Political Aspects of the Classical Age of Greece

Greek Politics and War From the Persians to the Macedonians

Detail of Mosaic Alexander the Great at the Battle of Issus, Pompeii
Detail of Mosaic Alexander the Great at the Battle of Issus, Pompeii. Getty Images / Leemage/Corbis

This is a brief introduction to the Classical Age in Greece, a period that followed the Archaic Age and lasted through the creation of a Greek empire, by Alexander the Great. The Classical Age was characterized by most of the cultural wonders that we associate with ancient Greece. It corresponds with the period of the height of democracy, the flowering of Greek tragedy, and the architectural marvels at Athens.

The Classical Age of Greece begins either with with the fall of the Athenian tyrant Hippias, son of Peisistratos/Pisistratus, in 510 B.C., or the Persian Wars, which the Greeks fought against the Persians in Greece and Asia Minor from 490-479 B.C. When you think of the movie 300, you're thinking of one of the battles fought during the Persian Wars.

Solon, Peisistratus, Cleisthenes, and the Rise of Democracy

When the Greeks adopted democracy it wasn't an overnight affair or a question of throwing out monarchs. The process developed and changed over time.

The Classical Age of Greece ends with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Besides war and conquest, in the Classical period, the Greeks produced great literature, poetry, philosophy, drama, and art. This was the time when the genre of history was first established. It also produced the institution we know of as Athenian democracy.

Alexander the Great Profile

The Macedonians Philip and Alexander put an end to the power of the individual city-states at the same time they spread the culture of the Greeks all the way to the Indian Sea.

Rise of Democracy

One unique contribution of the Greeks, democracy lasted beyond the Classical period and had its roots in the earlier time, but it still characterized the Classical age.

During the era before the Classical Age, in what is sometimes called the Archaic Age, Athens and Sparta had followed different paths. Sparta had two kings and an oligarchic government while Athens had instituted democracy.

Etymology of Oligarchy

oligos 'few' + arche 'rule'

Etymology of Democracy

demos 'the people of a country' + krateo 'rule'

A Spartan woman had the right to own property, whereas, in Athens, she had few freedoms. In Sparta, men and women served the state; in Athens, they served the Oikos 'household/family'.

Etymology of Economy

Economy = oikos 'home' + nomos 'custom, usage, ordinance'

Men were trained in Sparta to be laconic warriors and in Athens to be public speakers.

Persian Wars

Despite an almost endless series of differences, the Hellenes from Sparta, Athens, and elsewhere fought together against the monarchical Persian Empire. In 479 they repelled the numerically mightier Persian force from the Greek mainland.

Peloponnesian and Delian Alliances

For the next few decades after the end of the Persian Wars, relations between the 2 major poleis 'city-states' deteriorated. The Spartans, who had earlier been the unquestioned leaders of the Greeks, suspected Athens (a new naval power) of trying to take control of all of Greece. Most of the poleis on the Peloponnese allied with Sparta. Athens was at the head of the poleis in the Delian League. Its members were along the coast of the Aegean Sea and on islands in it. The Delian League initially had been formed against the Persian Empire, but finding it lucrative, Athens transformed it into its own empire.

Pericles, the foremost statesman of Athens from 461-429, introduced payment for public offices so more of the population than just the rich could hold them. Pericles initiated the building of the Parthenon, which was supervised by the famed Athenian sculptor Pheidias. Drama and philosophy flourished.

Peloponnesian War and Its Aftermath

Tensions between the Peloponnesian and Delian alliances mounted. The Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 and lasted for 27 years. Pericles, along with many others, died of plague early in the war.

Even after the end of the Peloponnesian War, which Athens lost, Thebes, Sparta, and Athens continued to take turns as the dominant Greek power. Instead of one of them becoming the clear leader, they dissipated their strength and fell prey to the empire-building Macedonian king Phillip II and his son Alexander the Great.

Historians of the Archaic and Classical Period

  • Herodotus
  • Plutarch
  • Strabo
  • Pausanias
  • Thucydides
  • Diodorus Siculus
  • Xenophon
  • Demosthenes
  • Aeschines
  • Nepos
  • Justin

Historians of the Period When Greece Was Dominated by the Macedonians

  • Diodorus
  • Justin
  • Thucydides
  • Arrian & fragments of Arrian found in Photius
  • Demosthenes
  • Aeschines
  • Plutarch
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Gill, N.S. "Political Aspects of the Classical Age of Greece." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/classical-greece-111925. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). Political Aspects of the Classical Age of Greece. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/classical-greece-111925 Gill, N.S. "Political Aspects of the Classical Age of Greece." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/classical-greece-111925 (accessed June 4, 2023).