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Ancient Greece is a civilization that thrived around the Mediterranean Sea from the 3rd millennium to the 1st century BC, known for advances in philosophy, architecture, drama, government, and science. The term “ancient Greece” refers to both where Greeks lived and how they lived long ago. Geographically, it indicates the heartland of Greek communities on the north coast and nearby islands of the Mediterranean Sea. Culturally, it refers to the ways ancient Greeks spoke, worshiped, understood the nature of the physical world, organized their governments, made their livings, entertained themselves, and related to others who were not Greek.

The most famous period of ancient Greek civilization is called the Classical Age, which lasted from about 480 to 323 BC. During this period, ancient Greeks reached their highest prosperity and produced amazing cultural accomplishments. Unlike most other peoples of the time, Greeks of the Classical Age usually were not ruled by kings. Greek communities treasured the freedom to govern themselves, although they argued about the best way to do that and often warred against each other. What Greek communities shared were their traditions of language, religion, customs, and international festivals, such as the ancient Olympic Games.

The city-states of ancient Greece fell to Roman conquerors in 146 BC. When Rome split in the 4th century ad, Greece became part of its eastern half, the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453.

Long after ancient Greece lost its political and military power, its cultural accomplishments deeply influenced thinkers, writers, and artists, especially those in ancient Rome, medieval Arabia, and Renaissance Europe. People worldwide still enjoy ancient Greek plays, study the ideas of ancient Greek philosophers, and incorporate elements of ancient Greek architecture into the designs of new buildings. Modern democratic nations owe their fundamental political principles to ancient Greece, where democracy originated. Because of the enduring influence of its ideas, ancient Greece is known as the cradle of Western civilization. In fact, Greeks invented the idea of the West as a distinct region; it was where they lived, west of the powerful civilizations of Egypt, Babylonia, and Phoenicia.


The heartland of ancient Greece consisted of the mountainous Balkan Peninsula and southern Italian Peninsula, as well as dozens of rugged islands in the northern Mediterranean region. Important settlements were located on the southern Balkan Peninsula; on the Pelopónnisos, a large peninsula connected to the southern end of the Balkan Peninsula by the Isthmus of Corinth; and on the large islands of Crete, south of the Pelopónnisos, and Sicily, south of the Italian Peninsula.

Mountains acted like walls separating communities. The Pindus Mountains, which run down the middle of the Balkan Peninsula, were the dominant range, with an average elevation of 2,650 meters. The mountains were once heavily wooded, but early Greeks steadily deforested the slopes for fuel, housing, and ships. Most fields level enough for farming and raising animals were small, supporting communities of only a few hundred inhabitants. Some locations, such as Sicily and Thessaly, had broader plains that supported larger communities. A few cities, such as Athens, Corinth, and Syracuse, grew to have 100,000 or more inhabitants because they had more farmland, deposits of valuable natural resources, and excellent ports. Both the Italian and Balkan peninsulas have jagged coastlines.

The Mediterranean Sea, which connected Greeks with each other and with the rest of the world, encompasses the Aegean Sea, an arm that extends between the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor, and the Ionian Sea, which lies between the Balkan and Italian peninsulas. In the world of the ancient Greeks, the seas were more efficient travel routes than roads, which were no more than dirt trails. Ships could go much faster and carry much more cargo than wagons bumping over rough terrain. Access to the sea was so important that most Greek communities were within 60 km of the coast. Cities that controlled good harbors grew prosperous from the trade that flowed to them and from the fees they could charge shipowners and merchants. Eventually, ancient Greeks inhabited about 700 communities clustered around the Mediterranean Sea. The settlements reached from the Iberian Peninsula  in the west to the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East in the east, extending southward to the northern coast of Africa.


People probably first entered the Greek heartland about 50,000 years ago in the Stone Age. They wandered in from southwest Asia and from Africa, hunting herds of game animals. About 10,000 years ago, people in the Middle East began farming the land, and knowledge of this new technology slowly spread with migrants into ancient Greece. By 7000 BC, increasing numbers of people were migrating from Asia Minor to start new farming communities in the Greek heartland, eventually establishing large settlements on the Balkan Peninsula, the Aegean Islands, and the large island of Crete. These Stone Age peoples made their tools and weapons from stone, bone, leather, and wood. Their technological skills greatly accelerated around 3000 BC when they learned from Middle Eastern peoples how to work with metals and use the wheel for transport. The period from about 3000 to 1200 BC is known as the Greek Bronze Age because bronze, a mixture of copper and tin, was the most commonly used metal.

Minoan Period (2200?-1400? BC)

Settlers had begun sailing from Asia Minor to Crete about 6000 BC because the island offered large plains for farming and sheltered ports for fishing and sea trade. By 2200 BC, settlers had created a “palace society,” named for its several huge buildings that served as royal residences and administrative centers. Each palace was surrounded by many houses for ordinary people, but there were no defensive walls; smaller towns existed in the countryside. The palaces were probably independent, with no single ruler imposing unity over the island. This culture is named Minoan for King Minos, a legendary ruler in Greek mythology who kept a half-bull, half-human monster, the Minotaur, in a labyrinth in his palace at Knossos. Formerly, scholars thought the Minoans were not related to the Greeks, but the most recent linguistic research on Cretan language indicates they were.

The Minoans were the first great culture of Aegean civilization. They mastered metallurgy and other technologies, and knew how to write. They decorated their buildings with brilliantly colored frescoes and celebrated at lively festivals. Innovative agriculture and international trade brought Minoans prosperity rivaling that of their eastern neighbors, such as the Hittite Kingdom in Asia Minor. Farmers made their labor efficient by simultaneously growing olives, grapes, and grain, which each required intense work at different seasons. This combination of crops provided a healthy diet, which helped the population grow, and enabled the Minoans to produce olive oil and wine for trade. The rulers controlled the economy through a redistributive system, so called because farmers and craft workers sent their products to the palaces, which then redistributed goods according to what the rulers decided everyone needed.

Despite recurring earthquakes, the Minoans prospered until about 1400 BC. Their lack of an effective defense, however, made them vulnerable to Mycenaean attacks, probably over the control of Mediterranean trade routes.

Mycenaean Period (1550?-1000? BC)

The first culture of Aegean civilization on the Greek mainland is named Mycenaean for the palace at Mycenae on the Pelopónnisos. Scholars call the Mycenaeans the “earliest Greeks” because they are the first people known to have spoken Greek.

Mycenaean culture developed later than Minoan. The ancestors of the Mycenaean people wandered onto the mainland from the north and the east from about 4000 to 2000 BC, mixing with the people already there, and by about 1400 BC the Mycenaeans had become very prosperous. Excavations of Mycenaean graves have revealed that they buried their dead with gold jewelry, bronze swords, and silver cups. Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans lived in independent communities clustered around palaces and ruled by kings. The palace at Pílos on the west coast of the Pelopónnisos boasted glorious wall paintings, storerooms of food, and a royal bathroom with a built-in tub and intricate plumbing. The Mycenaeans’ wealth also came from agriculture and international trade, and they had a redistributive economy. However, Mycenaeans differed significantly from Minoans in their religion and royal architecture. For example, unlike Minoans, they featured men much more prominently than women in religious leadership positions, and they built their palaces around megarons, soaring throne rooms with huge hearths.

The Mycenaeans had a warrior culture that enabled them to conquer the Minoans by about 1400 BC, but the Mycenaeans’ eagerness to fight also contributed to their downfall. By 1200 BC Mycenaeans were warring with each other and embarking on overseas raids for treasure, riding into battle on expensive two-wheeled chariots. Although archaeological evidence is inconclusive, the destruction of the city of Troy in Asia Minor sometime between 1230 BC and 1180 BC may correspond to the legendary story of the Trojan War. The story, told centuries later by Homer in the Iliad, describes a famous battle in which a Greek army sacked and burned Troy. Egyptian and Hittite records show that foreign invasions by seafaring peoples became a plague beginning about 1200 BC. Many of these raiders were Mycenaeans displaced by war at home. The turmoil around the eastern Mediterranean continued until about 1000 BC and was so severe that it ended not only the Mycenaean culture but also the Hittite and Egyptian kingdoms. With the collapse of Mycenaean culture, Greeks also lost their knowledge of writing. Later Greeks thought that an invading force of Dorians, a group identified by their dialect of Greek, had toppled the Mycenaeans. However, modern archaeological evidence suggests that general civil war was the reason for the Mycenaeans’ collapse.

The Greek Dark Age (1000?-750? BC)

The wars caused Greece’s economy to collapse and its population to plummet, which created poverty and political confusion that lasted for more than 200 years. This period traditionally is called the Greek Dark Age (1000?-750? BC), partly because a lack of written evidence limits our knowledge of it, but also because living conditions were harsh. Greeks had lost the distinguishing marks of civilization: cities, great palaces and temples, a vibrant economy, and knowledge of writing. The Mycenaean kings were replaced by petty chiefs, who had limited power and wealth. Artists stopped drawing people and animals on pots, restricting their decoration to geometric designs. Archaeology shows that during the early Dark Age, Greeks cultivated much less land, had many fewer settlements, and did much less international trade than they had during the period of Aegean civilization. Settlements shrank to as few as 20 people.

Recovery took a long time. The earliest revivals of trading and agriculture occurred in a few locations about 900 BC. An innovation in metallurgy helped Greece escape its Dark Age. Fighting at the end of the Mycenaean period had interrupted the international trade in tin, which was needed to make bronze weapons and tools. To fill the gap, eastern Mediterranean metal workers invented a new technology to smelt iron ore. Greeks learned this skill from eastern traders and began mining their own iron ore, which was common in their heartland. Generally harder than bronze, iron eventually replaced it in most uses, especially for agricultural tools, swords, and spear points. The lower cost of iron implements meant more people could afford them. Plentiful tools helped increase food production and thus restore the population and prosperity. Technological innovation paved the way for the political and cultural innovations of the Archaic period.


The disappearance of Mycenaean kingdoms left a political vacuum in Greece. The poverty and depopulation of the Dark Age forced people to cooperate to defend themselves, and gradually Greeks formed the idea that political power also should be shared. By about 750 BC, Greeks had organized themselves into independent city-states. Centuries later, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) insisted that the forces of nature had created the city-state and that anyone who existed outside the community of a city-state must be either a beast or a god. Some modern historians argue that older cities ruled by monarchs on the island of Cyprus and in Phoenicia influenced Greek city-states. Regardless, Greeks developed a unique system.

The Archaic Age (750-480 BC)

The period from about 750 to 480 BC traditionally is called the Archaic Age because it was considered archaic, or old-fashioned, in comparison with the Classical Period that followed. However, Greeks during this period produced startling innovations: the self-governing city-state, imaginative types of art and architecture, and the poetry of Homer. Breaking the Mediterranean tradition of royal rule, Greeks struggled to create new kinds of political organization for their growing communities. The main goal was to avoid strong central political authority, although sometimes tyrants temporarily seized sole power of city-states. The Greeks tried to share rule, sometimes within a limited group (oligarchy) and sometimes among the entire male population (a form of democracy). In a few areas, they also devised the league (ethnos)—a loose alliance of geographically separate, small groups who agreed to share laws and defense—as a new form of political organization.

The city-state was generally a form of shared social and political organization based on the concept of citizenship, which guaranteed a shared identity, rights, and responsibilities to a city-state’s free men and women. Citizenship sharply divided free men and women from slaves and foreigners. Citizenship made free men, regardless of their social status or wealth, political partners who shared equal privileges and duties under the rule of law. In some city-states, all free adult male citizens, including the poor, shared in government by voting in a political assembly, where laws and policies of the community were decided. Women also had a set of privileges and protections under the law, but equality did not extend to them, as they could not vote, and their sexual behavior and control of property were governed by stricter regulations than for men.

City-states typically consisted of an urban center with houses and public buildings surrounded by fields for farming and grazing. Citizens also lived in the countryside in villages or on farms. The most prosperous city-states controlled fine harbors, which brought revenues from trade and cultural interaction with others. Each city-state had centrally located temples to worship the particular gods protecting it, with the most important sanctuary located on the highest spot (acropolis). The urban center also featured an open gathering place (agora) for daily markets and conversation, and a defensive wall of stone and earth that protected the city. When enemies invaded, residents in the countryside took cover inside the walls of the city.

As the economy improved in the Archaic Age, the population grew rapidly, creating a shortage of good land and natural resources. The search for new farmland and metal ore drove Greeks to settle far from their homeland, sometimes living in others’ settlements, sometimes establishing trading posts, and sometimes founding colonies as new city-states. By 500 BC, Greeks had founded numerous colonies in present-day southern France, Spain, southern Italy, North Africa, and along the coast of the Black Sea. Generally only men joined colonizing expeditions, often intermarrying with local peoples when they settled in new areas. New city-states were founded by all three traditional divisions of Greeks, distinguished by the different dialects of Greek they spoke: the Dorians, the Ionians, and the Aeolians.

The Classical Age (480-323 BC)

Athenian Empire (480-359 BC)

By 500 BC Sparta had become the most powerful city-state. It had the most fearsome army, which was composed of superbly disciplined hoplite fighters (infantry with bronze body armor, shields, spears, and swords who fought shoulder-to-shoulder in a block called a phalanx). A pair of kings shared power in Sparta with a council of elders in an oligarchy, which means “government by a few.” The large city-state of Athens had established an early form of democracy by 600 BC, but a prominent general, Pisistratus, seized power as a tyrant from 546 to 527. His son Hippias succeeded him and ruled until Athenian leaders forced him to resign in 510 . Fearing the oligarchic Spartans would attack their recovering democracy, the Athenians sought protection from King Darius I of Persia. However, the Athenians soon abandoned their alliance with Darius to help Ionian Greeks on the coast of Asia Minor rebel from Persian control. The Athenians’ behavior sparked the Persian Wars (490-479 BC). The enormous Persian kingdom far outstripped the Greek city-states in every category of material resources, from money to soldiers.

In 490 BC Darius dispatched a fleet to capture Athens, expecting it to surrender. Instead, in the Battle of Marathon, outnumbered Athenian hoplites charged the Persian forces and to everyone’s astonishment drove them away. A messenger ran more than 32 km from Marathon to Athens to announce the news, a run memorialized in modern marathon races.

Darius’s son, Xerxes I, led an immense invasion of Greece in 480 BC to avenge the Marathon defeat. So huge was his army, the Greeks claimed, it required seven days and seven nights of continuous marching for it to cross a pontoon bridge between Asia Minor and mainland Greece. Some city-states in northern and central Greece surrendered, but Sparta led an alliance of 31 city-states against the Persians. A small detachment of Greek soldiers led by Spartan king Leonidas I gave their lives to temporarily block Xerxes’s army at a narrow pass called Thermopylae.

By the time the invading Persians reached Athens, the residents had evacuated, and the Persians burned an empty city. Athens was prepared to fight with its navy, built up from the proceeds of a rich discovery of silver a few years before. The Athenian general Themistocles defeated the Persian navy in the Battle of Salamís by luring Persian ships into a narrow channel, where the Greeks’ heavier ships proceeded to ram and sink them. In 479 BC the Greeks completed their triumph by defeating the Persian infantry at Plataea, relying on superior tactics and armor. This string of unexpected Greek victories in the Persian Wars preserved the Greeks’ independence and gave them so much self-confidence that they felt superior.

Athens and Sparta did not share the joy of victory for long. Athens used its wartime fleet to become an aggressive military power rivaling Sparta. Both sides acquired allies to strengthen their positions. Sparta maintained its alliance with other city-states on the Pelopónnisos. Athens allied with city-states in northern Greece, the Aegean Islands, and the west coast of Asia Minor, which were most exposed to Persian retaliation. Members of the Athens-led alliance, known today as the Delian League because its treasury was originally located on the island of Delos, swore a solemn oath never to desert the coalition.

The Delian League brought Athens unprecedented power and income. In time, more and more league members found it easier to pay their dues in cash rather than furnish their own warships and crews, and they let Athens build and man the league’s ships. Poorer Athenians welcomed this arrangement because it gave them paying jobs as oarsmen (Greek warships were rowed so they could ram other ships in battle). As naval strength became the city-state’s principal source of military might, oarsmen gained greater political influence in Athenian democracy. Since Sparta and its allies had far less naval power, they could not match Athens on the sea, where it gained money and goods by trading with other states or raiding them.

The Delian League became an Athenian empire as league members became more dependent on their lead city. Eventually, the allies had almost no navies of their own, and therefore they had no power to resist Athenian orders, Athenian demands for increased dues, or the ban on leaving the alliance. Athens’s demands of its allies generated resentment. From the Athenian point of view, however, the empire met its goals: expelling Persian garrisons from the Aegean and supporting Athenian prosperity and culture with spoils of war and with allies’ dues.

Pericles, an Athenian from a distinguished family, became the era’s leading politician in the 450s BC by promoting Athenian dominance within the Delian League and expansionist goals outside the league. He supported far-flung naval expeditions to territories in Phoenicia and the Black Sea region and engaged the navy in a confrontation with Sparta, ventures that benefited his power base, the fleet’s oarsmen. Eventually, he overreached by advising war on too many fronts at once while generating resistance among allies by making harsh demands of them. To devote its resources to maintaining the empire, Athens signed a peace treaty with Sparta, but the rivals continued to distrust each other.

In 431 BC tensions erupted when Athens pressured Corinth and Megara, crucial Spartan allies who were rivals with Athens for seagoing trade. Sparta came to the defense of its allies, and the fighting escalated into the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), named for the location of Sparta and most of the city-states allied with it. Sparta feared Athens would use its navy to cripple Spartan control over its allies. Pericles refused to let the Athenians yield to any Spartan demands for concessions because he believed Athens could exploit its superior wealth to win a long war.

Pericles’s strategy was to make periodic surprise naval raids on Spartan positions while retreating behind Athens’s walls whenever Sparta’s superior infantry attacked. The Athenians launched some successful attacks, but Pericles’s plan required sacrifice: the Athenians had to stay behind their city wall while Spartan troops ravaged Athens’s countryside. Pericles’s strategy might have worked except for a terrible epidemic that struck Athens’s population, packed inside its wall. The epidemic, which started in 430 BC, killed thousands over several years, including Pericles himself.

Without Pericles’s strong direction, leaders after him introduced increasingly risky strategies. Their harsh demands for money from Athens’s allies incited rebellions. Several times Athenian leaders refused Spartan offers for peace. In 415 BC Athens launched an overly ambitious campaign against Sparta’s allies in Sicily, far to the west, and the invasion force suffered a catastrophic defeat at Syracuse in 413 BC.

With Persian monetary support, Sparta built a navy and launched the final phase of the war by establishing an infantry base in Athenian territory for year-round raiding. Athens continued to fight for ten years, despite the devastation of its agriculture and the loss of income from its silver mines. Finally, in 404, incompetent Athenian admirals lost the fleet and the war.

The war ended the Delian League, and Sparta installed a brutal puppet government in Athens. This puppet regime, called the Thirty Tyrants, was a group of Athenian oligarchs, organized into a council, who ruthlessly overturned democratic laws and institutions and executed opposition leaders. Rival Spartan leaders failed to support the Tyrants, however, and Athenian rebels restored democracy in Athens in 403 BC, less than a year after the Tyrants had been installed. Athens rebuilt its strength, competing with Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes for leadership. None was strong enough to dominate, however, and they drove each other to exhaustion by constant warfare in the first half of the 4th century BC. The interstate rivalry created dangerous instability in Greece.

 Macedonian Supremacy (359-323 BC)

Two Macedonian kings, Philip II (ruled 359-336 BC) and his son Alexander the Great (ruled 336-323 BC), filled the power vacuum in Greece by turning their formerly weak kingdom into an international superpower. The mountainous kingdom of Macedonia, north of the central Greek heartland, eventually became the leader of Greece and conqueror of the Persian empire.

Macedonia’s success sprang from a nationalistic pride and superior leadership. Macedonians spoke a separate language from Greek, and Macedonia never embraced the city-state form of government. Commoners in Macedonia did not consider themselves Greek, and most Greeks regarded their northern neighbors as barbarians. However, Macedonian nobles learned Greek and identified themselves as Greek. Macedonia emerged as a powerful force when Philip II equipped his infantry with 4-meters-long thrusting spears. Fighting shoulder to shoulder in phalanx formation, Philip’s army became a lethal porcupine that could skewer opposing troops before they could get close. Using diplomacy, bribery, and war, Philip forced the Greek city-states to acknowledge him as their leader in 338 BC. This change marked the end of the Greek city-states as independent actors in international politics, though they did remain the basic economic and social units of Greece.

Philip’s goal was to lead a united Macedonian and Greek army to conquer the Persian Empire as revenge for its invasion in 480 BC. Philip was murdered by a Macedonian noble in 336 BC (possibly as part of a palace plot), but Alexander, who succeeded him, continued to pursue his father’s goal. Alexander led the most astonishing military campaign in ancient history by conquering all the lands from present-day Turkey to Egypt to Afghanistan while still in his twenties. His greatness consisted of his ability to motivate his men to follow him into hostile, unknown regions. His feats made him think he was superhuman, and he demanded that the Greeks worship him as a god.

Alexander’s goals were the conquest and administration of the known world and the exploration and colonization of new territory beyond. By including non-Macedonians in his administration and founding colonies of Greeks wherever he went, he brought the Greek and Middle Eastern worlds into closer contact than ever before in trade, shared scientific knowledge, and cultural traditions. When an illness killed him in 323 BC, however, he had no son to continue his empire and his generals tore it apart, each trying to secure his own power.


The Greek city-states tried to reclaim their independence when Alexander died, but his Macedonian generals proved too strong, although no general had the charisma or the strength to reunite the empire.

Hellenistic Greece (323-31 BC)

The Hellenistic (“Greek-like”) Period gets its name from the greater knowledge of Greek language and culture brought to the Middle East through Alexander’s conquests and from the kingdoms established by his generals after his death. Antigonus I (382?-301 BC) founded a kingdom encompassing parts of Asia Minor, the Middle East, Macedonia, and Greece; Seleucus I (358?-281 BC) established rule over Babylonia and over land as far east as India; and Ptolemy I (367?-283? BC) took Egypt.

Referred to as ‘successor kings’ (the Diadochi), these rulers had to create their own form of kingship because they did not inherit their positions legitimately. They were self-proclaimed monarchs with no special claim to any particular territory. They ruled with unlimited authority in theory, but in practice they needed the Greek city-states to support them with money and soldiers. Therefore, they usually let city-states keep their internal freedom so long as they followed the kings’ foreign policies. Whenever possible, the kings incorporated local traditions into their rule. For the Seleucids, this meant combining Macedonian with Middle Eastern royal customs; for the Ptolemies, Macedonian with Egyptian. Still, Greeks and Macedonians ranked higher than the local populations, who became second-class subjects.

The kings frequently fought each other over territory. The Ptolemaic and Seleucid armies, for example, periodically engaged in a violent tug-of-war over the region along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean known as the Levant, which had been a crossroads of trade for thousands of years. These struggles left openings for smaller, regional kingdoms to establish themselves. The most famous was the kingdom of the Attalids in Asia Minor, which held power from about 250 to 133 BC, with the wealthy city of Pergamum as its capital. In Bactria, a region of Central Asia, Greek leaders broke from the Seleucid kingdom in about 250 BC and formed one of their own, which flourished on the trade in luxury goods between India and China and the Mediterranean world.

In the Hellenistic kingdoms, foreigners—kings and queens of Greek and Macedonian descent—had unrestricted rule over local populations. This kind of rule disturbed Greeks, who remembered their history of freedom. Therefore, in the 2nd century BC when the kingdoms had been weakened by war, some mainland Greeks appealed for help from the region’s growing superpower, Rome.

The Romans had already taken over the areas in Italy and the western Mediterranean where Greeks had lived for centuries and saw the appeal for help as a chance to increase their power further. They intervened against the kingdoms and told the Greeks they were once again free, but the Romans meant that the city-states were free to govern themselves so long as they did what Rome wanted. The Greeks rebelled and a Roman army destroyed the city of Corinth in 146 BC. Thereafter Roman governors presided over mainland Greece. Within about a hundred years, Rome conquered the remaining Hellenistic kingdoms and their Greek cities. Egypt, under Queen Cleopatra, was the last to fall, in 31 BC.

Roman Greece (31 BC-ad 395)

All the areas where Greeks lived were already Roman provinces by the time Augustus (63 BC-ad 14) established the Roman Empire in 27 BC. Greek cities generally retained their traditional political organization, while Roman colonies in mainland Greece founded by Augustus and his predecessor, Julius Caesar, mimicked the political system of Rome. Greeks resented the Romans, who taxed the Greeks and forced them to relocate from areas where Rome wished to establish colonies.

In time, however, Greece became reconciled to Roman rule. Emperors increasingly honored leading Greeks by choosing them for the Roman senate and presenting lavish gifts to the cities, such as a panhellenic festival created by the emperor Hadrian in ad 131. This attention increased tourism to Greece’s famous sites and religious shrines. Students from abroad flocked to its distinguished universities, especially in Athens. The peace created by the empire gave people more time for cultural activities, and Roman interest in Greek culture peaked in the 2nd century ad. Greek writers such as Plutarch and Lucian wrote new types of imaginative literature, including in-depth biography, social satire, and science fiction.

Greece’s reputation as a cultural center changed its economy. Many people moved from the country to the cities to work in the tourist industry. Places that attracted tourists prospered. The Greeks’ prosperity ended when civil war, earthquakes, and epidemic disease crippled the empire in the 3rd century ad. Germanic raiders, the Heruli, plundered Greece from 267 to 270, severely damaging Athens. The emperors Diocletian (ruled 284-305) and Constantine the Great (ruled 306-337) restored order, but the Roman Empire remained unstable. In 330 Constantine created a new capital for the Roman Empire. The new capital, named Constantinople, was built on the site of Byzantium (modern İstanbul), a Greek city reduced to a village in 195 after it had supported a failed rebellion.

Byzantine Greece (395-1453)

In 395 the Roman Empire split in two because protecting its vast territory against Germanic and Persian raiders became impossible for a single ruler. The dividing line fell between present-day Italy and mainland Greece. The Greeks in the west dwindled away, suffering along with their non-Greek neighbors as Germanic invaders gradually took over that part of the empire. In the eastern half, called the Byzantine Empire, Greeks maintained their language and culture. Christianity became their faith, after Constantine’s religious conversion in 312.

The Byzantine emperors found it difficult to defend mainland Greece. Around 395 the Visigoths under King Alaric I sacked Corinth, Árgos, and Sparta. Archaeology shows that the region recovered some prosperity in the 5th and 6th centuries, and the thriving population spent money to construct many churches. This interlude ended with Slav invasions beginning in 582. When these disorganized raiders settled in Greece, the economy faltered. There was not complete collapse, but the absence of copper coins and fine pottery in archaeological excavations shows that times were hard from the 7th century onward. Only a few cities remained strong, such as Pátrai and Thessaloníki. Most communities withered as inhabitants withdrew in small bands to seek refuge in hilltop fortresses. Northerners continued to move in, adopting the cultural traditions they found in place. Romanized and Christianized, these newcomers joined the locals as part of the population of Byzantine Greece. Weakened by successive invasions by the Seljuk Turks and the Crusaders, and unable to muster a strong defense, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453.


Five main forms of government existed in ancient Greece over the several thousand years of its history. The distinguishing factor among them was whether they depended on a strong central authority or on shared authority. Monarchy, chiefdom, and tyranny belong in the first category, oligarchy and democracy in the second.

Monarchs governed the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Sometimes called “princes” to indicate that they ruled a limited local territory instead of a widespread kingdom, these rulers combined political and religious functions. In addition to controlling defense, economics, and law, they also oversaw the worship of the gods. The rulers surrounded themselves with many servants and officials in their palace complexes. The monarchs lived more luxurious lives than their subjects because they controlled the surpluses produced by farmers and craft workers. The monarchs instituted minutely detailed accounting systems to keep track of everything under their control. They even had scribes record the number of broken chariot wheels in their storerooms.

Chiefdoms, the weakest form of central authority, prevailed during the Greek Dark Age. Chiefs had a higher status and more wealth than their followers, but could only govern successfully as long as their followers agreed to cooperate. Chiefdoms became unstable if followers became too ambitious. Chiefs tried to secure their leadership with displays of status, such as the imported Middle Eastern jewelry found in the grave of a chief and his wife who were buried about 950 BC on the island of Euboea.

Tyrants were sole rulers who took over city-states, generally during the Archaic or Classical periods, and established dynasties for their families. The most long-lived tyrannies existed in Corinth and city-states on Sicily, but even these tended to last no more than a couple of generations. The masses generally supported tyranny because tyrants benefited them with public employment, but the rich hated the system because it cost them power and money.

In city-states with an oligarchy, government was shared by a limited group of people (oligoi). Some oligarchic city-states had only a handful of leaders sharing authority; others had several hundred. Some city-states had an aristocracy (rule by the best, the aristoi), a type of oligarchy in which leaders were selected only from privileged families. The justification for oligarchy was that pure equality for citizens was morally inequitable because people were not the same. The idea was that some were more capable, more devoted, and more intelligent and thus deserved to rule the masses. The most famous oligarchic city-state was Sparta. It had a dual kingship and an assembly composed of all free men over 30, referred to as “equals,” but neither the kings nor the equals came to hold real power. The 28-member Council of Elders and five elected officials held the reins of government, drafting laws that the assembly was expected to approve without debate.

Democracy gave an equal vote to every man who was liable for military service. In the most famous democracy, Athens, this included every freeborn male over 18 years old. Athenian democracy shared authority by choosing most government officials from the citizenry through a lottery and imposing term limits. Only the most sensitive positions in military and financial affairs were filled by election. Various other city-states also had democracies, but little evidence exists about them.


Throughout its long history ancient Greece’s economy depended on agriculture and trade. Farmers worked small plots, rotating crops to try to preserve the land’s fertility and terracing rocky hillsides to create as much crop area as possible. Unpredictable rainfall posed the greatest hazard to successful farming. Farmers grew mostly barley and wheat, which were staple foods. The scarcity of good grazing land forced them to raise more small animals—such as sheep, goats, pigs, and chickens—than cattle. The best cash crops were grapes for wine and olives for oil, which were used in cooking and also as the base for soap and perfumes. Agricultural commodities were traded abroad. They were shipped in elongated clay storage jars called amphorae, which had spikes on the end for sticking them into a beach for loading and unloading.

Besides grain, oil, and wine, trade centered on natural resources such as metals and timber, luxury goods from jewels to spices, and craft products from painted vases to bronze mirrors. The Greeks traded ideas as well as goods across the water, acquiring an alphabet, architecture, and religious ideas from Egyptian and Middle Eastern civilizations such as Babylonia and Phoenicia. Traders plied the Mediterranean Sea from the Iberian Peninsula to Egypt looking for products that they could sell for high profits at home. Prized goods included such natural resources as iron for tools, silver for coinage, clay for pottery, marble for statues, and timber for houses and ships. These essential raw materials were relatively scarce, found only in isolated pockets. By the 6th century BC, Greeks in western Asia Minor had adopted the use of coins as money to make commerce easier between strangers, although barter never disappeared. Coinage gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean world as others realized the convenience of currency.

Most craft production took place in small shops employing a handful of workers. The largest known from the Classical period had 120 slaves manufacturing shields. Slaves worked side by side with owners and free laborers in craft shops and on farms. Paid labor was at least as important as slave labor in the Greek economy.


The distinguishing features of ancient Greek society were the division between free and slave, the differing roles of men and women, the relative lack of status distinctions based on birth, and the importance of religion. Most surviving evidence about ancient Greeks comes from the Classical and Hellenistic city-states, but the same general pattern seems to have been true of earlier Greek civilization. Athens and Sparta, which had different systems, are by far the best-known city-state societies. Despite the relatively huge scale of Athens compared with most city-states, its way of life was more common in the Greek world than was Sparta’s special system.

Social Structure

Only free people could be citizens entitled to the full protection of the law in a city-state. Compared with ancient Rome, Greece rarely linked social hierarchy to political power. In most city-states, social prominence did not convey special legal or political rights. For example, being born into a distinguished family generally brought no special privileges. Sometimes particular families controlled public religious functions, such as the worship of an important god, but this monopoly ordinarily did not give its holders extra power in the government.

In Athens, the population was divided into four classes based on wealth, with some political offices reserved for members of the higher levels, although people could change classes if they made more money. In Sparta, all men carried the title of “equal” if they finished their education. However, the Spartan “kings,” who served as the state’s dual military and religious leaders, came from two families.

Slaves had no power or status. They had no right to a family of their own, could not own property, and had no legal or political rights. The Greek philosopher Aristotle referred to them as “living tools,” and no free Greek is known to have ever advocated the abolition of slavery. By 600 BC chattel slavery had become widespread in Greece. By the 5th century BC slaves accounted for as much as one-third of the total population in some city-states. People became slaves after being captured in war or seized by raiders, who then sold them. Children born to slaves became slaves themselves. Greeks took many slaves from non-Greek populations, but they also enslaved other Greeks in war. Greek slaves outside Sparta almost never revolted on a large scale because they were of too many different nationalities and too scattered to organize.

Most families owned slaves as household servants and laborers; even relatively poor people might own one or two slaves. Owners could beat and kill their slaves without penalty. However, hurting good workers made no economic sense because the master would be harming part of his property. To encourage slaves to work hard, owners sometimes promised freedom at a future date. Unlike in Rome, freed slaves in Greece did not become citizens. Instead, former slaves mixed into the population of metics—non-citizens, including people from foreign lands or other states, officially allowed to live in a city-state.

City-states and gods also legally owned slaves (the gods’ slaves were generally managed by the gods’ earthly intermediaries, temple priests). These public slaves enjoyed a measure of independence, living on their own and performing specialized tasks. In Athens, for example, public slaves were trained to look for counterfeit coinage. Temple slaves worked as servants of the sanctuary’s deity. Sparta had a special category of slaves called helots, Greek war captives owned by the state but assigned to Spartan families. Helots raised food and performed household chores so that Spartan women could devote their time to raising strong children and men could devote their time to training as hoplite warriors. The helots lived harsh lives and often revolted. Spartans annually sent out a secret band of young men to murder any helots who looked likely to provoke rebellion.

Way of Life

The way of life in Greek city-states remained mostly the same for a long time. People in the urban center lived in low apartment buildings or single-family homes, depending on their wealth. Dwellings, public buildings, and temples were situated around the agora, where people gathered for conversation and to buy food and crafts at daily markets. Citizens also lived in small villages or farmhouses scattered around the city-state’s countryside. In Athens, more people lived outside the city’s wall than inside.

Houses were simple, containing bedrooms, storage rooms, and a kitchen around a small inner courtyard, but no bathrooms. Waste was dumped in a pit outside the door and then collected for disposal in the countryside. Most families were nuclear, meaning a household consisted of a single set of parents and their children, but generally no other relatives. Fathers were responsible for supporting the family by work or by investments in land and commerce. Mothers were responsible for managing the household’s supplies and overseeing the slaves, who fetched water in jugs from public fountains, cooked, cleaned, and looked after babies. Fathers kept a separate room for entertaining guests, because male visitors were not permitted in rooms where women and children spent most of their time. Wealthy men would frequently have friends over for a symposium, a dinner and drinking party. Light came from olive oil lamps, heat from smoky charcoal braziers. Furniture was simple and sparse, usually consisting of wooden chairs, tables, and beds.

Food was simple, too. The poor mainly ate barley porridge flavored with onions, vegetables, and a bit of cheese or olive oil. Few people ate meat regularly, except for the free distributions of roasted pieces from animal sacrifices at state festivals. Bakeries sold fresh bread daily, and small stands offered snacks. Wine diluted with water was the favorite beverage.

The style of Greek clothing changed little over time. Men and women both wore loose tunics, of somewhat different shapes to fit their body types. The tunics often had colorful designs and were worn cinched with a belt. In cold weather, people wore cloaks and hats, and leather boots replaced the sandals worn in warm temperatures. Women wore jewelry and cosmetics, especially powdered lead to give themselves a pale complexion. Men sported beards until Alexander the Great started a vogue for shaving.

Medicine was limited. Hippocrates, the most famous physician of ancient times, helped separate superstition from medical treatment in the 5th century BC. Doctors knew of herbal remedies to treat injuries and reduce pain, and they could do some surgery. But they had no cures for infections, and even well-conditioned people could die quickly from disease at any age.

Men kept fit by exercising daily to be ready for military service. Before mercenaries became common in the Hellenistic period, Greek armies consisted of citizen militias manned by ordinary citizens. Every city-state had at least one gymnasium, a combination exercise building, running track, bathing facility, lecture hall, and park, open only to males. Men who lived in the city went there for physical training, ball games, gambling, and relaxation. Women entertained themselves by visiting friends and attending public festivals.

City-state festivals provided the most exciting entertainment. Gods were honored with competitions in music, dance, drama, and poetry. Athens boasted of holding a festival nearly every other day. The huge Panhellenic festivals held at Olympia, Delphi, Nemea, and Isthmia attracted spectators and professional contestants from throughout the Greek world. Athletes and musicians who won competitions became rich and famous. The most spectacular and expensive competition was chariot racing, which required excellent horses.

Although only men had the right to participate in city-state politics, women were citizens legally, socially, and religiously. Female citizens could own property and could go to court over property disputes. Nonetheless, ancient Greek society was paternalistic, with men acting as “fathers” to regulate the lives of women and safeguard their interests (as defined by men). All women were expected to have male guardians to protect them physically and legally. Women’s important religious duties included control over cults reserved exclusively for them and paid service as publicly supported priestesses. Teenage women generally married men in their 20s.

Sparta had a distinctive way of life designed to produce a vigorous military. There, girls could exercise in the open so they could become strong and bear healthy children. Boys left home at age seven to live in public barracks and to begin about 12 years of rigorous physical and moral training under the strict guidance of older men. To make them tough, boys were sometimes required to steal food if they wanted to eat, but they were beaten if they got caught. They were never allowed to talk back, even in the face of humiliating insults and jokes at their expense. When they married, they were not allowed to live with their brides until they turned 30. Any boy who failed the training lost his political rights and endured constant public humiliation.


Traditional Greek religion was pagan polytheism, meaning that it included many gods and other supernatural beings. Greeks inherited many of their ideas about the gods from the Middle East. Their basic belief remained constant: People must honor the gods to thank them for blessings received and to receive blessings in return.

Greeks considered the gods human-like in form and emotions. The gods did not love all human beings; rather, they protected and benefited people and states who paid them honor and avoided offending them. People pleased the gods by sacrificing animals and other foods, decorating their sanctuaries with art, offering prayers, and holding festivals. The gods became angry when people performed sacrifices improperly, violated the sanctity of a temple, or broke their sworn word. Greeks believed that angry gods inflicted punishments such as famine, earthquake, epidemics, or defeat in war.

Greeks also believed that the vast difference in power between people and gods made the divinities’ natures and purposes hard to understand, but traditional stories about the gods provided hints. Some people did not believe all the mythological tales of monsters and divine love affairs with mortals, but everyone respected the myths as lessons about the gods’ awesome might, their inscrutability, and the precariousness of human life. For more direct information people could go to oracles, temples where the gods were believed to answer questions or deliver cures by various means. The priests at an oracle relayed a god’s message, or the visitor could gain clues in a dream as to what the gods wanted. Seers at oracles told prophecies about the future. Pilgrims from beyond the Greek city-states flocked to major oracles, such as at Delphi, to ask for divine advice about marriage, children, money matters, and even foreign policy. The responses were always riddles, because gods were too complex to reply clearly to mere human beings.

As Greek religion evolved, 12 gods emerged as the most important. These gods were believed to assemble for banquets atop Mount Olympus, Greece’s highest peak. Their leader was Zeus, god of the sky. The other gods were Hera, Zeus’s wife and the goddess of marriage; Aphrodite, goddess of love; Apollo, god of the sun; Ares, god of war; Artemis, goddess of nature; Athena, goddess of wisdom and war; Demeter, goddess of grain and the harvest; Dionysus, god of wine and vegetation; Hephaestus, god of fire; Hermes, messenger of the gods; and Poseidon, god of the sea.

City-states built temples to honor the gods protecting their territory and people. Both Athens and Sparta honored Athena, but with different rituals and prayers. A temple was a house for a god and was not open to worshipers. Only priests and priestesses entered to take care of the god’s statue. The priests and priestesses were guardians only of ritual, not of correct religious thinking. Greek religion had no scripture or uniform set of beliefs and practices. Sacrifices of foods and animals, the main public religious activity, took place outside the front of the temple, where worshipers could gather to affirm their community’s ties to the divine.

Greek religion also had a personal aspect. Particularly important to individuals were so-called mystery cults. Through initiation into special knowledge provided by a god, worshipers could hope for protection in everyday life and a better chance of happiness in the afterlife. Otherwise, the dead could expect only miserable nothingness. The mystery cult of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, headquartered in the Athenian suburb of Eleusis, attracted initiates from all parts of the Greek-speaking world. Initiates had to purify themselves of wrongdoing to win entry. This religious emphasis on right conduct became more pronounced in the Hellenistic period as eastern cults, such as that of the Egyptian goddess Isis, won Greek converts.

Christianity took root among Greeks after emerging from Palestine in the 1st century ad. The New Testament of the Bible was written in Greek, as was a great deal of later Christian literature. Since Christians frequently disagreed with one another about doctrine and ritual, the Byzantine emperors continually tried to enforce uniformity on believers, sometimes by force. The Hellenistic eastern church in Constantinople also developed bitter disputes with the popes in Rome, culminating in the Great Schism, the division of the Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054.


Except at Sparta, education remained private for most of Greek history. During the Hellenistic period, some other city-states established public schools. Only wealthy families could afford to pay teachers. Their sons learned to read, write, and quote famous literature. They were taught to sing or play a musical instrument, and they trained for athletics and military service. Greek sons were studying not for jobs but to become effective citizens. Daughters of wealthy families learned to read, write, and do simple arithmetic so they could manage a household, but they rarely received education past childhood.

A small number of boys continued school beyond childhood. As teenagers, they studied philosophy as a guide to living a moral life, and rhetoric as a tool for making persuasive speeches in court and the political assembly. Especially in democracies of the Classical period, this training in persuasive public speaking was crucial for an ambitious young man. The better speeches a man gave, the more influence and status he could attain. A significant part of a wealthy teenager’s education involved a mentor relationship with an elder. The boy learned by observing his mentor talking politics in the agora, helping him perform his public duties, working out with him in a gymnasium, and attending symposia with him. Sometimes this led to an intimate physical relationship, which was socially acceptable in some city-states but not in others. The richest pupils continued their education at a university in a large city. These universities were organized by famous teachers. Athens had the best universities, including the Lyceum and the Academy.

Poorer children received no formal education. They learned a trade to help support their families and might learn to read and do some mathematics from their parents, enough to help them work as carpenters, stone masons, or merchants. Most poor people were illiterate, unable to do much more than sign their names. Difficulty in reading did not stop people from getting information. They would find someone to read aloud any writing they needed to understand. Greeks were very comfortable absorbing information by ear; even literate people usually read out loud. Greeks were very fond of songs, poems, speeches, stories, plays, and lively conversation, all of which formed part of an informal education.


Applying enormous creativity to the inspiration that they took from Egypt and the Middle East, Greek thinkers, artists, and authors produced brilliant works that remain famous to this day. Above all, Greeks were curious and open to innovation, so long as it did not threaten to anger the gods or cause social unrest. Artists in vase painting and sculpture and authors of literature introduced fascinating changes to traditional models.

Philosophy and science developed because the most powerful Greek thinkers were skeptical about appearances, insisting that hard work was needed to discover the underlying reasons for things in nature and people’s real motives. They also thought there was beauty in the search for truth, whether moral or scientific. This belief encouraged them to persevere despite difficulties. Scientific investigation, for example, was limited by a lack of technology. Scientists and doctors could only wonder about things too small to see with the naked eye, and they could not do experiments that required measurements of very small amounts of time or distance. Therefore, they had no choice but to make ideas and theory more important than practical applications.

Philosophy and Science

The first Greek philosophers were interested in theoretical science. They lived in the Ionia region of western Asia Minor and learned from earlier Middle Eastern thinkers, especially those from Babylonia. The Greek philosophers Thales and Anaximander, who lived in the 6th century BC, reached the revolutionary conclusion that the physical world was governed by laws of nature, not by the whims of the gods. Pythagoras, who also lived in the 6th century BC, taught that numbers explained the world and started the study of mathematics in Greece. These philosophers called the universe cosmos, meaning “a beautiful thing,” because it had order based on scientific rules, not mythology. Therefore, the philosophers believed in logic. Their insistence that people produce evidence for their beliefs opened the way to modern science and philosophy.

Philosophers called Sophists upset many people in the 5th century BC by teaching relativism, the belief that there is no universal truth or right and wrong. The most famous Sophist was Protagoras, who said, “Man is the measure of all things.” Socrates (469-399 BC) insisted that the Sophists were wrong and that well-informed people would never do wrong on purpose. His pupil Plato (428-347 BC) became Greece’s most famous philosopher. Plato’s complicated works argued universal truths did exist and that the human soul made the body unimportant. Plato founded an academy in Athens that remained in business until ad 529. His pupil Aristotle (384-322 BC) turned away from theoretical philosophy to teach about practical ethics, self-control, logic, and science. Alexander the Great (whom Aristotle once tutored) sent him information on plants and animals encountered on the march to India. Aristotle’s works became so influential that they determined the course of Western scientific thought until modern times.

Hellenistic philosophers concentrated on ethics, helping people achieve tranquility in a period of change when things seemed out of their control. In the 3rd century BC, Epicurus taught that people should not be afraid because everything, including our bodies, consists of microscopic atoms that dissolve painlessly at death. Zeno of Citium, who also lived in the 3rd century BC, founded Stoicism, which taught that life was ruled by fate but that people should still live morally to be in harmony with nature.

The Golden Age of Greek science came in the Hellenistic period, with the greatest advances in mathematics. The geometry theories published by Euclid about 300 BC still endure. Archimedes (287-212 BC) calculated the value of pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) and invented fluid mechanics. Aristarchus, early in the 3rd century BC, argued that the earth revolved around the sun, while Eratosthenes accurately calculated the circumference of the earth. Also in the 3rd century BC, Ctesibius invented machines operated by air and water pressure; Hero later built a rotating sphere powered by steam. These inventions did not lead to practical uses because the technology did not yet exist to produce the pipes, fittings, and screws needed to build powerful machines. Military technology vaulted ahead with the invention of huge catapults and wheeled towers to batter down city walls. Finally, medical scientists made many discoveries, such as the significance of the pulse and the nervous system.

Sculpture, Pottery, and Architecture

Greek sculpture and architecture originally followed Egyptian and Middle Eastern models. Statues of the Archaic Period stood stiffly, staring forward, and temples were rectangular boxes on platforms with columns. Later architecture retained this basic plan, although buildings became much bigger. The style of sculpture and pottery, however, changed dramatically over time.

Sculpture was always painted in bright colors, but over time its poses became more lively and lifelike. By the Classical period, Greeks were carving statues in motion and in more relaxed stances. Their spirited movement and calm expressions suggested the era’s confident energy. Statues of gods could be 12 meters high and covered with gold and ivory, such as Phidias’s Athena in the Parthenon temple at Athens. The female nude became popular. Praxiteles’s naked Aphrodite of Cnidus became so renowned that the king of Bithynia offered to pay off the city’s entire public debt if he could have the statue. Cnidus refused.

Hellenistic artists began showing emotion in their statues. A 3rd-century BC sculpture from Pergamum showed a defeated Gaul escaping slavery by stabbing himself after having killed his wife. New subjects departed from traditional notions of beauty by representing drunkards, battered boxers, and elderly people with wrinkles.

Greeks painted pottery and turned an everyday item into art. Mycenaean vases featured lively designs of sea creatures and dizzying whorls. Dark Age potters stopped drawing animals, using only geometric patterns. Artists of the Archaic Age, inspired by Middle Eastern pots, reintroduced beasts and people on Greek vases. From then on, vase painters portrayed mythological and everyday scenes with increasing realism. When they switched in the late 6th century BC from black on red painting to red on black, they could add tiny details that made their pictures come alive.

Greek large-scale architecture began with the Minoan and Mycenaean palaces. These multistory buildings had many rooms centered around courtyards. Balconies provided space for viewing festivals in the open areas below. Architects in the later city-states designed public structures, such as stoas, government buildings, and temples. Stoas were sheltered walkways placed around the agora to provide shade for conversation. Temples were the largest buildings in the city-state. Athens’s Parthenon became Greece’s most famous building for its size, many columns, and elaborate sculptural decoration. Hellenistic kings outdid the Athenians by erecting huge temples. The temple of Artemis at Ephesus is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Literature and Dramas

Greek literature began in the Mycenaean Period as stories told aloud. Mycenaeans used their pictorial script (Linear B) only for accounting. Fighting from 1200 to 1000 BC destroyed Greek knowledge of writing, until they adopted an alphabet from Phoenicia in the 8th century BC to record the exciting poetry of Homer. His epics The Iliad and The Odyssey became Greece’s most famous literature. The epics told about the Trojan War and the suffering it caused its heroes and its victims. People loved the stories for their fabulous descriptions of action and for their lessons about the effects of anger and mercy. Hesiod, a poet of the 8th century BC, also became a lasting favorite with his long stories of how the world began and how justice was the proper guide for life in business and farming. Somewhat later, lyric poets spun short tales of passion and emotion that people loved to sing.

Great literary innovations in drama were produced in Athens in the 5th century BC. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were the most famous authors of tragedies. They based their plays on myths that presented moral issues, especially the danger of hubris (arrogant overconfidence). Their plots often involved fierce conflicts in families or dangerous interactions between gods and humans. The story of Oedipus, who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother, was one of the most famous tragedies.

Plays were performed outdoors at festivals honoring the god Dionysus in a competition sponsored by the city-state. Thousands of people packed the theater. Each author presented three tragedies, followed by a semicomic play featuring satyrs (mythical half-man, half-animal beings). Actors wore colorful costumes and masks; a chorus danced and sang as part of each play.

Comedies also were performed in these competitions. These plays displayed remarkable freedom of speech in criticizing public policy and making fun of politicians. Their plots could be fantastic, for example having a character fly up on a dung beetle to ask the gods for peace. Their language featured jokes, puns, and obscenities. The most famous comic playwright was Aristophanes, who wrote some comedies with powerful women as main characters. Greek comedy in the 4th century BC changed from political commentary to social satire. Authors such as Menander produced comedies that provided insights into human weaknesses and the complications of everyday life.

Greeks began writing about history in the 5th century BC. Herodotus and Thucydides wrote long works that stressed eyewitness evidence, the multiple causes of events, and judgments about people’s motives. Thucydides, followed by Aristotle, developed political science by analyzing how states operated. Hellenistic Greek writers made history more personal and began composing biographies.


The enduring legacy of ancient Greece lies in the brilliance of its ideas and the depth of its literature and art. The greatest ancient evidence of their value is that the Romans, who conquered the Greeks in war, were themselves overcome by admiration for Greek cultural achievements. The first Roman literature, for example, was Homer’s Odyssey translated into Latin. Greek art, architecture, philosophy, and religion also inspired Roman artists and thinkers, who used them as starting points for developing their own style of work. All educated Romans learned to read and speak Greek and studied Greek models in rhetoric. Stoicism became the most popular Roman philosophy of life.

Arab philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists who became the leading thinkers of medieval times studied the works of Aristotle and other Greek sources intensely. During the European Renaissance from the 14th to the 16th centuries, people from many walks of life read Greek literature and history. Writing in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, English playwright William Shakespeare based dramas on ancient Greek biographies. Modern playwrights still find inspiration for new works in Athenian drama. Many modern public buildings, such as the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., imitate Greek temple architecture. Although the founders of the United States rejected Athenian democracy as too direct and radical, they enshrined democratic equality as a basic principle. It was ancient Greeks who proved that democracy could be the foundation of a stable government. Pride in the cultural accomplishments of ancient Greece contributed to a feeling of ethnic unity when the modern nation of Greece was carved out of the Ottoman Empire. That pride still characterizes modern Greece and makes it a fierce defender of the Hellenic heritage.

Reliance on logic, allegiance to democratic principles, unceasing curiosity about what lies beneath the surface of things, a healthy respect for the dangers of arrogant overconfidence, and a love of beauty in stories and art remain incredibly important components of Western civilization. Ancient Greece contributed all of these things.

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