note has been prepared for students in Classics 101 by Ian Johnston, instructor
at Malaspina University-College (now Vancouver Island University). The text is
in the public domain, released May 1999, last revised February 2004.
note which follows concentrates on the historical and geographical background.
Those seeking a more wide-ranging introduction to Greek culture should try the
following link: Greek
Remarks on Names
of Classics 101 need to understand that the terms Greece and Greek
can be seriously misleading in the study of ancient classical culture, if people
understand by this term some more or less homogeneous, politically united nation
in a specific place. The following brief background description should help to
explain this point in more detail.
first a short comment on Greek names rendered into English. While a few names
are easy to render (e.g., Zeus, Ares, Priam, Paris, and so on), others create
certain problems, and hence people tend to turn Greek names into English
equivalents in different ways. Some, for example, prefer -c to -k
(e.g., Attica and Attika; Cassandra and Kassandra), -aus to -aos
(e.g., Menelaus and Menelaos), -ch to -kh (e.g., Achilles,
Akhilles, Akhilleus; Andromache, Andromakhe), -ae to -ai (e.g.,
Clytaemnestra, Klytaimnestra). Until fairly recent times, the conventional
spelling tended to Latinize the names, preferring -us or -aus, for
example, to -os or -aos, -ae to-ai, using -c rather
than -k and -ch rather than -kh, and so on. Hence in English
literature, the common spellings reflect this tendency (e.g., Menelaus,
Pandarus, Clytaemnestra, Achaeans, Atreidae, and so on). These pages follow that
Greek names have more colloquial English equivalents. Some common ones, for
example, are Ajax (for Aias), Hercules (for Herakles), and Greeks (for
Hellenes). In each of these options the first spelling is the more traditional.
Greek names have Latin equivalents (e.g., Jove for Zeus, Ulysses for Odysseus,
Venus for Aphrodite). These you should never use, unless you are working
with a Latin text which has these Latin equivalents. Students of English
literature should note that until fairly recent times, writers commonly used the
Latin names to refer to Greek literary characters and gods.
Note on the Geography of Greece
we talk about Classical Greece we are generally referring to a relatively small
area in the Eastern Mediterranean, extending from present day southern Italy to
the shores of the Black Sea and Asia Minor (now Turkey). This area includes
various coastal regions, what we now recognize as Mainland Greece, and a large
number of islands, some large (e.g., Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes) and some quite
Greece, which is an outward southern extension of the Balkan Mountains, falls
into a number of clear geographical divisions. In the north is Macedonia
(in classical Greek times not considered a full part of Greek civilization), Thessaly
(immediately to the south of Macedonia), and Epirus (west of Thessaly,
not labeled on the above map). Below Thessaly lies Central Greece, the most
important regions of which is Boeotia and the city state of Thebes (home
of Oedipus, Cadmus, Teiresias). Immediately off the east coast of Central Greece
is a large island, Euboea.
Greece leads to a large southern promontory, called the Peloponnese,
joined to the rest of Mainland Greece by a narrow isthmus, at the west end of
which is the important city state of Corinth. Hence, the isthmus is
called the Isthmus of Corinth, and it is a geographical feature of major
strategic importance, since any land army seeking to conquer the region or to
move from the Peloponnese to invade Attica or Boeotia must pass through this
narrow neck of land. The region immediately to the east of the Isthmus of
Corinth is called Attica, and the chief city of this region is Athens.
Athens is a few miles inland from the sea; its port is called Pireus.
of the Isthmus of Corinth is the large area of Mainland Greece called the Peloponnese.
Immediately to the south of the isthmus is an area called the Argolid, a
centre of Mycenaean civilization, with the important cities of Argos
(home of Agamemnon, Clytaemnestra, and Orestes) and Mycenae.
southernmost portion of the Peloponnese is called Laconia, and the chief
city state of the region is Sparta, at some distance from the sea and
largely hemmed in by mountains. Note that the distance from Macedonia to Sparta
as the crow flies (i.e., the approximate length of Mainland Greece) is about 350
miles. The distance from Sparta to Athens by road is about 150 miles. A famous
runner is said to have covered that distance in two days.
the west of Mainland Greece is the Ionian Sea, containing a number of
islands, some large like Corfu, and some smaller, like Ithaca
(home of Odysseus). To the east of Mainland Greece is the Aegean Sea,
with a chain of many islands between the mainland and the coast of Asia Minor.
largest and most important of the Aegean Islands are Crete, Rhodes,
Chios, and Lesbos. Another important Greek island, Cyprus,
lies further east. Because of these islands, it is possible to sail from
Mainland Greece to Asia Minor and stay within sight of land almost all the way.
the prominent feature of the northern Aegean in the large three-pronged
promontory extending south just east of Macedonia. This important area is called
Chalcidice (birth place of Aristotle).
the north-east corner of the Aegean is the narrow entrance to the Propontis,
an entrance called the Hellespont. To the north-east of the Propontis is
the Black Sea, with the narrow channel, the Bosphorus, separating
Asia and Eastern Europe (the present site of Istanbul). Located on the Asian
mainland, just at the entrance to the Hellespont is the city of Troy (Ilium
the south of Troy, all down the coast of Asia Minor, is a series of important
Greek city-states (e.g., Miletus, Halicarnassus), several
originally established as colonies of cities on the mainland. Many of the most
important literary figures in classical Greek civilization came from this coast
of Asia Minor (called Ionia) or the islands immediately adjacent to it
(e.g., Thales, Anaximander, Sappho, Herodotus, Homer).
the west of Mainland Greece, a number of Greek cities, originating as colonies,
developed in Sicily and southern Italy. The most important of these is Syracuse,
the largest city in Sicily.
use the term Greece to include all these areas of Greek culture and
civilization. But it is important not to be misled into thinking that the single
name refers to a high degree of ethnic and political solidarity among a
homogeneous people, the Greeks. The classical Greeks in this area thought of
themselves as related and as superior to those who were not Greek, but the
city-states tended to be fiercely independent of each other, spent much of their
time fighting amongst themselves, and had distinctly different dialects. At
times of extreme danger (e.g., from an invasion of the Persians) the city states
might band together into a temporary alliance, but as soon as the danger passed,
the city-states resumed their independent and frequently quarrelsome ways. The
major cultural event they all celebrated together was the Olympian Games. They
did share a more or less common religion (but a very flexible one) and regarded
some of their traditions as common to all (e.g., Homer). Within the people
we call Greek were somewhat different cultural traditions and dialects.
One major difference is between the Dorians (headed by Sparta) and the Ionians
(led by Athens). Non-Greeks were called barbarians, because their language
sounded crude and unsophisticated to Greek ears (like "bar-bar-bar"
of the territory included in the area we designate as Greek territory is very
mountainous, with small fertile valleys cut off from neighbours. Land
transportation was difficult and dangerous throughout the classical period.
Hence, within Greece there were many small, independent city-states, fiercely
protective of their territory and, as often as not, very suspicious of and
hostile to their neighbours. We cannot speak of the Greeks in the classical
period as a unified political entity. And it is almost impossible to keep track
of the frequently bewildering shifts in the various alliances between city
states from one year to the next.
city-states (meaning the city and the adjacent land) were generally quite small
in area and population (made up of citizens, slaves, resident aliens, women and
children). The most populous city state, Athens, with an area of about 1000
square miles, had in 431 BC a population of about 310,000 (about 45,000 of whom
were citizens). Sparta, by contrast, although occupying a larger and more
fertile area of about 3000 square miles, had a population of about 12,000, the
majority of whom were not citizens. Most of the city states were considerably
smaller in area and population than Athens or Sparta. The term city state
(polis), incidentally, refers to the city and the surrounding territory.
many city states the natural form of transportation was by sea. Hence, many city
states quickly developed an expertise with ships, fishing, and overseas trading.
The latter activity was especially important for those city states, like Athens,
which had a relatively poor soil for agriculture. Early in historical time, some
parts of Greece, like Attica and Corinth, were deforested. The resultant soil
erosion and rapid off-flow of water made agriculture difficult and unprofitable.
The inhabitants, therefore, imported grain from Euboea, Thessaly, and Sicily,
and cultivated the olive and vine, to export oil and wine, or developed
manufacture (especially pottery). Sparta, by contrast, located in a rich
agricultural area, was much more self-contained and less committed to trade as
essential to its way of life. Hence, its social and political structure remained
far more static and conservative than in Athens, where the shifting population
and the large number of resident aliens brought about constant pressures for
the south of Greece lay Egypt, for much of the time the richest and most
centralized culture in the Mediterranean area. To the east of the Ionian cities
on the coast of Asia Minor, the Persian Empire developed in the 6th and 5th
centuries. The complex relationship between this empire and the various Greek
states is a key feature of Greek history up to the point where Alexander the
Great (of Macedon) defeated the Persian Empire in the fourth century BC.
Classical Greek times, the Romans were expanding slowly, consolidating their
hold on Italy and the central Mediterranean. But they did not challenge the
Greeks seriously until after the time of Alexander, finally overcoming the Greek
city states in the mid-second century (BC).
most important geopolitical fact about this area—in
Classical Greek times up until modern times—is
that it is the traditional meeting place of Europeans and Asians, often marked
by the pressure of Eastern empires pushing to control the coast of Asia Minor
and enter Europe across the Hellespont or of European powers to extend their
control into Asia Minor.
Origin of the Greeks
to what we call Archaic or Classical Greece, in addition to the highly developed
Egyptians to the south, there existed flourishing non-Greek Bronze Age
civilization in the Aegean. Especially significant is the Cretan civilization,
called the Minoan after the legendary King Minos. This culture seems to have
originated with a migration from Asia Minor to Crete about 3000 BC.
civilization prospered on Crete. The people built very large palaces (most
famously, the palace of Knossos), developed a form of hieroglyphic and later
linear writing (Linear Script A, not yet deciphered), created outstanding art
(especially pottery and frescoes), and established a thriving trade over the
eastern Mediterranean. The Minoans were obviously very wealthy and secure; they
built their huge palaces without defensive walls. They also possessed a
sophisticated religion which may have featured a Nature Goddess as its chief
deity and a priest-king as the most important official.
Greek legend, the most famous fact about Minoan civilization was the notorious
labyrinth, at the centre of which was a ferocious wild beast, half bull, half
human (the Minotaur), to whom human sacrifices were made. The Minotaur was
alleged to the result of the sexual union between a fierce bull and queen
Pasiphaea, the wife of Minos, the king. This beast was supposedly killed by the
Athenian King Theseus, with the help of Ariadne, daughter of king Minos.
Whatever the truth of this legend, the Minoans do seem to have practiced a form
of bull jumping, with acrobats vaulting over the horns, either as a religious
ceremony or for public entertainment. It seems highly unlikely, however, that
this exercise involved the virtually impossible stunt of leaping through the
bull's horns and along the animal's back (although that scene is depicted in
of the great mysteries of Minoan civilization is its sudden annihilation near
the end of the 15th century (BC). Around 1600 BC the palaces were destroyed and
rebuilt, and Minoan civilization reached its peak. Suddenly, however, around
1400 BC the great palaces were destroyed by fire again, and, although Crete
remained an important force in the Aegean, it never regained the glory of the
Minoan Age. The cause of the final destruction has been variously explained as
an invasion by the Mycenaeans (from mainland Greece), a civil war, or a massive
volcanic explosion of the island of Thera about 1500 BC (perhaps the greatest
natural disaster to occur since settlements began and a possible source of the
legend about Atlantis).
the destruction of the Minoan palaces, the people of Mycenae, in the Peloponnese,
came to dominate much of the Aegean. This culture was centred at Argos and
Mycenae (in the Argolid). Where the Mycenaeans came from and whether or not they
were among the first Greek-speaking peoples to reach Mainland Greece are
disputed questions. It seems that they probably came from Anatolia (now in
Western Turkey) either to escape or as part of the first great wave of
Indo-European people (who in other places became the Hittites).
Mycenaeans were clearly different from the Minoans, although much influenced by
them. They were a more warlike people, physically larger, patriarchal in social
structure, and with different burial customs. They had a form of writing,
derived from the Minoans, Linear Script B, which in 1952 was deciphered as a
form of Greek (but this fact is disputed).
heroes of Homer's epics and the legends of Troy are based on Mycenaean oral
history. The Greeks and modern scholarship date the Trojan War near the end of
the 12th century (BC), traditionally ending in 1184 BC. Given the fundamental
importance of these legends to the history of Greece, one can understand why the
Greeks themselves and so many modern scholars have identified the Mycenaeans as
early Greeks. However, the evidence for this is not conclusive.
civilization has left many outstanding archaeological treasures, largely because
the Mycenaeans buried their dead in shaft graves and beehive tombs with a great
many rich possessions. The discovery of these tombs by Schliemann in the late
nineteenth century is one of the most outstanding achievements in archaeology
and has led to a complete reinterpretation of pre-classical Greek history.
Schliemann thought that he had uncovered the grave of Agamemnon. In fact,
however, what he found is probably from about two hundred years before the
traditional date for the Trojan War.
civilization flourished in the 14th and 13th centuries (BC). Near the end of the
12th century Mycenae and other centres were violently destroyed, perhaps by the
Indo-European Greek-speaking invaders, or the latest wave of them. Following
this destruction (around 1100 BC), the history of Greece enters what has been
called the dark ages. The art of writing was lost. Of this era, we know almost
nothing. The silence is not broken until the 8th century (BC), when the Homeric
epics were composed.
Arrival of the Greeks
2500 to 2000 BC large groups of Indo-European peoples moved away from the Pontic
regions near the Black Sea to the west and south, arriving in Macedonia around
2200 BC. In the thousand years which followed, scholars conjecture, three waves
of Indo-Europeans populated Mainland Greece: the Ionians, the Aeolians, and the
Dorians (the names indicate different dialects of Greek, which persisted
throughout Classical times).
actual development of the Greek language is disputed. It seems unlikely that the
immigrants brought Greek (in one or more dialects) with them in a well-developed
form. More likely, the language they had was fundamentally altered in the new
territory by contact with the indigenous people, so that what we call Greek, in
effect, evolved as a new language out of this mixture (rather like English
emerging out of the indigenous language, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, French, and
so on). According to this view, the different Greek dialects may not represent
different languages of the invaders but may be the result of linguistic
developments once the invaders had settled in the new lands.
arrival of the Dorians (around 1100 BC) forced the earlier Ionians into the
poorer sections of Mainland Greece (i.e., Attica) and beyond Attica into the
islands and the coast of Asia Minor. The Dorian invaders settled largely in the
fertile areas of the Peloponnese, subjugating or displacing the inhabitants, the
to much of what we study in classical Greek literature evokes a contrast between
the Spartan Greeks (of Dorian stock) and the Athenians (of Ionian stock). It is
worth remembering that, in terms of their origins, the Athenians were Ionians,
naturally related to many of the inhabitants of the Aegean Islands, and that the
Spartans were Dorians. This ethnic difference was reinforced by the difference
between the agricultural and conservative society in the Peloponnese and the
more dynamic trading society of Attica.
Brief Chronological Table
to 2000 BC
of Greek-speaking Indo-Europeans into northern Greece (Macedonia) and gradual
movement south in three waves (Ionians, Aeloians, Dorians); displacement of
earlier Ionians into Attica and the Aegean Islands.
to 1500 BC
island of Crete was unified under one or two dynasties, which flourished in
trade (with Egypt) and in art. Rise of Macedonian power in the Peloponnese.
Palaces constructed. Linear A Script developed, and later Linear B Script
destruction of the Minoan palaces, perhaps by the power of the Mycenaeans.
date for the Trojan War, an expedition of Mycenaean powers against Troy.
of the Mycenaean palaces (by Dorian invaders?). The Dorian invasion of southern
to 750 BC
Dark Ages. One important artistic legacy from this period is the development
(around 900 BC) of the Geometric Style of pottery decoration, which
emphasized a formal abstract repeating pattern of lines, bands, and shapes.
Athens was the most important centre for this art, an important activity for
to 600 BC
colonization from Mainland Greece to Asia Minor and the islands, fostered by
distress and food shortages and by ruling aristocrats in the city states.
Dark Ages ended in the eighth century with a Renaissance of sorts, marked above
all by the appearance of Homer's epics (composed as oral literature) and the
works of Hesiod. Writing was rediscovered about this time. It is not clear
whether or not Homer could or did write. By this time Greek colonies in Asia
Minor were well established, and in this century the great panhellenic athletic
festival at Olympia, the Olympian Games, started (first recorded celebration was
in 776 BC).
hereditary kingship was abolished at Athens and the kingship was made into an
annual office. The greatest power in the state was the Areopagus Council, made
up of the nobles.
to 500 BC
arose in Greece, in which ambitious individuals, capitalizing on the distress of
the majority of citizens seized power from the aristocrats. The tyrants tended
to work against the interests of the big, rich families and to lessen racial
differences. Most tyrannies were relatively short lived (about forty years).
Sparta consistently opposed tyrannies.
Reforms of Lycurgus at Sparta made the state a severely military one, with a
built-in conservative leading group and virtually no mechanism for change. This
constitution lasted virtually unchanged for about 500 years.
this period the Athenians had developed the black-figure style in pottery
decoration (a design established in dark paint on reddish clay background).
Cultural figures of this age include Thales, traditionally the founder of
philosophy (fl. 585), Anaximander, an important materialist philosopher
(610 to 540), and the great poetess Sappho (b. circa 612). Only
fragments of their work remain.
reforms of Solon at Athens cancelled all debt and reformed the
constitution to make it more democratic, shifting much power from the Areopagus
Council to a democratic assembly. This period is traditionally the time in which
Pythagoras (581 to 497) established his school of philosophy.
made himself tyrant at Athens. He was expelled but returned in 546. He
organized a number of the more important festivals and inaugurated building
programs to celebrate the greatness of Athens. Under his rule, the Homeric epics
were probably written more or less in the form which they have come down to us.
traditionally the first actor, won the first prize when tragedy was first
performed in Athens at the feast of the Dionysia. This is the period of the
philosopher Heraclitus (544 to 483).
Athens the red-figure style was introduced in pottery technique, in which
the background is filled in with black, and the figures left in the original
clay colour. This technique provided greater freedom for detail on the pottery
designs. This is the period of Parmenides (b. circa 515) and Anaxagoras
(500 to 428).
the reforms of Cleisthenes, an Athenian statesman, the city became more
democratic, breaking the power of the old families, by undercutting the regional
or economic basis for selection to office. This step is generally taken as the
decisive step in the establishment of democracy at Athens. The start of the
fifth century ushers in what is referred to in the history of Greek art as the Classical
Ionian cities on the coast of Asia Minor revolted against Persia (which had
expanded to take them over). Athens sent some help to the Ionian cities, but the
revolt was crushed by the Persians. This is the period of the famous poet Pindar
(520 to 447).
Athenian statesman Themistocles began to fortify the Pireus (the port of
Athens), linking Athens and Pireus with defensive walls, so as to protect the
city against military invasion.
retaliation for the Athenian assistance to the Ionian cities in the revolt
against Persia (see entry for 498 BC), the Persian king, Darius, sent an
expedition by sea to attack Athens. The Persians landed in Euboea, and the Greek
force there, under the leadership of Athens, defeated the Persians at the Battle
of Marathon (490). The Spartans missed the battle because they had to
observe a religious rite and were delayed. The messenger Pheidippides is
said to have run from the battlefield to Athens, shouted out "Rejoice, we
conquer!" and fallen dead. The defeat of the Persians at this battle was,
for many Greeks, the most outstanding achievement of their culture. The length
of the marathon race in modern athletics derives from this distance. Around this
time lived Empedocles (490 to 430) and contests in comedy began in Athens
order to avenge his father's defeat, Darius's son, Xerxes, King of Persia,
launched a second invasion of Greece. He marched across the Hellespont with a
huge army, down into Greece from the north, defeating the Spartans at the Battle
of Thermopylae, and started laying Attica to waste. The Athenians defeated
Xerxes's navy at the Battle of Salamis (480) and the combined Greek forces
(under Spartan leadership) defeated the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea
(479) and, in Ionia, the Battle of Mycale (479), thus ending the second major
threat from Persian invasion.
cultural life of this period is marked by the major figures of Aeschylus
(525 to 456), Sophocles (496 to 406), Herodotus (484 to 420). The Oresteia
was first performed in the dramatic contest in 458..
to 432 BC
this period the Athenians, under the leadership of Pericles (495 to 429),
created their empire from an alliance of states first formed to combat the
Persians. The Spartans, in response, developed their own system of alliances.
The Athenians sought to bolster democracy at home by paying judges (assemblies
of citizens). The cultural energy of the previous decade continued with the work
of Hippocrates (b. 460), Democritus (b. 460), Euripides
(485 to 406), Thucydides (460), Socrates (469 to 399). Sophocles's
Antigone was performed in 443. Many of the major architectural buildings
were created in this period: e.g., Zeus's Temple at Olympia (470 to 456),
the Parthenon (447 to 433),
commissioned the building of the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis
using the money gathered as tribute from the allies of Athens. The leading
sculptor was Phidias (500 to 435); the architects were Ictinus and
to 404 BC
Peloponnesian War between the Greek city states broke out in 431, with
Athens and its allies fighting Sparta and its allies. Right after the outbreak
of war, there was a plague in Athens, in which Pericles died (in 429). During
the war, a number of major works of literature were created including Euripides'
Medea (431), Sophocles' Oedipus the King (429), Herodotus' Histories,
and a number of plays by Aristophanes (The Clouds in 423, The
Birds in 414, The Frogs in 405).
411 the oligarchs in Athens (a group of rich and powerful citizens) set up the
Council of Four Hundred, trying to overthrow the democracy. But the Athenian
fleet would not agree, so the attempted coup failed and democracy was restored
404, the oligarchs tried again, this time under the rule of the Thirty Tyrants.
They subverted the democracy, seized power, and instituted a reign of terror
against the democratic parties. This oligarchy was destroyed and democracy
restored by the summer 403. Meanwhile, however, the Spartan navy had defeated
the Athenian navy, bringing the Peloponnesian War to an end with the defeat of
the Athenians. In the aftermath of all this political upheaval, Socrates was
tried, condemned, and executed in 399 BC.
began writing his Socratic dialogues, traveled to Italy and Sicily, and returned
to Athens to found the Academy, the first "university" in Europe.
Aristotle came to Athens (from Macedonia) in 367 to study at the Academy. He
stayed until Plato's death in 348 BC.
King of Macedon, began extending his power, capturing Olynthus in 348. Philip
invited Aristotle to become the tutor of his son Alexander (b. 356).
of Macedon defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Chaeronea, thus
effectively making Macedon the major controlling power on the Greek mainland.
of Macedon was assassinated (perhaps by his wife). Alexander became king of
Macedon. Greek city states rose in rebellion. Alexander destroyed Thebes (335)
and left a garrison army (under Antipater) to control Greece while he prepared
to invade Persia.
returned to Athens to found a school, the Lycaeum. While in Athens he composed
the Nicomachean Ethicsand the Politics (or the notes on
which those works are based).
to 323 BC
the Great invaded Asia, defeated the Persian King Darius as Issus (335),
conquered Tyre and Jerusalem (332), defeated the Persians again and finally at
Gaugamela (331), occupied Babylon, Susa, and Persepolis (330), invaded India
(327). Forced by his army to turn back, he died in Babylon in 323. The Greeks
rebelled against the Macedonian authorities in Greece. Aristotle was forced to
leave Athens. He died the following year in Epirus.
period following the death of Alexander the Great is called the Hellenistic
Age (lasting until 30 BC). The centre of Greek Hellenism was Alexandria, in
Egypt, founded by Alexander the Great and taken over by Ptolemy, one of
Alexander's surviving generals.
to 311 BC
among Alexander's successors over the division of his empire led to a break up
of Alexander's achievement.
chronology ends here since the literature we study belongs to the period
outlined above. In the 4th and 3rd centuries (BC) Rome grew in power, until
Roman armies overpowered the Greek city states, so that by about 150 BC Greece
was a Roman province.