment of the Delian league an alliance structure aimed at liberating Ionia from the Persians.  Leadership fell to Athens, controlled financial system as well.

H.    Athenian success against Persia had a sinister side, became an Athenian empire.  Controlled finances and fruits of success turning Sparta and the rest of Greece against the Athenians.

I.       Sparta began to form a counter allegiance against the Athenians.

J.      It was during this time that Pericles emerged as the dominant statesman, a war broke out in 459 BC over these matters with an end in 445.  The war resulted in no damage or power struggle.

K.    However, the Athenian attitude did not change despite the war.  Spartans declared a second war in 431 that would last a generation and would bring about major changes in Greece; the Peloponnesian War.  Chronicled by the historian Thucydides

L.     Alcibiades: a prominent politician who replaced Pericles who died in a plague, one of the series that emerged during the crisis.  He was a student of Socrates who had a self-seeking side that led this demise.  His scheming helped bring about an end to Athens, he for personal gain deserted to Sparta and even aided the Persians…

M.  War ends in 404 BC with the destruction of Athens by the Spartans.  A serious blow to this civilization will be dealt…results forthcoming.


X.                 The Birth of the Philosopher Kings: A revolution in Thought.

A.     A time of great thinking and thought was the Classical Age.

B.     Herodotus: chronicled the wars with Persia.  The first Historian.

C.     Thucydides: chronicled the wars with Sparta; the Peloponnesian War.

D.    Development of the Acropolis by brilliant architects. (See PP for pictures.) Such buildings as the Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike, Poseidon’s temple,  etc…Sculptures by Phidias.

E.     Playwrights:

                                                              i.      Aeschylus: dramatist: Oresteia.  Wrote about betrayal, murder, reason and reconciliation.

                                                            ii.      Sophocles: tragic poet authored Antigone, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colunus.  Wrote about the personal and political.  Great influence to Shakespeare and Marlow.

                                                          iii.      Euripides: last of the tragic dramatists.  Explored personal conflict, wrote about situations pertaining to Polis during struggle like Peloponnesian war, the role of the divine, the importance and splendor of humans.  Profound impact on Rome and beyond.

F.      Philosophers:

                                                              i.      Pre-Socratic thinkers

1.      Thales: learned mathematician took mathematics and astronomy to new levels, built on the achievements of the learned Babylonians, Greeks and Indians.  Applied reason to Nature; ex. Solar Eclipses.  Natural elements such as Water building blocks of nature.

2.      Anaximander: infinity of universe.

3.      Heraclitus: world had no beginning or end. 

4.      Culmination of Pre-Socratic thought: elements in the Universe were Air, Earth, Fire and Water.

5.      Aesop: a non-scientific thinker a storyteller, moralist.  Good sense and simple patterns, in certain regards similar to Confucius.  Check the link for some fables!

                                                            ii.      Classical Thinkers:

1.      Hippocrates: father of Modern Medicine.  Sought natural explanations to phenomena of the body.  Basing information on knowledge and not magic, he made great strides in the advent of reason and logic.  Viewed medicine as a craft.

2.      Sophists: traveled the Greek world teaching young MEN about philosophy.  All Human Beings were proper subject matter.  Excellence and logic could be taught.  Prepared for life in the Polis.  Laid groundwork for the later Philosophers.

3.      Socrates (470-399): an artisan spent his life investigating and defining.  Never formally taught so not a pure Sophist his legacy was his orations, which were composed by his followers.  Posed ethical questions and drove the learner to understanding through questioning: The Socratic Method.  Placed on trial for corrupting youth…read this for key info on the trial and accusations.

4.      Plato (427-347 BC): a prolific student of Socrates and a brilliant author.  Created the Academy.  Essays on everything from ordinary life, to science, to politics.  His text the Republic is the pre-eminent work in the annals of Political Science.  Wrote with satire, irony, and comedy to portray deep methods of thought.  His experiences during the Peloponnesian War forced him to ask new questions of Humankind.  Where had society gone wrong?  Ignorance was a wretched principle the worst in human scheme.  Wrote extensively on the life of Socrates and his demise to point out problems in society.  Only a divine province brought about goodness.  Anything visible, tangible, are constant and indestructible.

a.      His utopian polis was a society of balance, order, and education, equal, with all contributing.  Later contradicted in Laws, as Peloponnesian War clouded his vision.

5.      Aristotle: a student of Plato (384-322 BC), authored Politics.  Wrote about the ideal Polis, he stressed moderation concluding that the balance of the ideal state depended on peoples talent and education.  Both a philosopher and a scientist.  Utilized logic as his guide, attempted to bridge gap between abstract and concrete.  Wrote Physics and Metaphysics expressing his empiricism.  Physics dealt with the natural phenomenon that surrounds us all, principles that lasted through the Enlightenment.  Four principles matter, form, movement and goal as building blocks of life.  Took up the matter of Ionian speculation in the text On the Heaven.  Theories of cosmology added ether to the normal building blocks emphasized in the past.  Universe revolves and it is both spherical and infinite.  In short he tried to learn everything!

6.      Philosopher Quiz: Wednesday!  Everything in this Roman numeral!  Short and sweet.


XI.              Daily Life in Athens:

A.     Lived very happily and peacefully in Athens, miserable and intense in Sparta.

B.     Cooking done over a hearth, ate bread, olives, figs, lentils and grapes, occasionally meat which was in rare supply. 

C.     Jobs: farmer, potter, bronze smith, sailor, merchant, boat maker, construction and laborers.

D.    Slavery: commonplace-very different than US version.  VERY IMPORTANT-I’ll explain why in class.

E.     Difficulty of agriculture.

F.      Religion: based upon the presence of a group of anthromophorbic gods who ruled and meddled in the lives of humans.  They were so involved that people did nothing in their daily lives to anger any of them!  Expressed in the development of mythology.  Stories designed to foster morality and the experience of all Greeks.  See a link on Mythology, read a story or two if you are interested!

                                                              i.      Much was done to please the gods such as temples and sacrifices.  Oracles common for divine inspiration.

                                                            ii.      Olympics designed to please the gods develop heroes.

G.    Sexuality: homosexuality viewed as a normal stage in life.


XII.           The Demise: 404-338 BC

A.     Sparta defeats Athens, and begins striving for the creation of a Spartan Empire.  Their arrogance and attitude was as dangerous as the Athenians they replaced.  Solicited Persian help to attain an empire.  Theban army under Epaminondas destroyed the Spartan army.  Thebes was unable to bring peace to the region, Epaminondas death in 362 BC brought about an end to an exhausted age.

B.     Rise of Macedonian empire under Philip II the father of Alexander the Great.  His genius, patience and determination brought all of Greece under his yoke.  The final end came in 338 BC when the combined armies of Thebes and Athens fell to Philo pat Chaeronea.  He had defeated the Greeks and brought an end to their freedom. 

C.     Why they fell?

                                                              i.      Agricultural weaknesses

                                                            ii.      Philosophical differences between Athens and Sparta

                                                          iii.      Failure to unite