Golden Age of Greece

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Classical Greece: The Golden Age

A new Greek civilization, the Classical Age or the Golden Age, began around the eighth century BC. This Classical Greek civilization featured a form of government entirely new to the ancient world. It was neither an empire nor a centralized state but a large number of independent city-states sharing a common language, a common culture, and eventually a common sense of Greek identity. Examples of unifying factors in Greek civilization included the polytheistic religion, the oracles that all Greeks worshipped, and the Olympic Games in which all the city-states participated. City-states often cooperated in the area of foreign relations.

The Greek city-state was called a polis , which gave us the English words police and metropolis . The capital city of the polis was usually built on a high rock, or acropolis, that overlooked the entire city. The reason for this was military defense; battle strategy through the ages teaches the lesson that the army controlling the high ground will win the battle. A weak polis would often find itself dominated by a stronger one.

During this era, the Greeks made a vastly important contribution to the future Western civilization—they created the concept of democratic rule, in which individual citizens were permitted some say in how they were governed. The word demos means “person” in Greek; hence, democracy means “rule by the people.” Democracy in Greece was by no means universal. First, not every polis adopted this form of government; many were military dictatorships. Second, the only citizens of a democracy who could participate or vote were adult men who owned a certain amount of property. In practice, only about one-tenth of the population of any given polis participated in its government.

Around 750 BC, the Greeks began exploring the Mediterranean and establishing outposts very far from home. Historians believe that they roamed the seas for several reasons. First, a series of droughts and poor harvests probably drove them out in search of food and viable farmland. Second, they wanted to extend their trading network by establishing outposts within reasonable sailing distance and by discovering new markets for their own exports. At its height, the Greek civilization included almost the entire coast of Turkey; all of mainland Greece; Crete; the mouth of the Nile; parts of Sicily, Corsica, and Cyprus; the southern tip of Italy; and stretches of the Mediterranean coastlines of Spain and France. Their settlements also nearly surrounded the Black Sea. All this exploration led to cultural exchange and also to military conflicts.

The polis of Athens is famous as the pinnacle of Classical Greek civilization in its intellectual and cultural achievements. Athens first achieved significance under Solon in the early sixth century with a new law code. The Athenians discovered rich silver mines during the reign of Peisistratus in the second half of the sixth century; this new source of wealth allowed Peisistratus to indulge his imperial ambitions. By extending trade and acquiring new colonies, Peisistratus made Athens the wealthiest of the Greek city-states. Athenian democracy—rule by mutual agreement of the adult men—was fully developed in the last quarter of the sixth century. By this time, all adult men were entitled to attend the assemblies and to vote for their political leaders. This development was significant because it marked the first time in world history that common men were on a politically equal footing with aristocrats—both had the same opportunities to rise to political power and authority.

The Persians and Greeks fought a major war in several stages between 492 and 479 BC. During the mid-sixth century, the Persian Empire took control of all the Ionian city-states; the Persians later occupied Thrace and demanded tribute from all the city-states. The Persians rightly viewed the Greeks as a serious threat to their own supremacy in the Mediterranean. In the end, the Greeks won the Persian Wars and secured their independence. Their victory over the largest empire in the ancient world was primarily due to two factors. First, the Greek—specifically the Athenian—navy was superior to the Persian; Themistocles, the leader of Athens, had built up the Athenian navy into the mightiest in the world. Second, the Persian threat was so alarming that it constituted a unifying factor: the Persian Wars marked the first time the Greek city-states sent forth a united Greek army against an enemy .

The Golden Age of Athens was truly launched after the victory in the Persian Wars with the creation of the Delian League, an association of about two hundred city-states who agreed to join forces against any future Persian threat. Specifically, members agreed that they would build and supply a common fleet of ships. Athens took the leading role in the Delian League because an Athenian was commander of the fleet; this was unsurprising since Athens was the strongest polis in the league. Before long, smaller states were contributing money instead of ships to the league, and the system quickly acquired all the trappings of an Athenian empire in which satellite states paid tribute.

Pericles was the most important Athenian ruler of the era. The Persians had burned Athens to the ground during the wars; Pericles oversaw a great era of rebuilding, including the building of the Parthenon. This era of Greek architecture, with its columns, pediments, and relief sculpture, has had an enormous influence on monumental architecture throughout the Western world down to the present day. Athens was equally notable for visual arts, drama, philosophy, and literature. Its playwrights invented tragedy and comedy as we know them today, its lyric poets influenced writers down to the modern era, its philosophers held sway over Western thought for many centuries, and its historians established the method of drawing conclusions from eyewitness accounts and primary sources whenever these were accessible.

Table 5.1 lists the most important and influential authors and intellectuals of the Golden Age of Greece, along with their major literary works.

Golden Age of Green List Authors and Intellectuals

The cultural and intellectual brilliance of Athens did not make smaller city- states any less restive under the iron grip of its dominance. The most likely rival to Athens was Sparta, a strong military state in the Peloponnese (the southern tip of the Greek peninsula). Sparta gave birth to the English adjective Spartan , which means “plain and austere to the point of harshness.” This gives an idea of Spartan culture, which frowned on comfort, ornament, and luxury while encouraging physical strength and stamina above all other virtues. The Spartan army had proved its superiority in the Persian Wars

Sparta and Corinth allied against Athens, and the two sides began a long series of military squabbles around 460 BC. In 431, the hostility culminated in the Peloponnesian War, which pitted Athens and the Delian League against Sparta and its allies. Sparta had a stronger land army and Athens a superior navy; therefore, neither side was able to make much headway against the other in the first several years of the war. In 415, Athens attacked the Sicilian city of Syracuse, hoping to rob it of its considerable wealth for use in the continuing fight against Sparta. This strategy backfired when Sparta came to Syracuse’s rescue and managed to destroy the Athenian fleet. In 408, the Persian Empire came into the war as Sparta’s ally; like the Spartans, the Persians wanted to see Athens defeated. Athens finally succumbed in 404.

Sparta maintained supreme authority among the Greek city-states for only a short time. After the war, Athens began to repair its trade networks and thus recover some of its former prosperity. In 378, Athens and Thebes united against Sparta. Thebes won a major victory against the Spartan army in 371 BC and was the strongest polis until Greece was finally defeated by the rise of the Macedonian Empire.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Ancient Greek Civilization and Macedonian Empire Practice Test

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