A civilization named after the legendary king of Crete, Minoan arose on Crete and held sway over the islands of the Aegean and the mainland of Greece. The civilization centered on several palaces and these palaces reflected the influence of Syria, Asia Minor, and Egypt - yet still held a Cretan style. Their cities lacked defensive walls, suggesting they were not built with defense in mind. And they utilized an early form of Greek writing which was found on accidentally preserved clay tablets. These tablets possessed information that revealed an organization centered on the palace and ruled by a king who was backed by an extensive bureaucracy.
Greek - speaking people settled the lands around the Aegean Sea at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, where they came in contact with more advanced, earlier civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Syria-Palestine regions.
Most of the Greek mainland were settled by people who utilized metal, built impressive houses, and had a trade route with Crete and the island of Aegean. Evidence suggests Mycenaean culture was influenced by Minoan culture, yet was still extremely different. Cities like Mycenae and Pylos were constructed some distance away from the sea and upon hills as a defense against an attack. Evidence also suggests the Mycenaean people were ruled by a king in a palace that was fortified by a defensive wall and that the rest of the population settled outside of these defensive walls.
Sometime around 1250 B.C.E. Mycenaeans are thought to have attacked Troy on the coast of northwestern Asia Minor giving rise to the epic poems of Homer.
During this time, palaces were destroyed, cities were abandoned, and Mycenaean culture was lost. A new wave of Greek invaders known as the Dorians are thought to be the possible cause for this collapse.
During this time palaces were destroyed, kings and the bureaucrats who managed them were gone, and the wealth and organization disappeared. In Greece, this time is considered the Dark Ages, where little information is known. This collapse of the Mycenaean civilization caused the migration of Greek people east, from the mainland to the Aegean islands and the coast of Asia Minor. The Dorians after subjugating most of Peloponnesus migrated across the Aegean to conquer the southern islands and the southern part of the Anatolian coast. And Ionians spread from Attica and Euboea to the Cyclades and the central Anatolian coast, later referred to as Ionia. Due to disarray also being faced in the Near East, no great power arose during this time to impose its ways and the Greeks were allowed time to recover and develop a unique way of living.
During this time Greeks expanded their territory, wealth, and contacts with other peoples, from Spain to the Black Sea and had even established trading posts in Syria. They borrowed a writing system from Semitic scripts, added vowels and developed the first alphabet that was easy to learn and made a more literate society. Colonization was also responsible for allowing Greeks a sense of cultural identity which lead to the development of several common religious festivals such as Olympia, Delphi, Corinth, and Nemea.
Population pressure and land hunger pushed the Spartans to conquer their neighbor Messenia resulting in the First Messenian War, where the Messenians were reduced to helots, or serfs.
Sometime during the late 8th century, hoplite phalanx became the main element in Greek warfare. Hoplite were heavily armed infantryman who combated with a large shield and spear. These warriors were positioned in close order to form a phalanx. This fighting style was dependant on discipline, strength, and courage of each soldier. These phalanx could hold up to cavalry charges and overcome infantries not as protected, organized, or disciplined.
The best source into how society worked during the Dark Ages is the author Homer. Some of his most famous pieces of work, the Iliad and the Odyssey came from traditional oral poetry who had roots in the Mycenaean Age. These stories of Mycenaean heros were sung in verses organized in rhythmic formulas and were eventually written down in eighth century. In Homer's poems, kings were limited in their ability to make important decisions, needing to consult a council of nobles. This council was able to oppose the kings ideas, and while the king was able to ignore the advice, it was deemed risky to do so. Homer portrays that during the early ages Greeks practiced some form of constitutional government, although limited. Homer also portrayed society as divided into classes and painted an aristocratic code of values that influenced all future Greek thought.
Hesiod was a poet as well as a small farmer and his work Works and Days helps give some insight to the life of a Greek farmer.
In some poleis, the crisis contributed to new economic and social conditions led to factional divisions within the ruling aristocracy and the result was the establishment of tyranny. Founding tyrants were generally a member of the ruling society with a personal grievance or led an unsuccessful faction and often rose to power due to military ability and support from hoplites, politically powerless newly wealthy, and poor farmers. Many aristocratic opponents were expelled when power was granted and their lands would be divided among some of their supporters. They would also satisfy commercial and industrial supporters by destroying privilege of the old aristocracy and nurture trade and colonization. These tyrants ruled over a period that witnessed substantial population growth and in turn responded with public work programs, such as improvement of drainage systems, care for water supplies, construction and organization of marketplaces, construction and fortification of city walls, and the erection of temples. They also introduced new festivals and elaborated on the old ones, were active in the patronage of the arts. The last of the Greek tyrants were universally hated for their cruelty and disappeared from the Greek states, never to return in the same form or for the same reasons, as they became the subject of fear and hatred everywhere.
The Second Messenian War resulted when the Helots were assisted by Argos and some additional Peloponnesian cities that rebelled against the Spartans. This was an extensive and bitter war that threatened Sparta's city's existence as they were outnumbered by the Helots ten to one and maintained the habits typical to most Greeks. This led to Sparta introducing reforms that transformed their city into a military academy and camp.
Aristocrats would often participate in symposion, which was an aristocratic drinking party, and sometimes would provide their own amusement with songs, poetry, and debate. These debates and disputes took the form of contests with some reward for the victor. Sometime in the 6th century, athletic contests, similar to the contests of aristocratic life, became widespread. These contests included running, long jump, discus and javelin throwing, and the pentathlon which included boxing, wrestling, and chariot races.
In 594 B.C.E. Athenians elected Solon as the sole archon with the power to legislate and revise the governing institutions in Athens. While during his run as archon failed to bring resolution to Athen's economic crisis, some of Solon's actions were very successful. Straightaway Solon cancelled current debt and prohibited future loans by the person indebted. He assisted in returning the Athenians enslaved abroad while freeing the enslaved in Athens. In a move that would later bring great fortune to Athens, he promoted commerce. Additionally, he barred the export of wheat, but encouraged the export of wine and olive oil. This resulted in Athenian farmers switching from the production of wheat to the cultivation of olive trees and vines. He also encouraged industry by presenting citizenship to foreign artisans and merchants. Solon also impacted how Athens was governed by splitting citizenry into four classes based on wealth. Only men of the first two classes could hold the position of archon and sit on the Areopagus, men of the third class could serve as hoplites and a council of 400, and the fourth class, the thetes, could vote in the assembly and are able to sit on the new court of appeals that would hear most cases in Athens.
The period of isolation and freedom for Greeks came to an end when the Greek cities located on the coast of Asia Minor came under control first of King Croesus of Lydia and then again in 546 B.C.E. by Cyrus of Persia.
Sparta defeats Tegea, their northern neighbor, but allow them to keep their lands and freedom in exchange for assistance in foreign affairs and troops in order to prevent neighbors from planting unrest among the Helots around them. The Spartans imposed this model of peace with conditions to their surrounding neighbors and were soon the leaders of an alliance known as the Peloponnesian League. This league included all but Argos of the Peloponnesian states. This alliance provided the Spartans with the security they needed and also helped strengthen them into a force capable of combating threats from abroad.
Even with Solon’s reforms, Athens was overcome with factional conflict that ended when nobleman, military hero, and leader of a faction, Pisistratus took a position of power with the help of mercenary soldiers and became Athens first tyrant. Pisistratus wanted to increase the power of the central government at the cost of the nobles. To go against them in the countryside, he would send circuit judges to hear local cases. To bring attention to the capital he would engage in programs of public works, provided urban improvement, and religious devotion. He constructed temples, improved upon religious centers, presented new religious festivals, and amplified appeal of traditional festivals. He was also responsible for renovating Athens agora transforming it to the center of public life. During his rule Pisistratus made no formal changes to the institution of government, he merely saw that his supporters held key offices. The rule of Pisistratus was recalled as popular and mild due to intended and successful effect of hiding tyranny with constitutional government.
Pisistratus was succeeded by his eldest son, Hippias, whose rule became harsh after the death of his brother, Hipparchus. In 510 B.C.E. Hippias was deposed and exiled when Sparta invaded Athens with the help of a noble family that had previously been exiled by Hippias and the tyranny was ended.
After the departure of the Spartans, factions of Athenian aristocracy, led by Isogoras, tried to restore aristocracy to the position of dominance before Solon's reforms. However, a chief of a rival aristocratic clan, Clisthenes challenged Isogoras. He looked towards the people for political support and won it with a program that had significant appeal. In response, Isogoras called in the Spartans who banished Clisthenes and his supporters. This caused an uproar with the populace, who refused to tolerate an aristocratic restoration and drove out the Spartans as well as Isogoras. It was then that Clisthenes and his supporters returned and put their program in effect. The central idea of Clisthenes reform was to reduce the influence of traditional localities and regions in Athenian life, as they were key sources of power for factions and nobility. He enrolled the disenfranchised, who supported him, replaced Attica's four tribes with ten new tribes organized so no region could dominate them, he replaced Solon's council of 400 with 500, but bestowed himself with final authority. Debate within the assembly was free and open, meaning any Athenian could submit legislation, amendments, or argue the merits of a question. Clisthenes did not alter Solon's property qualifications for officeholders, but he did enlarge the citizens rolls, minimised the power aristocrats held, and elevated the role of the assembly with council - giving him the title of Father of Athenian democracy.
At first the Ionian cities flourished under Persian rule, but the private troubles of Aristagoras, a tyrant of Miletus, led him to organize a rebellion. To gain support, he overthrew the tyrannies the Persians installed and declared democratic constitutions. He then turned to the Spartans, who refused them, then Athens. Since the Athenians possessed a close religious and traditional tie, they agreed to help by sending a fleet of twenty ships to assist the rebels. Eretria in Euboea also sent an additional five ships. In 498 BCE Athenians and allies marched on Sardis, the seat of the Persian governor, in a surprise attack and burnt it. The revolt spread throughout Asia Minor, but Athens extracted and the Persians began to slowly reimpose their will. In 495 BCE the Persians defeated the Ionian fleet at Lade, and a year later overcame Miletus, killing many of the city's men, transporting others to the Persian Gulf, and enslaving the women and children. This was the end of the Ionian rebellion.
In 490 BCE, Darius, the Persian king, sent men to punish Athens for their part in the rebellion, restore tyrant Hippias, and to take control of the Aegean Sea. An Athenian who absconded from Persian service, led Athens army to battle with the Persians in Marathon. Athens won the battle against the Persians, ensuring their continued freedom and preventing the conquest of all the mainland Greek cities.
In 480 BCE Xerxes, king Darius's successor, gathered an army of 150,000 and a fleet of 600 to conquer Greece and launched his invasion. Luckily, Themistocles, leading Athenian politician at the time, by 480 BCE had acquired more than 200 ships. Only 31 of the hundred Greek states were willing to stand against the Persians, led by Sparta, Athens, Corinth, and Aegina. Knowing the Aegean Sea was subject to chaotic storms and that the Persians would need to rely on their fleet for supplies, Themistocles sought to delay the Persian army and overcome their fleet with a naval battle.
Sparta was chosen to lead and first confronted the Persian army at Thermopylae on land and off Artmisium at sea. For 2 days the Spartan army crushed Xerxes’s army with little lost to their own, protected by the narrow pass between the mountains and the sea; and as the battle raged on, the storms of the Aegean devastated the Persian fleet, destroying many Persian ships. However on the third day a traitor to the Greeks showed the Persians a mountain trail that allowed the Persian army to come up on the Spartans from behind resulting in the death of the Spartan king Leonidas and his army of 300 Spartans, although many allies managed to escape. The defeat at Thermopylae resulted in the Greeks withdrawing their fleet and the Persians advanced to Attica and burned Athens. It was the battle in the narrow straits of east Salamis where the tables turned and the Greeks managed to destroy half the Persian fleet, causing them to flee to Asia along with the Persian army.
Persian general, Mardonius wintered in Greece and in the spring he sought to win the Athenians away from the Greek League and failed. It was then that Pausanias, a Spartan regent led the largest Greek army to be assembled to confront the Persian general in Boeotia. It was in 479 BCE in Plataea that Mardonius died and his army fled home. In the meantime, Ionian Greeks urged Spartan commander of the fleet, King Leotychidas to attack the Persian fleet and camp at Samos. On the coast of Mycale, Leotychidas and his army destroyed the Persian camp and fleet, causing them to flee the Aegean and Ionia.
The winter of 478 – 477 BCE Greeks from the coast of Asia Minor, and others located along the Aegean met with the Athenians on the island of Delos and swore a permanent alliance who fought to free Greeks under Persian rule, to protect against Persian rule, and to obtain reparation from Persians attacking and squandering their lands. With Athens as the leaders, the Delian League was successful from driving the Persians from Europe.
Charged with leading Athens and the Delian League was statesman and soldier Cimon. Cimon had dominated politics for almost 2 decades, following a policy of aggressive attacks on Persia and friendly relations with Sparta. He kept a conservative outlook in regards to domestic affairs and accepted the democratic constitution of Clisthenes.
The Greeks bested the Persians at the Eurymedon River in Asia Minor. This victory caused the Persians to retreat and helped add several cities to the Delian League.
Thasos rebelled against the league and sought help from the Spartans to invade Athens; Sparta agreed, however a natural disaster and Helot rebellion prevented the invasion of Athens.
When Sparta’s survival was threatened, they looked to their allies, the Athenians. Despite objections of Ephialtes, leader of a rival faction who sought to break with Sparta, Cimon persuaded the Athenians to help. While he was in the Peloponnesus helping the Spartans, Ephialtes stripped the Areopagus of power. Cimon upon returning home was exiled and Athens made an alliance with Spartan enemy, Argos.
Policies of the new regime and a border dispute between Megara and Corinth, causing Megara to leave the Peloponnesian League and side with Athens helped bring a conflict with Sparta which resulted in the beginning of the First Peloponnesian War. With the help of Megara barring the way from Peloponnesus to Athens, Athenians made significant gains, conquering the Aegean and gaining control of Boeotia.
Athens dispatched a fleet to assist an Egyptian rebellion against Persia and were defeated. Meanwhile, rebellions sprung up within the Delian League which forced Athens to make a truce in Greece to subdue its allies in the Aegean.
Athens ends the war against Persia.
Rebellions in Megara and Boeotia opened Athens to Spartan attack. Pericles, the commander of the Athenian army agreed to a peace of thirty years, abandoning all Athenian possessions on the mainland in return for Spartan recognizing Athenian rule in the Aegean, as oppose to fighting.
In an unimportant and remote part of Greece a dispute arose, plunging Sparta and Athens back in to conflict 10 years.
The Spartans planned to invade enemy country and threaten their crops, forcing a hoplite battle which the Spartans thought they could win due to their better army and the number of their allies. The Athens on the other hand planned to allow the devastation of their own land to show how Spartan invasion could not phase Athens, and likewise launched seaborne raids of the Peloponnesian coast to show that they could harm Sparta’s allies. What the Athens thought would be a short war lasted several years, straining Athenian resources.
After warring for several years, Sparta and Athens agreed to the Peace of Nicias that was to last 50 years. However, neither side carried out the commitments of peace and several of Sparta’s allies refused to ratify it.
Alcibiades persuaded the Athenians to attack Sicily to bring it under their control, but the entire expedition was destroyed; Athens lost 200 ships, 4,500 Athenians, and 10 times as many allies’ lives. This loss reduced Athens power, caused rebellions, and helped Sparta gain Persia as an ally in the war. Athens won several key victories as the war moved to the Aegean, however as the allies rebelled and were being sustained by Persia, Athenians saw their resources disappear.
Athens fleet was overcome and destroyed, and they were unable to rebuild.
Under Spartan general Lysander, Sparta succeeded in cutting of Athens food supply, starving the city into submission. This resulted in Athens surrendering; the walls were dismantled, the empire wiped out, and Athenians were forbidden from rebuilding their fleet. The Peloponnesian War was over.
After Athens surrender, Lysander installed an oligarchic government whose behavior earned it the title “Thirty Tyrants”. Shortly after democratic exiles began to gather in Thebes and Corinth to build an army to combat this oligarchy, Pausanias, Sparta’s conservative king replaced Lysander and restored democracy. Though still under Spartan rule, Athenian foreign policy remained and Athens was free.
Greek mercenaries recruited with Spartan help mediated in Persia on behalf of Cyrus to dispute his brother, Artaxerxes II succession to the Persian throne. The Greeks marched to Mesopotamia and defeated the Persians at Cunaxa. However, Cyrus was killed and the Greeks marched back to the Black Sea and safety.
The Greeks of Asia Minor who supported Cyrus were afraid of Artaxerxes revenge and looked to the Spartans for aid. Sparta sent an army to Asia.
Persians sought out those unhappy with Spartan domination and offered them money and support to fight against the Spartan army. Thebes forged an alliance with Corinth, Argos, and Athens and faced the Spartans during the Corinthian War. In 394 BCE, Persian fleets destroyed the Spartan maritime empire; meanwhile, Athens had been busy rebuilding their walls, navy, and restoring some of their empire. Alarmed by this recovery, Persia turned management of Greece back to the Spartans.
Sparta attempted to seize Thebes with no pretext and then made a similar attempt on Athens. This moved the Athenians to ally with Thebes, who had recently rebelled from Sparta.
Athens organized a second Athenian Confederation aimed at resisting Spartan aggression. They attempted to avoid the abuses of the Delian League, but succumbed to them anyway. With the collapse of Sparta and Thebes and the restraint being shown by the Persians, all reasons for voluntary membership were gone and Athens allies revolted.
Thebans defeat Sparta at Leuctra. Afterwards they encouraged Arcadian cities of Peloponnesus to form a federal league, free the Helots and helping them found a city of their own. With reduced lands and no one to work them thanks to their hostile neighbors, Sparta ceased to be a first-rank power.
Under the leadership of Pelopidas and Epaminondas, Thebes gained dominance over the Corinthian gulf and all of Greece north of Athens. This success provoked resistance Thebes soon faced a Peloponnesian coalition as well as Athens. Epaminondas lead an army to the Peloponnesus to confront this coalition. He was victorious, but died, ending Theban dominance.