Classical Greece, 500-323BC
|When we think of ancient Greece
and the ancient Greeks, it is usually the 5th century which commands our
undivided attention. This is the age of the great historians Herodotus and Thucydides,
great dramatists like Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus, and the brilliant philosopher
Socrates. The 5th century is also regarded as the age when the Greeks embraced
their brilliant experiment in direct democracy. Amazing monuments to human achievement were
constructed in Athens and other Hellenic city-states. It is an age of human discovery and
achievement an age which proudly bears the name classical.
Persian Invasion of Greece
King Darius (548-486 B.C.) managed to build up the Persian Empire and now controlled Asia Minor, including Greek poleis on the west coast. In 499 B.C., some of the these poleis rebelled from the Persians (an episode called the Ionian Revolt). The Athenians lent their support but the revolt ultimately collapsed in 493 B.C. Darius proposed now to invade mainland Greece his prime target was Athens. Darius sent his fleet across the Aegean in 490 and awaited news of victory.
The Persians landed at Marathon, a village just north of Athens. Commanded by Militiades, the Greek forces totaled only 10,000 men the Persian force was perhaps 20-25,000 strong. The Greek forces charged and trapped the Persians and won the battle. The remainder of the Persians attempted to attack Athens but the Greek army rushed back and the Persians were forced to return to Asia Minor. The victory at MARATHON was won by superior timing and discipline.
Darius prepared a second invasion but died (486 B.C.) before his plans could be carried out. The task was taken up by Xerxes (c.519-465 B.C.) who prepared a huge force that would attack by land and sea. In 483 B.C., the Athenian statesman Themistocles (c.523-c.458 B.C.) persuaded his fellow Athenians to build a navy of one hundred triremes. He also oversaw the fortification of the harbor at Piraeus. Fearing destruction at the hands of the Persians, in 480 B.C. thirty poleis formed an alliance. Athens, Sparta and Corinth were the most powerful members.
In 480 B.C., Xerxes sent a force of 60,000 men and 600 ships to Greece. The Greeks made their stand at Thermopylae. Five thousand men took up their positions to defend the pass at Thermopylae. The Greeks held the pass but eventually a traitorous Greek led a Persian force through the hills to the rear of the Greek forces, who were subsequently massacred. Meanwhile, the Greek navy tried to hold off the Persian ships at Artemisium. The Athenians eventually abandoned Athens ahead of the Persian army. The Persians marched across the Attic peninsula and burned Athens. Themistocles then sent a false message to Xerxes, telling him to strike at once. The Persians were taken in and sent their navy into the narrow strait between Athens and the island of Salamis. More than three hundred Greek ships rammed the Persians and heavily armed Greek soldiers boarded the ships. The Greek victory at Salamis was a decisive one. However, Persian forces remained in Greece. Their final expulsion came in 479 B.C. at the village of Plataea.
By 479 B.C., the Greek forces had all conquered the Persian army and navy. After the Persian Wars, Athens emerged as the most dominant political and economic force in the Greek world. The Athenian polis, buttressed by the strength of its Council of Five Hundred and Assembly of citizens, managed to gain control of a confederation of city-states which gradually became the Athenian Empire.
The Athenians not only had a political leadership based on the principles of direct democracy as set in motion by Cleisthenes (see Lecture 6), they also had wide trading and commercial interests in the Mediterranean world. These trading interests spread throughout the area of the Aegean Sea including Asia Minor, an area known as the Aegean Basin. Greek victories against the Persians secured mainland Greece from further invasion. There was a great sense of relief on the part of all Greeks that they had now conquered the conquerors. But, there were some citizens who argued in the Assembly that a true Greek victory would only follow from total defeat of the Persians, and this meant taking the war to Persia itself. And this is precisely what would happen in the 5th century.
Meanwhile, dozens of Greek city-states joined together to form a permanent union for the war. Delegates met on the island of Delos in 478 B.C. The allies swore oaths of alliance which were to last until lumps of iron, thrown into the sea, rose again. The Delian League policy was to be established by an assembly of representatives but was to be administered by an admiral and ten treasurers appointed by Athens. It fell upon the Athenian leader, Aristides the Just, to assign an assessment of 460 talents per year, which member states paid in cash or in the form of manned ships. Right from the start, the Delian League was dominated by Athenian authority and leadership. The Delian League had its precedents: the Spartan League, the Ionian League of 499-494 B.C. and the League of 481-478 B.C. Eventually, the Greeks liberated the cities of Asia Minor and by 450 B.C., the war with the Persians came to an end.
It was at this time that the power of Athens was being felt throughout the Greek world. And as the power of Athens reached new limits, its political influence began to be extended as well. The Athenians forced city-states to join the Delian league against their will. They refused to allow city-states to withdraw from the League. And other city-states they simply refused entry into the League. Athens stationed garrisons in other city-states to keep the peace and to make sure that Athens would receive their support, both politically and in terms of paying tribute to the League. By 454 B.C., Athenian domination of the Delian League was clear the proof is that the League's treasury was moved from the temple of Apollo on the island of Delos to the temple of Athena at Athens. Payments to the Delian League now became payments to the treasury of Athens.
The Age of Pericles
Pericles was a man of forceful character. He was an outstanding orator, something which, as we have already seen, was absolutely necessary in the political world of the Athenian Assembly. He was also honest in his control of Athenian financial affairs. Pericles first rose to political prominence in the 450s. At this time, the Athenian leadership was convinced of two things: (1) the continuation of the war with the Persians and (2) maintaining cordial relationships with Sparta. The strategy of Pericles was the exact opposite. In the Assembly he argued convincingly that the affair with Persia was in the past. He decided to concentrate instead on Sparta, which he saw as a direct threat to the vitality of the Athenian Empire. As would be evident by the end of the century, Sparta was a major threat. The reason for this is quite simple. On the one hand, Sparta chose to isolate itself from the affairs of other Greek city-states. On the other hand, Spartan isolationism appeared as a direct threat to Athens. Whether or not the threat was real, the bottom line is that Sparta and Athens were destined to become enemies.
From the 450s onward, Pericles rebuilt the city of Athens, a city ravaged by years of wars with the Persians. He used the public money from the Delian League to build several masterpieces of 5th century Greek architecture, the Parthenon and the Propylaea.. This, of course, outraged many of his fellow citizens who attacked him in the Assembly on more than one occasion. The common people, however, were quick to support Pericles for the simple matter that he gave them jobs and an income. Under Pericles, Athens became the city of Aeschylus, Socrates and Phidias, the man in charge of all public buildings and statues.
At this time Pericles also embarked on the path of aggressive imperialism. He put down rebellions and sent his Athenian armies to colonize other areas of Asia Minor. And while he was doing this, he was also trying to foster the intellectual improvement of the Athenian citizen by encouraged music and drama. Industry and commerce flourished. In 452/1 B.C., Pericles introduced pay for jurors and magistrates so that no one could be barred by poverty from service to the polis. Indeed, under Pericles, Athens was rebuilt and the population greeted him as their hero. But, there were problems on the not-too-distant horizon.
The Peloponnesian War
By mid-century there had been several clashes between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies. In 446 B.C. a treaty of non-aggression was signed that would be valid for thirty years (a form of détente, if you will). The peace did not last. In 435 B.C., a quarrel developed between Corinth, an ally of Sparta, and Corcyra. In 433, Corcyra appealed to Athens to form an alliance. The Corinthians knew that such an alliance would make war inevitable. The combined naval power of Athens and Corcyra was the largest in Greece, and Sparta viewed such an alliance as a direct threat. The same year, the Athenians demanded that the town of Potidaea should dismantle its defensive walls and banish its magistrates, a demand which further infuriated the Corinthians. Athens besieged the town. An assembly of the Peloponnesian league met and the Corinthians managed to convince the Spartans that war with Athens was the only solution.
Fighting began in 431 B.C. Sparta wanted to break Athenian morale by attacking Attica annually, but the Athenians merely retreated behind their fortifications until the Spartan forces retired. Pericles refused to send the Athenian infantry to the field. Instead he relied on raids on the Peloponnesus by sea. More damaging than any offensive by the Spartans was a PLAGUE that raged in Athens in 430. And the following year, Pericles died.
Over the next few years Athens and Sparta suffered so many losses that both sides were prepared to end the conflict. The Peace of Nicias was signed in 421 B.C. Hostilities were renewed in 415 when the people of Segesta (a city in Sicily) appealed to Athens for help. It was Alcibiades (c.450-404 B.C.) who persuaded the Athenian Assembly to raise a large fleet and sail to Sicily. But it was the Athenian campaign against Syracuse that eventually brought disaster. In 413 the Athenian navy lost a crucial battle. As they retreated they were cut off and destroyed. Thucydides reported that "few out of many returned home."
The war dragged on for another eight years. Sparta sought decisive help by gaining the assistance of Persia. In 405 a Spartan admiral captured the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami, on the shores of the Hellespont. The following year, beaten into submission, Athens gave up control of its empire and had to demolish its defensive walls. By 404 B.C., Sparta had "liberated" Greece and imposed on oligarchic regime (the Thirty Tyrants), that lasted until the following year.
After the death of Pericles and the disorder of a century of warfare, the Greek city-states and direct democracy went into decline. The reason is that first one polis, then another, rose up, withdrew from the Delian League and began to assume control of their own affairs, without falling under the sphere of Athenian influence. Sparta assumed leadership of the city-states. Then it was the turn of Thebes, then Corcyra, then Corinth, the Sparta again. This fragmentation and political disorder left the door open for political power to come from an entirely different area of Greece Macedonia. Under Philip II, Macedonia flourished through diplomacy and military aggression. Philip took advantage of the general disorder on the Attic peninsula, and extended his control into central Greece. His armies defeated a weakened Athens. In fact, Philip gained control of all the important Greek city-states with the exception of Sparta. Philip was murdered in 336 B.C. and was succeeded by his son, Alexander III. Under Alexander, the Macedonian Empire grew to become the largest empire in the ancient world larger even than the Roman Empire at its height. Alexander the Great invaded what remained of the Persian Empire and gained control of Asia Minor. Most of Egypt fell under his armies. His armies marched as far east as the Indus River on the western border of India before he died of fever in 323 B.C. at the age of thirty-three (see Lecture 9).
Greek Culture in the Classical Age
Athens never united all Greece. However, its culture was unchallenged. The trade routes from the Aegean brought men and their ideas from everywhere to the great cultural center of Athens. Thanks to its economic initiative, the Athenian polis was quite wealthy, and Pericles generously distributed that wealth to the Athenian citizen in a variety of forms.
For instance, the Athenian polis sponsored the production of dramas and required that wealthy citizens pay the expenses of production. At the beginning of every year, dramatists submitted their plays to the archon, or chief magistrate. Each comedian presented one play for review; those who wrote tragedy had to submit a set of three plays, plus an afterpiece called a satyr play. It was the archon who chose those dramas he considered best. The archon allotted to each tragedian his actors, paid at state expense, and a producer (choregus). On the appointed day the Athenian public would gather at the theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Acropolis, paid their admission of two obols, and witnessed a series of plays. Judges drawn by lot awarded prizes to the poet (crown of ivy), the actor (an inscription on a state list in the agora) and to the choregus (a triumphal tablet).
The Athenian dramatists were the first artists in Western society to examine such basic questions as the rights of the individual, the demands of society upon the individual and the nature of good and evil. Conflict, the basic stuff of life, is the constant element in Athenian drama.
AESCHYLUS (525-456 B.C.), the first of the great Athenian dramatists, was also the first to express the agony of the individual caught in conflict. In his trilogy of plays, The Oresteia, he deals with the themes of betrayal, murder and reconciliation. The first play, The Agamemnon, depicts Agamemnon's return from the Trojan War and his murder by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. In the second play, The Libation Bearers, Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, avenges his father's death by killing his mother and her lover. The last play, The Eumenides, works out the atonement of Orestes. The Furies, goddesses who avenged murder, demand Orestes' death. When the jury at Orestes' trial casts six votes to condemn and six to acquit, Athena cast the deciding vote in favor of mercy. Aeschylus used The Eumenides to urge reason and justice to reconcile fundamental human conflicts. Like Solon, Aeschylus believed that the world was governed by divine justice which could not be violated with impunity. When men exhibited hubris (pride or arrogance), which led them to go beyond moderation, they must be punished. Another common theme was that through suffering came knowledge. To act in accordance with the divine order meant caution and moderation.
SOPHOCLES (496-406 B.C.), the premier playwright of the second generation, also dealt with personal and political matters. In his Antigone he examined the relationship between the individual and the state by exploring conflict between the ties of kinship and the demands of the polis. Almost all of the plays of Sophocles stand for the precedence of divine law over human defects. In other words, human beings should do the will of the gods, even without fully understanding it, for the gods stand for justice and order.
However, whereas Aeschylus concentrated on religious matters, Sophocles dealt with the perennial problem of well-meaning men struggling, unwisely and vainly, against their own fate. The characters in the tragedies of Sophocles resist all warnings and inescapably meet with disaster. In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is warned not to pursue the mystery of his birth but he insists on searching for the truth about himself (that he unwittingly killed his father and married his mother). Events do not turn out as Oedipus had planned -- the individual is incapable of affecting the universal laws of human existence.
EURIPIDES (c.480-406 B.C.), the last of the three great Greek tragic dramatists, also explored the theme of personal conflict within the polis and the depths of the individual. With Euripides drama enters a new, more personal phase the gods were far less important than human beings. Euripides viewed the human soul as a place where opposing forces struggle, where strong passions such as hatred and jealousy conflict with reason. The essence of Euripides' tragedy is the flawed character men and women who bring disaster on themselves and their loved ones because their passions overwhelm their reason.
It is the rationalist spirit of 5th century Greek philosophic thought that permeates the tragedies of Euripides. He subjected the problems of human life to critical analysis and challenged Athenian conventions. Aristophanes would criticize Euripides for introducing the art of reasoning into drama
The Greeks of the classical age not only perfected the art of drama, but of comedy as well. ARISTOPHANES (c.448-c.380 B.C.) was an ardent lover of the city and a ruthless critic of cranks and quacks. He lampooned eminent generals, at times depicting them as little more than morons. He commented snidely on Pericles, and poked fun at Socrates and Euripides. Even at the height of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes proclaimed that peace was preferable to war. Like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Aristophanes used his art to dramatize his ideas on the right conduct of the citizen and the value of the polis.
The experience of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars also helped develop the beginnings of historical writing. It is in the classical age then, that we meet the father of history, HERODOTUS (c.485-425 B.C.). Born at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor, Herodotus traveled widely before settling in the Athens, the intellectual center of the Greek world. In his book, The History, Herodotus chronicled the rise of the Persian Empire, the origins of both Athens and Sparta, and then described the laws and customs of the Egyptians. The scope of The History is awesome. Lacking newspapers, any sort of communications, or ease of travel, Herodotus wrote a history that covered all the major events of the Ancient Near East, Egypt and Greece.
The outbreak of the Peloponnesian War prompted THUCYDIDES (c.460-c.400 B.C.) to write a history of its course in the belief that it would be the greatest war in Greek history. An Athenian politician and general, Thucydides saw action in the war until he was exiled for a defeat. Exile gave him the time and opportunity to question eye-witnesses about the details of events and to visit the actual battlefields. Since he was an aristocrat an aristoi he had access to the inner circles, the men who made the decisions. Thucydides saw the Peloponnesian War as highly destructive to Greek character. He noted that the old, the noble, and the simple fell before ambition and lust for power. He firmly rejected any notion that the gods intervened in human affairs. In his view, the fate of men and women was entirely in their own hands.
It has been said that the Greeks are the first ancient society with which modern western society (since the Renaissance, that is) feels some sort of affinity. The ancient Greeks were clearly a people who warred and enslaved people. They often did not live up to their own ideals. However, their achievements in the areas of art, architecture, poetry, tragedy, science, mathematics, history, philosophy and government were of the highest order and worthy of emulation by the Romans and others. Western thought begins with the Greeks, who first defined man as an individual with the capacity to use his reason. Rising above magic and superstition, by the end of the fifth century, the Greeks had discovered the means to give rational order to nature and to human society.
The Greeks also created the concept (if not quite the reality) of political freedom. The state was conceived as a community of free citizens who made laws in their own interest. As a direct democracy, for example, the Athenian citizen discussed, debated and voted on issues that affected him directly. The Greek discovery that man (the citizen) is capable of governing himself was a profound one.
Underlying the Greek achievement was humanism. The Greeks expressed a belief in the worth, significance, and dignity of the individual. Man should develop his personality fully in the city-state, a development which would, in turn, create a sound city-state as well. The pursuit of excellence -- arete -- was paramount. Such an aspiration required effort, discipline and intelligence. Man was master of himself.
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copyright © 2000 Steven Kreis