Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Greek culture (2100 to 146 BC)

The ancient culture with the broadest and most long-lasting impact on the future of Western civilization was that of Greece. The Greeks dominated the known world militarily for only a brief period, but their cultural influence spread farther and lasted much longer. Rediscovered in the West in large part after the Medieval Dark Age, it was an important foundation for the growth of modern western civilization.The Greeks never formed a unified kingdom, but existed as city-states, sometimes working together and sometimes at war with each other. At the zenith of Greek military power under Alexander the Great, they were a collection of city-states in cooperation.

The Greeks have a right to be proud, they were the fathers of democracy and reason. They brought civilization to the areas around the mediteranean. There are few corners of the ancient world that did not feel the tread of a Greek army or not been graced with their architecture.

Greek culture was centered on the mainland of modern Greece but spread to the islands of the Aegean, into the lower Balkans, across the Aegean to the western coast of Anatolia, to Sicily, to parts of North Africa, and to southern France (Marseilles was founded as a Greek colony). The campaigns of Alexander greatly expanded the culture, establishing it in central Anatolia, the Levant, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Persia to the borders of India. In the early second century BC, it was possible to travel from the south of modern France to India using only Greek to communicate.

As a collection of city-states, there was usually no capital of the Greek culture. During the Bronze Age, Mycenea was one of the strongest and richest citadels. During the Archaic and Classical periods, Athens (the cultural center) and Sparta (the strongest military power) vied for prominence. During the brief Greek apogee under Philip and Alexander, the de facto capital was the Macedonian city of Pydna. Following the death of Alexander, his empire was eventually divided into three parts. The Antigonid Dynasty ruled Greece and Macedonia from Pydna. The Selucids ruled Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Syria, the Levant, and Persia from a newly built city, Selucia, on the Tigris River. The Ptolemies ruled Egypt from another newly built city, Alexandria.

Rise to power
The history of ancient Greek culture is divided into several periods: the Bronze Age (2100 to 1200 BC), the Dark Age (1200 to 800 BC), the Archaic Period (800 to 500 BC), the Classical Age (500 to 336 BC), and the Hellenistic Period (336 to 30 BC).The Bronze Age saw the rise of the first cities on the mainland. These were predominantly fortified palaces on hilltops. This culture was named after its greatest citadel, Mycenea. Excavation of Mycenea by Heinrich Schlieman in the 1870’s revealed fabulous burial tomb treasures. The Mycenean culture disappeared around 1200 BC following attacks by barbarians. The city of Troy was also sacked around this time.The catastrophe of 1200 BC (described earlier) devastated the economy of Greece and ushered in a Dark Age that lasted about 400 years. Gradually civilization reappeared at old sites, such as Athens, and at new sites such as Sparta and Corinth.By 800 BC the city-states of the mainland were economic and military powers. During the next 300 years, the Archaic Period, the Greeks expanded by establishing colonies across the Aegean in Anatolia (Ionia) and along the central and western Mediterranean coasts. They vied with the Phoenicians for colony sites and trade. The Archaic Period came to an end when the rising eastern power of Persia came into conflict with the Greeks over the Anatolian coast.The period of 500 to 336 BC was the Classical Age of Greece, dominated first by the wars with Persia and then the Peloponnesian civil war between Athens and Sparta. Although this period is defined by military events, it was also a time of many important cultural advances.The Hellenistic Period takes its name from the Greek word Hellene (meaning Greek). This period began with the installation of Alexander as king of Macedon following the assassination of his father. In 13 years of military campaigns, Alexander conquered most of the known world and spread the Greek culture behind his armies. After Alexander’s premature death in 323 BC, his empire was eventually divided into three parts. Although these parts fought each other and gradually shrank due to rebellion and attack, the culture of the civilized world remained primarily Greek.

Grains and bread were staples of the Greek diet but they could be grown only in a few fertile areas. Most of Greece was hilly and not suitable for large farms on the scale of Egypt or Mesopotamia. Farmers grew fruits and vegetables where they could clear fields. On the hillsides they grew olives for food and oil. Further up the hills they grew grapes for wine.Horses were raised mainly in Thessaly and Macedonia where there were open grasslands. Elsewhere they were kept only by the rich. Cattle were kept mainly for milk, pigs and poultry for meat, and sheep for leather and meat. Seafood supplemented diets in coastal areas.The Greeks were renowned for pottery that was both functional and beautiful. Decorations on pottery revealed much about the ancient Greek culture to historians. By carefully studying the changing styles of pottery, historians were able to date it and then use shards to help date excavations and other objects found with it.The Greeks took advantage of their geographic position between the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas to engage in trade. City-states traded among themselves and overseas. Thessaly and Macedonia exported horses, for example, while Athens exported honey and silver. Important Greek exports were oil, wine, pottery, sculpture, metalwork, cloth, and books. Their most important import was grain from the Black Sea region, Egypt, Italy, Sicily, and Cyprus. Other important imports were timber, wool, linen, copper, dyes, silk, spices, and ivory.Coins were first used in Lydia, a small kingdom in northwestern Anatolia, at the end of the seventh century BC. The concept quickly spread to the Ionian Greek colonies and then throughout the Greek culture. The most popular coins were made of silver. City-states celebrated their independence by minting their own coins showing a representative symbol (the owl for Athens and the Pegasus for Corinth, for example).

Religion and culture
The Greeks believed in many gods who were responsible for the living and the dead. Their gods were very human-like—they got married, had children, felt love and jealousy, and sought revenge. Legends of the gods taught what pleased and what angered them. The principal gods were the twelve Olympians thought to live on Mount Olympus. They were led by Zeus, ruler of the heavens. Temples were built to provide earthly homes for individual gods. The Parthenon in Athens, for example, was dedicated to the goddess Athene. Inside was a statue of Athene made of gold and ivory that stood over forty feet high. Offerings of jewelry, pottery, and sculpture were given to the temple. Animals and birds were given to the priests for sacrifice. Festivals were held to please individual gods and persuade them to be munificent.Before an important project was started, an oracle or soothsayer was consulted to learn the will of the gods. The most famous of these was the Oracle of Delphi, where a priestess called the Pythia would voice the will of Apollo. Priests would interpret the Pythia’s often vague replies. In one famous example, Croesus, the king of Lydia, asked whether he should invade Persia or not. He was told such an invasion would destroy a great kingdom. He assumed the Persians were the kingdom in question, but in fact Lydia was conquered by Persia.Women in Greece led generally sheltered lives and had little active role in society. They took their social status from their husbands. The emphasis was on having sons and raising them to be citizens and soldiers. Boys were given an extensive education in reading, writing, arithmetic, music, poetry, dancing, and athletics. Both mental and physical development was stressed.Music, poetry, and theater were an important part of the Greek culture. All Greek cities and colonies built a theater or amphitheater.Society consisted of two main groups—free people and slaves. Slaves were owned by free people and were employed as servants and laborers. Slaves were purchased in international slave markets or were prisoners of war. Free men in Athens were either citizens, born to Athenian parents, or metics, born outside of Athens. Both groups were required to serve in the army, but only citizens could become government officials or jurors.

Statue of Zeus

An independent city-state was called a polis. Each consisted of the city and surrounding countryside. The largest of these was Athens, with about one thousand square miles of territory.During the Archaic Period, most city-states were governed by a group of rich landowners. These were the aristoi, meaning best people, or the aristocrats. Resentment of aristocratic rule led to riots when traders and craftsmen began to prosper but had no say in government. Beginning around 650 BC, individuals called tyrants were allowed to rule to keep the peace. Government was improved under an enlightened tyrant but the system was susceptible to corruption. In 508 BC Athens introduced a new system called democracy, in which all citizens took part in their government. Women, foreigners, and slaves had no say.ArchitectureGreek homes were simple structures of mud and brick but their public buildings, especially temples, were beautiful structures of stone. A distinctive feature of Greek architecture was the use of columns supporting horizontal lintels.

During the Bronze Age, the armies of the individual palaces were mainly chariots manned by the richest citizens. These armies were destroyed by barbarians around 1200 BC, sending Greece into its Dark Age.During the Archaic Age, the aristocrats at first dominated the army as cavalry because they alone could afford horses. Foot soldiers came from the poorer classes that could not afford horses or better weapons and armor.Eventually trade and wealth increased, while the cost fell for new weapons made of iron. The cavalry was replaced in importance by a new army of well-equipped foot soldiers called hoplites.Each city had a different system for raising its army. In Athens, all free men aged 20 to 50 could be called upon in time of war. Each of the ten Athenian tribes had to provide enough troops for one regiment and one commander, called a strategoi.Hoplites carried on their left arm a large round shield that extended from neck to thigh. The shield was decorated with a symbol from their family, tribe, or city. They wore bronze helmets with a horsehair crest on top to make the soldier look taller and more powerful. For body protection they wore a cuirass of bronze, or leather and bronze, from shoulder to chest, plus bronze greaves on the front of the lower legs. Their weapons were a long spear and a short iron sword.Hoplites fought in the phalanx, a square of men usually eight ranks deep. It was important that the phalanx move and fight together. Flutes and other musical instruments helped them keep in step. The terrifying hand-to-hand clash of opposing phalanxes called for extreme courage and discipline.The Greeks disdained the use of cavalry and skirmish troops using bows, slings, or javelins. As long as they fought among themselves or were lucky, this was not a problem. Extensive contact with other military systems during the Persian Wars eventually convinced them that the phalanx needed to be supported. The ultimate Greek army, under Alexander, employed heavy and light cavalry, light infantry, and skirmishers in support of its heavy hoplite infantry.

Greek Hoplites

The terrifying hand-to-hand clash of opposing phalanxes called for extreme courage and discipline.

Decline and fall
Following the death of Alexander the Great, the city-states of mainland Greece attempted to rebel against Macedonian rule but were defeated in the Lamian War of 323-322 BC. During the next 40 years, the War of the Diadochi contested the division of Alexander’s empire. It was eventually divided into three kingdoms (Greece, Egypt, and Persia). These three kingdoms made up the Hellenistic world.The Antigonid Dynasty ruled Greece and Macedon but lost control of their colonies in southern Italy to the Romans in 275 BC. The Greeks supported the Carthaginians against Rome during the Punic Wars and paid for that once the Carthaginians were destroyed. Three Macedonian Wars against Rome resulted in the end of the Antigonid Dynasty in 168 BC. Following an unsuccessful Macedonian revolt, the city-states of Greece became provinces of the Roman Empire in 146 BC.The Selucid Dynasty attempted to rule what had been the enormous Persian Empire. This proved impossible and parts began rebelling very quickly. By 180 BC their kingdom had been halved. In 64 BC the Roman general Pompey seized the Selucid kingdom and incorporated it into the Roman Empire.The Ptolemaic Dynasty consisted only of Egypt. Because of its relative seclusion and wealth, it lasted the longest of the three Hellenistic kingdoms. Queen Cleopatra VII and her husband Marc Antony of Rome were defeated in battle by Octavian at Actium in 31 BC. The last Ptolemy committed suicide and Egypt became part of the Roman Empire in 30 BC.

Greek language and culture spread behind Alexander the Great’s armies. The Romans in turn adopted much of the Greek culture, preserving it and spreading it to new parts of the world. After the fall of Rome, Greek culture was preserved and expanded upon within the Byzantine Empire and in the Arab world, and passed on to the West following the Renaissance.The legacy of ancient Greece has had an impact on many disciplines, including medicine (the scientific approach to medicine; the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors), mathematics (Euclidean geometry; the Pythagorean theorem), literature (the Iliad and the Odyssey), theater, poetry, sculpture, language (the Bible’s New Testament was written in Greek; thousands of words passed on to modern languages), architecture (the White House; the British Museum), history (Herodutus is regarded as the father of history), politics (democracy), philosophy (all philosophical studies since Plato have been referred to by one writer as mere footnotes to his work), science (the scientific method; laws of nature; the classification of plants and animals; the heliocentric theory), athletics (the Olympic Games), and trade (Greeks established trade routes to India and the Silk Road to Asia).

Return to Home Page

The Babylonians | The Ancient Choson | The Egyptians |The Hittites | The Minonians | The Persians |

The Phonecians | The Senate and People of Rome & The Roman Empire | The Greek Cities | The Carthaginians |

The Shang Dynasty | The Summerians | The Yamato