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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

World History: Ancient Greece
Last time on World History we covered the Achaemenids of Persia ( This week we shall focus on the ancient society that managed to repel them: the Greeks. Ancient Greece has greatly influenced the western world and people all across the world flock to see the ruins that they left behind. Everyone knows the names of Sparta and Athens, Aristotle and Sophocles, Homer and Herodotus. However, how much of this compares to the actual Greece of ancient times? This World History post shall cover Greece from the early Iron Age right up to Rome's conquering of Greece in 146 BCE.

Ancient Greek Periods
For the time that we are covering in this post there are three periods that we will be looking at: the Archaic Period, the Classic Period and the Hellenistic Period. Centuries before the rise of the Greece that is often portrayed in the media there was a 'Dark Age' following the collapse of the Mycenaeans on mainland Greece. Following this period of time iron became widely adopted and new societies started to develop. The Archaic Period starts in 776 BCE when traditional Greek historians say that the first Olympic games were held. The Archaic Period lasts until 480 BCE with the attempted Persian invasion of mainland Greece. This saw the famous Battle of Thermopylae with Leonidas and his 300 Spartans facing off against the Persian army of Xerxes, (although the reality is far from what is portrayed in the media). The Classical Period then starts. This period also will see the rise of Alexander the Great. The Classical Period ends in 323 BCE with the death of Alexander and the fragmentation of his empire. Finally, we have the Hellenistic Period which lasts until Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BCE. 

Greek State Organization
 Ancient Greece was very much like many other ancient societies located along the Mediterranean and Near East. However, despite what many people today Greek politics and society were very much different from today's societies. The landscape of Greece meant that forming an even feudal society exceedingly difficult. Greece is divided by seas, valleys and mountains which made communication between communities difficult. Also, the landscape reduced the amount of arable land which could be found compared to that of the Near East. Greek societies in the Archaic Period formed city-states called polis. The polis would rule over land outside of the city where farmers would grow crops and raise cattle, or people would mine metals, in order to sell to the city. During the Archaic Period inter-polis trade occurred and the larger ones would often dominate the smaller ones. However, there was not enough arable land in Greece to sustain a large population. The Greeks formed colonies across the Mediterranean where they would often trade with either the local peoples or the other major Mediterranean power, the Phoenicians. The Greek colonies became heavily invested in trade and had a great influence on the local areas. The Etruscans of northern Italy, for example, started depicting chimeras of Greek mythology in their art and built temples resembling Greek ones. However, the colonies were not like the colonies of the European empires. The colonies were more or less their own independent polis with some ties to their parent polis. For example, Thracian colonies would ally themselves with Thrace. However, there was no direct commitment towards each other. 

Trade caused the rise of a middle class during the Archaic Period. The famous Greek hoplites and the phalanx was made of predominantly middle class citizens of each polis. Eventually the polis created tyrannos or 'tyrants' to rule them through either the middle classes supporting an opportunistic aristocrat or, by appointing a 'lawgiver' to mediate disputes between the classes. In Athens for half of the sixth-century the Peisistratid dynasty produced tyrant after tyrant. Before them there was Draco who ruled Athens around 620 BCE. He abolished the old blood feuds and oral laws in favor of a written code which would be enforced by the courts. This law code was extremely strict bringing in place the death penalty for many laws but his constitution and laws would pave the way for Athenian democracy in the 5th century BCE. Despite the various forms of government which would arise in the Classical Period and the regional disparities across Greece the polis were (mostly) culturally united. They all spoke the same language, used the same script, worshiped the same gods and they were willing to unite forces against the invading Persians. The Olympics were held every four years at Olympia where the Greek states would cease fighting in favor of honoring Zeus and non-violently competing against one another. Also, they showed signs of xenophobia. Only Greeks (and even then Greek men) could compete in the Olympics and anyone who could not speak Greek were seen as barbarians (the word is Greek in origin as they thought all other languages sounded like they were saying 'bar-bar').

Religion and Spirituality
Ancient Greek religion most likely originated with the Mycenaeans who proceeded them during the Bronze Age. The ancient Greeks were polytheistic (having multiple gods) with a clearly defined hierarchy. At the top was Zeus, the god of the sky and of the gods, who ruled from Mount Olympus. The Greeks had many gods ranging from Hades, god of the Underworld, to Aphrodite, goddess of love. The Greek gods, however, believed that the gods were like humans in the fact that they would succumb to vices and their emotions. Zeus often turned into animals to abduct and rape women, through this the Minotaur of Greek mythology was born, and Hades abducted Persephone, the daughter of the goddess Demeter, after instantly falling in love with her. Greek ideas of death are far removed from the modern day ideas of death. For one, the correct death ritual had to be undertaken in order to allow the soul to pass on to the other side as otherwise it would haunt the mortal world. Two coins were placed over the eyes and the corpse buried with food, the coins to pay Charon who guides the dead to the afterlife and the food to feed Cerberus, the three headed dog who guards the Underworld. The Underworld is ruled by Hades, who is not an evil figure in ancient Greek religion, who resides in the 'land of Hades'. The Underworld then has two other layers: Tartarus, for the damned, and Elysium, for the virtuous. Appeasing the gods was seen as essential and to do this a sacrifice of a domestic animal was done in a temple. Roman religion would be greatly inspired by that of Greece with many gods being incorporated into the Roman pantheon of gods.

Social Organization
The polis was an oligarchy, a government run by a few people, where either aristocrats or a wealthy elite ruled. It was these men, women were not allowed, who decided laws for each polis. In fact the word politics derives from polis. After 510 BCE, however, Athens managed to oust the ruling tyrants and establish a direct democracy. This form of rule saw men, (again women were excluded), meet up to form the ecclesia where they would vote on laws. At the time it was the most democratic institution in Greece. This was especially true compared to Athen's major opponent of Sparta. Sparta never had the tyrants of Athens and instead retained an aristocratic oligarchy of a council of old men, five magistrates called 'ephors' and two hereditary kings with special military powers. While Athens was a mercantile state Sparta was an agricultural one. While the rest of Greece by 600 BCE had coins Sparta retained its iron currency until the 4th century BCE. While Athenian armies were socially stratified Spartan armies were egalitarian with all soldiers living together, eating together and wearing the same clothing regardless of wealth. Sparta relied heavily on the army where even during a wedding ceremony the prospective wife would be made to look like a man (only men could be Spartan soldiers) and the husband would go live with his fellow soldiers after the wedding. Although united by religion and language Greece was divided in many other ways.

The position of women varied in each society. Universally they were excluded from politics, had to rely on their fathers if they wanted a divorce and in Athens were not regarded as citizens. However, Spartan women held more power managing to run and own property during times of war, something which was a common occurrence for Sparta. Although women could have indirect power if wealthy by influencing their husbands. Slavery was a common occurrence in Greece. Athens had an extremely high slave population (one in four of the population) and Homer noted that often women were enslaved during war. Although unlike Rome large slave plantations were unusual. Often slaves were household slaves with a freeman owning up to two slaves. Unlike the slavery which arose thanks to the European powers centuries later Greek slaves could be treated kindly and even loved. Aesop of Aesop's Fables was one such slave. They could easily be freed and given a good life with one slave in the 4th century BCE becoming a banker. However, just because some slaves were given a good life that did not mean every slave was treated like this. Athenian household slaves had some rights whereas Laureion mining slaves and prostitutes were treated brutally. Also there was no abolitionism in Greece. Aristotle for one said that some people were slaves by nature so should not be freed.

Ideas and Inventions
Ancient Greece is in a fierce battle with Mesopotamia for the civilization which has the greatest impact on the western world. Science, maths, philosophy and history all owe themselves to the ancient Greeks. Herodotus, for example, is often regarded as the first historian writing The History of the Greco-Persian War in 449 BCE and Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War is still read today. Pythagoras is taught in every school across the world for his triangular theory and Euclid's geometry was taught all the way up until the early 20th century in European schools. Archimedes (287-212 BCE) greatly influenced maths with his work to find the area of a circle, surface area and volume of a sphere, approximation of pi and the area under a parabola. Aristotle's theories of the sun and classification of life would influence science for generations to come. Philosophy saw great progresses thanks to the ancient Greeks. Stoicism, for one, was developed thanks to Socrates and Plato as well as countless other philosophies. 

Greco-Persian and Peloponnesian Wars
Greece saw several wars which ravaged the land but we'll look at two. The first is the Greco-Persian War where people have claimed that if the Persians had won democracy would have been choked in its cradle. The war broke out when Greek states started to support Greek Ionian cities revolting under the rule of Achaemenid Darius the Great as they did not like the tyrants he had put in place. Wanting to crush the Greeks in 492 BCE Darius sent his son-in-law Mardonius to subjugate Thrace and told the Greek states to surrender. Athens and Sparta refused to so Darius invaded Greece. In 490 BCE a Persian force landed at Marathon, roughly 25 miles from Athens, but were defeated. The marathon race is named after this as messengers had to run to Athens to warn them of the invasion. Darius decided to regroup and in 480 BCE his son, Xerxes, decided to finish what his father started. That year saw the famous Battle of Thermopylae which had more than 300 Spartans fighting less than one million Persians (Herodotus liked to exaggerate). However, it would take until 449 BCE for the war to end. After this would democracy have died if Persia had won? I believe not. Democracy has always appeared throughout history, while France had an autocratic king the Xhosa of South Africa had a direct democracy, and if it died in Athens it would have returned somewhere else. In fact Athenian democracy had been removed then reestablished several times. Also the Persians styled themselves as 'king of kings'. This meant they would rule through a leader. Possibly a democracy could have survived although under the thumb of Xerxes instead.

The second war I wish to discuss is the Peloponnesian War. This war broke out in 431 BCE and lasted until 404 BCE where the Delian League, led by Athens, fought the Peloponnesian League, led by Sparta. When Persia was expelled Athens and Sparta became dominant powers in Greece. This brought tensions and war broke out. Sparta and its allies were largely a land power whereas Athens was a sea power. Eventually Sparta and its allies won, the Delian League was dissolved and Sparta ended Athenian democracy replacing it with 'Thirty Tyrants'. As a rebuttal of the idea that Persia would have ended democracy Sparta removed Athenian democracy but it survives today. In fact Athens regained democracy a few years just a year after the 'Thirty Tyrants' were imposed. The war weakened the Greek states so much that Philip II of Macedon would later easily conquer all of Greece, bar Sparta. His message to Sparta saying 'If I invade Laconia you will be destroyed, never to rise again.' the Spartans replied with 'If'

In the end Greece succumbed to the Roman empire. However, there is one figure in history who ruled Greece (bar Sparta), ended the Achaemenid Empire, conquered Egypt and is referred to as 'Great'. The next World History we shall see if this figure deserves such as title and whether it is a good thing to look at history through the lives of individuals. Next time we'll look at Alexander the Great. Thanks for reading and the sources which I have used are as follows:
-The Penguin History of the World by J.M. Roberts
-The Complete Archaeology of Greece: From Hunter-Gatherers to the 20th Century A.D. by John Bintliff
-History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

For a list of other World History posts please see here

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