Ancient Greece occupied the southern area of the Balkan Peninsula and a group of islands around the Aegean Sea in the east Mediterranean. It was a mountainous territory. Communications by land and agriculture were difficult. The lands populated by the Greeks were near the sea, so fishing and trade were very important.
The ancient Greeks lived in independent cities. Each of them had its own government, laws and army, and this is why they were called city states or polis. Nevertheless, all of them belonged to the same civilization, since they shared a common language, religion and culture.
Between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, the Greek population increased greatly and the cities were unable to feed all their inhabitants. A part of the population was forced to emigrate. Small groups went across the Mediterranean and founded colonies in the places they considered adequate. This expansion is known as the Greek colonisation.
King Philip II of Macedonia conquered the Greek polis. His son and successor, Alexander the Great, continued the policy of conquests started by his father, but he turned towards the east: he conquered Persia, Syria, Egypt and Mesopotamia, and reached as far as the Indus River, in India. Greek culture also spreads through Africa and Asia
Periods of ancient Greece
The history of ancient Greece is divided into three main ages: Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic.
The Archaic Age lasted from the 9th to the 5th century BC. It was the period when polis were created and the expansion through a great part of the Mediterranean took place.
The Classical Age lasted from the 5th century BC to the mid 4th century BC. The Greeks continued to live in city states.
The first part of this period was characterised by the unity of the Greek polis despite the attacks of neighbouring peoples and by the supremacy of Athens and Sparta. The Persian Wars took place in that time.
Later on, these two large cities faced a civil war in which all the other Greek polis were involved, leading to disunity and crisis. Athens and Sparta contended with each other for dominion over Greece and they faced a civil war. The confrontation broke out in 431 BC and lasted until 404 BC. The conflict, known as the Peloponnesian War, had several phases and ended in the defeat of Athens, leading to the supremacy of Sparta over the other Greek polis.
The Hellenistic Age lasted from 338 BC to about the 1st century BC. In view of the lack of unity in the polis, an external power ended up by dominating the entire Greek world: King Philip II of Macedonia conquered the whole of Greece, and his son Alexander the Great extended the empire to the east. The City states became part of a great empire, governed by one king. After the death of Alexander, his generals divided the empire into several kingdoms, with Egypt, Mesopotamia and Macedonia being the most important ones.
Athens was the principal Greek polis in the 5th century BC. It reached its height under the government of Pericles.
Athens acquired great military prestige during the Persian Wars between the Greeks and the Persians. Many Greek cities decided to request Athenian protection and the Delian League was founded under the leadership of Athens. Athens also controlled Greek trade.
The Athenian hegemony finished at the end of the 5th century BC, when Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War
In the 6th century BC, some Greek polis pioneereda new type of government, known as democracy. Athens was the best example.
There were three main institutions in Athens.
The Assembly or Ekklesia. The Athenian citizens gathered four times a month and passed laws, decided on war and peace, and elected governors. They voted by a show of hands. The magistrates. They were civil servants in charge of implementing the decisions made by the Assembly. Among the most relevant were the ten strategoi, who headed the army and navy, and the archons, who presided over the courts and religious rites.
The courts of justice. They were formed by 6,000 citizens elected every year.
But not everyone was a citizen. Athens had about 350,000 inhabitants, but only 40,000 were citizens. Foreigners, slaves and women were excluded from political life.
Sparta had the best army in ancient Greece; and was the most powerful state before the rise of Athens, a naval power. Sparta and Athens were allies against the Persians, but became rivals thereafter. In the Peloponnesian War, Sparta defeated Athens and dismantled the Athenian Empire.
The state was ruled by two hereditary kings of the Agiad and Eurypontid families. Their power was primarily religious, judicial and military. Over time, the kings became mere figure-heads except in their capacity as generals. Real power was transferred to the Ephors and to the Gerousia.
Apella was the popular assembly. Every Spartan male full citizen who was thirty years old was entitled to attend the meetings.
The apella was responsible for electing men to the Gerousia for life. Candidates were selected from the aristocrats and presented before the apella. The candidate who received the loudest applause became a member of the Gerousia.
The apella also elected the five Ephors annually. The Ephors presided over meetings of the Gerousia and the apella. They could not run for re-election.
The Gerousia presented motions before the apella. The apella then voted on the motions. However, unlike the ecclesia in Athens, the apella did not debate; it merely approved or disapproved of measures. Moreover, the Gerousiaalways had the power to veto the decision of the apella.
The Gerousia was the Council of Elders. It consisted of thirty members including the two kings. Members had to be over the age of 60 and were elected for life. Theoretically, any Spartan citizen of the right age could stand but in practice members were selected from the most important aristocratic families.
An ephor was an official of ancient Sparta. There were five Ephors elected annually, who swore each month to uphold the rule of the two kings, while the kings swore to uphold the law.
The Ephors presided over meetings of the Gerousia, the oligarchic council of elders. They were in charge of civil trials, taxation, the calendar, foreign policy, and military training for young men.
Sparta was a military state. Emphasis on military fitness began virtually at birth. Shortly after birth, the mother of the child bathed it in wine to see whether the child was strong. If the child survived it was brought before the elders of the tribe, by the child's father, who decided whether it was to be reared or not. If found defective or weakly, the baby was left on the wild slopes of Mt Taygetos, or it would be dropped off of a cliff. In this way attempts were made to secure the maintenance of high physical standards in Sparta. From the earliest days of the Spartan, the claim on his life by the state was absolute and strictly enforced.
Until the age of seven, boys were educated at home and were taught to fight their fears as well as general superstition by their nurses, who were prized in Greece. At the age of twenty, the Spartan began his military service and his membership in one of the dining messes or clubs (in Greek 'syssition' or 'phyidition'), composed of about fifteen members each, of which every citizen was required to be a member and where all meals were taken. The Spartan exercised the full rights and duties of a citizen at the age of thirty. Only native Spartans were considered full citizens, and needed to undergo the training as prescribed by law, and participation in and contribution to one of the dining-clubs.
The ancient Greeks believed in the existence of many gods. We call their religion polytheistic.
The gods were similar to human beings, they had a body and the same qualities and failures. The essential difference between gods and human beings was that the gods were immortal. Each god represented a force of nature, a profession or activity and was responsible for a particular city.
Heroes constituted another category. They were sons of a god and a mortal. The Greeks believed that heroes were the founders of cities and the origin of families.
The Greeks invented stories about gods and heroes, called myths.
In ancient Greece it was believed that gods could help or harm human beings. Divine will was expressed through omens, signals that indicated future events, and through oracles, messages from the gods that could be interpreted by fortune- tellers.
The most famous oracle was in Delphi, and even the governments went to consult t. A priestess transmitted the answers of Apollo by speaking words that could hardly be deciphered.
The gods also intervened after people’s death. People began to carry out secret worship, called mysteries, which promised their initiates the immortality of their souls
The worship of gods showed respect or gratitude or could also be a way to ask for help or advice.
Each family had a small altar at home which was devoted to the goddess of the hearth and the dead members of the family. There were religious feasts for every important event in daily life, therefore, there was a specific ritual for birth, marriage and death
In the cities, worship was led by the priests and magistrates. Everybody participated in the celebrations: they recited orations out loud; made offerings, generally of food and wine; animal sacrifices were given and processions made.
In the sanctuaries, Greek cities carried out common rites. They offered gods theatre performances and sports competitions, such as the Olympic Games. Artists and athletes always entrusted their talent, ability or strength to the gods.
The Greek temple
The Greeks raised various different buildings in their cities and sanctuaries. But the most important of these were the temples, used for religious worship. The main characteristics of Greek temples were the following.
There is a great concern with proportion and harmony. This is why architects followed very strict mathematical rules for the construction of buildings.
The buildings are human-sized. The dimensions of temples are not as colossal as the Egyptians.
They are made of stone. The most wonderful temples were built in white marble. Then the marble was painted in bright red and blue colours that have been lost in time.
The roofs are flat and rest on high columns. The Greeks did not use arches and vaults.
Depending on the shape and ornamentation of the columns, there are three types of temples: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
The Parthenon in Athens, is the main Greek temple.
Sculpture Greek sculptures evolved very much over time. The sculptures of the Archaic Age are very static and represent figures schematically. In the Classical Age, sculptors learnt to represent movement in the human body. And in the Hellenistic Age, sculptors reflected people’s feelings and moods.
These are the most important characteristics of Greek sculpture.
Its religious function. The majority of the reliefs and statues represent gods and goddesses and heroes.
The concern with beauty, proportion and harmony.
The importance of the representation of the naked human body.
The use of stone in reliefs and bronze in statues. Most of the bronzes have been lost and we only know the Roman copies in marble.
Greek sculptures are of the highest quality. Because of this, they became a pattern for later artists.