World History 1 88 - 6.2.1 Archaic Greece

The Greek Dark Ages (1100–800 BCE) persisted after the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization but began to recede around 800 BCE. From this point and for the next few centuries, Greece experienced a revival in which a unique and vibrant culture emerged and evolved into what we recognize today as Classical Greek civilization. This era, from 800 to 500 BCE, is called Archaic Greece after arche, Greek for “beginning.”

The Greek renaissance was marked by rapid population growth and the organization of valleys and islands into independent city-states, each known as a polis (Greek for city-state). Towns arose around a hill fortress or acropolis to which inhabitants could flee in times of danger. Each polis had its own government and religious cults, and each built monumental temples for the gods, such as the temple of Hera, wife of Zeus and protector of marriage and the home, at the city-state of Argos. Though politically disunited, the Greeks, who began to refer to themselves as Hellenes after the mythical king Hellen, did share a common language and religion. The most famous of their sacred sites were Delphi, near Mount Parnassus in central Greece and seat of the oracle of Apollo, the god of prophecy, and Olympia in southern Greece, sacred to Zeus, who ruled the pantheon of gods at Mount Olympus (Figure 6.9). Beginning in 776 BCE, according to Aristotle, Greeks traveled to Olympia every four years to compete in athletic contests in Zeus’s honor, the origin of the Olympic Games.

An image of a stone bust of a man is shown on a gray and black marble draped background and pedestal with the letters “GIOVL” carved at the bottom. The man shows shoulder length curly hair and full beard in a light brown color. His eyes are almond shaped and he has a large nose. Over his naked lighter beige left shoulder a cloth is draped.
Figure 6.9 This larger-than-life marble bust of the Greek god Zeus is believed to be a Roman copy of a fourth-century BCE Greek original. It was found in Otricoli, Italy, in 1775. (credit: “So-called “Zeus of Otricoli”. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from the 4th century” by “Jastrow”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The Past Meets the Present

The Olympic Games

Postponed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Japan included more than three hundred events in thirty-three sports, including new entries like skateboarding, rock climbing, and surfing. Modern games have been held since 1896, when the new International Olympic Committee started the tradition, but as the name suggests, the inspiration came from Ancient Greece.

Athletic events in Ancient Greece were important displays of strength and endurance. There were contests at the sanctuaries at Delphi and Nemea (near Argos), but none was as renowned as the Olympic Games, held at the sanctuary in Olympia that was dedicated to Zeus. Contestants came from all over the Greek world, including Sicily and southern Italy.

Unlike the skateboarding and surfing of modern games, the ancient games focused on skills necessary for war: running, jumping, throwing, and wrestling. Over time, sports that included horses, like chariot racing, were also incorporated. Such events were referenced in Homer’s Iliad, when the hero Achilles held athletic contests to honor his fallen comrade Patroclus and awarded prizes or athla (from which the word “athlete” is derived). The centerpiece of the ancient games was the two-hundred-yard sprint, or stadion, from which comes the modern word “stadium” (Figure 6.10).

An image of a rectangle section of clay in the middle of a field of green and brown grass is shown. Green trees line the backdrop and a blue sky is seen in the top left section of the image.
Figure 6.10 These are the ruins of the original Olympic stadion at Olympia. The track was made of hard-packed clay for a race to be won by the fastest athlete in the Greek world. (credit: “Olympic Race Track in modern Olympia, Greece” by “Dwaipayanc”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Unlike the modern games, where attendees pay great sums to watch athletes compete, admission to the ancient games was free—for men. Women were forbidden from watching and, if they dared to attend, could pay with their lives. Competitors were likely locals with proven abilities, though over time professional athletes came to dominate the sport. They could earn a good living from prizes and other rewards gained through their talent and celebrity, and their statues adorned the sanctuary at Olympia. The poet Pindar in the early fifth century BCE was renowned for composing songs to honor them when they returned home as victors. The Olympic Games continued to be celebrated until 393 CE, when they were halted during the reign of the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius.

  • Why might the organizers of the modern Olympic Games have named their contest after the ancient Greek version?
  • How are the ancient games similar to the modern Olympic Games? How are they different?

The start of the Archaic period also witnessed the reemergence of specialization in Greek society. Greek artists became more sophisticated and skilled in their work. They often copied artistic styles from Egypt and Phoenicia, where Greek merchants were engaging in long-distance trade. At the site of Al-Mina, along the Mediterranean coast in Syria where historians believe the Phoenician alphabet was first transmitted to the Greeks, Greek and Phoenician merchants exchanged goods. Far to the west, on the island of Ischia off the west coast of Italy, Greeks were competing with Phoenician merchants for trade with local peoples, whose iron ore was in strong demand. Thanks to their contact and trade with the Phoenicians, Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to their own language, making an important innovation by adding vowels (a, e, i, o, u). The eighth century BCE thus witnessed the return of literacy and the end of the Aegean world’s relative isolation after the interlude of the Greek Dark Ages.

The eighth century BCE was also the period in which the epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed, traditionally attributed to the blind poet Homer. While historians debate whether Homer was a historical or a legendary figure, they agree the epics originated in the songs of oral poets in the Greek Dark Ages. In the eighth century BCE, using the Greek alphabet, scribes wrote these stories down for the first time.

As the population expanded during the Archaic period, a shortage of farmland brought dramatic changes. Many Greeks in search of land to farm left their homes and founded colonies along the shores of the Black Sea and the northern Aegean, in North Africa at Cyrene in Libya, and in southern Gaul (modern France) at Massalia (Marseille). The largest number were on the island of Sicily and in southern Italy, the region the Greeks referred to as Magna Graecia or “Greater Greece.” When Greeks established a colony, it became an independent polis with its own laws. The free adult males of the community divided the colony’s land into equal lots. Thus, a new idea developed in the colonies that citizenship in a community was associated with equality and participation in the governing of the state.

In the society of Archaic Greece, the elite landowners, or aristoi, traditionally controlled the government and the priesthoods in the city-states. But thanks to the new ideas from the colonies, the common people, or kakoi, began demanding land and a voice in the governing of the polis. They were able to gain leverage in these negotiations because city-states needed troops in their wars for control of farmland. The nobility relied on the wealthier commoners, who could afford to equip themselves with iron weapons and armor. In some city-states, the aristoi and the kakoi were not able to resolve their differences peaceably. In such cases, a man who had strong popular support in the city would seize power and rule over the city. The Greeks referred to such populist leaders as tyrants.

In the sixth century BCE, the difficulties caused by the land shortage were relieved by the invention of coinage. A century before, adopting a practice of the kings of Lydia in western Asia Minor (Turkey), Athens stamped silver pieces with the image of an owl, a symbol of wisdom often associated with the goddess Athena (See Figure 6.11). Instead of weighing precious metals to use as currency or arguing over the value of bartered goods to trade, merchants could use coins as a simple medium of exchange. The agora, or place of assembly in each city-state, thus became a marketplace to buy and sell goods. In the sixth century BCE, this rise of a market economy stimulated economic growth as farmers, artisans, and merchants discovered stronger incentives to produce and procure more goods for profit. For example, farmers learned how to produce more food with the land they already possessed rather than always seeking more land. The economic growth of this period is reflected in the many new temples the Greek city-states constructed then.

Two deep silver round coins are seen on a dark black background. Both coins edges are bumpy and the images on both are raised. The coin on the left shows a woman facing to the right with large almond-shaped eyes, a large nose, and full parted lips. She wears adornments in her hair and a thick necklace collar around her neck. The coin on the right shows an owl with large round eyes, a pointed beak, legs with talons and feathers. The letters “AOE” are on the right side of the coin.
Figure 6.11 This Athenian silver coin from the fifth century BCE depicts Athena on one side and an owl, Athena’s symbol, on the other. (credit: “Athens owl coin” by “yuichi”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax