Ancient Greece - Greek Civilization

Ancient Greece - Greek Civilization

Among the great civilizations that have marked history, the Greece antique remains one of the most remarkable. In art, politics, literature, philosophy or science, his heritage still influences our world. The greek civilization invented almost everything, starting with democracy. Yet it was at the rate of wars that the Greek cities lived.

At the dawn of Greek civilization

During the 9th century BCE, archaic Greece either emerged from darkness or plunged the demise of Mycenaean civilization. A new wave of invaders, the Dorians, introduced the use of iron, which breathed new life into city life. Cities evolved into independent city-states, ruled first by kings. As trade grew, the rulers sent their citizens overseas to found merchant colonies.

This migration allowed them to partially solve the problem of overpopulation of the peninsula, due in particular to the shortage of cultivable land. Important Greek cities then dotted the coastline of Asia Minor (Anatolia), that of the Black Sea, Sicily and southern Italy, and Spain. Only the Phoenicians could compete with the Greek power.

During the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Jesus Christ, a period that is best known to us from the accounts of Homer and Hesiod, some of the features that will distinguish the archaic age from classical Greece to come take place. Thus, parallel to the rediscovery of writing and with the revival of the Greek religion, emerge social structures (very small territorial units led by a basileus, a king, that is to say the one who owns the richest domain, with social classes ranging from nobles, main companions of the king, to slaves, excluded from all political life and from the army) and a system of values ​​(based on hospitality and courage), characteristic of a common Greek culture.

Ancient Greece and the Emergence of City-States

It had been two centuries since the majority of the city-states of Greece, abandoning the monarchy, were ruled by aristocrats or hereditary clan leaders, with the exception of Sparta and Argos. Gradually the resentment of the citizens towards the nobility grew stronger: the people demanded the right to vote on the way in which they were governed. Here and there revolutions broke out, led by charismatic leaders who, to gain the trust of the people, confiscated land from the rich to distribute it to the poor.

Tyrants rule without nobles, and sometimes even against them. Some turn out to be wise rulers and increase the power of their city, like Polycrates (who reigned approximately in 535-522 BC), in Samos. The period of tyranny (c. 650-500 BC) corresponds to an era of cultural and economic boom. Trade, especially by sea, is increasing, and the use of money is becoming essential.

The development of cultural activities common to all Greek cities is one of the great unifying factors in ancient Greece, despite political fragmentation, alongside language and religion. Practices such as the Pan-Hellenic Games organized in Olympia (Olympic Games), Delphi, Nemea and on the Isthmus of Corinth, contribute to the awareness by the Greeks of their belonging to the same civilization.

The tyrants, since that was their name, by themselves abusing their authority, in turn became the target of the people's vengeance, determined to make themselves heard.

Athenian democracy

It was Athens which first consented to the sharing of power. At the end of the 6th century, political reforms fostered the emergence of a new form of government: democracy. In 508-509 BC. BC, Cleisthenes, a member of an aristocratic family, had a series of measures based on democratic principles adopted, which provided a framework for Athenian institutions in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. AD and make him the real "father" of democracy.

Athenian democracy allowed citizens to express themselves through voting on all major decisions such as declaring war or government spending. They could also elect their civil and military representatives, and vote on the exile of any notables deemed too powerful. If the current democracies in the four corners of the world are inspired by the Greek model, none grants as much power to the citizens as did the ancient Athenian city. However, the right of citizenship was reserved for free men over twenty years old, born in Athens to Athenian parents. The other residents - women, slaves and foreigners (the majority of the population) - were deprived of it.

Persian wars and civil wars in ancient Greece

The fierce rivalry between the city-states that sought to dominate Greece and the Aegean basin resulted in incessant wars. On the battlefields, the Greeks were distinguished by their courage and discipline. Armed with spears, the infantry fought in a defensive formation known as the phalanx. Every man in good health with the means to equip himself with weapons and protection had to join his city's army in the event of conflict.

However, it was the city of Sparta that provided the best soldiers. By the age of seven, all boys left their families to receive state education. This mainly consisted of sports and military training.

Their rigorous training allowed the Greeks to repel the Persian assaults on three occasions on land and on sea. In 492 BC, it was the climatic conditions that overcame the invaders. Two years later the Athenian army triumphed at the Battle of Marathon. Then in 479-480 BC, Xerxes’s huge army of 200,000 men and 1,000 ships bowed to the much smaller Allied troops of Athens and Esparto.

After a first encounter in the Thermopylae parade, defended by the Spartan Leonidas I, a naval battle takes place at Salamis, in 480. It is won by Thémistocles and Eurybiades. The total defeat of the Persians takes place at Plataea, in 479 BC. J.-C.

"The Century of Pericles"

The undisputed winner of the Persians, the city-state of Athens derives immense prestige from the Persian wars and becomes the most important city in the Aegean world, at the head of the League of Delos. Moreover, the conflict proved the growing importance of naval power after the decisive Battle of Salamis. The Army of Sparta, until now the greatest military power in ancient Greece and the ally of Athens, is losing its supremacy to the Athenian fleet, which dominates the Aegean Sea.

A period of political, cultural and artistic domination opens for Athens, which reached its peak under Pericles. It strengthens the democratic institutions of the city, which is, thanks to the treasury of the League of Delos, embellished and endowed with new monuments: most of the buildings of the Acropolis date from this period. Athens shines throughout the ancient world, both culturally and artistically - with authors like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, philosophers like Socrates and Plato, historians such as Thucydides and Herodotus, sculptors like Phidias - and economically, Piraeus having become the hub of Mediterranean trade.

Athens’s foreign policy is causing its downfall. From a confederation of allies, the League of Delos evolves into an unequal empire where cities that revolt are ruthlessly punished. Sparta, jealous of the prosperity of Athens and eager to regain its prestige, took the opportunity to create a confederation of cities hostile to Athenian imperialism. Sparta and Athens were increasingly hostile to each other, culminating in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), which ended with the defeat of Athens in 404.

Weakened by these repeated conflicts, the cities easily yielded to the rise of Macedonia in the north. In 338 BC, King Philip II, a military genius, seized all of Greece after the Battle of Chaeronea. He collects the heritage of Greek civilization which will be widely disseminated by his son Alexander the Great over the course of his numerous conquests.

The legacy of Greek civilization

Without the writing, none of this would have been possible. While other ancient systems used different symbols, the Greeks adopted a phonetic alphabet of 20 characters. Education played a big role in democracy: those in power had to use all their speaking skills to convince people of the validity of their policies. Eloquence was taught in schools, and the use of writing encouraged the flow of ideas. However, physical education was not neglected: athletics, wrestling and boxing were among the privileged disciplines. During major sporting events such as the Olympics, a truce was imposed on warring cities to allow safe access.

Between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, despite the wars which followed one another on their territory, the Greeks dominated the Mediterranean Sea. They mastered sculpture, painting and architecture. Tragedy and drama flourished. Literature, but also Greek mythology, continue to inspire artists today. As for the Athenian philosophers (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle) ​​they laid the groundwork for European thought. The Greeks wrote the first historical works, advanced mathematics and geometry, and elevated medicine to the rank of scientific discipline ...

The Roman civilization which followed Greek civilization was in many ways a continuation of Hellenistic civilization.

Bibliography on ancient Greece

- History of the ancient Greek world by François Lefèvre. pocket, 2007.

- Ancient Greece by Georges Tate. Hachette, 2007.

- The Century of Pericles. Collective. CNRS Editions, 2010.

Video: Overview of ancient Greece. World History. Khan Academy