4  Greek History

Greece stands at the gateway to Europe, whether you are coming from Turkey across the sea, or down along the north coast of the Black Sea.  It is divided into two parts by the Gulf of Corinth, the southern part, the Peloponnese, being attached to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, with the town of Corinth just to the south, and at the northern end Athens.  The area around Athens is called Attica.  In the Peloponnese, the central area is known as Arcadia and although it is really composed of very arid, barren hills, it has traditionally been represented as an idyllic area of "pastoral" living, the home of simple shepherds in a golden age of romance and poetry. Historically, the most important city in the Peloponnese was Sparta, the great rival of Athens and its opposite in so many ways.

Greece is a rocky, hilly land, not fertile except in the river valleys.  The sea to the east is full of islands, the Cyclades, and the sea has always played a great role in the history of Greece.  To the south lies the island of Crete, which saw the rise of a sophisticated culture (the "Minoan") before anything similar came to Greece.  A related culture is found in Greece in the remains of the town of Mycenae, to the east of Corinth.

The highest mountain in Greece, Mount Olympus, lies in Thessaly, known also as Macedonia, in the North East, and became the legendary home of the gods.  Macedonia is the northernmost gateway to Greece.  Alexander the Great was a Macedonian.

Between Europe and Asia Minor, separating the two, lie the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, running from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean.  On the northern shore lay the village of Byzantium that in late Roman times was to become Constantinople (now Istanbul), while at the westernmost end, to the south, lay Troy, the city of Priam in literature, to which Paris carried off the beautiful Helen. To the south of Troy, along the coast of what came to be called Ionia, the Ionian Greeks established cities, the most famous of which was Ephesus.

 Early Greek History

 In about 1950 B.C., fairly primitive bands of Indo-Europeans began to come into northern Greece, where they found people speaking a language similar to that spoken across the Middle East and living at quite a high cultural level.  During the next four hundred years, they slowly spread down and took dominant positions in every local community they found, learning the culture, but introducing the language they had brought with them.  This is the language that became Greek.

The Indo-European family/group of languages seems to have origi­nated in the Northern plains, the Central Asian Steppes, among nomadic groups with no clear racial characteristic in common but with a male-centered culture that had learned to use the wheel and to herd cattle and sheep, moving pastures with the seasons.  The spread of these groups occurs in waves, not as vast invasions by armies but as an infil­tration of small family groups using various techniques when dealing with opposition.  At times they would use force, at others they would make themselves welcome by peaceful means.

At about the same time as the Greek-speakers came down towards Greece, similar groups were spreading towards Italy, speaking what was to become Latin, and across to France and Britain where their Celtic language still survives in parts of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Western France.  Another group, also speaking the same kind of language, was descending towards India, speaking what is now called Sanskrit.  By about 1600 B.C., these latter Aryans (meaning "noble people" although they were quite barbaric) were probably in India, where their literature and language are remarkably preserved in the "Upanishad" tradition, and the hymns of the Rigveda.

For the later Greeks, any language that was not Greek seemed rough and uncivilized; they called it "barbaric" to imitate the sounds they heard, the people speaking it are the original "barbarians".  It certainly seems that the Indo-European form of language must have had some special quality, since it generally replaced the existing languages in areas penetrated by relatively small groups of settlers.  There is simpler grammar, clearer structure...


 The discovery, at the beginning of the 20th century, of the ruins of Knossos in Crete, excited much interest.  A huge city-palace founded around 1900 B.C. with houses two stories high, with beautifully painted walls showing young people jumping over the backs of bulls while very elegantly dressed ladies watched! 

Tablets with writing in an unknown alphabet that came to be called Linear B and that Michael Ventris discovered was an early form of Greek language!  Buildings so sophisticated that there were even flush toilets!  A rich culture, yet with no fortifications or walls.  Evans, who excavated all this, called the culture "Minoan" from the name of the legendary Minos of Greek stories, who lived in Crete. These was probably little or no real connection

In the centuries following 2000 B.C., Crete was exporting very beau­tiful pottery and jewels to Egypt and the Middle East, trade was the life of the culture and Crete had much experience of the sea.  Then, in about 1480 B.C., the Eastern Mediterranean experienced a terrible disaster.  A volcano on the Greek island of Thera collapsed, the sea poured in and there was an explosion probably greater than that of Krakatoa (A.D. 1883), so that tidal waves destroyed harbours and coastal towns every­where in the eastern Mediterranean.  The city of Knossos, being away from the sea, escaped although it had suffered from earthquakes in the past.  Yet a few centuries later, around 1400 - 1100 B.C., Knossos suddenly ceased to exist, the ruins show signs of fire and they seem to have been emptied of all precious things before being abandoned.  What happened?  Crete suddenly became a quite backward island, with only memories of its early cultural splendour.


From about 1600, Knossos was increasingly colonized by the mainland Greek city of Mycenae, which was in an important position on the route
to the Isthmus from the Peloponnese.  At this time, Mycenae suddenly learned many "Minoan" lessons, making pottery in Cretan style, making and using very elegant ornaments of gold and ivory, living in big, decorated houses, and burying its dead lords with fantastic treasures of gold which were found by Schliemann in the late 19th century.

First settled in 2,700 B.C. Mycenae was a Greek city-state (polis) ruled over by a king, like others of the time, but it became a cultural centre from which the products and styles of the Middle East spread into Europe.  It is at this time that Stonehenge arose in England, and there are signs of contacts with Mycenaean culture there. When Knossos collapsed, Mycenae took over its commercial role and for the first time the dominant trading ships between the coasts of Lebanon and Egypt were Greek, from Mycenae. At this time, the first Greek settlers (colons) seem to, have gone to live in Sicily and Southern Italy. Grain, grapes and olives (yielding wine and olive oil) were the main products for trade.

The society of Mycenae and the other rising cultural centres  in Greece seems to have been patriarchal, feudal.  Each local king lived in a palace at the centre of which was a communal hall, megaron, with a pillared porch at one end, a fire-place for an open fire in the middle, and a bathroom near the entrance, so that the arriving guest could wash on entering (washing had religious meaning).  Around the hall were the storage rooms, women's quarters etc.  It is the kind of palace and the kind of society we find described in Homer's Odyssey.

By now the incoming "Hellenes" (the original name for these arriving Greek-speakers is lost, Homer calls the people living on the Greek mainland Achaioi) had introduced their various gods who, like themselves, lived in a male-dominated patriarchal village society located at or above the summit of Mount Olympus, under the less-than-perfect control of the main Father-god, Zeus the sky-lord, with his rainbow messenger and lightning weapon (thunder-bolt).  This pantheon of different gods from different sources never really learned to live together, there were so many different stories about each one; at the same time the old matriarchal fertility religion continued as well, with its legends of Persephone, daughter of the Great Mother, carried down into the underworld by the god Hades for half of each year.

The quarrelling, jealous, passionate gods of Olympus reflect the people of this period.  Mycenae became rich, but after about 1200 life became almost impossible and the social system broke down.  The main reason seems to have been war, not between nations but constant raids by land and sea, every lord and his followers trying to get more wealth by looting and stealing from those weaker.  It is the same, bad side of "heroic" society that we find later in Old English poems like "Beowulf".Piracy increased, so that sea-contact between Greece and the East stopped almost entirely for centuries, and Mycenae itself ceased to be an inhabited city.  It is just at this time, around 1200 B.C., and in just this society, that the events remembered in literary form in the great Greek legends of Thebes and of Troy must have happened.  Agamemnon is shown as king of Mycenae or Argos, Menelaus as king of Sparta (then called Lakedaimon), there were other kings at this time in the cities of Athens (less important), and Boiotia.  The stories in Homer and the great tragedies remember this age.

 The Dorians, Ionia, and Heroic Legend

 Why, around 1200, do all the old, Mycenean cities cease to be inhabited?  Where did the people go?  Maybe a new wave of fierce invaders, the Dorians, are to blame?  Great poverty descended on Greece and many cities, like Mycenae itself, fell into ruins for ever, even the sites of some were forgotten.  People left the mainland and went to settle on the west coast of Asia Minor, south of Troy.  Here, in the region called Ionia, life continued for people from Attica and the Peleponnese (Athens was one of the only cities not to be conquered by the Dorians and therefore became so important later).  In Ionia rose cities like Miletos and Ephesos, and it was for a time the centre of Greek civilization. Early philosophy also developed here. The Ionians, although now living in Asia Minor (now Turkey), thought of them­selves as Greeks and remembered the stories of "life back home". They sang the old songs, repeated the old, heroic stories, learned the names of the old, dead kings.  They also repeated the old stories of monsters and terrors to be met with in lonely islands by solitary travellers.  In 850 B.C., or maybe 700, nobody knows, these traditions became the source-material for two poems, the Iliad (the story of Ilion/Troy) and the Odyssey (the story of Odysseus / Ulysses) and the Greeks say that the author of these two epics was called Homer. Nothing at all is known of him, seven cities in Ionia claimed him, perhaps Chios having the better claim.  A little later, another poet of the same tradition wrote, in a Hymn to the Delian Apollo, "if anyone asks who is your favourite poet, say 'he is a blind man, and dwells in craggy Chios'." Since then, people have said that Homer was blind.

 The First Named Poet : Homer

 The dating of Homer's work is a great problem. The heroic Iliad and the more comic Odyssey show forms of society that ceased to exist around 1200 B.C..  Their poetic techniques are partly those of oral tradition, of a culture in which only memory transmits the past, since there is no art of writing.  Oral poetry has no fixed text, since the poem is re-created at each performance, and relies on many stock formulae.  These formulae can be found in Homer's work, but there is something more.  First, both these great epics are very long, 24 Books, a chal­lenge both for memory and for audience attention.  More remarkable, there is complete control of the structure of the narrative, both epics are marked by structural coherence, by a fundamental unity.  Finally, the composition of narrative detail and of dramatic speeches is marked by a poetic skill of the highest order, unparalleled later. 

The later 19th century liked to claim that the Iliad and Odyssey were products of "collective creation," resulting from the genius of a whole people without any one individual poet standing as an author.  Today, the work of a controlling poet is seen everywhere, in the organization of the material and in the poetry, he must be called Homer.  Only who was Homer? His (or her?) dates cannot be fixed; perhaps he lived in 850, perhaps in 700, certainly in Ionia.

As works of narrative poetry, these two poems are perhaps the greatest ever written, and they are the oldest in Europe.  They are marked by many stories about the Olympian gods, but they are not very re­ligious or serious stories!  They also have a deep feeling for human joys and sorrows; the greatest warriors are not ashamed to weep.  For the Greeks, these poems were the source of wisdom and vision.


 At about the same time as Homer, if he lived around 720-700, an­other poet was composing verses, this time in mainland Greece, on Mount Helicon near Delphi.  Hesiod is the other founder of Western Literature.  While the poet called Homer tells us nothing of himself in his works, Hesiod is the first poet in history to introduce himself into his poems and to make his biography a central feature.

Hesiod composed two works that are preserved; he too could prob­ably not write, he shows oral features in his Theogony and his Works and Days.  The former tells the theological history of the cosmos, intro­ducing stories about some 300 gods in a poem that begins with a hymn to the Muses. Hesiod does not explain how things arose, but brings together anthropomorphic Olympian gods and more abstract, personalized forces such as Strife (Eris), Love (Eros),  and Fate in a confused mixture not unlike that found in Homer. It was precisely this confusion, and the impossibility of taking the Olympians seriously, which provoked the later reflections of the philosophers.

The Phoenicians, the Greek Alphabet

In about 750, settlers from the town of Chalkis on the large island of Euboia, north-east of Athens, set out to establish a trading base to the west, in Italy, in collaboration with other cities.  They established the town of Cumae, not far from Naples.  Not long before, the Greeks had learned the alphabet from the Phoenicians and the settlers from Chalkis took their form of it with them to Italy, where it became the Roman alphabet in which this text is written.

When the Greeks took their alphabet from the Semitic Phoenicians, they were taking a series of pictograms, each bearing the name of the object represented.  The Greeks continued to use these names for the letters, although they did not know the meaning of the words and forgot that the letters were really pictures.  "Alpha" (in Hebrew "Aleph", the Hebrew alphabet is based on the same tradition), our "A", is in fact the drawing of an ox, which is the meaning of "Aleph". "Beta" ("Beth", as in the biblical place-name "Bethel", the "House of God") means a house, our "B" represents a house. The sound value of each letter is the initial sound of its name.

By a stroke of genius, the Greeks adapted some of the letters to represent vowels (A, E, I. O) while the Semitic alphabets only represented consonants.  The Old Testament was originally written without vowels, the Jews only began to indicate vowels by a system of 'pointing' after 700 A.D. (the "Massoretic text").  A number of Greek letters, such as the well-known final "Omega" (its name simply means "Big O"), were invented separately.

One of the main Phoenician centres, not far from present-day Beirut, was the port-city of Byblos, which some Greeks thought to be the oldest city in the world.  It was a major trading centre and the Greeks gave its name to the "Papyrus" (= paper) made in Egypt from the stems of reeds, because it was often imported via Byblos, no doubt.  Papyrus scrolls were the old form of book (in Greek  biblion, plural biblia whence the word Bible = The (holy) books).

At about the same time, Phoenicians set up a trading centre on the North African coast, the city of Carthage, which was to be a great rival with Rome in later centuries. 

 Greek Colonies

 There was fierce competition between the Greeks and the Phoenicians although there were many more Greeks available.  There were in fact more Greeks wanting to own land than there was land available in Greece, so that when the Cumae experiment was successful, every Greek polis started similar colonies, in Italy, in Sicily, and even as far as the southern coast of France, where what is now Marseilles began c. 600.  In Sicily, settlers from Corinth took over the best harbour and founded Syracuse, later to be the greatest city of Greek Sicily and famous for its links with Plato.

Other settlers went in the opposite direction and founded Greek cities around the Black Sea and in the Middle East.  Other Greeks went in search of trade with Egypt, before 700, and by their stories the cultural wonders of ancient Egypt became known in Greece, where they had an important influence on temple architecture and on sculpture, especially.  At this time, Greece was beginning to discover the visual arts, partic­ularly pottery, which it began to export.

Since Italy and Sicily are less mountainous than Greece, more fertile, the new colonies (settlements) soon became richer and bigger than the original founding cities, and could export grain back to Greece, which always needed it.  Greek culture was strong enough to survive, especially since the original inhabitants of Italy had little of their own, and the settlers often made visits to Greece, especially for the festivals at Delphi and Olympia.  This latter festival held in western Greece was originally in honour of the Great Goddess, but after being taken over by Olympian Zeus, the place was renamed Olympia.  Legend says that the Olympic Games began in 776 B.C., but they are probably much older. Games were a form of sacred activity in Greek culture, a way of honoring the gods by human prowess.

The City-State

When Greek history (as opposed to legend and archeology) begins with the introduction of the Greek alphabet around 700 B.C., the population is divided between those living in towns, the city-states (polis), and those living out on farms some dis­tance from the towns.  Each city was surrounded by fields in the plain which supplied it with food; each city was tempted by the crops in the fields of other cities in times of famine or war, and raids were common, as were inter-city wars for other reasons.  The towns were walled and sometimes, as in Athens, had a specially strong "upper city" Acropolis for ultimate defense.  The feudal kings of Homer's heroic society disappeared during the difficult times and the government of the cities was in the hands of a Council of the "Best People", the aristoi (= aristo­cracy), who were from the important, noble families, those with most land and able to afford a horse and armour to help defend the city in times of trouble.  The Council of Athens (Boule) is better known under the name of the Areopagus, from the "Hill of Ares" where it usually met.

The Council would appoint executive officers, judges etc., at first for life, but later it was found better to change each year.  There was also an Assembly (Ekklesia), composed of all the male citizens qualified to carry weapons, called usually to hear the decisions of the Council.  Later, this Assembly became the main power in Athens, when Demo­cracy was at its height.  In the citadel of the upper town, where there had been a king's palace, they built a temple for the patron deity.

In Athens, at least, the old kings had proved helpless in times of war, so the nobles had elected a "General" (war-chief) to help.  Then they also elected an Archon, or Regent, at first for life, to exercise most real power.  The king (Basileos) remained with the sacred functions in­volving sacrifices etc. in the name of the city.

Even in democratic Athens, there was a person called βασιλεύς "king" (the judge at the trial of Socrates had the title), but now chosen annually, together with the Archon, who ranked highest, and the War-Chief, who ranked third.  In addition, later, they chose six judges because all the work was too much for the Archon, the chief judge, to do.  The king was the judge in religious cases, including murder (the shedding of blood brought a curse, as at the beginning of Oedipus).  Thus, Athens was finally governed by nine Archons.

At times of deep social discord, it became impossible for the citizens to agree, and the archon or archons could not be elected for the year.  This is the origin of the word "anarchy" (no archon, no ruler, no law).

 Social Change

 With the explosion in international trade, new social classes grew up in the cities: ship-owners, manufacturers with 50-60 slaves, farmers. Around 625, the inhabitants of the city of Aigina became the first Europeans to use coined money, which they learned from the Lydians in Asia Minor.  The result was a large increase in the number of newly rich people who wanted to be part of the aristocracies but who were often not admitted to the Council by the old families.  Their other demand was for land, and this could not be solved by sending these people to Italy, as had been done previously.

The result was Revolution, with some high-born discontent leading the others in a rising, expelling the old powerful families and taking power for themselves.  This power was then usually exercised in an auto­cratic way by the new leaders, who were known as tyrannoi, meaning "The Boss".  The tyrant was usually at first highly popular, since he would distribute the land of the expelled families to his companions and build socially useful things such as aqueducts for water.  He would then begin to act like a despot, surround himself with security guards, and finally be overthrown, although a few lasted as much as seventy years or more (Corinth).  The result was much social unrest, as differences within society grew.

Sparta and Athens were now to arise as the major centres of Greek culture and power, their rivalry would dominate the next centuries.


 The Dorian city of Sparta, which came to dominate the cities of the Peloponnese, was an early centre of refined culture but soon it became the dominant city over a wide rural area and the problem of keeping control arose.  Under the "true Spartans" there were many "serfs" called helots, who farmed the land and also acted as foot-soldiers, while the Assembly of the city was made up of the men aged over 30 from only a small number of families.  These high-class families were the only true "Spartans".

In order to keep control of this unstable situation (there were far more helots than Spartans), at some time before 600 B.C. the Spartan life-style was developed.  Traditionally it is ascribed to Lycurgus.  Basically it was a conservative, totalitarian socio-military system, which lasted for several centuries, under which the boys of the Spartan families were taken from their homes at the age of seven and put to "school" in packs until they were twenty.  During this time they were trained in a very hard way, sleeping on rushes, wearing the same clothes winter and summer, eating rough food, learning to be total soldiers.  At twenty they had to apply for membership of a group (15 soldiers in each), and from that time they lived together, even after marriage when they were thirty.  Weak babies were exposed, girls also had a tough program of physical training, and the main activities of the men were military training, hunting, athletics.  The only art forms that survived were the Dorian choral songs and dances, but they did not develop.  Sparta for a long time refused to use money, and in theory all lived in complete equality.

The result of this was the finest army in Greece, but a life of total austerity, no individual freedom, and rigid, conservative, oligarchic government.  Around 550-510 Sparta organized the "Peloponnesian League" of cities, a kind of "united states" in which independent cities undertook to unite their armies in times of war.  This made Sparta the leading force in Greek affairs, also in the struggles against tyranny, and culminated in the victory against the Persians. The Peloponnesian War against Athens, first 460-446, then again 431-404, leading to the sur­render of Athens in 404, weakened Greece and in the end led to its decline.

 Athens  600 - 400

 The area around Athens, Attica, was good farming land, and quite large, so that Athens did not establish colonies as other cities were obliged to do by their excess population.  But by 600, the introduction of money and the international market economy had created a wide gap between rich and poor, with the rich selling grain abroad while the poorer citizens of Athens starved.  The laws were no help; if you could not pay your debts, you and your family were sold as slaves by the creditor.  The laws were known only to the high-class judges, whose sentences thus appeared arbitrary.  About 624, Draco published the "Draconian" laws, under which death was the punishment for most crimes.

By 594, reform was urgent, and Solon introduced the first reform in Athens.  He cancelled all debts, had those who had been sold as slaves bought back by the city, forbade the export of agri­cultural products, and redefined the position of the Assembly (ekklesia), to which all free male citizens were to belong, even those without land.  Athenian Democracy was essentially participatory, almost nothing important was decided by representatives.

Since participation in the Assembly took time, and was often boring, it soon became necessary to oblige people to take part.  Security-guards went round the streets with ropes dipped in red paint stretched between them, directing the people towards the Agora (Market-place) where the meetings were held.  In English, the expression "being roped in" still describes unwilling participation in some activity.  Solon also reor­ganized the Athenian class-structure into four groups, according to income.  Laws also were made more humane.  The result was general discontent!  Solon went travelling, after making the city swear to try his system for ten years.

From about 560 until 510, Athens was controlled by Pisistratos, who became tyrant in 546 after a surprise return from abroad.  He ruled with Solon's constitution and was a popular figure.  He died in 528 and was followed by his sons who degenerated into "tyrants" ruling by terror until Hippias was driven out in 510. During this time, Athens became a financial power, exporting the finest pottery, developing sculpture for the first time, gathering poets from other cities (Solon had been the first Attic poet) and growing into a rich, international city.

With the fall of the Pisistratids, their long-time rivals, the Alkmeonid family, returned in the person of Cleisthenes.  The oracle at Delphi kept telling Sparta to "liberate Athens" (Cleisthenes had just spent much money rebuilding the temple at Delphi!) and after a bitter power strug­gle, in which Sparta was on the "wrong", conservative side, in 508 the people of Athens took to the streets in a two-day long uprising in favour of Cleisthenes and he introduced "democracy" in its full form in his reforms.  Sparta tried once, the next year, to oppose him, but the citizen-soldiers of the other cities refused to fight.

[By coincidence, at just the same time, in Rome, in a similar move, the citizens drove out the last king, Tarquin the Proud, and introduced a form of demo­cracy, electing the first two consuls of the Roman Republic.]

Cleisthenes created new divisions in Athenian society, no longer cor­responding to wealth, or region, but uniting people of different origins, different social levels and different districts.  These artificial units, called "tribes", had no real identity, so that the people would act in great unity.  Each citizen lived in a neighbourhood known as a demos and this decided which tribe he belonged to.  Hence, democracy.

The administration of the city was spread among the people.  Every day one citizen, never the same, held the keys and the seals, and with him sixteen others formed a team that stayed for twenty-four hours in the Round House, "presiding" over the administration of Athens.  Each month (ten in a year) fifty Councillors belonging to one tribe (there were ten tribes) acted as daily "Presidents", the order each year decided by lot.  These five hundred Councillors, different people each year, formed the second, "People's Council", which was responsible for the ordinary running of business.  There were still nine archons each year, and they, if approved by the people, entered the Areopagus Council for life at the end of the year.  The Generals, the war-leaders, were elected annually, one from each tribe, to command the regiment which each tribe provided from its members in time of war, under the War Archon, but they might be re-elected several years running.

   The Persians

 From 630 until 553, Persia was the home of a man called Zoroaster in Latin, originally Zarathustra, who became the founder of a new reli­gion, full of this-worldly optimism, ethical, and sure of the triumph of good over evil after a great dualistic struggle.  This new religious spirit gave confidence to the Persians in a new enterprise. Beginning in 553, king Cyrus set out from Persia to conquer an empire.  In 546 Cyrus overthrew the Medes and took control of Babylonia and the whole of the Middle East. In 536, he gave the exiled Jewish people in Babylon their freedom and helped them return to Jerusalem.  There they rebuilt the Temple, which was rededicated in 516.  Only later, around 445, did they rebuild the city walls.  Almost two generations had lived and died away from the "Holy Land", yet they had forgotten nothing of their faith.  This first Exile was a foretaste of the Diaspora that became total with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and has lasted until today.

In 529, Cyrus the Great was killed in battle, his son Cambyses suc­ceeded him and conquered Egypt, where he set himself up as Pharaoh and, perhaps, went mad.  He died in 522 and was followed by Darius who ruled until 485.  Darius organized the administration of the Persian empire, centered at Persepolis, into twenty "satrapies" with governors, inspectors, taxes.  His system lasted peacefully for some two hundred years.  Darius mostly followed the new Zoroastrian religion.  In 513, Darius set out to conquer Europe along the Danube, but the Scythians living there were too strong, he was almost overwhelmed and withdrew.  It was just at this time that Athens was discovering the strengths of true democracy thanks to Cleisthenes.

In 490, the Persians first attacked Greece, landing their army at Marathon, on the coast North-East of Athens.  Philippides ran with the message, and thus established the Marathon.  The Spartans were in Sparta, and the Athenian army had to face the Persians without them. The Persians were defeated in a great victory which gave new courage to Athens.  Darius died in 486 and was followed by his son Xerxes (born 519) who was to be the "great enemy" of Greece.

In 483, Xerxes began to prepare the conquest of Greece, letting his plans be well-known.  Most of the smaller cities accepted his rule in advance.  In 480, the great Persian army (200,000 men?) crossed the Dardanelles over floating bridges (taking a week) and advanced towards Greece, while other forces came along the coast in a great Phoenician fleet.  The Oracle at Delphi was not encouraging: "Either Sparta or a Spartan king must die."

Just when a great storm had destroyed many Persian ships, the Spartan king Leonidas with 300 of his Spartan elite confronted the Persians at the narrow pass of Thermopylai, blocking the way southward to Athens.  But the Persians found another way round, and attacked from all sides.  The Spartan king and all three hundred of his best men were killed in terrible fighting, in which two of Xerxes' brothers also died.  Despite enormous odds the Spartans would neither surrender nor run away, so the Battle of Thermopylai has become the symbol of heroic courage, "the few against the many."

The site of the battle of Thermopylai, (the sea is now quite far away)

Burial mound

The Persians marched on to Athens, all the citizens of which had fled to the nearby island of Salamis.  They captured the Acropolis, killed the soldiers defending it, and set it on fire.

 Victory at Salamis

 During the previous years, in the fierce struggles for influence that characterize Greek political life, one man had been rising in public view, Themistokles.  In 483 Athens suddenly became very rich when a large vein of silver was discovered in the mines it owned.  It was Themistokles, who foresaw already the Persian threat, who convinced the city to use this to build a new fleet of 100 war-ships in a new style, "triremes" with 200 men rowing 150 oars arranged in three tiers.  When the Persians arrived, Athens had a total fleet of 200 triremes.

Although Xerxes announced the fall of Athens as a great victory, he had lost far too many ships through storms and attacks.  Across the Isthmus of Corinth a huge Peloponnesian army blocked the way south.  The Athenian fleet was waiting behind the island of Salamis, ready to attack the Persians if they tried to carry forces across to the South by sea.  Then Themistokles sent a secret message to Xerxes, suggesting that the Greeks were not able to resist, that they were ready to run away, and that he himself was ready to support Xerxes.  It was a trick and Xerxes fell for it.

Less than ten years later, the story of that day was told in the only Greek tragedy to deal with "modern" history, The Persians, written by a man who had been part of the Athenian army that day, Aeschylus, and watched by the people of Athens who had been waiting on the shores.  It is told in the play to the mother of Xerxes by a messenger:


There came a Greek from the Athenian camp,
and said to your son Xerxes: come the night,
the Greeks would wait no longer, but embark
and sail in secret, scattering for their lives. 
He, not suspecting the deceitfulness
of that Greek, nor the envy of high heaven,
 at once gave orders to his admirals:
should the Greeks escape, their heads should fall;
-so said he, confident and glad at heart. 
Little he knew what the gods had in store!
Then all night long the captains kept their crews
patrolling in the fairway.  Night wore on,
and still no Greeks came out in secret flight;
but when at last the sun's bright chariot rose,
then we could hear them, singing; loud and strong
rang back the echo from the island rocks,
and with the sound came the first chill of fear. 
Something was wrong.  This was not flight; they sang
the deep toned hymn, "Apollo, Saving Lord",
that cheers the Hellene armies into battle.
Then trumpets over there set all on fire,
then the sea foamed as oars struck all together,
and swiftly, there they were!  The right wing first
led on the ordered line, then all the rest
came on, came out, and now was to be heard
a mighty shouting: "On, sons of the Greeks! 
Set free your country, set your children free,
your wives, the temples of your country's gods,
your fathers' tombs; now they are all at stake."
And from our side the Persian battle-cry
rang back the answer; and the time was come.
Then ship on ship rammed with her beak of bronze;
but first a Greek struck home; full on the quarter
she struck and shattered a Phoenician's planks;
then all along the line the fight was joined.

At first, the torrent of the Persian fleet
bore up; but when the press of shipping jammed
there in the narrows, none could help another,
but our ships rammed each other, fouled each other
and broke each other's oars.  But those Greek ships,
skillfully handled, kept the outer station
ringing us round and striking in, till ships
turned turtle, and you could not see the water
for blood and wreckage; and the dead were strewn
thickly on the beaches, all the reefs;
and every ship in the fleet of Asia
in grim confusion fought to get away.
Meanwhile the enemy, as men gaff tunnies
or some great shoal of fish, with broken oars
and bits of wreckage hacked and killed; and shrieks
and cries filled the whole sea, till night came down.

(from: A. R. Burn, The Pelican History of Greece pp. 185-7)

 The Greeks had defeated the Persians at sea, soon news of other victories came, and Xerxes sailed away, never to return.  Greece, in particular Athens, was left to develop in its own way.  The years between the Battle of Salamis in the autumn of 480 and the death of Alexander the Great in 323 in Babylon were decisive for the future of Western civilization.


Tell them in Lakedaimon, passer-by:
Carrying out their orders, here we lie.

 That is the epitaph composed for the memorial of Leonidas' Three Hundred heroes who died and were buried at Thermopylae (the tomb mound is still there), a simple phrase designed to be cut in stone ("lapidary"), noble in spirit, a condensed "epigram" (meaning an "inscription").  Such epigrams were first developed at this time, they gradually became more complex, and separated from tombstones to become one of the basic features of lyric poetry.

When the Persians destroyed the temples on the Acropolis, there were already many sculptures there. In the rebuilding, these were thrown away, buried for centuries.  They were "archaic" in style, stylized figures, not naturalistic, not idealizing, and most of the faces show a strange smile.  The statues that were made in the period of the rebuilding are Classical, noble and, above all, serious.  The twentieth century has rediscovered the charm of the archaic, but most people who visit the Louvre still admire the "Venus de Milo" as the model of classical" beauty.

 From 480 until the Fall of Athens

 The great tragedian Aeschylus died in Sicily in 456. He had gone there partly to escape the quarrels that were spreading in Athens and across Greece. Athens had just completed the democratization of its government. He left his own epitaph, although it suggests that he did not think that his plays were so important, as they are not mentioned.

Here Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, bred
in Athens, lies in Gela's cornland dead.
His fighting prowess Marathon could show
and long-haired Medes (Persians), who had good cause to know.

 In the lists of Greek figures  at the start of this chapter, only Pericles is neither poet nor thinker,  yet he was the central figure of Athen's greatest moments.  Born into a wealthy family, in 472, when only 21, he was the choregos (sponsor) for Aeschylus' The Persians, which gained the first prize. It was designed to remind the divided Athenians of the great things they had done when they were united in 480.  Pericles was the pupil and friend of Anaxagoras (the first philosopher to live in Athens), of Phidias the sculptor, and of Sophocles.

Sculptures by, or Roman copies of sculptures by Phidias

Pericles was from a "high" family, but he was a convinced democrat, and he played such an important role in Athens that this is called "The Age of Pericles", not by being a kind of dictator, but by being trusted by the people.  When he spoke, people listened to him, then they voted in support of his proposals.  The Assembly of Citizens (ekklesia) was the effective parliament and Pericles had the right to address them in just the same way as even the poorest Athenian.  Only he spoke so well that he usually convinced them, for his only power lay in the power of his oratory and he was one of the great orators.

This century is one of the glories of human history, yet it is a tragic story.  While rivalry and war divided the cities of Greece, Athens was rebuilding what the Persians had destroyed. At the same time, it had much trouble keeping the Spartans from attacking.  In 445 the two great cities signed a 30-year peace­ treaty, under Pericles' urging.  From 454 until his death in 429, the Athenians chose him as one of the Generals almost every year, in peace and in war, and in 447 he was put in charge of the rebuilding of the Parthenon (House of the Maiden, Athena) and the other great structures still standing (in ruins) on the Acropolis.

When the people of Athens returned to the ruined city in 480, a young boy of fifteen had led the singing of the victory-song (Paean) in the celebrations.  His name was Sophocles, and in 468 his tragedy was judged better than that of Aeschylus and won the first prize that year.  Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides all wrote for the Athens of Pericles.

Herodotos of Halikarnassos came, too, after 480, and the "History" (the word before him only meant "researches") he wrote in prose to tell the story of the Athenian victory over Persia is the origin of all other histories. He wrote much of it in Italy.

Plutarch the Hellenistic historian, writing in the first century AD, wrote of Pericles's age: "Build­ings which men thought would hardly be finished in several succeeding generations were all completed within the political prime of one man... Generally, facility and speed are not conducive to lasting impressive­ness and the highest beauty; the time invested in hard work pays its dividends in the permanence of the product.  And this is the more cause to marvel at the buildings of Pericles, that were made in so little time to last for so long."

It was all done, or almost all, in ten years.  The great statue of the Parthenos (Athene) was dedicated at the Great Panathenaia of 438, some of the carvings were still being made.  Many of them can now be seen in London, in the British Museum, where they are called the "Elgin Marbles", about which Keats wrote a sonnet.  The Greeks are demanding their return to Athens.

In 431 the Peace broke down, and Athens was heading for the disaster of 404. During those years Euripides and Aristophanes wrote most of their surviving plays, Sophocles his last, some of the most beautiful buildings on the Acropolis were completed, Plato was born (428). The writings of the other great historian, Thucydides, make these the best-known years of the history of Athens.  Most of Plato's Dialogues are shown as happening then too, for these are the years of Socrates, the culmination of the work of "pre-Socratic" philosophers and sophists.

The first part of the disaster was the plague that ravaged Persia, Egypt and Athens in 430-427, killing a quarter of the population; for some obscure reason, Pericles was blamed!  Then his two sons died.  In pity, he was re-elected as general, but he died in the autumn of 429 and was irreplaceable.

Thucydides writes his history of this time in a high, solemn style, stressing the terrible disaster that the war between the Greek cities was.  In several cases the entire population of captured cities was massacred or sold as slaves.  Several times, peace might have been possible, but without Pericles the chance was missed.

By 415 a new leader had appeared in Athens, Alkibiades, whom Socrates tried to educate, and love. He was most handsome and totally vain.  He figures in Plato's Symposium.  He led a great Athenian army to Sicily on a campaign, then escaped to Sparta when he was called back to Athens, while his army attacked Syracuse. In 413 all the Athenian soldiers were taken prisoner, over 10,000 of them probably, of whom 7,000 were left to die in a "concentration camp" without shelter or real food.

In 411, democracy broke down and an authoritarian oligarchy took power for two years, after which they were so divided that democracy was easily restored.  Alkibiades returned to Athens for a time. He was a good leader, but unfortunate, and later he withdrew again.  Athens was by now almost completely isolated and although building and drama con­tinued, the loss of life in the fighting also continued.  The citizens were deeply divided about the responsibility for the military disasters, the system of justice was breaking down. 

In 405 the Spartan leader Lysander captured 170 ships of the Athenian fleet and executed 4,000 Athenian prisoners.  All who could took shelter inside the walls of Athens, and after a long siege, when people were dying in the streets, Athens sur­rendered to Sparta in 404.

Athens, luckily, had such a high reputation for its past deeds against the Persians, that Sparta dared not destroy it.  Lysander brought back the oligarchy as a Council of Thirty led by Kritias, which began a reign of terror against the democratic leaders.  The "Thirty Tyrants" needed a Spartan body­guard, but at first there was no organized resistance.  Then a small group of seventy Athenian men came back from Thebes and occupied a fortress 10 miles from Athens.  They were able to defend it, and soon they were 700.  They were able to attack and defeat the main group of Spartans in a surprise attack on their base. A few days later, 1000 strong now, although with weapons for only 600, they entered Piraeus (the port of Athens on the coast) and when Kritias marched down from Athens with 3,000 men, he was confronted and defeated by this small democratic army, supported by the stone-throwing population of Piraeus which had risen in revolt. 

After a few months of confrontation, the democrats entered Athens, the oligarchic leaders were outlawed, and in 403 full democracy was restored in a spirit of forgiving and national harmony. But a new beginning was not so easy. Perhaps the insecurities provoked by so much loss help explain why, in 399, the city of Athens condemned to death the 70-year-old Socrates? Yet following him come Plato and Aristotle, the two Greek thinkers whose work remains fundamental even now.