History of Greece
After the conclusion of the great migrations in the Aegean, the Greeks developed a proud racial consciousness. They called themselves Hellenes, originally the name, according to Homer, of a small tribe living south of Thessaly. The term Greeks, used by later foreign peoples, was derived from Graecia, the Latin name for a small Hellenic tribe of Epirus, presumably the Hellenes with whom the Romans first had dealings. Out of the mythology that became the basis of an intricate religion, the Hellenes developed a genealogy that traced their ancestry to semidivine heroes. See Greek Mythology.
Although the small Hellenic states maintained their autonomy, they pursued a common course of political development. In the pre-Hellenic period the tribal chiefs of invading tribes became the kings of the territories they conquered. These monarchies were slowly replaced, between 800 and 650 BC, by oligarchies of aristrocrats, as the noble families acquired land, the measure of wealth and power. About 650 BC many of the Hellenic oligarchies were themselves overthrown by wealthy commoners or disgruntled aristocrats, called tyrants. The rise of the tyrants was due mainly to economic conditions. Popular discontent under the aristocracies had become a major political factor because of the increasing enslavement of landless peasants; colonization and trade in the 8th and 7th centuries BC hastened the development of a prosperous merchant class, which took advantage of the mounting discontent to demand a share of power with the aristrocrats in the city-states.
Age of Tyrants
The age of the Greek tyrants (circa 650-500 BC) was notable for advances made in Hellenic civilization. The title of tyrant connoted that political power had been illegally seized, rather than that it was abused. Generally, the tyrants, such as Periander of Corinth, Gelon of Syracuse, and Polycrates of Samos, were wise and popular rulers. Trade and industry flourished. In the wake of political and economic strength came a flowering of Hellenic culture, especially in Ionia, where Greek philosophy began with the speculations of Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. The development of cultural pursuits common to all the Hellenic cities was one of the factors that united ancient Greece, despite the political separation of the various states. Another factor was the Greek language, the many dialects of which were readily understandable in any part of the country or any colony. The third factor was the Greek religion, which held the Hellenes together, and the sanctuary of Delphi, with its oracle, became the greatest national shrine. As a corollary to their religion, the Greeks held four national festivals, called games—the Olympian, Isthmian, Pythian, and Nemean. The Olympian games were considered so important that many Greeks dated their historical reckoning from the first Olympiad (the four-year period between sessions at the Olympian games) held in 776 BC. Related to religion, at least in origin, was the Amphictyonic League, an organization of Hellenic tribes that was established for the protection and administration of shrines.
From Monarchy to Democracy
Some unification of the city-states took place. Between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, Athens and Sparta became the two dominant cities of Greece. Each of these great states united its weaker neighbors into a league or confederacy under its control. Sparta, a completely militarized and aristocratic state, established its leadership mainly by conquest, and kept its subject states under strict rule. The unification of Attica was, however, carried on by mutual and peaceful agreement under the leadership of Athens, and the inhabitants of smaller cities were given Athenian citizenship. The hereditary kingship of Athens was abolished in 683 BC by the nobles, or Eupatridae, who ruled Athens until the mid-6th century BC. The Eupatridae retained complete authority by their supreme power to dispense justice, often in an arbitrary fashion. In 621 BC the statesman Draco codified and published the Athenian law, thereby limiting the judiciary power of the nobles. A second major blow to the hereditary power of the Eupatridae was the code of the Athenian statesman and legislator Solon in 594 BC, which reformed the Draconian code and gave citizenship to the lower classes. During the wise and enlightened rule (560-527 BC) of the tyrant Pisistratus, the forms of government began to take on elements of democracy. Hippias and Hipparchus, sons of Pisistratus, inherited their father's power, but they were considerably more despotic. Hippias, who survived Hipparchus, was expelled by a popular uprising in 510 BC. In the resulting political strife, the supporters of democracy, under the great statesman Cleisthenes, won a complete victory, and a new constitution, based on democratic principles, took effect about 502 BC. The beginning of democratic rule was the dawn of the greatest period of Athenian history. Agriculture and commerce flourished. Moreover, the center of artistic and intellectual endeavor, until that time situated in the cities of the Asia Minor coast, was rapidly transferred to thriving Athens.
The Persian Wars
The Greek colonies in Asia Minor had been conquered by Croesus, king of Lydia, in the early part of his reign (560-546 BC) and brought into the Lydian Empire. Croesus was a mild ruler, sympathetic to the Hellenes, and an ally of Sparta; the economic, political, and intellectual life of the colonies was greatly stimulated by Lydian rule. In 546 BC Croesus was overthrown by Cyrus the Great, king of Persia. Except for the island of Sámos, which ably defended itself, the Greek cities in Asia and the coastal islands became part of the Persian Empire.
In 499 BC Ionia, assisted by Athens and Eretria, revolted against Persia. The rebels were, at first, successful, and King Darius I of Persia swore to avenge himself. He put down the revolt in 493 BC and, after sacking Miletus, reestablished his absolute control over Ionia. A year later Mardonius, the king's son-in-law, led a great Persian fleet to exact vengeance from Greece, but most of the ships were wrecked off Mount Athos. At the same time, Darius sent heralds to Greece, requiring tokens of submission from all the Greek city-states. Although most of the smaller states acquiesced, Sparta and Athens refused, and slew the Persian heralds as a gesture of defiance. Darius, enraged by the Greek insult as well as by the fate of his fleet, prepared a second expedition, which set sail in 490 BC. After destroying Eretria, the Persian army proceeded to the plain of Marathon near Athens. The Athenian leaders sent to Sparta for aid, but the message arrived during a religious festival, which prevented the Spartans from leaving. Nevertheless, the Athenian army, under Miltiades, won an overwhelming victory over a Persian force three times as large, and the Persians withdrew.
Darius immediately began to ready a third expedition; his son, Xerxes I, who succeeded him in 486 BC, brought together one of the largest armies in ancient history. In 481 BC the Persians crossed the Hellespont strait over a bridge of boats and marched southward. The Greeks made their first stand in 480 BC at Thermopylae, where the Spartan leader Leonidas I and several thousand soldiers heroically defended the narrow pass. A treacherous Greek showed the Persians another path that enabled the invaders to enter the pass from the rear. Leonidas permitted most of his men to withdraw, but he and a force of 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians resisted to the end and were annihilated. The Persians then proceeded to Athens, capturing and burning the abandoned city. Meanwhile, the Persian fleet pursued the Greek fleet to Salamís, an island in the Gulf of Aegina (now known as the Gulf of Saronikós) near Athens. In the naval battle that ensued, fewer than 400 Greek vessels, under the Athenian general and statesman Themistocles, defeated 1200 Persian vessels. Xerxes, who had watched the battle from a golden throne on a hill overlooking the harbor of Salamís, fled to Asia. In the following year, 479 BC, the remainder of the Persian forces in Greece were overwhelmed at Plataea, and the invaders were finally driven out.
The Ascendancy of Athens
As a result of its brilliant leadership in the Persian wars, Athens became the most influential state in Greece. Moreover, the wars had demonstrated the increasing importance of seapower, for the naval battle of Salamís had been the decisive engagement. Sparta, hitherto the greatest military power in Greece because of its army, lost its prestige to the Athenian fleet. In 478 BC a large number of Greek states formed a voluntary alliance, the Delian League, to drive the Persians from the Greek cities and coastal islands of Asia Minor. Athens, as a matter of course, headed the alliance. The victories of the league, then under the Athenian general Cimon, resulted (476-466 BC) in the liberation of the Asia Minor coast from Persia. Athens, however, began to exert its power over the other members of the league to such an extent that they became its subjects rather than its allies. The Athenians exacted tribute from their erstwhile confederates, and, when Naxos attempted to withdraw from the league, the fortifications of that city were razed.
The period of Athenian domination during the 5th century BC has become known as the golden age of Athens. Under Pericles, who became leader of the popular party and head of the state in 460 BC, the city attained its greatest splendor. The constitution, reformed to further internal democracy, contained provisions such as payment for jury service, thereby permitting even the poorest citizens to serve. Pericles was determined to make Athens the most beautiful city in the world.
The Parthenon, the Erechtheum, the Propylaea, and other great buildings were constructed. Greek drama reached its greatest expression with the plays of such dramatists as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and the comedy writer Aristophanes. Thucydides and Herodotus, an Ionian, became famous historians; Socrates became an influential philosopher; and the cultivation of intellect in Periclean Athens made the city famous as an artistic and cultural center.
The Peloponnesian War
Despite the excellent internal condition of the city, the foreign policy of Athens proved its undoing. The members of the Delian League were discontented and chafed under Athenian rule. Sparta, moreover, was envious of Athenian prosperity. A league between the cities of the Pelopónnisos had existed since about 550 BC, under the domination of Sparta, and the Peloponnesian League began to oppose Athens actively. In 431 BC the inevitable clash between Athens and Sparta occurred. It was precipitated by Athenian aid to Corcyra during a dispute between Corcyra and Corinth, an ally of Sparta. Known as the Peloponnesian War, the struggle between the two great confederacies lasted until 404 BC and resulted in establishing Spartan supremacy in Greece. At the conclusion of the war, Sparta sponsored an oligarchy, known as the Thirty Tyrants, to rule Athens. Similar ruling bodies were established in the cities and islands of Asia Minor. Spartan rule soon showed itself as even harsher and more oppressive than that of Athens. In 403 BC the Athenians under Thrasybulus revolted, expelled the Spartan garrison that had supported the oligarchs, and restored their democracy and independence. Other Greek cities consistently rebelled against the control of Sparta.
The Greek states began, individually, to seek aid from their traditional enemy, Persia. In 399 BC the marauding activities of Persia on the Asia Minor coast led Sparta to send an army there. Although the Spartan army met with some success, it was forced to return in 395 BC to oppose a coalition of Argos, Athens, Corinth, and Thebes. The resulting conflict, known as the Corinthian War, continued, mainly as small-scale warfare, until 387 BC, when Sparta, allying itself with Persia, imposed the Peace of Antalcidas on its unwilling subject states. By the terms of the Persian-Spartan settlement, the entire west coast of Asia Minor was ceded to Persia, and the city-states of Greece were made autonomous. Despite this agreement, Sparta in 382 BC invaded Thebes and captured the city of Olynthus in the north. The Theban general Pelopidas, supported by Athens, led an uprising three years later and expelled the Spartan occupation force. War between Sparta and Athens in alliance with Thebes was resumed, ending with the Battle of Leuctra, in 371 BC, in which the Thebans, led by Epaminondas, so completely defeated their enemies that Spartan domination came to an end. Thebes, by virtue of its victory, became the leading Greek state. The other states resented its leadership, and the ascendancy of Thebes inaugurated an unhappy period of civil unrest and economic misery resulting from internecine strife. Athens, in particular, refused to submit to Theban supremacy and in 369 BC became an ally of Sparta. At best insecure, the Theban control was dependent principally on the brilliant leadership of Epaminondas, and when he was killed in the Battle of Mantinea in 362 BC, Thebes again became just another state among many.
During this period of strife in Greece, Macedonia, the northern neighbor of Thessaly, was initiating a policy of expansion that was destined to make it one of the greatest world powers in ancient history. Philip II, who became king of Macedonia in 359 BC, was a great admirer of Greek civilization, but he was well aware of its greatest weakness, the lack of political unity. Directly after he came to the throne, Philip annexed the Greek colonies on the coast of Macedonia and Thrace and determined to make himself master of the peninsula. Astute political craft and the force of Macedonian arms helped Philip to realize his ambitions, despite the opposition of many prominent Greek statesmen led by Demosthenes. By 338 BC, after winning the decisive battle of Chaironeia against Athens and Thebes, Philip was sufficiently powerful to call a congress of the Greek states. The congress acknowledged Macedonian supremacy in the peninsula and appointed Philip commander in chief of the Greek forces. A year later, a second congress declared war on Persia, the traditional enemy. Philip began at once to prepare for an Asian campaign, but he was assassinated in 336 BC. His son, Alexander, who was then 20 years old, succeeded him (see Alexander the Great).
In 334 BC Alexander set out to invade Persia. During the next ten years, his conquests extended Greek influence as well as the Greek civilization and language throughout a Macedonian empire that ranged as far east as northern India and as far south and west as Egypt. By the time of Alexander's death in 323 BC, the culture of Greece had spread through most of the ancient world.
Following the death of Alexander, the Macedonian generals began to partition his vast empire among themselves. The disagreements arising from this division resulted in a series of wars from 322 to 275 BC, many of which took place in Greece. Thus, one of the characteristics of the Hellenistic period, which lasted from the death of Alexander until the acquisition of Greece as a Roman province in 146 BC, was the deterioration of the Greek city-states as political entities and the gradual decline of Greek political independence as a whole.
Nevertheless, the Hellenistic period was marked by the triumph of Greece as the fountainhead of culture, and its way of life was adopted, as a result of Alexander's conquests, throughout most of the ancient world.
Of the kingdoms established by the generals of Alexander, called the Diadochi (Greek diadochos, "successor"), the most important were Syria under the Seleucid dynasty, and Egypt under the rule of the Ptolemies. The capital of Ptolemaic Egypt, Alexandria, which had been founded by Alexander in 332 BC, developed into a center of Greek learning rivaling and occasionally surpassing Athens. Every part of the Hellenistic world devoted itself to the cultivation of art and intellect. Such men as the mathematicians Euclid and Archimedes, the philosophers Epicurus and Zeno of Citium, and the poets Apollonius of Rhodes and Theocritus were characteristic of the age. So strongly was Hellenistic culture implanted that it became one of the most important elements in early Christianity.
In 290 BC the city-states of central Greece began to join the Aetolian League, a powerful military confederation that had originally been organized during the reign of Philip II by the cities of Aetolia for their mutual benefit and protection. A second and similar organization, known as the Achaean League, became, in 280 BC, the supreme confederation of the cities in the northern Pelopónnisos. Later other cities joined. Both alliances dedicated themselves to saving the other Greek states from domination by the kingdom of Macedonia. The Achaean League became much more powerful than its rival and tried to acquire control of all Greece. Led by the statesman and general Aratus of Sicyon, the league began a conflict with Sparta, which had joined neither alliance. In the war between the Achaeans and Sparta, the league was at first defeated, and forgoing its primary purpose, called on Macedonia for military aid, which was granted. The alliance then defeated Sparta, but from that time on it was dominated by Macedonia.
In 215 BC Rome began to interfere in Greek affairs. Philip V of Macedonia allied himself with Carthage against Rome, but the Romans, acquiring the support of the Aetolian League, overcame the Macedonian forces in 206 BC and obtained a firm foothold in Greece. Rome, aided by both leagues, again defeated Philip in 197 BC, and Macedonia, completely subjugated, agreed to a peace with Rome by which the independence of the Greek city-states was recognized. The Greek city-states found that they had exchanged one master for another. In a last desperate attempt to free themselves, the members of the Achaean League resisted the demands that Rome made on it in 149 BC. The resulting war ended with the destruction of Corinth by Roman legions in 146 BC. The leagues were abolished and Greek territories came completely under direct Roman rule. Macedonia was annexed as a Roman province and governed by a Roman proconsul who also controlled the Greek city-states to the south.
Roman and Medieval Greece
For 60 years after 146 BC, Greece was competently administered by Rome. Some cities, such as Athens and Sparta, even retained their free status. In 88 BC, when Mithridates VI Eupator, king of Pontus, began a campaign of conquest in Roman-controlled territories, however, many cities of Greece supported the Asian monarch because he had promised to help them regain their independence. Roman legions under Lucius Cornelius Sulla forced Mithridates out of Greece and crushed the rebellion, sacking Athens in 86 BC and Thebes a year later. Roman punishment of all the rebellious cities was heavy, and the campaigns fought on Greek soil left central Greece in ruins. As a result, the country began to disintegrate economically. Athens remained a center of philosophy and learning, but its commerce became almost nonexistent. About 22 BC Augustus, the first Roman emperor, separated the Greek city-states from Macedonia and made the former a province called Achaea.
Under the Roman Empire, in the first centuries of the Christian era, a Greek renaissance took place, particularly during the reign of the emperor Hadrian. With his contemporary, the wealthy Greek scholar Herodes Atticus, Hadrian beautified Athens and restored many of the ruined cities. In the middle of the 3rd century AD, however, this rebirth was checked by the Goths, who in 267 and 268 overran the peninsula, captured Athens, and laid waste the cities of Argos, Corinth, and Sparta.
After 395 the Roman Empire was ruled by two co-emperors, one in the Latin West and the other in the Hellenic East. By the 6th century a successor empire, known as the Byzantine, had evolved in the East. It included all of Greece and the Aegean region and was characterized by a mixture of Hellenic culture, Oriental influences from the Middle East, and Christianity. Greece itself became a neglected and obscure province. From the 6th to the 8th century, Slavonic tribes from the north migrated into the peninsula, occupying llyria and Thrace.
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