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5-08-2015, 22:50

On Mediterranean Shores

The Minoans lived primarily on the island of Crete, southeast of the Greek mainland. They thrived from approximately 2700 BCE to 1500 BCE, when evidence suggests earthquakes and volcanic eruptions might have destroyed the civilization.

The Minoans greatly influenced the Mycenaeans, who lived on the Greek mainland from 1400 to 1100 BCE. Both the Minoans and the Mycenaeans had sophisticated cultures. They built palaces with plumbing, painted elaborate pieces of art, and crafted exquisite gold cups and masks.

But after the Mycenaeans died out, Greece entered a dark age that lasted for centuries. The pieces of pottery that survive from this time show a much simpler style. Although farming certainly still existed, it was less complicated and there was more emphasis on animal herding than on growing crops. Nonetheless, the Greeks did not lose contact with the people around them, particularly in the Near East, including modern-day Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Although written records were few and major milestones seemingly absent, the Greeks were building their knowledge base and forming beliefs and traditions that would provide the framework for later development.


By the 700s BCE, Greece was rebounding in what is now considered its Archaic Age. People adopted a new writing system for their language, and the first Olympic Games were held. The growing population put land at a premium. Mountains and rocky terrain made it difficult to grow crops, and arable land was scarce. Another problem was the Greek tradition of inheritance. Farms were divided equally among a man’s sons. What began as

a large farm was sliced up into smaller pieces with each generation unless the sons married women from wealthier families. Eventually, the small pieces weren’t enough land to support a family.

To relieve the pressure and help their troubled economy, enterprising Greeks set out to find more land and establish colonies. New Greek settlements dotted the coasts around the Mediterranean Sea, from the mainland to the Peloponnese slightly to the south and west, as well as farther west across the Ionian sea in modern-day Italy, and east to Asia Minor in the current countries of Turkey and Syria. These new colonies, however, did not depend on their motherland. They were independent and self-ruling. The geography of Greece contributed to this system. Rugged mountains and valleys made travel difficult, and communication between communities was limited, if it existed at all.

Colonists or Exiles?

Many Greek colonists were eager to leave their homes in search of new land, but not all were so excited. In 706 BCE, Sparta had a group of men who were born outside of legal marriages who were becoming a problem. Although these people existed in other Greek cities as well, it was particularly a problem in Sparta because of the rigid social system. The men were were prohibited from becoming citizens and could not easily be a part of society. Their very existence caused unease within society. As a solution, Sparta decided to get rid of them, and it sent them to Taras, now Taranto, Italy. There, the men formed a new colony and a new life, but it was by force, not by choice.

This led to the rise of the Greek citizen-state, or polis. Although it is commonly called a city-state, a polis was defined less by its geographic boundaries than by its people—the citizens—who counted themselves part of the city even if they lived outside the city itself. These hundreds of city-states, some tiny and some large, shared a common lifestyle and culture, but their governments were independent.


The ancient Greeks were under constant threat from Persia, a vast and powerful empire that lay to its east. The Persians wanted to bring the Greeks under their control, and resisting this effort became a central theme in Greek history, eventually helping to unite the diverse city-states. By the early 400s BCE, Darius, the king of Persia, began trying to conquer Greece to extend and strengthen the Persian Empire, located in modern Iran. On the surface it might have seemed a straightforward and relatively simple goal. The Persian armies were larger, stronger, richer, and better organized than the Greek soldiers. But perhaps Persia underestimated the Greeks’ fighting spirit and strong sense of independence. When Persia attacked, they met hoplites. These Greek soldiers came from the middle class—they were neither aristocrats nor a professional army. They were interested in protecting their own land.

Although the smaller, weaker city-states gave in to some of Persia’s demands, the larger ones resisted. According to one story, Persian representatives arrived in the city-state of Sparta and demanded earth and water as signs the Spartans recognized Persia’s authority. The Spartans responded by tossing the Persians down a well, assuring them they would find plenty of earth and water at the bottom.

Marathon March

A hoplite force of approximately 10,000 Greek soldiers marched down to meet the Persian army at the beach at Marathon.2 The Persians outnumbered them, but still the Greeks claimed a victory. The fleeing Persians were not retreating, however—they were on their way to Athens, which had been left unprotected when the Greek army went to the beach. The Greek general Miltiades now ordered his army back to Athens. Exhausted, bloodied, and weighted down with heavy armor, stories say they still made the 25-mile (40 km) march in only six hours and turned away the Persians once again. This event inspired the modern marathon.

Nonetheless, Persia wasn’t so easily rebuffed. In 490 BCE, approximately 25,000 Persian soldiers set sail across the Aegean Sea for Greece.1 They

landed at Marathon, a beach town north of the city of Athens. Although the Athenian force had fewer than one-half of the Persians’ numbers, some shrewd military maneuvers allowed them to pull out a remarkable victory. The Persians were not discouraged, however. They regrouped and planned new attacks. Meanwhile, Athens built a navy and allied itself with Sparta, which also had a powerful military force.

When Persia attacked again in 480 BCE at Thermopylae, the Greeks were again severely outnumbered. But they managed to hold off the Persians, both at land and sea, until a traitor showed the Persian army a secret route to attack the Greeks. Sparta’s King Leonidas, along with 299 members of his force, made a heroic last stand, fighting the Persians until every Spartan was killed—except for two who left before the battle. After the disaster at Thermopylae, the Athenian fleet met the Persians in the straits off the island of Salamis. This time the Greeks won, and the next year, in 479 BCE, the Greeks decisively defeated the Persians in a land battle at Plataea. This event is considered the start of the Classical Age.


After Persia was repelled, Athens’s power grew. Democratic reforms spread and culture flourished. The city also established the Delian League, a group of allied Greek city-states, to continue defending itself against possible Persian attacks. The other Greek superpower, Sparta, continued to be Athens’s ally, technically, but the relationship broke down through the 400s BCE. Athens, bolstered by a strong navy, seized more and more power. Open war broke out in 431, with Sparta arguing it was trying to free Greece from the iron fist of Athens.

For more than one-quarter of a century, the two powers struggled against one another, but eventually Athens lost. In 404 BCE, Sparta and her allies, the Peloponnesian League, finally captured the city of Athens, destroyed its navy, and forced it to surrender, ending the Peloponnesian War.

Some ancient Greeks believed Athens deserved its fate—that the city had used its political might unfairly. However, its power had strengthened much of Greece. Although Sparta emerged victorious from the Peloponnesian War, it was less effective as a governing force, and constant squabbling among the city-states left Greece, as a whole, weaker.


With Athens and Sparta weakened, the Greek state of Macedon grew in power during the 300s BCE under the rule of King Philip II. When Philip’s son Alexander, called “the Great,” assumed the throne in 336 BCE, he wished to further increase the reach of Macedon and Greece. During his short reign, from 336 to 323 BCE, Alexander conquered lands south to Egypt and east into Asia, extending the Greek borders by some 3,000 miles (4,800 km).3 He finally defeated the Persian Empire, which had threatened the Greeks for a long time.

Under Alexander, the Greek city-states lost much of their independence. He decided a network of separate entities, each with its own political agenda, was a threat to his absolute authority. Instead, he marched through Greece, bringing any people he encountered under his command—some by intimidation and others by force.

Alexander was a killing machine with little regard for those around him. He was also a brilliant general who achieved an astonishing amount during a short time. He stated that his mission was to free the Greeks, once and for all, from Persian control, and to unite the city-states under the banner

of Panhellenism—a more homogenous Greek way of life. He did, indeed, achieve these goals, spreading the Greek empire thousands of miles. But becoming an empire brought changes. The center of cultural innovation shifted from the Greek mainland to new colonial cities, where purely Greek culture mixed with outside influences. Building upon the traditions of classical Greece, the new Hellenistic era began with Alexander’s death and spawned its own art and ideas, including advances in science and technology.