World History 1 90 - 6.2.3 Classical Greece

The Greek Classical period (500–323 BCE) was an era of great cultural achievement in which enduring art, literature, and schools of philosophy were created. It began with the Greek city-states uniting temporarily to face an invasion by the mighty Persian Empire, but it ended with them locked in recurring conflicts and ultimately losing their independence, first to Persia and later to Macedon.

The Persian Wars

The Persian Wars (492–449 BCE) were a struggle between the Greek city-states and the expanding Persian Empire. In the mid-sixth century BCE, during the reign of Cyrus the Great, Persian armies subdued the Greek city-states of Ionia, located across the Aegean from Greece in western Asia Minor (Turkey) (Figure 6.14). To govern the cities, the Persians installed tyrants recruited from the local Greek population. The resident Greeks were unhappy with the tyrants’ rule, and in 499 BCE they rose in the Ionian Rebellion, joined by Athens and the Greek cities on the island of Cyprus. But by 494 BCE Persian forces had crushed the rebellions in both Ionia and Cyprus. For intervening in Persian affairs, the Persian king Darius decided that Athens must be punished.

A map is shown with land highlighted beige and water highlighted blue. Blue lines run throughout the lands.  The Black Sea and the Caspian Sea are labelled in the north, the Mediterranean Sea is labelled in the west, and the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea are labelled in the south. The Nile River and the Suez Canal are labelled at the southeast of the Mediterranean and the Tigris River. and the Euphrates River are labelled northwest of the Persian Gulf. The Amu Darya is labelled to the east of the Caspian Sea. The Indus River the Chenab River the Sudej River and the Helmand River are labelled in the east of the map. The country of Libya is labelled in the southwest of the map and the country of Arabia is labelled in the south middle of the map. A large area from the west of the Black Sea, down to the northern portion of Libya, east to the end of the map is highlighted pink. Athens is labeled outside of the highlighted portion in the west. A small eastern region inside the highlighted portion is highlighted yellow and labeled Ionia.
Figure 6.14 The Greek world was on the edge of the massive Persian Empire at Persia’s height around 500 BCE. Persian rulers likely thought little of the Greeks, but that changed in 499 BCE when Athens intervened in the rebellion in Ionia, a region located just across the Aegean Sea from Athens. (credit: modification of work “Persian Empire, 490 BC, showing route of Cyrus the Younger, Xenophon and the 10.000” by The Department of History - United States Military Academy/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

In 490 BCE, Darius assembled a large fleet and army to cross the Aegean from Asia Minor, planning to subdue Athens and install one of Pisistratus’s sons as tyrant there. These Persian forces landed at Marathon on the west coast of Attica. They vastly outnumbered the Athenians but were drafted subjects with little motivation to fight and die. The Athenian soldiers, in contrast, were highly motivated to defend their democracy. The Persians could not withstand the Athenians’ spirited charge in the Battle of Marathon and were forced back onto their ships. Leaving the battle, the Persians then sailed around Attica to Athens. The soldiers at Marathon raced by land across the peninsula to guard the city. Seeing the city defended, the Persians returned to Asia Minor in defeat.

In 480 BCE, Xerxes, the son and successor of Darius, launched his own invasion of Greece intended to avenge this defeat and subdue all the Greek city-states. He assembled an even larger fleet as well as an army that would invade by land from the north. At this time of crisis, most of the Greek city-states decided to unite as allies and formed what is commonly called the Hellenic League. Sparta commanded the armies and Athens the fleet. A small band of the larger land forces, mostly Spartans, decided to make a stand at Thermopylae, a narrow pass between the mountains and the sea in northeastern Greece. Their goal was not to defeat the invading Persian army, which vastly outnumbered them, but to delay them so the rest of the forces could organize a defense. For days the small Spartan force, led by their king Leonidas, successfully drove back a vastly superior Persian army, until a Greek traitor informed the Persians of another mountain pass that enabled them to circle around and surround the Spartans. The Spartan force fought to the death, inspiring the Greeks to continue the fight and hold the Hellenic League together.

After the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian forces advanced against Athens. The Athenians abandoned their city and withdrew to the nearby island of Salamis, where they put their faith in their fleet to protect them. At the naval Battle of Salamis, the allied Greek fleet led by Athens destroyed the Persian ships. Xerxes then decided to withdraw much of his force from Greece, since he no longer had a fleet to keep it supplied.

In 479 BCE, the reduced Persian force had retreated from Athens to the plains of Boeotia, just north of Attica. The Greek allied forces under the command of Sparta advanced into Boeotia and met the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea. The Persian forces, mostly unwilling draftees, were no match for the Spartan troops, and the battle ended in the death or capture of most of the Persian army.

The Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian War

After the Persian Wars, the Athenians took the lead in continuing the fight against Persia and liberating all Greek city-states. In 477 BCE, they organized an alliance of Greek city-states known today as the Delian League, headquartered on the Aegean island of Delos. Members could provide ships and troops for the league or simply pay Athens to equip the fleet, which most chose to do. Over the next several decades, allied forces of the Delian League liberated the Greek city-states of Ionia from Persian rule and supported rebellions against Persia in Cyprus and Egypt. Around 449 BCE, Athens and Persia reached a peace settlement in which the Persians recognized the independence of Ionia and the Athenians agreed to stop aiding rebels in the Persian Empire.

Over the course of this war, the money from the Delian League enriched many lower-class Athenians, who found employment as rowers in the fleet. Athens even began paying jurors in jury courts and people who attended meetings of the Assembly. Over time it became clear to the other Greeks that the Delian League was no longer an alliance but an empire in which the subject city-states paid a steady flow of tribute. In 465 BCE, the city-state of Thasos withdrew from the league but was compelled by Athenian forces to rejoin. Around 437 BCE, the Athenians began using tribute to rebuild the temples on the Acropolis that the Persians had destroyed. Including the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena Parthenos, these were some of the most beautiful temples ever built and the pride of Athens, but to the subject city-states they came to symbolize Athenians’ despotism and arrogance (See Figure 6.15).

A picture of a rectangular, columned building in ruins is shown against a blue sky with few white clouds. Tall off-white stone columns surround the perimeter of the structure, with broken stone pieces at the top and no roof. Pieces of a stone structure can be seen on the inside. Stone pieces litter the forefront of the image with some green vegetation growing in between.
Figure 6.15 The large and sumptuous Parthenon, seen here as it is today, was built on the Athenian Acropolis in the fifth century BCE in honor of Athena. Following the temple’s destruction in the Persian War, Athens set out to rebuild it using tribute money, which angered some of the other Greek city-states. (credit: “The Parthenon Athens” by Steve Swayne/Flickr, Public Domain)

The wealth and power of Athens greatly concerned the Spartans, who saw themselves as the greatest and noblest of the Greeks. The rivalry between the two city-states eventually led them into open conflict. In 433 BCE, the Athenians assisted the city-state of Corcyra in its war against Corinth. Corinth was a member of the Peloponnesian League and requested that Sparta, the leader of this league, take action against Athenian aggression. Thus, in 431 BCE, the Peloponnesian War began with the invasion of Attica by Sparta and its allies (See Figure 6.16).

A map titled “Peloponnesian War Alliances, 431 BCE”. The Aegean Sea is labelled in the middle of the map with the Persian Empire labelled to the east. Most of the coast of the Aegean Sea, including Ionia, Hellespont, Attica, and Athens, is highlighted green indicating Athens and allies. Corfu in the north west is also highlighted green. Most of an island, including Peloponnese, Corinth, and Sparta, in addition to Thebes, is highlighted purple, indicating Sparta and allies. Two small regions south of Corfu are also highlighted purple.
Figure 6.16 Athens and its allies controlled the coasts and islands of the Aegean, making it a powerful naval force to contend with. Sparta and its allies were largely land based, though they eventually were able to outmaneuver the Athenians at sea in some important battles. (credit: modification of work “The Alliances of the Peloponnesian War” by U.S. Army Cartographer/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The political leader Pericles persuaded his fellow Athenians to withdraw from the countryside of Attica and move within the walls of Athens, reasoning that the navy would provide them food and supplies and the wall would keep them safe until Sparta tired of war and sought peace. Pericles’s assessment proved correct. In 421 BCE, after ten years of war, the Spartans and Athenians agreed to the Peace of Nicias, which kept the Athenian empire intact. The cost of the war for Athens was high, however. Due to the crowding of people within its walls, a plague had erupted in the city in 426 BCE and killed many, including Pericles.

Link to Learning

We know of the 426 BCE plague in Athens from the writings of Thucydides, the ancient chronicler and historian of the Peloponnesian War. But what was the mysterious illness? And how did it affect Athenian society and politics? Take a look at this article about the plague in Athens from The National Geographic for some modern answers.

Several years later, arguing that the empire could thrive only by expanding, an ambitious young Athenian politician named Alcibiades (a kinsman of Pericles) inspired a massive invasion of Sicily targeting Syracuse, the island’s largest city-state. Just as the campaign began in 415 BCE, Alcibiades’s political enemies in Athens accused him of impiety and treason, and he fled to Sparta to avoid a trial. Without his leadership, the expedition against Syracuse floundered, and in 413 BCE the entire Athenian force was destroyed. In exile, Alcibiades convinced the Spartans to invade Attica again, now that Athens had been weakened by the disaster in Syracuse. In the years that followed, the Spartans realized they needed a large fleet to defeat Athens, and they secured funds for it from Persia on the condition that Sparta restore the Greek cities in Ionia to Persian rule. In 405 BCE, the new Spartan fleet destroyed the Athenian navy at the Battle of Aegospotami in the Hellespont. The Athenians, under siege, could not secure food or supplies without ships, and in 404 BCE the city surrendered to Sparta. The Peloponnesian War ended with the fall of the city and the collapse of the Athenian empire.

The conclusion of the Peloponnesian War initially left Sparta dominant in Greece. Immediately following the war, Sparta established oligarchies of local aristocrats in the city-states that had been democracies under the Delian League. And it set up the Era of the Thirty Tyrants, a brief rule of oligarchs in Athens. With regard to Persia, Sparta reneged on its promise to restore the Greek city-states in Ionia to Persian control. Persia responded by funding Greek resistance to Sparta, which eventually compelled Sparta to accept Persia’s terms in exchange for Persian support. This meant turning over the Ionian city-states as it had previously promised.

Now with Persian backing, the Spartans continued to interfere in the affairs of other Greek city-states. This angered city-states like Thebes and Athens. In 371 BCE, the Thebans defeated the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra in Boeotia. The next year they invaded the Peloponnese and liberated Messene from Spartan rule, depriving the Spartans of most of their helot labor there. Without the helots, the Spartans could not support their military system as before, and their Peloponnesian League collapsed. Alarmed by the sudden growth of Thebes’s power, Athens and Sparta again joined forces and, in 362 BCE, fought the Thebans at the Battle of Mantinea. The battle was inconclusive, but Thebes’s dominance soon faded. By 350 BCE, the Greek city-states were exhausted economically and politically after decades of constant warfare.

The Classical “Golden Age”

Many historians view the Greek Classical period and the cultural achievements in Athens in particular as a “Golden Age” of art, literature, and philosophy. Some scholars argue that this period saw the birth of science and philosophy because for the first time people critically examined the natural world and subjected religious beliefs to reason. (Other modern historians argue that this position discounts the accomplishments in medicine and mathematics of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.) For example, around 480 BCE, Empedocles speculated that the universe was not created by gods but instead was the result of the four material “elements”—air, water, fire, earth—being subjected to the forces of attraction and repulsion. Another philosopher and scientist of the era, Democritus, maintained that the universe consisted of tiny particles he called “atoms” that came together randomly in a vortex to form the universe.

Philosophers questioned not only the traditional views of the gods but also traditional values. Some of this questioning came from the sophists (“wise ones”) of Athens, those with a reputation for learning, wisdom, and skillful deployment of rhetoric. Sophists emerged as an important presence in the democratic world of Athens beginning in the mid-fourth century BCE. They claimed to be able to teach anyone rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, for a fee, as a means to achieve success as a lawyer or a politician. While many ambitious men sought the services of sophists, others worried that speakers thus trained could lead the people to act against their own self-interest.

Many thought Socrates was one of the sophists. A stonecutter by trade, Socrates publicly questioned sophists and politicians about good and evil, right and wrong. He wanted to base values on reason instead of on unchallenged traditional beliefs. His questioning often embarrassed powerful people in Athens and made enemies, while his disciples included the politician Alcibiades and even some who had opposed Athenian democracy. In 399 BCE, an Athenian jury court found Socrates guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth, and he was sentenced to death (Figure 6.17).

An image of a dark painting is shown. In the painting, a large bed is shown in the middle with a wooden frame and light brown bedsheets. In the middle of the bed a man sits upright with his naked body covered with an off-white cloth, exposing his bare chest and bare feet. His left foot rests on a wood block at the side of the bed and his right leg extends out on the bed. He has white curly hair and a dirty brown long beard. His left arm is raised with the pointer finger pointing up. His right arm reaches out toward a gold goblet being held up by a fair skinned man in a short red cloth around his waist and falling off his shoulders standing to the left of the seated man. He is barefoot, has short curly brown hair, and faces away from the man on the bed and holds his head in his left hand. At the foot of the bed a man in gray robes sits in a chair with his head hanging down, his mouth and chin covered with his clothing. He has short gray hair and sideburns show on the side of his face. His hands are laid over each other in his lap. Behind him a man in blue and brown robes stands with his arms raised and face buried in the stone wall of an archway. Behind him in the adjacent room a staircase can be seen in the dark with three figures ascending the staircase in long robes. To the right of the man on the bed, a man is seated on a stone step-like chair wearing long rust-colored robes with brown curly hair and beard looking at the man on the bed. His right hand rests on the leg of the man on the bed. To the right of the bed, five figures stand in various colored robes, two looking at the man on the bed, while the other three show anguish by throwing their hands up in the air, hold their head in their hands, and on the sides of their head. The background is a very dark room with a stone wall and stone floor. A paper scroll is seen on the floor at the foot of the bed and a chain with a handcuff is seen at the side of the bed.
Figure 6.17 Socrates (center with upraised arm) was forced to drink hemlock, a poison. His last moments were imagined to great dramatic effect in this large oil painting of 1787 by the French artist Jacques-Louis David. (credit: “The Death of Socrates” by Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Wolfe Fund, 1931/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Socrates left behind no writings of his own, but some of his disciples wrote about him. One of these was Plato, who wrote dialogues from 399 BCE to his death in 347 BCE that featured Socrates in conversation with others. Through these dialogues, Plato constructed a philosophical system that included the study of nature (physics), of the human mind (psychology and epistemology, the theory of knowledge), and ethics. He maintained that the material world we perceive is an illusion, a mere shadow of the real world of ideas and forms that underlie the universe. According to Plato, the true philosopher uses reason to comprehend these ideas and forms.

Plato established a school at the Academy, which was a gymnasium or public park near Athens where people went to relax and exercise. One of his most famous pupils was Aristotle, who came to disagree with his teacher and believed that ideas and forms could not exist independently of the material universe. In 334 BCE, Aristotle founded his own school at a different gymnasium in Athens, the Lyceum, where his students focused on the reasoned study of the natural world. Modern historians view Plato and Aristotle as the founders of Western (European) philosophy because of the powerful influence of their ideas through the centuries.

Athens in the Golden Age was also the birthplace of theater. Playwrights of the fifth century BCE such as Sophocles and Euripides composed tragedies that featured music and dance, like operas and musicals today (Figure 6.18). The plots were based on traditional myths about gods and heroes, but through their characters the playwrights pondered philosophical questions of the day that have remained influential over time. In Sophocles’s Antigone, for example, Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, must decide whether to obey the laws or follow her religious beliefs.

A stoneware mask is shown on a brownish-yellow background. The mask is a light orange color and flat across the bottom and round at the top. A face is carved in the bottom middle with circle holes for eyes and an oval opening for the mouth. A nose is carved into the mask as well as the details of the eyes – lids, browns, and eyeballs. Around the face triangle designs are seen across the top as well as leaves and two round balls above that. The sides are bumpy and appear to look like hair.
Figure 6.18 This terracotta representation of a theatrical mask a Greek actor might have worn dates from the first or second century BCE and portrays Dionysus, Zeus’s son and the god of wine. (credit: “Terracotta figurine of a theatrical mask representing Dionysos” by Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

For an example of Greek theatre, watch this modern performance of Lysistrata by the comic poet Aristophanes. In this comedy, first performed in 411 BCE, the women of Greece plot to end the Peloponnesian War. In the Greek original, the actors would have worn masks and sung their parts, as in a modern opera.

The study of history also evolved during the Golden Age. Herodotus and Thucydides are considered the first true historians because they examined the past to rationally explain the causes and effects of human actions. Herodotus wrote a sweeping history of wide geographic scope, called Histories (“inquiries”), to explore the deep origins of the tension between the Persian and Greek worlds. In History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides employed objectivity to explain the politics, events, and brutality of the conflict in a way that is similar in some respects to the approach of modern historians.

Finally, this period saw masterpieces of sculpture, vase painting, and architecture. Classical Age Greek artists broke free of the heavily stylized and two-dimensional art of Egypt and the Levant, which had inspired Greek geometric forms, and produced their own uniquely realistic styles that aimed to capture in art the ideal human form. Centuries later, and especially during the European Renaissance, artists modeled their own works on these classical models.

Beyond the Book

Ancient Greek Sculpture and Painting

In the Archaic period, the Greeks had more contact with the cultures of Phoenicia and Egypt, and artists modeled their work on examples from these regions. For instance, ancient Egyptian artists followed strict conventions in their heavily stylized works, such as arms held close to the sides of the body and a parallel stance for the feet. Greek artists adopted these conventions in their statues of naked youths, or kouroi, which were often dedicated in religious sanctuaries (Figure 6.19).

Two images of pictures of statues are shown. The (a) first statue is bronze-colored, tall, thin, and naked. The head is square-shaped with a broken nose and large eyes, and she wears an elaborate headdress that comes down to the statue’s breasts in front. A small rounded belly shows and the arms hang down straight at the sides. The left foot is positioned in front of the right foot on a flat, square pedestal. A rope between two posts is seen in the background and the wall is varying colors of yellow and black. (b) The statue is carved of beige stone of a male. His head is long and thin, he has large eyes, a long nose and small lips. A bumpy headdress hangs close to his head and down the back of his neck. He has broad shoulders, a small waist and his arms hang straight down next to his body. His left foot is positioned in front of the right foot on a flat, square, stone pedestal. The background is dark gray and a shadow of the statue is seen on the right side.
Figure 6.19 This basalt statue (a) is one of only seven statues of Cleopatra to survive from the ancient world. Its conventions like arms close to the body and parallel feet are mirrored in a Greek marble statue of a youth from about 580 BCE (b). (credit a: modification of work “Cleopatra statue at Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum” by E. Michael Smith Chiefio/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain; credit b: modification of work “Marble statue of a kouros (youth)” by Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1932/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

During the Classical period, Greek sculptors still produced statues of naked youths for religious sanctuaries, but in more lifelike poses that resembled the way the human body appears naturally (Figure 6.20).

Two marble statues are shown. The (a) off-white statue on the left is of a naked man bending down at the waist with his left foot behind him. His right knee is bent a bit, he is hunched over, his left arm rests near his right knee. He holds a flat circular object in his right hand behind his back. He is looking down and has short hair, large eyes and his mouth is turned down. The statue rests on a white and gray marbled pedestal and the wall behind the statue is yellow and brown marbled on the left and white and gray marbled on the right. (b) The yellowish statue stands on a rectangular stone pedestal on a solid dark black background. The statue is a naked man with his right arm cut off just above the elbow. He has short curly hair and wears strappy sandals. In his left arm he holds a very small child with arms cut off and curly hair and robes that drape to the ground.
Figure 6.20 In the mid-fifth century BCE, the Greek sculptor Myron produced a lifelike bronze statue of an athlete throwing a discus. Here (a) is a Roman marble copy of his statue. Approximately one century later, the Greek sculptor Praxiteles produced a similarly realistic statue (b), possibly depicting the Greek god Hermes holding Dionysus as a baby. (credit a: modification of work “Discobolus side 2” by Ricky Bennison/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0; credit b: modification of work “Hermes of Praxiteles” by Dottie Day/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Greek painting is most often preserved on vases. In the Archaic period, artists frequently decorated vases with motifs such as patterning, borrowed from Phoenician and Egyptian art (Figure 6.21).

Two images of a bowl and jug are shown. The (a) faded silver bowl is round and shown standing up on a gray background. The outer perimeter is not smooth and shows small circles all around the bowl. Repetitive designs of leaves and people run on the outer circle. The next inner circle repeats designs of animals, leaves, and fowl. The final inner circle shows two figures facing each other. Small circles of tiny dots separate the three rings. (b) An image of a jug is shown on a flat gray surface with a gray background. The jug is fluted at the top with a short black neck. The bottom of the jug is pear shaped and has four rows of scenes depicted on a beige background and six-petaled black flowers strewn in the first two rows. Brown, red, and black stripes separate the rows of scenes. The top row shows two winged creatures with four paws each and a human looking head with long curly black hair. The wings show multi-colored feathers in black and brown and a long thin tail is seen at their hind ends. The next row shows large black animals with four legs and brown manes and underbellies with long snouts and large ears – two in the middle facing each other and two more at each end only showing their raised heads. The next row shows two long, thin, black animals with four paws, tails, and brown necks facing to the left and one with long ears and a bit smaller in front of them at the left. The last row shows a beige background with black lines.
Figure 6.21 This Phoenician silver bowl from the seventh century BCE (a) features lotus flowers and palm trees, which were Egyptian motifs, and repetitive patterning. A Greek jug from the same period (b) also uses repetitive patterns for decoration. (credit a: modification of work” Dish with Tambourine Players” by Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0; credit b: modification of work “Corinthian jug 620 BC Staatliche Antikensammlungen” by Bibi Saint-Pol/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

By the Classical era, especially in Athens, vase painters were relying less on patterning and instead depicting realistic scenes from myths and daily life (Figure 6.22).

A picture of an ancient cup and a jug are shown. (a) An image of a black and orange cup on its side with the bottom facing forward is shown. The bottom of the cup has orange and black circles and sticks out the bottom of the cup. The outside of the cup is black with an orange scene depicted twice – two horses pulling a standing chariot with a rider holding the reins. In between are designs depicting leaf-like drawings. Two handles are shown, one on each side. (b) A tall black jug is shown with orange drawings on the top. The top is a circular orange-lipped opening with a thicker middle with two orange handles and a thinner tall base. The larger part shows an orange drawing of two figures – both in long cloths and barefoot with muscular legs. The figure on the left holds a cone shaped object in their left hand and the figure on the right appears to be running away. Repetitive circular resigns run along both sides of the drawing and long leafy vines are shown around the figures.
Figure 6.22 A Greek terracotta cup from the sixth or fifth century BCE (a) depicts charioteers. A wine jug from the fifth century BCE (b) depicts a scene from Greek mythology. (credit a: modification of work “Red-figured Kylix Greek 6th-5th century BCE terracotta (2)” by Mary Harrsch/Flickr, CC BY 2.0; credit b: modification of work “5th century BC Psykter” by Giovanni Dall’Orto/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY)

In the Classical period, Greek artists thus came into their own and no longer borrowed heavily from the art of Egypt and Phoenicia.

  • What do the many artistic influences on Greece suggest about its connections with other parts of the ancient world?
  • Why might Greek art have relied heavily on mythical symbols and depictions? What does this indicate about Greek culture?
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax