TimeMaps - Search Historic Maps
Generic filters
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Search in excerpt

Ancient Greece: history of a civilization

The civilization of the Ancient Greeks has had a huge impact on later Western civilization, and through it on world history as a whole.

This article covers the history of that civilization, from rise of the Minoan civilization in the second millennium BCE to the rise of Alexander the Great in the third century BCE. Other articles describe in more detail the culture and way of life of the ancient Minoans and Greeks.

The First European Civilizations


Agriculture reached the Aegean region from the Middle East between 6500 and 5500 BCE. By 3500 BCE small farming settlements were scattered throughout the Aegean coasts and islands. The largest, though still only with populations several hundred strong, were beginning to look like little towns.

These communities were active in the trade routes that spread north into the Balkans and south-east Europe, and westward along the Mediterranean coast, their sailors probably traveling as far as Spain in their little boats.

Such places as Troy, in present-day north-west Turkey, were already showing signs of urbanization in the third millennium BCE. By this period, these trade networks were feeding the Mesopotamian city-states with the tin and copper with which to make bronze weapons and decorations. From Mesopotamia came knowledge of bronze-making techniques and other skills with which the peoples of the Aegean enhanced their material culture. By the end of the third millennium, one of the most advanced societies of the time was emerging on the large island of Crete. This would become the brilliant Minoan civilization.

The Minoan civilization

At Knossos and other locations in Crete, large palaces appeared around 2000 BCE, surrounded by communities that can properly be called towns, with houses packed tightly along narrow streets. Shortly, roads were being built right across the island, suggesting that it was spanned by a single political system – the evidence suggests a confederation of principalities rather than one kingdom, as large palaces that look like royal residences are found in several places, famous for their lively wall frescoes of bull-vaulting games and bare-breasted (but otherwise well-clad) women.

Writing had been introduced, firstly a hieroglyphic system perhaps based on the Egyptian one, but later adapted to the Minoans’ own needs to become the Linear A script. Archaeological evidence shows that the Minoans had, by the early second millennium BCE, and probably well before, strong trading links with Egypt, Asia Minor and the Levant. Twice during the centuries between 2000 and 1400 BCE the greatest of these palaces, at Knossos, was destroyed by earthquakes, and then rebuilt, each time bigger and better than before; and around it grew a city, large by the standards of the day and a rival to most in the ancient Near East. By 1600 BCE at the latest Minoan trade dominated the eastern Mediterranean, and, although there is no direct evidence, it is likely that she was able to deploy a powerful fleet which kept the seas free from pirates.

The spread of civilization

By that time, the Minoans were trading actively with the peoples of mainland Greece. These were comparative newcomers to the region, being at the vanguard of that expansion of Indo-European speaking peoples who came down from central Europe in the third millennium BCE, bringing with them a warlike culture focussed around powerful chiefs and their retinues.

The rise of trade with the Minoans turned the chiefs of south-eastern Greece into middlemen in the metal routes to the west and central Europe, their fortified settlements evolving into stone- and timber-built palace-fortresses, crammed with a wealth of beautiful objects, some imported from Egypt, Syria and further a-field, others home made by increasingly skillful craftsmen. Much of this wealth was buried with their kings, to be dug up and gawped at by amazed archaeologists millennia later.

The triumph and fall of Knossos

On Crete, the later centuries of Minoan history saw the palace of Knossos outshine all the others, suggesting that it was now the seat of a king of the whole island. The palace was a setting for refined luxury, famous today for its elaborate drainage system and running water supply.

By this time the Linear A script had been replaced by the Linear B system, more flexible and of more use to a busy bureaucracy (all tablets found, as with the earliest Sumerian writing of a millennium previously, are concerned with administrative matters and economic transactions).

In around 1400 BCE, the palace of Knossos was burnt, and this time not rebuilt – in fact it was thoroughly looted of all its gold and silver. So, too were the neighboring coastal settlements, clear signs of widespread raiding, possibly even an invasion.

Image of the restored front end of Knossus
Image of the restored front end of Knossus.
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

Eventually civilized life did resume at Knossos, but at a lower cultural level. The evidence suggests that Crete was now in the hands of foreigners, Greeks from the mainland.

The Mycenaeans

With the passing of the commercial power of Knossos, the mainland Greek principalities came into their own, under the loose leadership of Mycenae. Their societies were already literate – they received the Linear B script from the Minoans – and they were expansionist. They planted colonies on Cyprus, and probably on Sicily and southern Italy.

On the mainland their palaces increased in size and wealth, with storerooms, servants’ quarters, chariot sheds and other buildings spreading out from the central hall. Mycenae was the largest of these Greek centers, the palace-citadel surrounded by huge walls and gates, and the royal tombs of great splendor. Other places on the mainland and around the Aegean, such as Argos, Pylos and Troy (all these and others figure in Homer’s account of the Trojan Wars) also boasted fine, thick-walled palaces, and were all points in the international maritime trade networks of the period.

Decline and Fall

And then quite suddenly, this glittering Bronze Age world comes to an end, and a simpler, more primitive one takes its place, part of a larger shock to the ancient civilizations of the late second millennium Near East. The Hittite empire vanished, Assyria and Babylon shrank, the Canaanite city-states fell and even Egypt had to fend off invasions from “Sea Peoples” from the north.

Exactly what processes were at work can only be conjectured. Many scholars see the roots of these troubles in migrations originating in central Europe. There may have been other factors, however: with the eclipse of Knossos and the rise of the Mycenaean Greeks, a unified sea-power would in all likelihood have been replaced by a more fragmented situation, in which individual states had their own trading and fighting ships. While Mycenae was able to exert its control things went well, but the temptation for the individual princes to trade, and raid, on their own account must have been great. Raiding may have escalated, wounding the peaceful co-existence needed for maritime trade to flourish, and so the mainstay of civilization in this region would have been undermined.

An Age of Warfare

Large-scale raids, reinforced by displaced peoples from fallen cities, may have grown in frequency and ferocity (the tale of the siege of Troy may be an elaborated account of such, and this period, later glorified as the “Heroic Age”, seems to have been one of brutal warfare). The weakened Aegean states probably also had to deal with pressure from less civilized tribes coming down from the north, and the combination of events overwhelmed them.

Siege of Troy the Burning of Troy (1759/62),
oil painting by Johann Georg 

In any event, from around 1200 BCE, the palaces and towns disappeared, along with the literate scribes and merchants who inhabited them. Large-scale migrations took place, as people crossed from mainland Greece to set up a host of small Greek-speaking settlements on the islands of the Aegean and the west coast of Asia Minor. The Greek mainland itself seems to have experienced not only a dramatic economic and material decline, but also a startling loss of population.

A New Society

Greece is a country of small fertile plains divided from one another by steep hills and high mountains. The populations of those plains fronting the sea had boat-borne access to the wider world; otherwise travelers had to traverse difficult upland paths to reach neighboring communities.

With the old centers of civilization gone, the people of Greece and the Aegean lived in simple farming villages scattered across these plains. In the place of princes in their dazzling palaces were tough tribal leaders ruling one of these small plains, or a portion of one of the more extensive plains such as Attica, or Boiotia, or Thessaly. The loyalties of the people were restricted to their small territories, where their fierce local patriotism found a focus in the wooden temple. This was located at the (perhaps metaphorical) center of their valley, often on a mountain spur, frequently on the defensible site of the old palace.

These were unsettled times, with the possibility of a raid from the neighboring plain never far away. The people therefore built their huts clustered around the temple for defense, walking out daily to farm their lands. The population nucleus and the surrounding territory which it controlled were called a “Polis”. Today we use the term “city-state”, which is a useful one so long as we realize that they were often tiny. Even later, in “Classical” times, a city-state of 5,000 inhabitants was by no means uncommon, and one of 20,000 was large.

Well over one hundred of these city-states were scattered over the mainland of Greece, the islands of the Aegean and the west coast of Asia Minor.

The Rise of Classical Greek civilization c. 800-500 BCE

The traditional date for the beginning of Greek civilization is 776 BCE, the year of the first pan-Hellenic Olympic Games. (Actually, this date was worked out centuries later, and is almost certainly wrong.) Of course, an entire civilization does not suddenly spring into being in a single year, but this date does provide a convenient marker.

From about 800 BCE the Greek population began to expand. The causes of this are not known, but the effect was to create a shortage of good farmland. At the same time Phoenician merchants were developing their trade links with the Greeks. The inhabitants of several coastal Greek states responded by developing overseas trading connections of their own. Given the Phoenician dominance of the eastern Mediterranean, this meant looking to the west.


The Ionians (that is, those Greeks who had migrated to the coast of Asia Minor after 1200 BCE) were the first to take up this challenge, and the city-state of Kyme despatched a colony to the west coast of Italy in around 750 BCE. The aim was probably to establish a trading station in the west, but very soon the potential for solving the land shortage was recognized. Other states followed Kyme’s example, and soon a string of Greek colonies had been founded along the coast of southern Italy and Sicily.

These new city-states, frequently situated on broad, fertile plains, flourished. In due course some of them, above all Syracuse in Sicily, grew to be amongst the wealthiest and most influential states in the Greek world, and almost immediately they were exporting corn to their mother cities. This stimulated commercial and industrial development in Greece and the Aegean, to produce the luxury goods to pay for the corn. (These Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily also had a profound impact on the history of Italy, by carrying Greek cultural influence there. Soon the rise of the Etruscans, and then Rome, would reshape the history of the ancient world.)

Greek craftsmanship and artistry reached new heights, maritime trade expanded enormously, and the wealth of the Greek cities rose. They were soon planting colonies in the east as well, notably on the shores of the Dardanelles, the Black Sea the North African coast, west of the Nile Delta (Kyrenaica).

This process was accompanied by the rebirth of literacy amongst the Greeks. At first the new sea-going Greeks used the alphabet which the Phoenicians had perfected to aid them in their commercial transactions. However, by 700 BCE at the latest they had adapted it to suit their own language better. As with most early scripts, this would first have been used for everyday business purposes, but within another hundred years the long, brilliant tradition of Greek literature had begun.

Society Transformed

Population growth and the inflow of new wealth caused many cities to grow into true urban communities, with many thousands of inhabitants. Many people benefited from the economic expansion, but others suffered. The introduction of metal money from Lydia, sometime during the seventh century BCE, streamlined business transactions, quickened economic activity and gave a large boost to the market economy; but it also led to more and more people falling into debt.

Social Tensions

Differences in wealth were becoming far more apparent than before. Many poorer people lost their farms, and some even had to sell themselves and their families into slavery. In the cities, numbers of landless proletariats grew. So too did a new class of able, ambitious, often widely travelled merchants whose wealth challenged that of the old landed aristocracy.

One of the most momentous changes – THE most momentous, when set against the broad backdrop of world history – happened in the political sphere, but is of course rooted in the wider social transformation taking place. In most of the city-states the Greeks began to get rid of their kings.

The First Republics

It was the Greeks who invented republics, at least in Europe. How exactly this came about is not known. A speculative answer might go something like this: As greater wealth and higher material culture began to flow into the city-states in Greece and the Aegean, their kings began to enlarge their ambitions – it would have been natural to transform themselves into palace-based rulers, just like their Bronze-Age predecessors had done.

However, this was not the Bronze-Age. Iron, unlike bronze, was plentiful and cheap, and weapons were no longer expensive. This meant that every nobleman (who was at this time the head of a clan) could arm his followers. So, alarmed by the growing ambitions of the king, the nobles ganged up on him and drastically reduced his power or, in most cases, ousted him altogether.

The result was the first republics. These had begun to appear by about 750 BCE. These were originally oligarchies, ruled by small groups of aristocrats. However, iron weapons were not just affordable by aristocrats, and the ceaseless wars between the states meant that it was not long before they were arming ordinary farmers and forming them into armies – the extremely effective armies of Greek “hoplites”, or heavy-armed infantry.

This gave the common people a potential power they had never had before.

The Tyrants

The aristocrats, being human, governed in their own narrow interests, frequently at the expense of other groups within the state. For example, they used their control of the law courts to deal harshly with those in debt to them. They were able to extend their own estates at the expense of their poorer neighbors, and even to force them and their families into slavery.

The simmering resentment that this sort of rule had created was easily tapped by a bold and ambitious noble, and in city after city, backed by the common people – now armed – tyrants seized power.

The word “tyrant” did not then have the pejorative meaning it has today. It simply meant “boss”. Indeed, the Greek tyrants usually did a great deal of good for their states – at least in the first generation. They ensured that the larger landowners could not take ordinary farmers’ land, and many tyrants carried out some measure of land distribution in favor of the poorer sections of the community. Many of them also beautified the cities they ruled; it was above all these rulers who gave their cities their new temples, market places, city walls and so on. This was not only to glorify themselves, but also to give employment to the poor, especially in times of famine. Also, they encouraged trade, and favored the merchant classes at the expense of the old landed aristocracy.

Things often started to go wrong for the tyrants in the second generation, when a capable ruler was followed by his less capable sons. Too often these were quite unfit for their jobs, and in some cases fiendishly cruel to their opponents. All sections of society grew sick of them. So, another revolution would oust the tyrant and bring to power another group.

Towards Democracy

Sometimes this was a faction of the old group of aristocrats, in other cases it was members of the new merchant elite. In either case, intelligent leaders knew that power in the state had to take account of the common people, and so they set about creating a more broad-based constitution, moving the state down the road towards democracy. By no means all states followed this trajectory. Some, especially in the more backward areas, never got rid of their monarchies; others oscillated between tyranny and oligarchy. But many in the course of time developed a fully democratic form of government.

While these political developments were transforming the political landscape, the artistic, material and philosophical culture of the Greeks was going through revolutionary change. Hand in hand with the social and political transformation of the Greek world came a cultural revolution which was to have the most profound implications for the future of western civilization.


Meanwhile, Greek literature had started with the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor. It was here that the poet Homer composed his epics, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”, which were committed to writing not long after 700 BCE. These works set an extraordinarily high standard, some scholars even today regarding them as the finest works of European literature ever produced.

Bust of Homer

The works of the poet Hesiod are not regarded in quite so exalted a light, but his “Works and Days”, composed before 700 BCE, though possibly written down later, sheds light on the everyday working life of contemporary early Greece rather than on a glorious but mythical past.

Within a century, two other poets of note had enriched Greek literature: Archilocus of Paros and the lady Sappho of Lesbos. These poets developed a new “lyric” style. Perhaps tellingly, both travelled widely across the sea, between the “Old” Greek world of Greece and the Aegean, and the “New” in Italy and Sicily.

Art and Architecture

Another product of the contacts the Greeks now had with the wider world was in art and architecture.

The already ancient civilization of Egypt made an immense impression on the Greeks who travelled there. Egyptian statuary profoundly influenced Greek styles. The elegant but traditional Geometric styles in pottery decoration and statuary gave way to the “Oriental” style, influenced by the formal styles in Egyptian art: the link between the huge statues in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and Greek statues of the Archaic period is clear to see.

Egyptian temple design was also hugely influential. It formed the basis for the first major style of Greek architecture, the “Ionic”.

Stone temples in this style began to appear in the Greek city-states in the decades before 600 BCE, although the truly magnificent structures of Classical Greece did not appear for another hundred years or more.

The Revolution in Thought

Most significant of all, the thought-world of ancient Greece was being transformed out of all recognition. Indeed, it was laying the foundations to the future development of all Western philosophy.

Again, these developments took place initially in Ionia. Here is not the place to deal with this subject in any detail, but after 600 BCE a series of Ionian philosophers, including Thales of Miletus, Anaximandros, Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Pythagoras (who actually spent the most productive part of his career in Sicily and Italy), Parmenides and Herakleitos, moved the frontiers of scientific thought, mathematical theory and religious speculation outwards as never before in world history.

Their ideas and approaches differed widely, and the conclusions they reached often seem to us absurd. But the root of all was a refusal to receive knowledge from earlier generations, and to think things through to one’s own’s answers.

Why did this development occur, then and there, amongst the ancient Greeks?

One part of the answer must be to do with the great changes transforming Greek society during this period – they must have made it easier to break free from traditional modes of thought. The overseas experience of many Greeks must also have been something of an eye-opener. They were discovering that different peoples had different customs, and what was good and proper in one society was unacceptable in another. This caused people to ask, are there things that are intrinsically good?

But other ancient peoples experienced change, and others had expanded their horizons into different regions of the world. What was it that made the ancient Greeks break through into new modes of thought when others did not?

The fundamental answer has already been alluded to: these people were living in the first republics known to history. For all the factionalism, stupidity and indeed violence of these republics, they allowed a certain freedom of thought. Moreover, when things got too hot for a “free thinker” in one state, he could (and sometimes did) move to another. Finally, these city-states were comparatively tiny. Not all were outward looking, mercantile and maritime; but in those that were, the merchant classes and others who had travelled overseas must have had a far greater influence on the climate of thought than would have been the case in a large kingdom.

New horizons and change must have been “in the air”, and that air was a great deal freer than in most other places in the past.

By 500 BCE, two states stood head and shoulders above the other Greek city-states in their prestige and influence. These were Athens and Sparta. It was these, therefore – quite different from each other in their cultural and political outlooks – which took the lead in meeting the great challenge that was about to be posed to the Greek world by its mighty eastern neighbor, Persia.

Spartan helmet on display at the British Museum. The helmet has been damaged
and the top has sustained a blow, presumably from a battle.
Reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

Sparta c. 700-500 BCE

Like other Greek city-states, Sparta suffered from land shortage. However, she was an inland state, so overseas colonizing was not a straightforward solution for her. She solved her problem by conquering her neighbor, Messenia.

This put her in a dominating position in her corner of Greece, called Laconia, and made her one of the richer states, and a leading center of Greek civilization. But in 669 BCE, the Spartans were defeated by their near neighbor, Argos. Shortly after, the Messenians rose in revolt, with help from outside. Eventually the revolt was crushed, but for a time the very existence of Sparta lay in the balance.

The Spartans, frightened, but determined to hang on to their subject territories, knew that, if they did so, they would always be faced with the possibility of revolt. They therefore undertook a thoroughgoing overhaul of their constitution and their very way of life.

They turned their back on luxury, and transformed their state into an armed camp. Their citizens became full-time soldiers, under the most severe discipline, whilst their subject populations became serfs.

The Spartans soon gained a reputation for invincibility on the battle field, widely feared by the rest of Greece.

To her neighbors, the Spartans adopted a far-seeing policy. They negotiated defensive alliances with each of them, thus forging an enduring alliance system which came to be called the Peloponnesian League.

Athens c. 700-500 BCE

Attica is a broad plain on the eastern coast of Greece just north of the Peloponnese, dominated by its chief city, Athens. Athens was far larger than most other Greek city-states, with a population numbering well over one hundred thousand. Perhaps because of this her political evolution had been slow – in 600 BCE she was still ruled by a narrow oligarchy of aristocrats.

By that date, however, she was experiencing all the problems which other Greek states had faced, particularly land shortage and tensions between classes. An attempt to reduce tensions had been made when the politician Draco had been asked to draft a law code, so that court rulings could be made more transparent. In the event he had made things worse, as he simply took it as his brief to codify already existing customs – and so many misdemeanors resulted in the death penalty that it only increased the disaffection of the poor. Ever since then “Draconian” measures have become a by-word for heartless severity.

Shortly after 600 BCE a second attempt at a law code was attempted, this time the work of Solon. His code embodied moderation – there would be no redistribution of land, but existing debts were cancelled and enslavement for debt would cease. He also gave more power to the people by re-organizing their assembly and giving it teeth.

We look back at Solon’s work and are impressed. At the time it pleased no one, and the tensions continued. Half a century later, in 546 BCE, a nobleman, Peistratos, seized power (after a couple of failed attempts) and established a tyranny. Under his rule, and that of his sons, the economy of Athens was greatly strengthened. The government encouraged the export of olives and olive oil to pay for the import of corn. Other industries were also promoted, Athens becoming the leading industrial and commercial city of Greece. The fine Attic pottery soon dominated the Mediterranean markets. At the same time the tyrants beautified the city with temples, and constructed conduits to bring fresh water to its inhabitants.

The tyranny lasted until 510 BCE, when, after a short period of turmoil, the statesman Kleisthenes came to power, and carried out further reforms of the constitution.

These greatly strengthened the people’s power, gave them a real measure of executive power, and unified the Athenian citizenry by taking power away from locally- based or clan-based tribes and setting up artificial, pan-Athenian tribes in their stead. The Athenian form of government can henceforth in truth be called a democracy.

The Classical Age of Greece

In the years leading up to 500 BCE, storm clouds had been gathering which threatened the entire Greek world, and had by then already engulfed the Ionian states. The huge Persian empire was on the move. The Greek city-states, under the leadership of Athens and Sparta, stoutly defended themselves in one of the truly decisive wars in history.

Persian Expansion

In 546 BCE Lydia had fallen to the armies of a new eastern power, Persia, and in short order the Ionian cities were subdued too.

Persian rule was at first light, and so long as the cities paid their tribute they were left more or less to get on with their own affairs. However, the Persians’ demand for taxes and men for their expeditions steadily increased, and the Persians progressively installed pro-Persian tyrants in all these cities.

In 513 BCE the Persian king, Darius, led an expedition across the Dardanelles into Macedonia and Thrace, which achieved little but served notice on Greece that Persian ambitions in this region were by no means satisfied.

The Ionian Revolt

In 499 BCE, the Ionian cities of Asia Minor rose in revolt against their Persian masters. They sought aid from Sparta and Athens. Sparta refused but Athens agreed. The revolt was slowly put down by the Persians, and, after some severe reprisals, they imposed a more lenient settlement than before on the Greek cities: tribute was eased and the citizens were left to organize their own affairs with less interference from the imperial authorities – even democracies were permitted.

However, the mainland Greeks, and Athens in particular, were now in the Persians’ direct line of fire, a fact about which they had no doubts. As in most states faced with this kind of threat, the Athenians were divided into those who felt it best to come to terms with the enemy, and those who stood for no surrender.

The First Persian Invasion of Greece

Gradually the Athenians came round to the “no surrender” view, and put their faith in Themistocles, one of the most brilliant statesmen Athens ever produced.

By 490 BCE the Persians had completed the re-conquest of Ionia, and in that year launched a large sea-borne invasion across the Aegean, landing at Marathon, near Athens. Here their army was trounced by the much smaller Athenian army, and the Persian fleet sailed away leaving many dead.

The Second Persian Invasion of Greece

The Persians tried again ten years later, this time under the personal command of their king, Xerxes, and with a huge force.

Having thrown a bridge of boats lashed together across the Bospherus, the narrow sea between Europe and Asia; and having dug a canal through an isthmus at Mt Athos to avoid the particularly dangerous coast there; the Persians marched along the Aegean coast, their fleet and army keeping in close touch and moving in tandem, and approached Greece from the north.

Meanwhile, under Themistocles’ prodding, Athens had taken more steps to strengthen its democracy by placing the important magistracies into the hands of the people, and by greatly expanding its navy. In Athens, naval power and democracy went together. The men who rowed the galleys were the poorest citizens, who could not afford their own armor. So, they had a vested interest in increasing the amount of galley-work, for which they were paid a generous daily rate. They were also the section of the community who wished to see the most radical democracy, as it was this form of government that gave them the most power. On this occasion, this vested interest turned out to be in the interests of all Greece. Themistocles had successfully called for the revenue from Athens’ expanded silver mines at Laurion to pay for the fleet.

Three Great Battles

The preparations of the Persians, especially the digging of the canal at Mt Athos, gave due notice to the Greeks of hostile intentions, and the Greek city-states held a conference to plan their defense. An army under Spartan command was positioned at the pass of Thermopylae, and a mainly Athenian fleet was positioned close by, at Artemision.

The Persians broke through this barrier, but only after hard fighting and the withdrawal of most of the Greek army intact, covered by the magnificent courage of a small Spartan force at Thermopylae.

With the Greek army in a strong defensive line across the Peloponnesian Isthmus blocking the Persian advance, Xerxes decided to turn the Greek lines by sea. The Athenian navy stood in his way, and at the resulting battle of Salamis, crippled the Persian fleet.

Xerxes withdrew his army from Athens (which the Athenians had evacuated and he had burnt), and himself left for Asia. The Persian forces left in Greece were, early in the following year (479 BCE), heavily defeated at the battle of Plataia by a combined Greek army under Spartan command. The Persians evacuated Greece as best they could.

Athens emerged from the Persian War of 480-79 with her prestige immensely enhanced. Moreover, her naval power made her the natural leader in the continuing struggle to drive the Persians from the Aegean. Athenian political leadership was soon accompanied by an astonishing cultural pre-eminence.

The League against Persia

With the withdrawal of the Persian army from Greek soil in 479 BCE, the Greek city-states turned again to their own affairs. The Ionian cities, however, again revolted, and Athens took the lead in protecting them from Persian revenge. She organized a league of all the liberated Aegean states. As its treasury was at Delos, and its congress met on that island, this was known as the Delian League.

Within a few years the league had eradicated Persian bases in or near the Aegean, and achieved complete naval dominance in that sea. Athens, however, refused to call a halt to the hostilities, though opposition to the war grew amongst her allies. The important city of Naxos seceded from the League. The Athenians decided that secession could not be tolerated, and forced Naxos back into the League as a non-combatant but tribute-paying member.

In 466 BCE, the League navy destroyed the rebuilt Persian fleet at the river Eurymedon, in the Levant. This did not stop other League members from seceding, for by now the Athenians were no longer the popular liberators they had originally been. Their strict control of the League, together with increasing interference in the internal affairs of member states, had aroused widespread resentment.

The Imperial Republic

Athenian dominance was strengthened by the allies’ preference to pay tribute rather than contribute men and ships to the League war effort. As a result, Athens’ navy grew larger whilst that of her “allies” shrank. Several revolts were put down, and after each one a democratic government was installed.

Athens also started projecting her power further afield, winning victories and gaining allies in Boiotia at the expense of Thebes and in the Peloponnese at the expense of Corinth and even Sparta. The Athenians, however, suffered a huge disaster in Egypt, attempting to support a revolt against the Persians, and lost a large fleet there (454 BCE), which led, after some more inconclusive fighting, to the treaty (449 BCE) ending the war between Athens and Persia. Further reverses at the hands of her Greek rivals led to Athens withdrawing from Boeotia and the Peloponnese and the signing the 30 Years Peace with Sparta (445 BCE).

The Age of Pericles

By now, one statesman had dominated Athenian politics for more then fifteen years. His name was Pericles.

Pericles was a great orator, trusted by the Athenian assembly, and usually managed to persuade them to follow a particular course of action. He now persuaded the people to start building the great temple that would become known as the Parthenon.

During the next ten years this temple, as well as other magnificent buildings such as the Propylaia of the Acropolis, rose above the city. This building program was not only done to beautify the city, but also to provide work for the Athenian poor, no longer needed to row Athens’ galley fleets against the Persians.

Not that the Delian League, whose raison d’être had been to fight the Persians, had been allowed to lapse. Far from it. Athens indeed tightened its grip over its “allies” (now, in reality, subject states), and it was the League tribute (with its treasury now transferred from Delos to Athens itself) that was used to finance the building.

To Athens came the finest artists from all over Greece to contribute to this program. Other branches of high culture flourished too. Anaxagoras continued the speculations of the Ionian philosophers, and sophist teachers such as Protagoras began the formal training in rhetoric and logic.

Most enduring of all, and exercising a profound influence on future Western literature, the Athenians themselves produced a series of great dramatists, first Aeschylus, then Sophocles, next Euripides and finally Aristophanes. The last two were to produce their greatest works as Athens went down to defeat in the Peloponnesian wars.

The tensions between Athens and Sparta dragged the whole of Greece into a long, brutal war. It ended in disaster for Athens, and left few areas of the Greek world untouched.

A Time of Troubles

The Gathering Storm

Sparta had had mixed fortunes since leading the Greek armies to victory at Plataia in 479. She had had to fight a war with her old enemies Argos and Arcadia in the 470s, and at the same time face a revolt of her serfs in Messenia. The Spartans were heavily outnumbered, and had to give up some territory to Argos in order to be able to defeat her other foes.

A destructive earthquake in 465 caused great loss of life. Immediately the helots – Sparta’s serfs – rose in a more serious revolt than for many years. The Messenians holed themselves up in a strong mountain fortress, and could only be reduced after a long siege.

Then Sparta suffered reverses and loss of influence in a short war with Athens in the 450s, though she turned the table by invading Attica and giving the Athenians a fright in 446, which led to the favorable 30 Years Peace in 445.

Sparta stood for traditional aristocratic values, and was seen by many throughout Greece as the champion against new-fangled and dangerous democracy. Just as the Athenians sponsored democratic governments amongst their allies, the Spartans supported oligarchies amongst theirs.

The two leading Greek states represented opposing causes, and could not for long live together. This was all the more so because many groups amongst Sparta’s allies looked to Athens to help them establish democracies within their states, whilst other groups amongst Athens’ allies looked to Sparta to help them stamp out democracy within theirs!

The Peloponnesian Wars

The clash came with a dispute between Corinth and her neighbor Kerkyra in 431, with Corinth looking to support from Sparta and the Peloponnesian League and Kerkyra looking to Athens and the Delian League. The resulting general warfare was desultory and complicated, but the outstanding features and events are easily described.

The first years of the war were characterized by Spartan invasions of Attica, causing much damage to the countryside surrounding Athens but with no real damage done to the Athenian people or their ability to wage war. They crowded inside the Long Walls that encircled the city and her port, and were provisioned by her fleet.

The Walls Surrounding Athens

A serious plague struck the crowded city in 429-27, and a quarter of her inhabitants died, including Pericles. Even this did not seriously affect the Athenian ability to wage war while they dominated the sea.

At the core of the next phase of the war was an audacious Spartan campaign (424) to seize Amphipoklis, an Athenian ally on the north coast of Greece which controlled access to a rich gold- and timber-bearing region.

This was a serious blow to Athens, but her attempts to recapture the city failed. In the same year a march into Boiotia was soundly defeated, and in 421 both sides were happy to make peace.

War resumed in 417 when Sparta invaded and defeated Argos, an Athenian ally. The outstanding episode of this phase of the war was a huge Athenian invasion of Sicily (415-413) which ended in horrific disaster.

The final phase opened with Sparta’s occupation of Deceleia, very near Athens and (more importantly) causing Athens to lose control of the silver mines at Laurion, on which a great deal of her ability to fund the war depended.

The next few years involved a naval war for control of the Aegean and the Bosphorus (through which much of Athens’ grain passed). The Peloponnesian fleet was now funded by the Persians, who took the opportunity to re-occupy some Ionian cities. Athens won some resounding successes, but when her grain supply was cut off by the Spartan victory at Aigospotami (405), which was followed by a general revolt of her allies, it was only a question of time before her surrender (404).

Brutalization and Beauty

Many other events took place in the war, and all Greeks were affected in some way or other. Away from the front lines, bloody class war engulfed many cities, with revolutions and counter-revolutions featuring vindictive atrocities.

In the front line, whole cities were destroyed, the men killed, the women and children sold into slavery. Thucydides, the Athenian historian who chronicled the war in what is regarded as the first “modern” (i.e. analytical) work of history, comments on the decline in morality that a long war brings.

Despite all this, men continued to produce great works of art and literature – even in beleaguered Athens, even as her fall approached. These were the years when Hippocrates, the founder of Western medicine, worked, as did the philosopher Demokritas. The playwrights Euripides and Aristophanes moved the boundaries of drama forward; and above all, Socrates, the great questioner of all things, was busy irritating people by asking them to think through their received beliefs and attitudes.

Athens in Defeat

Towards the end of the Peloponnesian wars, a brief revolution (411) had brought an oligarchy to power in Athens – the rule of the 400. It lasted two years before internal divisions and mutiny in the fleet restored the democracy.

Now, after the war, Sparta imposed another oligarchic government. She also dismantled the Long Walls which encircled the city and her port, reduced her fleet to twelve galleys, for local patrol work, and bound Athens to her with an alliance that effectively turned her into a Spartan subject. This was in fact a great deal better than some of Sparta’s allies had been urging her to do, which was to wipe Athens off the face of the map and sell her people into slavery.

The rule of the oligarchs, or “Thirty Tyrants” as they were called, soon degenerated into a reign of terror. This provoked the inevitable revolution to restore democracy (403), which, surprisingly, the Spartans allowed.

Gradually economic conditions improved, and a degree of normality returned to life for Athenians. A blot on the record of this restored democracy was the trial and (reluctant and somewhat accidental) execution of Socrates, but otherwise the Athenians conducted their public life with a businesslike moderation.

The most exciting adventures for an Athenian in fact happened hundreds of miles away where the soldier Xenophon found himself and 10,000 mercenary companions stranded in the middle of the huge Persian empire on the wrong side of a civil war. He later wrote up the story of how this force fought its way through enemy-held territory and even more hostile terrain to reach the sea and freedom; a tale that was an immediate best-seller and has been widely read in the West ever since.

Sparta in Victory

In the wider world, Sparta, the victor in the Peloponnesian war, was soon more unpopular than Athens had ever been. She had set up oligarchies (“Boards of Ten”) to govern Athens’ former allies, and these quickly provoked their populations into revolt, just as at Athens.

This, and the jealousy of other leading Greek states (duly inflamed by Persian diplomacy and gold), led her to find herself at war as early as 395 with a coalition which included Argos (her traditional enemy in the Peloponnese), Corinth, Thebes and Athens.

The High Point of Spartan Power

This war checked her power for a time, and enabled Athens to rebuild her Long Walls as well as to start re-building her fleet. The Persian king Artaxerxes II, preoccupied as he was by troubles closer to home, had come to the conclusion that his empire’s interests could best be served by peace on its western border. He therefore brought the war to an end by proposing to all the leading Greek states that, in exchange for the Ionian cities being confirmed as under Persian rule, she would leave the mainland states in peace, and that they in turn should respect the independence of each other.

For their own different reasons the leading states agreed to this, and the King’s Peace, as it was called, came into being in 387 BCE.

Sparta was in fact the chief beneficiary of this Peace. She set about bringing her own allies under stricter control, and, posing as the champion of the “independence” clauses of the Peace, marched north, sacked the city of Olynthos and dissolved its growing League (382). In the course of this adventure a Theban oligarchic faction opened the city to a Spartan garrison, who then remained there to guaranty the rule of the new pro-Spartan regime. These events marked the high point of Spartan power.

The Rising Power of Thebes

In 379 the Thebans expelled the Spartan garrison and re-imposed their rule in Boiotia. Sparta could not stand by and let this happen, and invaded Boiotia on an annual basis for several years.

The Spartans were keen to avoid the heavy losses even a victorious battle might bring (the number of full Spartan citizens, the core of her army, had been declining for more than a century), so they achieved very little besides actually strengthening the control Thebes had over her neighbors.

Eventually the Spartans did confront the Thebans in a set battle, at Leuktra (371), Due to the inspired generalship of the Theban commander, Epaminondas, the Spartans lost heavily; hundreds of their precious Spartiates were killed, and the myth of Spartan invincibility was gone.

This shows the flank attack that Rüstow and Köchly proposed.
Delbrück rejected such an interpretation.

The following year, on the invitation of the Arcadians, Sparta’s hereditary enemies, Epaminondas marched into the Peloponnese and liberated Messenia and fortified their fortress of Ithome. He failed to take Sparta itself, and many of Sparta’s allies, and even her helots, stood by her.

Over the next few years the power of Thebes was felt throughout Greece, provoking Athens, Sparta and some smaller cities to ally against her. Finally, in 362, at the battle of Leuctra, her leader Epaminondas was killed and her forces fought to a draw. This effectively checked her expansion.

Athenian Renaissance

Meanwhile, the power of Athens had been on the increase again, and fear of Spartan and a renascent Persian naval power had caused her to form, and her former allies to join, a new League. At one point it included seventy states. However, the Athenians’ uncontrollable imperialistic tendencies caused leading states to secede from it in 357/355.

Athens was thereafter never able to recover anything like her former greatness. Her cultural life continued unabated, however; this was the age of Plato, and his foundation of the Academy, which was to remain the most revered institute of higher education throughout the rest of ancient history; the age too of Praxiteles, for some art historians the greatest of Greek sculptors.

By now, however, events were taking place in the north that would dim for ever the independent life of the city-states of ancient Greece. Macedonia, under its shrewd king Philip II, was expanding, and increasingly involving itself with the affairs of its southern neighbors.


Macedon was a kingdom to the north of Greece. Indeed, the Macedonians themselves claimed to be Greeks, but Athenians and others regarded them as at least semi-barbaric.

Perhaps due to its location far from the main currents of Greek life, she had retained more primitive political institutions than her southern neighbors: she was still ruled by powerful kings, served by an old-style landed nobility.

Macedonia lay wide open to attack from Thracians and Illyrians to the north and west, and the early fourth century saw the Macedonians fighting on all fronts against Thracians, Illyrians and also Greeks. When the capable young king Philip II came to power in 359 BCE he had to spend several years securing the frontiers, by a mix of war and diplomacy.

In the course of these wars he re-organized his army and turned it into the finest military force in Greece. By the 340s he was able to go over to the offensive. He expanded his frontiers in all directions, including subduing the Greek cities on the coast. He then interfered in the quarrels of the northern Greek states and by 340 Macedonia was the strongest power in Thessaly.

Independence Lost

At this the southern Greek cities grew alarmed, and Athens forged an alliance against Philip which was joined by most of the leading states including Thebes, Corinth and Megara.

The two sides met at the battle of Chaironea in 338 BCE. Philip was victorious – thanks in great part to a dashing cavalry charge led by his son, Alexander. This battle effectively ended the independence of the Greek city-states. At a congress the following year Philip formed a League of all the states of Greece, with himself as Captain-General. He was about to lead it on a campaign against Persia when he was assassinated, to be succeeded by his young son, Alexander.

Read here for the continued history of Greece and Macedonia from the time of Alexander the Great

Read here the continued history of the wider Greek world from the time of Alexander the Great

Read here a short survey of Ancient Greek Civilization.

Further study

Minoan civilization

Etruscan civilization

Roman Empire


Map of Ancient Greece and the Aegean at the time of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, 1500 BCE

Map of Ancient Greece and the Aegean during the Dark Ages, 1000 BCE

Map of Ancient Greece and the Aegean at the time of the Persian Wars, 500 BCE

Map of Ancient Greece and the Aegean after the time of Alexander the Great, 200 BCE

See also:

A timeline on ancient Greek history


Overview of Minoan civilization

Overview of Greek civilization

Overview of Hellenistic civilization

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Kingdoms

Greece and Macedonia after the time of Alexander the Great

The Seleucid kingdom

Late Ancient Egyptian history (largely about Ptolemaic Egypt)