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800-335 BC The Era Of The Polis

As early as 900 BC, Greece again expanded contacts with civilizations to the east, and Greek civilization became more complex. The rise of empires, most notably the Athenian Empire, brought a more sophisticated economy, trade, colonization, and war. Developments in the eighth century BC enabled states to reemerge. The ports of Argos and Corinth, on the eastern shore of the Peloponnesus, grew very fast, trade with the Near East began to flourish, and increased domestic production enabled a new, wealthy elite to rise. Commercial activity centered on the acquisition of metals from the Near East for the manufacture of luxury goods. In this process, the Greeks came in contact with and adopted the alphabet of the Phoenicians, as well as other innovations that accelerated change in Greek civilization.

Between 750 and 500 BC, the Greeks founded colonies in many parts of the Mediterranean Basin and the Black Sea, beginning to exert their cultural influence, which remains in these regions to the present day. Around 730 B.C., permanent Greek colonies were established, based on the metals trade at Ischia and Pithecusai on the coast of Italy. Shortly thereafter, Corinth sent out agricultural settlers to Corfu (Kerkira) off the coast of northwest Greece and to Syracuse on Sicily. These settlements set the trend for the earliest colonization movement to the west. Southern Italy and Sicily became known as Magna Graecia (Great Greece) because of the extent and density of colonization that followed the initial ventures. More than 150 colonies were established in Italy, along the coast of northern Greece, in the Bosporus, and on the Black Sea coast. The chief incentive for colonization was the need for additional land for agriculture and living space to accommodate population growth; colonies established by other civilizations, such as Miletus in Asia Minor, also challenged the Greeks to expand.

The concept of the polis (city-state) began to evolve with the development of aristocratic clans to replace chiefdoms. Clan rivalries yielded single powerful figures who were termed tyrants because they achieved domination in outright power struggles within the aristocratic group and among clan centers. Because they often were marginal clan members, the success of the tyrants created a new criterion for power: ability rather than birth. This change was a crucial element in the development of the polis, which came to be a politically unified community covering an average of 200 square kilometers and based on a small urban center. When the tyrants were overthrown after one to three generations, the institutionalized structure they created remained and became an important legacy to the modern world.

In the eighth century and early seventh century BC, Sparta began to develop as a militant polis with a rigid social structure and a government that included an assembly representing all citizens. Meanwhile, Athens became the largest polis, combining several regions of the peninsula of Attica. Under the leadership of the aristocrat Solon, Athens developed a social system in which power was based on wealth rather than aristocratic birth. Citizens of various wealth categories were allotted different positions of power. Thus, in different ways Sparta and Athens built states that included wider sectors of society in their political activity than had any previous society, and the basis of democracy was laid.

The whole of Hellas used once to carry arms, their habitations being unprotected and their communication with each other unsafe; indeed, to wear arms was as much a part of everyday life with them as with the barbarians. The Athenians were the first to lay aside their weapons, and to adopt an easier and more luxurious mode of life; indeed, it was only lately that their rich old men left off the luxury of wearing undergarments of linen, and fastening a knot of their hair with a tie of golden grasshoppers, a fashion which spread to their Ionian kindred and long prevailed among the old men there. On the contrary, a modest style of dressing was first adopted by the Lacedaemonians, the rich doing their best to assimilate their way of life to that of the common people.

The consolidation of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great in the sixth century BC posed a major threat to the fledgling states of Greece. The resolution of the clash between East and West was to shape the entire future of the region. For the Greeks, it was a question of survival; for the Persians, on the other hand, occupation of Greece was simply part of their imperial plan. Nonetheless, the Persian Wars are significant because they resulted in a separation between Greece and the Near East after centuries of fruitful interaction.

The First Persian War in 490 BC was a brief affair. Intending to punish Athens for its participation in a raid in Asia Minor, Persia sent a small force by Persian standards, about 20,000 infantry and 800 cavalry. The Greeks met this force with 10,000 troops at the plain of Marathon on the west coast of Attica. The combination of Greek tactics, the superiority of their armor, and the new phalanx formation proved decisive in the battle; the Persians were routed.

The Second Persian War of 481-479 BC was a very different proposition. Persia's king, Xerxes, planned to lead a huge expedition to conquer all the Greek states. The Greeks formed the Hellenic League, which included Sparta and its allied states. Other Greek states went over to the Persian side. In 480 BC, Xerxes invaded Greece with a huge fleet and an army of over 100,000 men, it is said. After overcoming fierce Spartan resistance at Thermopylae [the Hot Gates], the Persians occupied central Greece and the Greeks retreated south to the Peloponnesus. The Attic Peninsula was taken and Athens sacked. On the seas, however, the Greeks completely destroyed the Persian fleet in the Bay of Salamis. Xerxes retreated hastily to Asia then suffered a great land defeat the next year at the Battle of Plataia, in which the superiority of Greek armor and tactics was the deciding factor. Persian expansionism never threatened Greece again.

The most important result of the Persian Wars was a barrier between Greece and the Near East that ruptured a vibrant cultural zone including Phoenicia, Lydia, Egypt, and other cultures of the Near East. The barrier would not be broken until the middle of the next century, and the concept of a divided Asia and Europe became permanent.

Once the Persian menace had been removed, petty squabbling began amongst the members of the Hellenic League. Sparta, feeling that its job was completed, left the association, and Athens assumed domination of the league. Under the leadership of Themistocles and Kimon, Athens reformed the alliance into a new body called the Delian League. By using monetary contributions from other member states to build its own military forces, Athens essentially transformed the Hellenic League into its own empire. In the 450s BC, Pericles (ca. 495-429 BC), known as the greatest statesman of ancient Greece, laid the foundation of imperial rule. Athens set the level of tribute for the member states, which were now subject to its dictates, and it dealt harshly with failures to pay. Athens also began regulating the internal policy of the other states and occasionally garrisoning soldiers there. At its height in the 440s BC, the Athenian Empire was composed of 172 tribute-paying states. Athens now controlled the Aegean.

The enormous wealth entering Athens from subject states financed the flourishing of democratic institutions, literature, art, and architecture that came to be known as the golden age of Athens. Pericles built great architectural monuments, including the Parthenon, to employ workers and symbolize the majesty of Athens. The four greatest Greek playwrights -- Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles -- wrote during the golden age. In society and government, lower-class Athenians were able to improve their social position by obtaining land in the subject states. Pericles gave more governing power to bodies that represented the citizenship as a whole, known as the demos. For the first time, men were paid to participate in government organizations and sit on juries. Many states outside the empire felt quite threatened by the growth of Athens, creating a volatile situation in the mid-fifth century BC.

Hostility toward Athens brought about the longest war of antiquity, the Peloponnesian War (also called the Great Peloponnesian War to distinguish it from an earlier conflict in the Peloponnesus between 460 and 445 BC). In 431 BC, Athens faced a loose alliance headed by Sparta. The first phase of the war (431-421 BC) pitted the most powerful fleet in the Mediterranean (Athens) against one of the strongest armies ever assembled in the ancient world. In this phase, Athens abandoned the countryside of Attica to the invading Spartans, who reinvaded Attica every year attempting to force the surrender of the population within the city walls. After neither strategy gained a decisive advantage, a peace was signed in 421 BC. The second phase began in 414 BC, when Sparta repulsed an Athenian invasion of Sicily. With aid from Persia, Sparta built a large navy that finally destroyed the Athenian navy in 404 BC at Aigispotamoi. Thus ended the Athenian Empire and the golden age.

Following the collapse of Athens, Sparta controlled an empire that encompassed much of present-day Greece. Sparta's tenure as head of the empire was shortened, however, by a combination of poor leadership, wars with Persia and with Sparta's former allies, and social weakness at home. Sparta suffered a drastic shortage of manpower, and society neared revolution because of the huge amounts of wealth falling into the hands of a few. Thebes, Thessaly, and a resurgent Athens each was able to carve out small domains for themselves because of Spartan ineptitude. In the next fifty years, however, Sparta's rivals obtained only temporary advantages over other ambitious states. Thebes, for example, crushed the Spartan army at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, dominated the peninsula for ten years, then declined rapidly. In the fourth century BC, many Greek states suffered bloody class struggles over money and land. During this conflict, the kings of Persia contributed large amounts of money to whichever side would provide the best advantage to Persian interests.

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Page last modified: 29-09-2012 18:37:29 ZULU