Deep diving into Ancient Greece and its Classical Age

In ancient times, Greece was not a united country. It was a collection of separate lands where Greek-speaking people lived. By 3000 B.C., the Minoans lived on the large Greek island of Crete. The Minoans created an elegant civilization that had great power in the Mediterranean world.

At the same time, people from the plains along the Black Sea and Anatolia migrated and settled in mainland Greece.

Ancient Greece map

Why does geography shape Greek life?

Ancient Greece consisted mainly of a mountainous peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea. It also included about 2,000 islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas. Lands on the eastern edge of the Aegean were also part of ancient Greece. The region’s physical geography directly shaped Greek traditions and customs.

The sea shaped Greek civilization just as rivers shaped the ancient civilizations of Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, India, and China. In one sense, the Greeks did not live on land but around the sea. Greeks rarely had to travel more than 85 miles to reach the coastline. The Aegean Sea, the Ionian Sea, and the neighboring Black Sea were important transportation routes for the Greek people.

These seaways linked most parts of Greece. As the Greeks became skilled sailors, sea travel connected Greece with other societies. Sea travel and trade were also important because Greece lacked natural resources, such as timber, precious metals, and usable farmland.

Athenian trireme. A trireme was a ship propelled by three tiers of oarsmen. Athens’ fleet of triremes was the largest and the best at the Mediterranean.

Rugged mountains covered about three-fourths of ancient Greece. The mountain chains ran mainly from northwest to southeast along the Balkan Peninsula. Mountains divided the land into several different regions and this significantly influenced Greek political life.

Instead of a single government, the Greeks developed small, independent communities within each little valley and its surrounding mountains. Most Greeks gave their loyalty to these local communities

In ancient times, the uneven terrain also made land transportation difficult. Of the few roads that existed, most were little more than dirt paths. It often took travelers several days to complete a journey that might take a few hours today.

Much of the land itself was stony, and only a small part of it was arable or suitable for farming. Tiny but fertile valleys covered about one-fourth of Greece.

Geography of Greece, dominated by the sea and rugged mountains

The small streams that watered these valleys were not suitable for large-scale irrigation projects. With so little fertile farmland or freshwater for irrigation, Greece was never able to support a large population. Historians estimate that no more than a few million people lived in ancient Greece at any given time. Even this small population could not expect the land to support a life of luxury. A desire for more living space, grassland for raising livestock, and adequate farmland may have been factors that motivated the Greeks to seek new sites for colonies.

How was the climate?

Climate was another important environmental influence on Greek civilization. Greece has a varied climate, with temperatures averaging 48 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter and 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. In ancient times, these moderate temperatures supported an outdoor life for many Greek citizens.

Men spent much of their leisure time at outdoor public events. They met often to discuss public issues, exchange news, and take an active part in civic life.

How did Mycenaean civilization develop?

The Minoan Age
The Micenaen Age

A large wave of Indo-Europeans migrated from the Eurasian steppes to Europe, India, and Southwest Asia. Some of the people who settled on the Greek mainland around 2000 B.C. were later known as Mycenaeans.

The name came from their leading city, Mycenae, that was located in southern Greece on a steep, rocky ridge and surrounded by a protective wall more than 20 feet thick. The fortified city of Mycenae could withstand almost any attack.

From Mycenae, a warrior-king ruled the surrounding villages and farms. Strong rulers controlled the areas around other Mycenaean cities, such as Tiryns and Athens. These kings dominated Greece from about 1600 to 1100 B.C.

 How was contact with Minoans started?

Sometime after 1500 B.C., through either trade or war, the Mycenaeans came into contact with the Minoan civilization. From their contact with the Minoans, the Mycenaeans saw the value of seaborne trade. Mycenaean traders soon sailed throughout the eastern Mediterranean, making stops at Aegean islands, coastal towns in Anatolia, and ports in Syria, Egypt, Italy, and Crete.

Minoan Knossos Palace

The Minoans also influenced the Mycenaeans in other ways. The Mycenaeans adapted the Minoan writing system to the Greek language and decorated vases with Minoan designs. The Minoan influenced culture of Mycenae formed the core of Greek religious practice, art, politics, and literature. Indeed, Western civilization has its roots in these two early Mediterranean civilizations.

Greek alphabet

What was the Trojan War?

During the 1200s B.C., the Mycenaeans fought a ten-year war against Troy, an independent trading city located in Anatolia. According to legend, a Greek army besieged and destroyed Troy because a Trojan prince had kidnapped Helen, the beautiful wife of a Greek king.

Trojan War battle

For many years, historians thought that the legendary stories told of the Trojan War were totally fictional. However, excavations conducted in northwestern Turkey during the 1870s by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann suggested that the stories of the Trojan War might have been based on real cities, people, and events. Further archaeological studies conducted in the 20th century support Schliemann’s findings. Although the exact nature of the Trojan War remains unclear, this attack on Troy was almost certainly one of the last Mycenaean battle campaigns.

Why did Greek Culture decline under the Dorians?

Not long after the Trojan War, Mycenaean civilization collapsed. Around 1200 B.C., sea raiders attacked and burned many Mycenaean cities. According to tradition, a new group of people, the Dorians, moved into the war-torn countryside. The Dorians spoke a dialect of Greek and may have been distant relatives of the Bronze Age Greeks.

The Dorians were far less advanced than the Mycenaeans. The economy collapsed and trade eventually came to a standstill soon after their arrival. Most important to historians, Greeks appear to have temporarily lost the art of writing during the Dorian Age. No written record exists from the 400-year period between 1150 and 750 B.C. As a result, little is known about this period of Greek history.

Who was Homer?

Lacking writing, the Greeks of this time learned about their history through the spoken word. According to tradition, the greatest storyteller was a blind man named Homer. Little is known about his personal life. Some historians believe that Homer composed his epics, narrative poems celebrating heroic deeds, sometime between 750 and 700 B.C. The Trojan War forms the backdrop for one of Homer’s great epic poems, The Iliad.

Bust of Homer, at the British Museum

The heroes of the Iliad are warriors: the fierce Greek Achilles and the courageous and noble Hector of Troy. The Iliad gives insight into the Greek heroic ideal of the arete, meaning virtue and excellence. A Greek could display this ideal on the battlefield in combat or in athletic contests on the playing field.

What is the source of Greek Myths?

The Greeks developed a rich set of myths, or traditional stories, about their gods. The works of Homer and another epic, Theogony by Hesiod, are the source of much of Greek mythology. Through the myths, the Greeks sought to understand the mysteries of nature and the power of human passions.

Myths explained the changing of the seasons, for example. Greeks attributed human qualities, such as love, hate, and jealousy, to their gods. The gods quarreled and competed with each other constantly. However, unlike humans, the gods lived forever.

Zeus, the ruler of the gods in Ancient Greece
Greek and Roman gods and goddesses

Zeus, the ruler of the gods, lived on Mount Olympus with his wife, Hera. Hera was often jealous of Zeus’ relationships with other women. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was Zeus’ daughter and his favorite child. The Greeks thought of Athena as the guardian of cities, especially of Athens, which was named in her honor.

How did the government of city-states appear?

During the Dorian period, Greek civilization experienced a decline. However, two things changed life in Greece. First, Dorians and Mycenaeans alike began to identify less with the culture of their ancestors and more with the local area where they lived. Second, by the end of this period, the method of governing areas had changed from tribal or clan control to more formal governments—the city-states.

By 750 B.C., the city-state, or polis, was the fundamental political unit in ancient Greece. A polis was made up of a city and its surrounding countryside, which included numerous villages. Most city-states controlled between 50 and 500 square miles of territory. They were often home to fewer than 10,000 residents.

Polis or city-state

At the agora, or marketplace, or on a fortified hilltop called an acropolis, citizens gathered to discuss city government.

How were Greek political structures?

Greek city-states had many different forms of government. In some, a single person, called a king, ruled in a government called a monarchy. Others adopted an aristocracy, a government ruled by a small group of noble, landowning families. These very rich families often gained political power after serving in a king’s military cavalry. Later, as trade expanded, a new class of wealthy merchants and artisans emerged in some cities. When these groups became dissatisfied with the aristocratic rule, they sometimes took power or shared it with the nobility. They formed an oligarchy, a government ruled by a few powerful people.

How did tyrants seize power?

In many city-states, repeated clashes occurred between rulers and the common people. Powerful individuals, usually nobles or other wealthy citizens, sometimes seized control of the government by appealing to the common people for support. These rulers were called tyrants. Unlike today, tyrants generally were not considered harsh and cruel. Rather, they were looked upon as leaders who would work for the interests of ordinary people. Once in power, for example, tyrants often set up building programs to provide jobs and housing for their supporters.

Why did Athens build a limited Democracy?

The idea of representative government also began to take root in some city-states, particularly Athens. Like other city-states, Athens went through power struggles between rich and poor. However, Athenians avoided major political upheavals by making timely reforms. Athenian reformers moved toward democracy, rule by the people. In Athens, citizens participated directly in political decision making.

The first step toward democracy came when a nobleman named Draco took power. In 621 B.C., Draco developed a legal code based on the idea that all Athenians, rich and poor, were equal under the law. Draco’s code dealt very harshly with criminals, making death the punishment for practically every crime. It also upheld such practices as debt slavery, in which debtors worked as slaves to repay their debts.

Greek democracy

More far-reaching democratic reforms were introduced by Solon, who came to power in 594 B.C. Stating that no citizen should own another citizen, Solon outlawed debt slavery. He organized all Athenian citizens into four social classes according to wealth. Only members of the top three classes could hold political office. However, all citizens, regardless of class, could participate in the Athenian assembly. Solon also introduced the legal concept that any citizen could bring charges against wrongdoers.

Ancient Greek government, from oligarchy to democracy

Around 500 B.C., the Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced further reforms. He broke up the power of the nobility by organizing citizens into ten groups based on where they lived rather than on their wealth. He also increased the power of the assembly by allowing all citizens to submit laws for debate and passage.

Cleisthenes then created the Council of Five Hundred. This body proposed laws and counseled the assembly. Council members were chosen by lot, or at random. The reforms of Cleisthenes allowed Athenian citizens to participate in a limited democracy. However, citizenship was restricted to a relatively small number of Athenians. Only free adult male property owners born in Athens were considered citizens. Women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded from citizenship and had few rights.

How was Athenian education?

For the most part, only the sons of wealthy families received formal education. Schooling began around the age of seven and largely prepared boys to be good citizens. They studied reading, grammar, poetry, history, mathematics, and music. Because citizens were expected to debate issues in the assembly, boys also received training in logic and public speaking. And since the Greeks believed that it was important to train and develop the body, part of each day was spent in athletic activities. When they got older, boys went to military school to help them prepare for another important duty of citizenship—defending Athens.

School in Ancient Greece

Athenian girls did not attend school. Rather, they were educated at home by their mothers and other female members of the household. They learned about child-rearing, weaving cloth, preparing meals, managing the household, and other skills that helped them become good wives and mothers. Some women were able to take their education farther and learned to read and write. A few even became accomplished writers. Even so, most women had very little to do with Athenian life outside the boundaries of family and home.

How was the city of Sparta?

Lycurgus, leader of Sparta who created its strong military institutions, is seated discussing the meaning of education in this painting created of the 1600s.

Located in the southern part of Greece known as the Peloponnesus, Sparta was nearly cut off from the rest of Greece by the Gulf of Corinth. In outlook and values, Sparta contrasted sharply with the other city-states, Athens in particular. Instead of a democracy, Sparta built a military state.

Around 725 B.C., Sparta conquered the neighboring region of Messenia and took over the land. The Messenians became helots, peasants were forced to stay on the land they worked. Each year, the Spartans demanded half of the helots’ crops. In about 650 B.C., the Messenians, resentful of the Spartans’ harsh rule, revolted. The Spartans, who were outnumbered eight to one, just barely put down the revolt. Shocked at their vulnerability, they dedicated themselves to making Sparta a strong city-state.

How was Sparta’s government and society?

The Spartan government had several branches. An assembly, which was composed of all Spartan citizens, elected officials and voted on major issues. The Council of Elders, made up of 30 older citizens, proposed laws on which the assembly voted. Five elected officials carried out the laws passed by the assembly. These men also controlled education and prosecuted court cases. Also, two kings ruled over Sparta’s military forces.

The Spartan social order consisted of several groups. The first group consisted of citizens descended from the original inhabitants of the region. This group included the ruling families who owned the land. A second group, noncitizens who were free, worked in commerce and industry. The helots, at the bottom of Spartan society, were little better than slaves. They worked in the fields or as house servants.

From around 600 until 371 B.C., Sparta had the most powerful army in Greece. However, the Spartan people paid a high price for their military supremacy. All forms of individual expression were discouraged. As a result, Spartans did not value the arts, literature, or other artistic and intellectual pursuits. Spartans valued duty, strength, and discipline over freedom, individuality, beauty, and learning.

Since men were expected to serve in the army until the age of 60, their daily life centered on military training. Boys left home when they were 7 and moved into army barracks, where they stayed until they reached the age of 30. They spent their days marching, exercising, and fighting. They undertook these activities in all weathers, wearing only light tunics and no shoes. At night, they slept without blankets on hard benches. Their daily diet consisted of little more than a bowl of coarse black porridge. Those who were not satisfied were encouraged to steal food. Such training produced tough, resourceful soldiers.

Spartan girls also led hard lives. They received some military training, and they also ran, wrestled, and played sports. Like boys, girls were taught to put service to Sparta above everything—even love of family. A legend says that Spartan women told husbands and sons going to war to “come back with your shield or on it.” As adults, Spartan women had considerable freedom, especially in running the family estates when their husbands were on active military service. Such freedom surprised men from other Greek city-states. This was particularly true of Athens, where women were expected to remain out of sight and quietly raise children.

What were the Persian Wars?

The danger of a helot revolt led Sparta to become a military state. Struggles between rich and poor led Athens to become a democracy. The greatest danger of all— invasion by Persian armies—moved Sparta and Athens alike to their greatest glory.

During the Dorian Age, only the rich could afford bronze spears, shields, breastplates, and chariots. Thus, only the rich served in armies. Iron later replaced bronze in the manufacture of weapons. Harder than bronze, iron was more common and therefore cheaper. Soon, ordinary citizens could afford to arm and defend themselves. The shift from bronze to iron weapons made possible a new kind of army composed not only of the rich but also of merchants, artisans, and small landowners. The foot soldiers of this army, called hoplites, stood side by side, each holding a spear in one hand and a shield in the other. This fearsome formation, or phalanx, became the most powerful fighting force in the ancient world.

Greek phalanx

What was the Battle at Marathon?

The Persian Wars, between Greece and the Persian Empire, began in Ionia on the coast of Anatolia. Greeks had long been settled there, but around 546 B.C., the Persians conquered the area. When Ionian Greeks revolted, Athens sent ships and soldiers to their aid. The Persian king Darius the Great defeated the rebels and then vowed to destroy Athens in revenge.

In 490 B.C., a Persian fleet carried 25,000 men across the Aegean Sea and landed northeast of Athens on a plain called Marathon. There, 10,000 Athenians, neatly arranged in phalanxes, waited for them. Vastly outnumbered, the Greek soldiers charged. The Persians, who wore light armor and lacked training in this kind of land combat, were no match for the disciplined Greek phalanx. After several hours, the Persians fled the battlefield. The Persians lost more than 6,000 men. In contrast, Athenian casualties numbered fewer than 200.

Though the Athenians won the battle, their city now stood defenseless. According to tradition, army leaders chose a young runner named Pheidippides to race back to Athens. He brought news of the Persian defeat so that Athenians would not give up the city without a fight. Dashing the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens, Pheidippides delivered his message, “Rejoice, we conquer.” He then collapsed and died. Moving rapidly from Marathon, the Greek army arrived in Athens not long after. When the Persians sailed into the harbor, they found the city heavily defended. They quickly put to sea in retreat.

Pheidippides racing back to Athens

What were Thermopylae and Salamis?

Ten years later, in 480 B.C., Darius the Great’s son and successor, Xerxes, assembled an enormous invasion force to crush Athens. The Greeks were badly divided. Some city-states agreed to fight the Persians. Others thought it wiser to let Xerxes destroy Athens and return home.

Some Greeks even fought on the Persian side. Consequently, Xerxes’ army met no resistance as it marched down the eastern coast of Greece.

When Xerxes came to a narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae, 7,000 Greeks, including 300 Spartans, blocked his way. Xerxes assumed that his troops would easily push the Greeks aside. However, he underestimated their fighting ability. The Greeks stopped the Persian advance for three days. Only a traitor’s informing the Persians about a secret path around the pass ended their brave stand. Fearing defeat, the Spartans held the Persians back while the other Greek forces retreated. The Spartans’ valiant sacrifice—all were killed— made a great impression on all Greeks.

Spartan soldiers fighting off the Persian invasion at the battle of the Thermopylae

Meanwhile, the Athenians debated how best to defend their city. Themistocles, an Athenian leader, convinced them to evacuate the city and fight at sea. They positioned their fleet in a narrow channel near the island of Salamis, a few miles southwest of Athens. After setting fire to Athens, Xerxes sent his warships to block both ends of the channel. However, the channel was very narrow, and the Persian ships had difficulty turning.

Smaller Greek ships armed with battering rams attacked, puncturing the hulls of many Persian warships. Xerxes watched in horror as more than one-third of his fleet sank. He faced another defeat in 479 B.C. when the Greeks crushed the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea. After this major setback, the Persians were always on the defensive.

The following year, several Greek city-states formed an alliance called the Delian League. The alliance took its name from Delos, the island in the Aegean Sea where it had its headquarters.) League members continued to press the war against the Persians for several more years. In time, they drove the Persians from the territories surrounding Greece and ended the threat of future attacks.

What were the consequences of the Persian Wars?

With the Persian threat ended, all the Greek city-states felt a new sense of confidence and freedom. Athens, in particular, basked in the glory of the Persian defeat. During the 470s, Athens emerged as the leader of the Delian League, which had grown to some 200 city-states. Soon thereafter, Athens began to use its power to control the other league members.

It moved the league headquarters to Athens and used military force against members that challenged its authority. In time, these city-states became little more than provinces of a vast Athenian empire. The prestige of victory over the Persians and the wealth of the Athenian empire set the stage for a dazzling burst of creativity in Athens. The city was entering its brief golden age.

How was the Golden Age of Athens?

For close to 50 years (from 477 to 431 B.C.), Athens experienced growth in intellectual and artistic learning. This period is often called the Golden Age of Athens. During this golden age, drama, sculpture, poetry, philosophy, architecture, and science all reached new heights. The artistic and literary legacies of the time continue to inspire and instruct people around the world.

Golden Age architecture in Athens, during Pericles rule

How were Pericles’ plans for Athens?

A wise and able statesman named Pericles led Athens during much of its golden age. Honest and fair, Pericles held onto popular support for 32 years. He was a skillful politician, an inspiring speaker, and a respected general. He so dominated the life of Athens from 461 to 429 B.C. that this period often is called the Age of Pericles because he had three goals:

(1) to strengthen Athenian democracy

(2) to hold and strengthen the empire

(3) to glorify Athens

The Pnyx, a hill near the Acropolis

To strengthen democracy, Pericles increased the number of public officials who were paid salaries. Earlier in Athens, most positions in public office were unpaid. Thus, only wealthier Athenian citizens could afford to hold public office. Now even the poorest citizen could serve if elected or chosen by lot. Consequently, Athens had more citizens engaged in self-government than any other city-state in Greece. This reform made Athens one of the most democratic governments in history.

Pericles

The introduction of direct democracy, a form of government in which citizens rule directly and not through representatives, was an important legacy of Periclean Athens. Few other city-states practiced this style of government. In Athens, male citizens who served in the assembly established all the important government policies that affected the polis.

After the defeat of the Persians, Athens helped organize the Delian League. In time, Athens took over leadership of the league and dominated all the city-states in it. Pericles used the money from the league’s treasury to make the Athenian navy the strongest in the Mediterranean. A strong navy was important because it helped Athens strengthen the safety of its empire.

Prosperity depended on gaining access to the surrounding waterways. Athens needed overseas trade to obtain supplies of grain and other raw materials.

The Athenian military allowed Pericles to treat other members of the Delian League as part of the empire. Some cities in the Peloponnesus, however, resisted Athens and formed their own alliances. Sparta in particular was at odds with Athens.

Pericles also used money from the Delian League to beautify Athens. Without the league’s approval, he persuaded the Athenian assembly to vote huge sums of the league’s money to buy gold, ivory, and marble. Still, more money went to pay the artists, architects, and workers who used these materials.

Greek influence around 500 BCE

How was Art and Architecture in Golden Age Athens?

Pericles’ goal was to have the greatest Greek artists and architects create magnificent sculptures and buildings to glorify Athens. At the center of his plan was one of architecture’s noblest works—the Parthenon.

The Parthenon, a masterpiece of architectural design and craftsmanship, was not unique in style. Rather, Greek architects constructed the 23,000- square-foot building in the traditional style that had been used to create Greek temples for 200 years. This temple built to honor Athena, the goddess of wisdom and the protector of Athens, contained examples of Greek art that set standards for future generations of artists around the world.

Pericles entrusted much of the work on the Parthenon to the sculptor Phidias. Within the temple, Phidias crafted a giant statue of Athena that not only contained such precious materials as gold and ivory but also stood over 30 feet tall. Phidias and other sculptors during this golden age aimed to create figures that were graceful, strong and perfectly formed. Their faces showed neither joy nor anger, only serenity.

Greek sculptors also tried to capture the grace of the idealized human body in motion. They wanted to portray ideal beauty, not realism. Their values of harmony, order, balance, and proportion became the standard of what is called classical art.

How was Drama?

The Greeks invented drama as an art form and built the first theaters in the West. Theatrical productions in Athens were both an expression of civic pride and a tribute to the gods. As part of their civic duty, wealthy citizens bore the cost of producing the plays. Actors used colorful costumes, masks, and sets to dramatize stories. The plays were about leadership, justice, and the duties owed to the gods. They often included a chorus that danced, sang, and recited poetry.

Ancient Greek theater

The Greeks wrote two kinds of drama—tragedy, and comedy. A tragedy was a serious drama about common themes such as love, hate, war, or betrayal. These dramas featured a main character, or tragic hero. The hero usually was an important person and often gifted with extraordinary abilities. A tragic flaw usually caused the hero’s downfall. Often this flaw was hubris or excessive pride.

In ancient times, Greece had three notable dramatists who wrote tragedies. Aeschylus wrote more than 80 plays. His most famous work is the trilogy—a three-play series—Oresteia. It is based on the family of Agamemnon, the Mycenaean king who commanded the Greeks at Troy. The plays examine the idea of justice.

Sophocles wrote more than 100 plays, including the tragedies Oedipus the King and Antigone. Euripides, the author of the play Medea, often featured strong women in his works.

In contrast to Greek tragedies, a comedy contained scenes filled with slapstick situations and crude humor. Playwrights often made fun of politics and respected people and ideas of the time. Aristophanes wrote the first great comedies for the stage, including The Birds and Lysistrata. Lysistrata portrayed the women of Athens forcing their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War. The fact that Athenians could listen to criticism of themselves showed the freedom and openness of public discussion that existed in democratic Athens.

How was History?

There are no written records from the Dorian period. The epic poems of Homer recount stories, but are not accurate recordings of what took place. Herodotus, a Greek who lived in Athens for a time, pioneered the accurate reporting of events. His book on the Persian Wars is considered the first work of history.

However, the greatest historian of the classical age was the Athenian Thucydides. He believed that certain types of events and political situations recur over time. Studying those events and situations, he felt, would aid in understanding the present. The approaches Thucydides used in his work still guide historians today.

Why did Athens and Sparta go to war?

As Athens grew in wealth, prestige, and power, other city-states began to view it with hostility. Ill will was especially strong between Sparta and Athens. Many people thought that war between the two was inevitable. Instead of trying to avoid conflict, leaders in Athens and Sparta pressed for a war to begin, as both groups of leaders believed their own city had the advantage. Eventually, Sparta declared war on Athens in 431 B.C.

When the Peloponnesian War between the two city-states began, Athens had the stronger navy. Sparta had a stronger army, and its location inland meant that it could not easily be attacked by sea. Pericles’ strategy was to avoid land battles with the Spartan army and wait for an opportunity to strike.

Peloponnesian War Battle

Eventually, the Spartans marched into the Athenian territory. They swept over the countryside, burning the Athenian food supply. Pericles responded by bringing residents from the surrounding region inside the city walls. The city was safe from hunger as long as ships could sail into port with supplies from Athenian colonies and foreign states.

In the second year of the war, however, disaster struck Athens. A frightful plague swept through the city, killing perhaps one-third of the population, including Pericles. Although weakened, Athens continued to fight for several years. Then, in 421 B.C., the two sides, worn down by the war, signed a truce.

The peace did not last long. In 415 B.C., the Athenians sent a huge fleet carrying more than 20,000 soldiers to the island of Sicily. Their plan was to destroy the city-state of Syracuse, one of Sparta’s wealthiest allies. The expedition ended with a crushing defeat in 413 B.C.

Somehow, a terribly weakened Athens fended off Spartan attacks for another nine years. Finally, in 404 B. C ., the Athenians and their allies surrendered. Athens had lost its empire, power, and wealth.

How were philosophers, searchers for Truth?

After the war, many Athenians lost confidence in democratic government and began to question their values. In this time of uncertainty, several great thinkers appeared.

The School of Athens, painting by Raphael portraying greatest Greek philosophers

They were determined to seek the truth, no matter where the search led them. The Greeks called such thinkers philosophers, meaning “lovers of wisdom.” These Greek thinkers based their philosophy on the following two assumptions:

• The universe (land, sky, and sea) is put together in an orderly way, and subject to absolute and unchanging laws.

• People can understand these laws through logic and reason.

One group of philosophers, the Sophists, questioned people’s unexamined beliefs and ideas about justice and other traditional values. One of the most famous Sophists was Protagoras, who questioned the existence of the traditional Greek gods. He also argued that there was no universal standard of truth, saying “Man [the individual] is the measure of all things.” These were radical and dangerous ideas for many Athenians.

One critic of the Sophists was Socrates. Unlike the Sophists, he believed that absolute standards did exist for truth and justice. However, he encouraged Greeks to go farther and question themselves and their moral character. Historians believe that it was Socrates who once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates was admired by many who understood his ideas. However, others were puzzled by this man’s viewpoints. In 399 B. C ., when Socrates was about 70 years old, he was brought to trial for “corrupting the youth of Athens” and “neglecting the city’s gods.” In his own defense, Socrates said that his teachings were good for Athens because they forced people to think about their values and actions. The jury disagreed and condemned him to death. He died by drinking hemlock, a slow-acting poison.

A student of Socrates, Plato, was in his late 20s when his teacher died. Later, Plato wrote down the conversations of Socrates “as a means of philosophical investigation.” Sometime in the 370s B. C ., Plato wrote his most famous work, The Republic. In it, he set forth his vision of a perfectly governed society.

It was not a democracy. In his ideal society, all citizens would fall naturally into three groups: farmers and artisans, warriors, and the ruling class. The person with the greatest insight and intellect from the ruling class would be chosen philosopher-king. Plato’s writings dominated philosophic thought in Europe for nearly 1,500 years. His only rivals in importance were his teacher, Socrates, and his own pupil, Aristotle.

The philosopher Aristotle questioned the nature of the world and of human belief, thought, and knowledge. Aristotle came close to summarizing all the knowledge up to his time. He invented a method for arguing according to rules of logic. He later applied his method to problems in the fields of psychology, physics, and biology. His work provides the basis of the scientific method used today.

One of Aristotle’s most famous pupils was Alexander, son of King Philip II of Macedonia. Around 343 B. C ., Aristotle accepted the king’s invitation to tutoring the 13-year-old prince. Alexander’s status as a student abruptly ended three years later, when his father called him back to Macedonia.

How Alexander the Great changed the world

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