Lecture: Ancient Greece

Greek geography

Whether you believe in geographic determinism or not, there is no doubt that ancient Greek people and culture were influenced by geography. The Peloponnesian peninsula and its surrounding islands contain soil that is sandy, rocky, and doesn't hold water well. This meant that the people there raised plants and animals that thrived in those conditions: goats, sheep, olive trees, and grapes. Because of the rocky terrain, settlements formed in isolation from each other. Historians think that these conditions cause competition between settlements whose people didn't know each other well.

The Minoans

Ancient Greek civilization did not begin on the mainland, but rather on the island of Crete. We know much about the Minoan civilization (so called from the 19th century in reference to King Minos, legendary king of Crete) from archaeological remains, particularly the Palace at Knossos. The Palace was built between 1700 and 1400 BC, in a configuration so complex it has been considered the origin of the myth of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. A reconstruction:


The complex hallways may have been designed to confuse visitors and possible invaders. Certainly ancient Crete had no other fortifications, suggesting that they lived at peace with their neighbors in a network of extensive trade. Among the indications of complex culture are images of men and women engaged in dance, celebrations, and activities related to the bull, which was likely an animal of religious worship.

Paintings on the walls of Knossos indicate that a sporting event (which I call "bull jumping") was dangerous but popular for both men and women (men are painted in red, women in white). This is assumed to be an action cartoon of how the sport was done:

Fresco of bull jumping

The many legends of ancient Crete were passed down to us through the stories of Homer, much later. The Minoan civilization disappeared. Around 1500 BC, the volcano known as Thera (or Santorini) seems to have erupted, although historians differ on its possible effects.

The Mycenaeans

Bronze age Greece mapThe civilization which developed on the mainland was not as peaceful. The designation "Myceanaean" has been given to the era of ancient Greek history from about 1600-1100 BC.

The warlike, piratical Myceaneans were the source of the Greek pantheon of gods and the traditional origin of the warriors of Sparta. Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenean archaeological remains feature massive fortifications. The goods found in graves were of extraordinary wealth and workmanship, including this famous "mask of Agamemnon" found by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s:

Mask of Agamemnon

Since it was made around 1500 BC, it was likely before the time of King Agamemnon, a legendary figure who participated in the Trojan War (traditionally dated 1194–1184 BC) and immortalized by Homer in The Iliad.


The ancient Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey (both dated around the 8th century BC) are attributed to the epic poet Homer. Because we don't know exactly when he lived, or when anything was written down, it is best for historians to refer to the stories themselves as comprising the Greeks' understanding of their own history and culture. Clearly the epics derive from a long oral tradition, and thus the written versions are not as important as the narratives contained therein. They were composed, when written, into complex and beautiful hexameter verse.

The Iliad is set during the Trojan War and tells the story of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans (Troy was on the coast of Anatolia, modern-day Turkey). The Odyssey, written later, centers on the story of Odysseus (called Ulysses by the Romans) and his journey home after the fall of Troy. Like all narratives later referrred to as "epic", themes such as heroism, loyalty and honor are key to both stories. The Odyssey also provides a model, taken up by many later narratives, of a young man becoming a full person through the challenges encountered on a journey (you can see this theme in many stories, from Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to Iron Man). Because the focus of both stories is on the individuals and their decisions, these epic works can be seen as harbingers of the Greek aspect of individualism, which we do not see in the narratives of ancient Mespotamia or Egypt.

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Development of the Polis

By the 5th century BC (the Golden Age) several settlements had developed politically, in many cases beginning as monarchies (Crete, Mycenae and Troy were all monarchies). Monarchy means "rule by the one" in Greek (mono=one, archy=rule). There seems to be a pattern of political development. A king would be challenged by nobles and warriors, who would take over, creating an oligarchy (rule by the few). When one person leads the people in revolt against the oligarchy, he is considered a tyrant when he becomes sole ruler, but unlike a monarch his source of support is the will of the people (tyranny). When the people take down a tyrant and rule themselves, it is considered democracy (demos=people, cracy=form of government).

Many city-states developed in Greece, and each polis (city-state) went through several forms government, most in this pattern, before the 5th century. We will focus on two for contrast: Sparta and Athens.

Lakonian warriorSparta considered itself the inheritor of ancient Mycenae. Geographically, the Spartans resided in the heart of the Peloponese on mainland Greece, in an area where farming was difficult. By 650 BC, Sparta was a major military power, their primary source of labor being the helots. Helots were serfs, agricultural laborers, who had originally been Messenians captured in war. True Spartans engaged almost exclusively in war. Children born deformed were left out to die, and sons were sent to the barracks at the age of 7 to be raised in the military. Once an adult, a young man was expected to find a woman and get married, but had to escape from the barracks to do so. Upon retirement, Spartan males were expected to become elders and continue serving the state as advisors in the government. Spartan women were expected to be physically and mentally strong, able to raise strong children and manage estates. At left you can see a warrior from the 6th century, painted on a vase by one of the great Spartan artists.

Athens considered itself the inheritor of the Ionians, who were a more peaceful, intellectual people in legendary times. Athens' geographic location made sea trade, and a sea-based life, natural. Athens created a great trading empire after 900 BC, engaging in military (primarily naval) exploits in order to expand its control over trade in the Aegean. Athens went through the political stages in order, and democracy emerged under the leader Cleisthenes in 508 BC. In assisting the Ionian colonies along the coast of Anatolia, Athens came up against the great Persian Empire.

The Greco-Persian Wars featured both Athens and Sparta fighting the Persians from 499-449 BC. The facts of this war can be read anywhere, but when it was over Athens experience the Golden Age in which culture developed in ways that were passed down to modern Western civilization. This will be our focus.

The Golden Age of Athens

Modern Americans love the golden age because it features democracy, but the democracy of ancient Greece was not like ours. Only adult, male, free citizens could vote. Economically, almost all poleis relied on slave labor, allowing the upper classes to engage in other pursuits. In Athens, this group comprised about 6,000 men. They met in the agora (marketplace) to discuss and vote on issues. This was direct democracy, without named or elected representatives -- a consensus was needed for action. 6,000 men arguing an issue was impossible. What happened was that leaders would emerge from within the group, men who could sway the crowd with their oratory and arguments.

Since most elite young men, and their families, sought political power, it became essential for them to learn to speak well in public. Education of this class of men took place with private tutors paid for by their families, so teachers who specialized in rhetoric were valuable. Such "Sophists", far from emphasizing the development of a full education, instead focused on argumentation and the ability to convince others. One teacher, Socrates, objected to this approach as being amoral. Ethics were not taught with these methods, and students were not developing in terms of morality or character, only political influence. Socrates saw this as a threat to the wisdom of his civilization. He began teaching young men using a method designed to encouraged moral and ethical examination of ones own ideas. In other words, he emphasized critical thinking!

Unfortunately, at the time he was doing this there was conflict with Sparta, and the government of Athens saw Socrates as a threat to the unity they needed to face a possible war. Afraid that Socrates was encouraging individual morality (including the right to say no to a military draft), they accused him of impiety and corruption of the young. Because Socrates believed in universal morality, and the right of the state to make its own laws, he did not try to escape his punishment, but took poison rather than face execution. His student Plato, however, never forgave the government of Athens and wrote later about the wisdom of his teacher and the need for a republic where leaders of government were philosophers rather than those who sought power.

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Philosophy thus became a hallmark of ancient Athens, where people argued ethics, politics and power. They also studied nature, sponsoring "natural philosophers" (we would call them scientists) who would make extraordinary discoveries later during the 3rd century BC, the Hellenistic era.

Man and boy - attic potteryBoth Socrates and the Sophists were part of the educational system of the ancient west. The educational system that provided the foundation for learning in 5th century Athens was based on a male-focused system. Formal education took place between a boy and his tutor. This relationship was special -- the tutor taught the boy not only academic subjects but about life itself, including sex. The free, elite Greek male life cycle was to be copied in later times. Sexuality was not a separate subject of study, nor something to hide. As boys, Greek men were expected to learn sexually from their tutors. As young men, they were expected to date women, get married and become fathers. As older men, they were expected to tutor boys. Although ancient Greeks did not really have a concept of "homosexuality" or "heterosexuality", they considered the same-sex relationship normal in boyhood and old age, and the male-female exclusive relationship normal in mid-life. Anyone deviating in either direction (such as an old man still chasing women, or a 25-year-old continuing with gay relationships) was considered abnormal. You can see a man and boy on this Attic pottery drinking cup from the 6th c. BC.

Some women in elite families also developed educational systems, although many women were expected to dominate in the domestic sphere. Educated women ran schools and academies for other women. The great teacher and poet Sappho, who founded a school on the island of Lesbos, fell in love with some of her female students and thus provided us with terms like "lesbian" and "Sapphic love". Her poetry, unfortunately, exists now in only bits and pieces, but we have enough to read her "lyric" style, which was focused on personal feelings and very different from Homeric-style "epic" poetry.

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Other women became important politically. Ancient Athens boasted women known as courtesans, who provided men with sexual pleasure but were also educated. They were not ordinary prostitutes or street-walkers, but were literate and moved within society. Although frowned upon by wealthy and "respectable" Athenian wives, who were usually escorted everywhere by a companion or slave, they enjoyed great freedom. Because they catered to powerful men, they could exert significant influence. The most famous example is Aspasia, courtesan to Pericles, who may even have written some of his great speeches for him.

Greek theatre

In addition to poetry, rhetoric, and science, Golden Age Athens was known for theatre. "Tragedies" were performed stories based on a high-ranking member of society (such as a king or queen) meeting his/her downfall through hubris, or excessive pride. In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, for example, the king Oedipus tries to avoid the fate told to him by an oracle: that he will kill his father and marry his mother. His own hubris encourages him to believe he can avoid this fate, but it happens anyway by accident. His humiliation and downfall lead him to blind himself in remorse at the end of the play, a man defeated by his own pride.

"Comedies" were more contemporary, sort of like an Athenian version of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Because they often feature contemporary jokes, they are harder to understand in our day than the tragedies. However, some still feature universal themes. Comedies had to be about ordinary people, who are usually shown outsmarting their "betters". In Aristophanes' Lysistrata, the wives of soldiers go on strike, refusing sex to their men until they stop engaging in war. It is possible to see this play as pro-war (encouraging men to ignore their wives and get going) or anti-war, but either way one can see the Athenian concern with war, particularly with the rise of Sparta.

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Athena replica

Greek art

Art and architecture were particularly good at showing the Greek emphasis on balance and moderation, and again Athenian artists were at the forefront. The Parthenon, completed in 438 BC, clearly demonstrated Athenian priorities, and by extension ancient Greek values. The building is highly symmetrical and perfectly proportioned. In everything, Greeks valued moderation and rationality. Mathematicians such as Pythagorus practiced philosophy during this time.

Inside the Parthenon, there was a huge 40-foot statue of Athena, painted and gilded. In fact, the vision we have of Greek art and architecture as being all white marble is completely wrong. Athenians painted and gilded much of their art. In 1990, artists in Nashville, Tennessee, created a modern replica of the statue of Athena, but it was plain white until 2002, when they gilded it to make it appear as it would have in ancient Athens. It's shown here (right) with its sculptor, Alan LeQuire.

Getty kouros<- My favorite Greek statue (left), showing the free-standing, positive style that expresses Greek pride and craftsmanship, may be a fake. This is the Getty Kouros, purchased by the Getty Museum (you can go see it in LA). If it's real it's dated about 530 BC, before the Golden Age, but it clearly represents not only the balance and moderation that are part of ancient Greek culture, but the positive image of the male body.

The male figure was a significat cultural icon in ancient Greece, and the male body the ultimate symbol of beauty. Women were beautiful too, but statues of them tend to be clothed. The moment in a male's life when he became a man was of fascination to ancient Greeks, and may be a reflection of what became the universal story of boy-becoming-man featured in epics from Homer to the present.

The Golden Age ended with the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. I often joke that democracy is not an efficient way to run a government, especially when you're under attack. The two great powers of the Aegean had almost come to blows over rebellions in their colonies and among their separate allies. Athenian trade sanctions led to resistance and ultimately war. Although through much of the war Sparta won on land and Athens won at sea, a number of circumstances led to an Athenian naval defeat, and Sparta starved out Athens and won the war. Democracy was suspended, and although Athens survived, the Golden Age was over. Its narrative would be revived by Alexander the Great.

Here is a half hour about Greek art, beginning with its significance to us and concluding with some examples of the style from the Hellenistic Era (our topic next week). Video study guide is here - print and fill it out as you watch.

Lessons of History

1. It may be more important how cultures interpret their origins in narrative than the actual facts of those origins. In this sense, peoples develop their own history over time.

2. The Golden Age of Greece features aspect with which we are still very familiar (such as epics, tragedy and poetry) and others which don't fit with our current conceptions (the male sexual life cycle).

3. Ancient Greeks valued the male form, balance and moderation, and philosophical endeavors.



All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.