Ancient Greece

The term ancient Greece refers to the period of Greek history lasting from the Greek Dark Ages ca. 1100 BC and the Dorian invasion, to 146 BC and the Roman conquest of Greece after the battle of Corinth. It is generally considered to be the seminal culture which provided the foundation of Western civilization. Greek culture had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire, which carried a version of it to many parts of Europe. The civilization of the ancient Greeks has been immensely influential on the language, politics, educational systems, philosophy, science, and arts, giving rise to the Renaissance in Western Europe and again resurgent during various neo-Classical revivals in 18th and 19th century Europe and the Americas.


There are no fixed or universally agreed upon dates for the beginning or the end of the ancient Greek period. In common usage it can refer to all Greek history before the Roman conquest, but historians use the term more precisely. The Greek-speaking Mycenaean civilization that collapsed about 1150 BC and which preceded the classical Greek culture is generally excluded from the ancient Greek era. Some historians took the date of the first recorded Olympic Games in 776 BC as the beginning of the ancient Greek period. Between the end of the Mycenaean period and the first Olympics, there is a period known as the Greek Dark Ages, because there are no written records, and few archaeological remnants. This period is now often included in the term Ancient Greece.
The end of the ancient Greek period was traditionally seen as the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, which was seen to begin the Hellenistic period. However, ancient Greece is often taken to include the following period, until to the Roman conquest of 146 BC. Some writers treat the ancient Greek civilization as a continuum running until the advent of Christianity in the 3rd century; this, however, is unconventional.
The ancient Greek period is subdivided into four periods on a pragmatic basis of pottery styles and political events. The Greek Dark Ages (c.1100-c.750 BC) features the use of geometric designs on pottery; it is followed by the Archaic period (c.750-c.480 BC), in which artists made larger free-standing sculptures in stiff, hieratic poses with the dreamlike 'archaic smile'. The Archaic period is often taken to end with the overthrow of the last tyrant of Athens in 510 BC. The Classical period (c.500-323 BC) is characterised by a style which was considered by later observers to be exemplary (i.e. 'classical') - for instance the Parthenon. The death of Alexander in 323 BC is used to mark the beginning of the Hellenistic period, when Greek culture and power expanded into the near and middle east; a period which finishes with the Roman conquest of 146 BC.

Prehistoric and Bronze Age civilization

Helladic period
The tribes who would become the Greeks are believed to have migrated southward into the Balkan peninsula in several waves beginning in the Middle Bronze Age (roughly 2000 BC).[1] The Proto-Greek language would date to the period just preceding these migrations, either to the late 3rd millennium BC, or to the 17th century BC at the latest. The Bronze Age civilization of the proto-Greeks is generally referred to as Helladic and preceded what is known as "Ancient Greece".
The so-called Mycenaean civilization culminated in this period, which features in the famous epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. For reasons which are unknown, this culture collapsed spectacularly around 1150 BC, with cities being sacked and a massive depopulation. This Bronze Age collapse approximately coincides with the apparent arrival of the last group of proto-Greeks into Greece proper, the Dorians. The two events have traditionally been causally linked, but this is by no means certain. With the Bronze Age collapse, Greece entered into a period of obscurity or 'dark age'

Archaic Period

Main article: Archaic period in Greece
In the 8th century BC, Greece began to emerge from the Dark Ages which followed the fall of the Mycenaean civilization. Literacy had been lost and Linear B, the Mycenaean script forgotten, but the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, modifying it to create the Greek alphabet. From about the 9th century BC written records begin to appear. Greece was divided into many small self-governing communities, a pattern largely dictated by Greek geography, where every island, valley and plain is cut off from its neighbours by the sea or mountain ranges.

Early Athenian coin, 5th century BC. British Museum.
The first half of the 7th century BC saw the Lelantine War (c.710-c.650 BC), an ongoing conflict with the distinction of being the earliest documented war of the ancient Greek period. Fought between the then important poleis (city-states) of Chalcis and Eretria over the fertile Lelantine plain of Euboea, both cities seem to have suffered a decline as result of the long war, though Chalcis was the nominal victor.
The first half of the 7th century also seems to have seen the rise of a mercantile class, shown by the introduction of coinage in about 680 BC).[citation needed] This seems to have introduced tension to many city states. The aristocratic regimes which generally governed the poleis were threatened by the new-found wealth of merchants, who in turn desired political power. From 650 BC onwards, the aristocracies had to fight not to be overthrown and replaced by populist tyrants. The word derives from the non-pejorative Greek τύραννος tyrannos, meaning 'illegitimate ruler', although this was applicable to both good and bad leaders alike.[2][3]
A growing population and shortage of land also seems to have created internal strife between the poor and the rich in many city states. In Sparta, the Messenian Wars resulted in the conquest of Messenia and enserfment of the Messenians, beginning in the latter half of the 8th century BC, an act without precedent or antecedent in ancient Greece. This practice allowed a social revolution to occur.[4] The subjugated population, thenceforth known as helots, would farm and labour for Sparta, whilst every Spartan male citizen became a soldier of the Spartan Army in a permanently militarized state. Even the elite were obliged to live and train as soldiers; this equality between rich and poor served to diffuse the social conflict. These reforms, attributed to the shadowy Lycurgus of Sparta were probably complete by 650 BC.
Athens suffered a land and agrarian crisis in the late 7th century, again resulting in civil strife. The Archon (chief magistrate) Draco made severe reforms to the law code in 621 BC (hence Draconian), but these failed to quell the conflict. Eventually the moderate reforms of Solon (594 BC), improving the lot of the poor, but firmly entrenching the aristocracy in power, gave Athens some stability.

The Greek world in the mid 6th century BC.
By the 6th century BC several cities had emerged as dominant in Greek affairs: Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes. Each of them had brought the surrounding rural areas and smaller towns under their control, and Athens and Corinth had become major maritime and mercantile powers as well.
Rapidly increasing population in the 8th and 7th centuries had resulted in emigration of many Greeks to form colonies in Magna Graecia (Southern Italy and Sicily), Asia Minor and further afield (see below). The emigration effectively ceased in the 6th century by which time the Greek world had, culturally and linguistically, become much larger than the area of present-day Greece. Greek colonies were not politically controlled by their founding cities, although they often retained religious and commercial links with them.
In this period, huge economic development occurred in Greece and also her overseas colonies which experienced a growth in commerce and manufacturing. There also was a large improvement in the living standards of the population. Some studies estimate that the average size of the Greek household, in the period from 800 BC to 300 BC, increased five times, which indicates a large increase in the average income of the population.
In the second half of the 6th century, Athens fell under the tyranny of Peisistratos and then his sons Hippias and Hipparchos. However, in 510 BC, at the instigation of the Athenian aristocrat Cleisthenes, the Spartan king Cleomenes I helped the Athenians overthrow the tyranny. Promptly turning on each other Cleomenes I then installed Isagoras as a pro-Spartan archon. Eager to prevent Athens becoming a Spartan puppet, Cleisthenes responded by proposing to his fellow citizens that Athens undergo a revolution; that all citizens shared in the power, regardless of status; that Athens become a 'democracy'. So enthusiastically did the Athenians take to this idea, that, having overthrown Isagoras and implemented Cleisthenes's reforms, they were easily able to repel a Spartan-led three-pronged invasion aimed at restoring Isagoras.[5] The advent of the democracy cured many of the ills of Athens, and led to a 'golden age' for the Athenians