Know all about Ancient Greece
1. Ancient Greece
Democracy – Olympic Games – Temples – City-state – Minoan – Mycenaean – Homer
Where did Western civilization begin?
Ancient Greece is called ‘the birthplace of Western civilization’. About 2500 years ago, the Greeks created a way of life that other people admired and copied. The Romans copied Greek art and Greek gods, for example. The Ancient Greeks tried out democracy, started the Olympic Games and left new ideas in science, art and philosophy (thinking about life).
The Ancient Greeks lived in mainland Greece and the Greek islands, but also in what is now Turkey, and in colonies scattered around the Mediterranean Sea coast. There were Greeks in Italy, Sicily, North Africa and as far west as France. Sailing the sea to trade and find new land, Greeks took their way of life to many places.
What was ancient Greece like?
Ancient Greece had a warm, dry climate, as Greece does today. People lived by farming, fishing, and trade. Some were soldiers. Others were scholars, scientists or artists. Most Greeks lived in villages or in small cities. There were beautiful temples with stone columns and statues, and open-air theatres where people sat to watch plays.
Many Greeks were poor. Life was hard because farmland, water and timber for building were all scarce. That’s why many Greeks sailed off to find new lands to settle.
How was Greece ruled?
There was not one country called “Ancient Greece.” Instead, there were small ‘city-states’. Each city-state had its own government. Sometimes the city-states fought one another; sometimes they joined together against a bigger enemy, the Persian Empire. Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Olympia were four of these city-states.
Only a very powerful ruler could control all Greece. One man did in the 300s BC. He was Alexander the Great, from Macedonia. Alexander led his army to conquer not just Greece but an empire that reached as far as Afghanistan and India.
Suggested activity: Watch the Film Alexander
When did Greek civilization begin?
About 3000 BC, there lived on the island of Crete a group of people called Minoans. The name comes from their King Minos. Minos and other Minoan kings grew rich from trade, and built fine palaces. The Minoan civilization ended about 1450 BC.
After the Minoans came the Mycenaean. They were soldiers from mainland Greece, and were the Greeks who fought Troy in the 1200s BC. After the Mycenaean age ended, about 1100 BC, Greece entered a “Dark Age”. This lasted until the 800s BC when the Greeks set off by sea to explore and set up colonies.
The Olympic Games begun in 776 BC. This was the start of “Archaic” Greek civilization.
Around 480 BC the “golden age” of Greece began. This is what historians call “Classical” Greece.
What was the Trojan War?
The Trojans lived in the city of Troy, in what is now Turkey. The story of their war with the Greeks is told in The Iliad, a long poem dating from the 700s BC, and said to be by a storyteller named Homer. The Odyssey, also by Homer, is the tale of the adventures of a Greek soldier named Odysseus, after the war.
The Trojan War began when Paris, Prince of Troy, ran away with Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. The Greeks sent a fleet of ships, with an army, to get her back. The war lasted for 10 years. In single combat, the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles, killed the Trojan leader Hector. In the end the Greeks won, by a clever trick using a wooden horse.
Attica – Parthenon – Democracy – Dionysian Festival
Why Athens was great?
Athens was the largest city in Greece, and controlled a region called Attica. Between the many mountains were fertile valleys, with many farms. Athens became rich because Attica also had valuable sources of silver, lead and marble. Athens also had the biggest navy in Greece.
Athens was a beautiful and busy city. People came to the city from all over Greece, and from other countries, to study and to trade. The city’s most famous building was the temple called the Parthenon. It stood on a rocky hill called the Acropolis. A statue of the city’s protector-goddess Athena stood inside the Parthenon.
In the early 500s BC a new way of government was invented in Athens. It was “democracy” or “‘rule by the people”. Not everyone had a vote though. Only a male citizen had a say in how the city was run. There were about 30,000 citizens. The ruling Council had 500 members, all men, and chosen for a year at a time. Women could not be citizens, nor could slaves or foreigners.
The citizens met to vote on new laws put forward by the Council. Usually around 5,000 citizens met, every 10 days or so on a hill called the Pnyx. In Athens, you can still see the stones of this historic meeting place.
Life in Athens
Athens had yearly festivals for athletics, drama and religious occasions. The city taxes paid some of the cost, but rich citizens had to pay extra. Important people in Athens were the strategoi, who were ten generals chosen from each of the ten “tribes” of citizens. T
here were also nine archons. Their jobs were mostly ceremonial, to do with festivals and family matters. One of the archons had to organize the Dionysian Festival, for the god Dionysos, every year. It was a time for fun, wine-drinking, parties and plays.
Every man aged 20 to 50 or more could be “called up” for military service. A rich man might have to serve as captain of a warship for a year. He paid the crew and made repairs.
Helots – Battle of Thermopylae – King Leonidas – Battle of Salamis
Land of two kings
While Athens was trying democracy as a form of government, its rival Sparta had two kings. One king might stay at home, while the other was away fighting battles. Fighting battles was what the Spartans did best. Greeks said that in a battle one Spartan was worth several other men.
The Spartans spent so much time training for battle that they would have starved without slaves called helots. The helots worked on the Spartans’ farms. They grew the food for the Spartan soldiers and their families.
Although every Spartan man had a farm, he spent a lot of his time preparing for war. He became a soldier when he was 20. However, a boy’s training began much earlier, when he left his family home at the age of 7, and went to live in an army school. Discipline was tough. He was allowed only one tunic, and had to walk barefoot even in cold weather. He was taught how to live rough and steal food.
Growing up in Sparta
It was tough being a Spartan. Sickly babies were killed. Children ran around naked. Boys practised fighting and did athletics. Girls also did physical exercises. Spartan women had more freedom than other Greek women – a wife ran the family farm and gave orders to the helots or slaves. Old people too were shown more respect in Sparta than in other Greek states.
Spartan mothers told their sons before they left for battle, “Come back with your shield, or on it.” Dead Spartans were carried home on their shields. Only a coward would drop his shield and run away.
The 300 Spartans
Sparta’s most famous battle was Thermopylae. The year was 480 BC. A huge Persian army was trying to invade Greece. Barring the way at the mountain pass of Thermopylae were 300 Spartan soldiers led by King Leonidas, along with a few hundred other Greeks.
The Spartans’ brave fight lasted three days. One story says that after they broke their swords, the Spartans fought the Persians with their bare hands and teeth! In the end, Leonidas and his Spartans were killed. The Persians marched on to capture Athens. But soon afterwards the Greeks defeated the Persian fleet at the sea battle of Salamis.
Suggested activity: Watch the Film 300
4. Greeks at home
Aspasia – Pericles – Chiton – Himation – Tunics – Mosaic – Public baths – Perfumed oils
Greeks at home
Most Greek houses were small, with a walled garden or yard in the middle. The house was made of sun-dried mud brick. The house had a roof of clay tiles, and small windows, with no glass, but wooden shutters to keep out the hot sun.
Rich Greeks had slaves – sometimes 50 slaves worked for a rich family. Slaves did the hard work, on the farm, in the fields and workshops and in the house too.
Families and women’s lives
Married women stayed at home much of the time. At home, Greek women spent much of their time spinning thread and weaving cloth. They looked after the children and prepared food.
Rich women went out only with a slave, perhaps to visit women friends. In Athens, only poor women went shopping alone. Rich women always went with a slave or a male companion. Poor women went out more. They worked alongside their husbands, fetched water, and did the family washing in a stream.
Few Greek women had much freedom. One exception was Aspasia, who lived in Athens. She was clever, and people listened to her: she was also the girlfriend of the Athenian leader, Pericles!
What did Greeks wear?
A Greek woman wore a long tunic, called a chiton, made from a piece of cotton or linen material. It reached the ankles. Over it, she wore a cloak, called a himation – thin for summer, thick for winter, and draped from the shoulders. Young men wore short tunics, older men preferred long ones. Slaves often wore just a strip of cloth (a loincloth).
Many people went barefoot. Some wore leather sandals or, for horse-riding, high boots. Men and women wore wide-brimmed hats, to shade their heads from the hot sun. We know Greeks liked jewellery, because jewels were buried with dead people in their tombs.
How was Greek food?
Breakfast might be bread dipped in wine (made from grapes), with fruit. Lunch might be bread and cheese. For dinner, people ate porridge made from barley, with cheese, fish, vegetables, eggs and fruit. Only rich people ate much meat. Octopus was their favourite seafood. Rich people always ate at home; only slaves and poor people ate in public.
The olive was the most valuable tree in Greece. People ate the fruit, but also crushed olives to make olive oil. They used the oil for cooking, in oil lamps, and cosmetics.
Furniture and Baths
There was not much furniture in most Greek homes. People sat on wooden chairs or stools. Rich people decorated the walls and floors of their homes with coloured tiles in patterns or mosaic pictures.
There were public baths, some with hot water, but most homes had no bathroom – people washed in small tubs or in the nearest stream. Rich women (with slaves to carry the water) enjoyed baths at home, and afterwards rubbed their bodies with perfumed oil to keep their skin soft.
5. Greek Gods and Goddesses
Mount Olympus- Zeus – Hera – Poseidon – Hades – Parthenon – Perseus – Heracles – Underworld – Elysium – Tartarus
The Greek gods and goddesses
The Greeks believed that gods and goddesses watched over them. The gods were like humans, but immortal (they lived for ever) and much more powerful.
A family of gods and goddesses lived in a cloud-palace above Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece The gods looked down to watch what people were doing, and from time to time, interfered with what went on.
The gods did not always behave very well. Their king, Zeus, was always being unfaithful to his wife Hera. He appeared on Earth as a human or an animal to trick women he had fallen in love with.
Zeus and his family
Zeus was king of the gods. He threw thunderbolts to punish anyone who disobeyed him. His brother Poseidon was god of the sea. Another brother, Hades, ruled the underworld.
Zeus had many children, among them Apollo, Artemis, Athena and Ares. Apollo was the sun god, and the god of the arts, medicine, music and poetry. His twin sister Artemis was goddess of the moon, and goddess of childbirth, and of all natural things. She is often shown as a hunter with a bow and arrow.
Athena was goddess of wisdom, and of crafts such as spinning, weaving and pottery. Ares was the bad-tempered god of war – not even his own father liked him!
If you want to know more about the Greek gods and goddesses, click here and watch a video on the 12 main gods and goddesses that lived in Mount Olympus.
What were Greek temples like?
The Greeks put statues of the gods inside temples. Some temples were quite small, others very large and beautiful, with amazing decorations. The most famous temple in Greece is the Parthenon (which you can still see today) in Athens. Every city in Greece had a ‘patron’ god or goddess – a special god whom people believed protected them from harm.
People went to a temple to pray for help – perhaps when they were sick, going on a journey, or worried about the harvest. To please the gods, they brought gifts of money, flowers, food and drink, which were offered as sacrifices. Temple priests kept the most valuable gifts under guard in the temple treasury. Animals, such as cattle, were killed as sacrifices, and then people feasted on the roasted meat.
Who were the Greek heroes?
All Greeks loved stories about adventures and brave heroes. A hero was someone like Perseus. He killed the Gorgon Medusa, whose gaze turned people to stone. Perseus used his shield as a mirror, so he saw only her reflection – and was not turned to stone. Perseus also rescued a princess named Andromeda from a sea serpent – by using Medusa’s head to turn the monster to stone!
The most famous Greek hero was Heracles (the Romans called him Hercules). Zeus was his father, and he was so strong he could kill a lion with his bare hands. He sailed with Jason and the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece, and performed 12 “impossible” tasks, and was only killed by a trick – he put on a poisoned robe. Zeus liked Heracles so much he took the dead hero to Mount Olympus to live for ever with the gods.
Where did dead Greeks go?
Greeks believed the dead went to an Underworld, ruled by Hades. Good people and heroes went to the Elysian Fields (Elysium). Wicked people ended up in Tartarus, a horrid pit deep below the Underworld.
To reach the Underworld, the dead had to cross three rivers, called Acheron, Lethe and Styx. If they drank from Lethe, they forgot everything in their past lives. To cross the Styx, they had to pay Charon the grumpy ferryman. So at funerals a coin was placed in the mouth of the dead person, to pay Charon.
6. Arts and Theatre
Chorus – Skene – Comedy – Tragedy – Frieze – Pythian – Games – Oracle – Pythia
Most Greek cities had a theatre. It was in the open air, and was usually a bowl-shaped arena on a hillside. Some theatres were very big, with room for more than 15,000 people in the audience.
All the actors were men or boys. Dancers and singers, called the chorus, performed on a flat area called the orchestra. Over time, solo actors also took part, and a raised stage became part of the theatre. The actors changed costumes in a hut called the “skene”. Painting the walls of the hut made the first scenery.
The plays were comedies (funny, often poking fun at rulers) or tragedies (sad and serious, with a lesson about right and wrong).
What were Greek plays like?
Greek actors wore masks with holes for eyes and mouth. Actors also wore wigs. They wore thick-soled shoes too, to make them look taller. The masks showed the audience what kind of character an actor was playing (sad, angry or funny). Some masks had two sides, so the actor could turn them round to suit the mood for each scene.
The best actors and play writers were awarded prizes. The most famous writers of plays were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides for tragedy and Aristophanes for comedy.
Suggested activity: Watch Ancient Greek Theatre
Greek sculptors made figures of people and gods. Statues were set up outdoors in towns and inside temples. A statue lasts much longer than a painting, especially when made of a hard stone, such as marble. There were also statues made of wood and bronze (a kind of metal).
Over time Greeks made their statues more lifelike – gods look like human beings. There are figures of people without clothes, and statues of athletes in action (a discus thrower, for example).
The Greeks believed that architecture (the art of making buildings) was based on mathematical principles. They built beautiful temples. Temple roofs were held up by stone columns and decorated with friezes with carved stone figures.
There were three styles or “orders” of columns in Greek architecture: called Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Because many architects copied Greek styles, you can see much later buildings (from the 18th and 19th centuries for example) which look “Greek”.
The Greeks made pots from clay. They made small pottery bowls and cups for drinking, pots for carrying and cooking, elegant vases for decoration, and large jars for storing wine and foods. Potters in the city states of Corinth and Athens made beautiful pottery. They used a watery clay mixture to make figures or decoration on the clay before it was hard. When the pot was baked in a kiln, the areas painted with the clay mixture turned black. Unpainted areas turned red-brown.
Arts festivals and the Oracle
The arts, such as music, singing and poetry, played a part in Greek festivals. The Pythian Games took place near Delphi every four years. Winners got prizes, just like winning athletes.
Delphi was famous for its Oracle. Here Greeks believed the sun-god Apollo answered questions about the future. People came to put questions to the priestess of Apollo. She was called the Pythia. She gave Apollo’s answers in a strange muttering voice. What she said often had two or more meanings, so it was hard to say the Oracle was ever wrong.
If you want to know more about Ancient Greek Art, its different periods and to test yourself with an online quiz, click here.
7. Twenty-five great citizens
Ancient Greece was one of the greatest civilizations in history. They put an emphasis on the value of the person and education.Here are twenty-five of the most famous people from Ancient Greece:
- Socrates – First of the great Greek Philosophers. He is considered by many to be the founder of Western philosophy.
- Plato – Student of Socrates. He wrote many dialogues using Socrates as a major character. He also founded the Academy in Athens.
- Aristotle – Student of Plato. Aristotle was a philosopher and scientist. He was interested in the physical world. He was also teacher to Alexander the Great.
- Aeschylus – A Greek playwright, he is considered the father of the tragedy.
- Sophocles – Sophocles was probably the most popular playwright during Greek times. He won many writing competitions and is thought to have written over 100 plays.
- Euripides – The last of the great Greek tragedy writers, Euripides was unique in that he used strong women characters and intelligent slaves.
- Aristophanes – A Greek playwright who wrote comedies, he is considered the father of the comedy.
- Aesop – Aesop’s fables were known for both talking animals as well as teaching a moral.
- Hesiod – Hesiod wrote a book that was about Greek rural life called Works and Days. This helped historians to understand what the daily life for the average Greek person was like. He also wrote Theogany, which explained a lot about Greek Mythology.
- Homer – Homer was the most famous of the Greek epic poets. He wrote the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey.
- Pindar – Pindar is considered the greatest of the nine lyric poets of Ancient Greece.
- Sappho – One of the great lyric poets, she wrote romantic poetry that was very popular in her day.
- Herodotus – A historian who chronicled the Persian Wars, Herodotus is often called the Father of History.
- Thucydides – A great Greek historian who was known for the exact science of his research, he wrote about the war between Athens and Sparta.
- Archimedes – He is considered one of the great mathematicians and scientists in history. He made many discoveries both in math and physics including many inventions.
- Aristarchus – An astronomer and mathematician, Aristarchus was the first to put the sun at the center of the known universe rather than the Earth.
- Euclid – The Father of Geometry, Euclid wrote a book called Elements, likely the most famous mathematical textbook in history.
- Hippocrates – A scientist of medicine, Hippocrates is called the Father of Western Medicine. Doctors still take the Hippocratic Oath today.
- Pythagoras – A scientist and philosopher, he came up with the Pythagorean Theorem still used today in much of geometry.
- Alexander the Great – Often called the greatest military commander in history, Alexander expanded the Greek empire to its greatest size, never losing a battle.
- Cleisthenes – Called the Father of Athenian Democracy, Cleisthenes helped to reform the constitution so the democracy could work for all.
- Demosthenes – A great statesman, Demosthenes was considered the greatest orator (speech giver) of Greek times.
- Draco – Famous for his Draconian law that made many offences punishable by death.
- Pericles – A leader and statesman during the golden age of Greece. He helped democracy to flourish and led great building projects in Athens that still survive today.
- Solon – Solon is usually credited with laying the foundations and ideas for democracy.
Acropolis – An acropolis is a fortified citadel within a larger city. It is usually located on top of a hill and at the center of the city. The most famous acropolis is the Acropolis of Athens.
Agora – The agora was the central meeting place in Ancient Greek cities. Democracy was born at the agora in Athens. Alexander the Great – A ruler of Ancient Greece who conquered much of the civilized world from Greece to India including Egypt.
Archaic Period – The historical period of Ancient Greece from 800 BC to 480 BC. During this time the city-states of Athens and Sparta began to form. Greek philosophy and theatre began to develop as well.
Aristotle – A Greek philosopher who introduced the idea of observing nature. He also tutored Alexander the Great and began his own school in Athens.
Assembly – In Athens the Assembly consisted of the group of citizens who showed up to vote.
Athens – One of the most powerful Greek city-states, Athens was the birthplace of democracy.
Chiton – A type of clothing worn by the Greeks. It was often made from a single piece of cloth with a belt at the waist. City-state – A city-state consisted of a large city and the surrounding areas. Ancient Greece consisted of a number of independent city-states such as Athens, Thebes, and Sparta. Classical Period – The historical period of Ancient Greece from 480 BC to 323 BC. During this time Athens was ruled by democracy. Also, Sparta and Athens fought the Peloponnesian War. It ended with the rise of Alexander the Great.
Delian League – A group of Greek city-states that joined together to fight against the Persian Empire.
Democracy – A form of government where citizens have a say in how they are ruled including choosing their leaders and deciding on laws.
Ephors – The ephors were five leaders in Sparta who were chosen to oversee the Spartan kings. They were elected annually. Helots – The helots were the serfs or slaves that worked for the Spartans. The majority of the people who Sparta ruled were helots.
Hellenistic Period – The Hellenistic Period of Ancient Greece lasted from 323 BC when Alexander the Great came to power to 146 BC when Rome conquered Greece. Homer – A Greek epic poet who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hoplite – The hoplites were the citizen-soldiers of the Greek city-states.
Macedonia – A region of northern Ancient Greece, Macedonia was home to the Greek kings Philip II and Alexander the Great.
Oligarchy – A type of government where the power is held by a few people.
Olympics – An athletic event held by the Ancient Greeks every four years.
Peloponnese – A large peninsula located in southern Greece. Many powerful Greek city-states were located here including Sparta, Argos, and Corinth.
Pericles – A leader of Athens during its golden age, Pericles promoted the arts and literature in the city. He also had many of the major structures built including the Parthenon. Plato – A Greek philosopher who founded the Academy in Athens and wrote many philosophical dialogues.
Polis – The Greek name for a city-state.
Socrates – A Greek philosopher who is considered to be the founder of western philosophy.
Sparta – A power Greek city-state and rival to Athens, Sparta’s culture was based around warfare and preparing for battle.
Stadion – The original Olympic event, the stadion was a running race the length of the stadium.
Strategos – The name for the general of the Athenian army. Titans – The Titans were the first Greek gods. They were overthrown by their children, the Olympians.
Trireme – A type of boat used by the Ancient Greeks. It had three rows of oars on each side.
Tyrant – The ruler of a Greek city-state, a tyrant was like a king. Today the word tyrant is used to describe a ruler who rules unfairly or unjustly.
Just for Fun
- Play BBC Bitesize’s interactive game Ancient Greeks: The Argo Odyssey, a KS2 history game about life in Ancient Greece
- Paint your own Greek pot online
- Join a young girl called Delphi on a virtual tour of Ancient Athens, to explore its famous sites and stories
- Play a game of online knucklebones with Socrates!
- Match each festival to the correct god or goddess
- Colour in some Ancient Greeks
- Travel back in time to the ancient city of Olympia, Greece, with Guardians of History, “The Olympia Obstacles”, an interactive voice-activated audio game from Encyclopaedia Britannica
- Craft activities inspired by Ancient Greece
- How much do you know about Ancient Greece? Take a quiz to find out!
- Speak like an Ancient Greek citizen
- Take a quiz about Ancient Greece architecture
- Complete some online jigsaw puzzles of objects from the Ashmolean Museum’s Ancient Greece collection
Find out more about Ancient Greece
- Watch the BBC Bitesize animated introduction to the Ancient Greeks, as well as lots more clips and videos about life in Ancient Greece
- A children’s introduction to Ancient Greece from DKfindout!
- Look through the Children’s University of Manchester Ancient Greece resources
- Animated maps illustrating the history of Ancient Greece
- A guide to all aspects of life in Ancient Greece
- Read some historical fiction for kids set in Ancient Greece
- Follow a single marble block from a quarry on the slopes of Mount Penteli to the Parthenon construction site in Athens
- How were Athens and Sparta different?
- Some British schools teach children Ancient Greek or Latin! Does yours?
- Download British Museum information packs about competition in Ancient Greece, Greek pots and the Parthenon
- Read about the Greek city-states, then locate them on a Greek city-states interactive map
- The justice system in Athens
- Find out about the Olympics in Ancient Greece through numbers
- 10 great achievements of Ancient Greek culture
- ‘visit’ the Olympic Games
See for yourself!
- See a collection of Greek artefacts, including vases, at the British Museum in London
- Look through the Met Museum’s online collection of Ancient Greek art
- See an Ancient Greek child’s doll
- Look at a silver tetradrachm coin from fifth-century BC Athens
- Take a virtual tour around Ancient Acropolis in Athens