Points About Ancient Greek History

Major Topics in Ancient Greek History You Should Know

Greece, now a country in the Aegean, was a collection of independent city-states or poleis in antiquity that we know about archaeologically from the Bronze Age on. These poleis fought among one another and against bigger external forces, especially the Persians. Eventually, they were conquered by their neighbors to the north and then later became part of the Roman Empire. After the western Roman Empire fell, the Greek-speaking area of the Empire continued until 1453, when it fell to the Turks.

The Lay of the Land - Geography of Greece

Map of the Peloponnese
Map of the Peloponnese. Clipart.com

Greece, a country in southeastern Europe whose peninsula extends from the Balkans into the Mediterranean Sea, is mountainous, with many gulfs and bays. Some areas of Greece are filled with forests. Much of Greece is stony and suitable only for pasturage, but other areas are suitable for growing wheat, barley, citrus, dates, and olives.

Prehistory: Before Greek Writing

Minoan Fresco
Minoan Fresco. Clipart.com

Prehistoric Greece includes that period known to us through archaeology rather than writing. The Minoans and Mycenaeans with their bullfights and labyrinths come from this period. The Homeric epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey—describe valiant heroes and kings from the prehistoric Bronze Age of Greece. After the Trojan Wars, the Greeks were shuffled around the peninsula because of invaders the Greeks called Dorians.

Greek Colonies

Italy - Reference Map of Ancient Italy, Southern Part
Ancient Italy and Sicily - Magna Graecia. From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911.

There were two main periods of colonial expansion among the ancient Greeks. The first was in the Dark Ages when the Greeks thought the Dorians invaded. See Dark Age Migrations. The second period of colonization began in the 8th century when Greeks founded cities in southern Italy and Sicily. The Achaeans founded Sybaris was an Achaean colony perhaps founded in 720 B.C. The Achaeans also founded Croton. Corinth was the mother city of Syracuse. The territory in Italy colonized by the Greeks was known as Magna Graecia (Great Greece). Greeks also settled colonies northward up to the Black (or Euxine) Sea.

Greeks set up colonies for many reasons, including trade and to provide land for the landless. They held close ties to the mother city.

The Social Groups of Early Athens

Acropolis in Athens. Clipart.com

Early Athens had the household or oikos as its basic unit. There were also progressively larger groups, genos, phratry, and tribe. Three phratries formed a tribe (or phylai) headed by a tribal king. The earliest known function of the tribes was military. They were corporate bodies with their own priests and officials, as well as military and administrative units. There were four original tribes in Athens.

The Acropolis - Athens' Fortified Hilltop

Porch of the Maidens (Caryatid porch), Erechtheion, Acropolis, Athens
Porch of the Maidens (Caryatid porch), Erechtheion, Acropolis, Athens. CC Flickr Eustaquio Santimano

The civic life of ancient Athens was in the agora, like the Romans' forum. The Acropolis housed the temple of the patron goddess Athena, and had, since early times, been a protected area. Long walls extending to the harbor prevented the Athenians from starving in case they were besieged.

Democracy Evolves in Athens

Solon. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Originally kings ruled the Greek states, but as they urbanized, the kings were replaced by a rule by the nobles, an oligarchy. In Sparta, the kings remained, possibly because they didn't have too much power since the power was split in 2, but elsewhere the kings were replaced.

Land Shortage was among the precipitating factors leading to the rise of democracy in Athens. So was the rise of the non-equestrian army. Cylon and Draco helped create a uniform law code for all Athenians that furthered the progress to democracy. Then came the poet-politician Solon, who set up a constitution, followed by Cleisthenes, who had to iron out the problems Solon left behind, and in the process increased from 4 to 10 the number of tribes.

Sparta - The Military Polis

Cleombrotus, King of Sparta
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sparta started with small city-states (poleis) and tribal kings, like Athens, but it developed differently. It forced the native population on the neighboring land to work for the Spartans, and it maintained kings alongside an aristocratic oligarchy. The fact that it had two kings may have been what saved the institution since each king could have prevented the other from becoming too abusive of his power. Sparta was known for its lack of luxury and physically strong population. It was also known as the one place in Greece where women had some power and could own property.

The Greco-Persian Wars - Persian Wars Under Xerxes and Darius

Darius I Receiving a Median Dignitary Relief Sculpture
Bettmann/Getty Images

The Persian Wars are usually dated 492-449/448 B.C. However, a conflict started between the Greek poleis in Ionia and the Persian Empire before 499 B.C. There were two mainland invasions of Greece, in 490 (under King Darius) and 480-479 B.C. (under King Xerxes). The Persian Wars ended with the Peace of Callias of 449, but by this time, and as a result of actions taken in Persian War battles, Athens had developed her own empire. Conflict mounted between the Athenians and the allies of Sparta. This conflict would lead to the Peloponnesian War.

Greeks were also involved in ​the conflict with the Persians when they hired on as mercenaries of King Cyrus (401-399) and Persians aided the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War.

The Peloponnesian League was an alliance of mostly the city-states of the Peloponnese led by Sparta. Formed in the 6th century, it became one of the two sides fighting during the Peloponnesian War (431-404).

The Peloponnesian War - Greek Against Greek

Socrates at the Battle of Potidaea
Print Collector/Getty Images

The Peloponnesian War (431-404) was fought between two groups of Greek allies. One was the Peloponnesian League, which had Sparta as its leader and included Corinth. The other leader was Athens who had control of the Delian League. The Athenians lost, putting an effective end to the Classical Age of Greece. Sparta dominated the Greek world.

Thucydides and Xenophon are the major contemporary sources on the Peloponnesian War.

Philip and Alexander the Great - Macedonian Conquerors of Greece

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great. Clipart.com

Philip II (382 - 336 B.C.) with his son Alexander the Great conquered the Greeks and expanded the empire, taking Thrace, Thebes, Syria, Phoenicia, Mesopotamia, Assyria, Egypt, and on to the Punjab, in northern India. Alexander founded possibly more than 70 cities throughout the Mediterranean region and east to India, spreading trade and the culture of the Greeks wherever he went.

When Alexander the Great died, his empire was divided into ​three parts: Macedonia and Greece, ruled by Antigonus, founder of the Antigonid dynasty; the Near East, ruled by Seleucus, founder of the Seleucid dynasty; and Egypt, where the general Ptolemy started the Ptolemid dynasty. The empire was wealthy thanks to the conquered Persians. With this wealth, building and other cultural programs were established in each region

Macedonian Wars - Rome Gains Power Over Greece

Portrait Of Hannibal On Horseback
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Greece was at odds with Macedonia, again, and sought the help of the budding Roman Empire. It came, helped them get rid of the northern menace, but when they were called back repeatedly, their policy gradually changed and Greece became part of the Roman Empire.

Byzantine Empire - The Greek Roman Empire

Justinian. Clipart.com

The fourth-century A.D. Roman emperor Constantine established a capital city in Greece, at Constantinople or Byzantium. When the Roman Empire "fell" in the following century, only the western emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed. The Byzantine Greek-speaking part of the empire continued until it fell to the Ottoman Turks about a millennium later in 1453.

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Gill, N.S. "Points About Ancient Greek History." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/major-topics-in-ancient-greek-history-118616. Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Points About Ancient Greek History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/major-topics-in-ancient-greek-history-118616 Gill, N.S. "Points About Ancient Greek History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/major-topics-in-ancient-greek-history-118616 (accessed February 2, 2023).