28 Classical Greece

Classical Greece was a 200-year period in Greek culture lasting from the 5th to the 4th centuries BCE. This period saw the annexation of much of modern-day Greece by the Persian Empire, as well as its subsequent independence. Classical Greece also had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire, and greatly influenced the foundations of Western civilization. Much of modern Western politics, artistic and scientific thought, literature, and philosophy derives from this period of Greek history. The classical period was preceded by the Archaic period, and was succeeded by the Hellenistic period.(5)

Rise of the City-States

The term “city-state,” which is English in origin, does not fully translate the Greek term for these same entities, polis. Poleis were different from ancient city-states in that they were ruled by bodies of the citizens who lived there. Many were initially established, as in Sparta, via a network of villages, with a governance center being established in a central urban center. As notions of citizenship rose to prominence among landowners, polis came to embody an entire body of citizens and the term could be used to describe the populace of a place, rather than the physical location itself.

Basic elements of a polis often included the following:

  • Self-governance, autonomy, and independence
  • A social hub and financial marketplace, called an agora
  • Urban planning and architecture
  • Temples, altars, and other sacred precincts, many of which would be dedicated to the patron deity of the city
  • Public spaces, such as gymnasia and theaters
  • Defensive walls to protect against invasion
  • Coinage minted by the city

Polis were established and expanded by synoecism, or the absorption of nearby villages and tribes. Most cities were composed of several tribes that were in turn composed of groups sharing common ancestry, and their extended families. Territory was a less helpful means of thinking about the shape of a polis than regions of shared religious and political associations.

Dwellers of a polis were typically divided into four separate social classes, with an individual’s status usually being determined at birth. Free adult men born of legitimate citizens were considered citizens with full legal and political rights, including the right to vote, be elected into office, and bear arms, with the obligation to serve in the army during wartime. The female relatives and underage children of full citizens were also considered citizens, but they had no formal political rights. They were typically represented within society by their adult male relatives. Citizens of other poleis who chose to reside in a different polis possessed full rights in their place of origin, but had no political rights in their new place of residence. Otherwise, such citizens had full personal and property rights subject to taxation. Finally, slaves were considered possessions of their owner and had no rights or privileges other than those granted by their owner.(5)

Greco-Persian Wars

The Greco-Persian Wars, also referred to as the Persian Wars, were a series of conflicts that began in 499 BCE and lasted until 449 BCE, between the Achaemenid Empire of Persia (modern-day Iran) and Greek city-states. The conflict began when Cyrus the Great conquered the Greek-inhabited region of Ionia in 547 BCE. After struggling to control the cities of Ionia, the Persians appointed tyrants to rule each of them. When the tyrant of Miletus embarked on an unsuccessful expedition to conquer the island of Naxos with Persian support, however, a rebellion was incited throughout Hellenic Asia Minor against the Persians. This rebellion, known as the Ionian Revolt, lasted until 493 BCE, and drew increasingly more regions throughout Asia Minor into the conflict.

Eventually the Ionians suffered a decisive defeat and the rebellion collapsed. Subsequently, Darius the Great, the Persian ruler, sought to secure his empire from further revolts and interference from the mainland Greeks, and embarked upon a scheme to conquer all of Greece. The first Persian invasion of Greece began in 492 BCE, and was successful in conquering Macedon and re-subjugating Thrace. In 490 BCE, a second force was sent to Greece across the Aegean Sea, successfully subjugating the Cyclades. However, the Persians were defeated by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon, putting a halt to Darius’s plan until his death in 486 BCE.

In 480 BCE, Darius’s son, Xerxes, personally led the second Persian invasion of Greece with one of the largest ancient armies ever assembled. His invasion was successful and Athens was burned. However, the following year, the Allied Greek states went on the offensive, defeating the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea and ending the invasion of Greece. The Greeks continued to expel Persian forces from Greece and surrounding areas, but the actions of Spartan General Pausanias at the siege of Byzantium alienated many of the Greek states from the Spartans, causing the anti-Persian alliance to be reconstituted around Athenian leadership in what became known as the Delian League. The Delian League continued the campaign against the Persians for the next three decades. Some historical sources suggest the end of hostilities between the Greeks and the Persians was marked by a peace treaty between Athens and Persia, called the Peace of Callias.(5)

Athenian Democracy

A marble portrait bust of Solon, the Athenian statesman and lawmaker, c. 640–c. 560 BCE. (National Archaeological Museum, Naples)
Kpjas | Public Domain

Athenian democracy developed around the 5th century BCE, in the Greek city-state of Athens. It is the first known democracy in the world. Other Greek cities set up democracies, most following the Athenian model, but none are as well documented as Athens. Athenian democracy was a system of direct democracy, in which participating citizens voted directly on legislation and executive bills. Participation was open to adult, land-owning men, which historians estimate numbered between 30,000 and 50,000 individuals, out of a total population of approximately 250,000 to 300,000.

Before the first attempt at democratic government, Athens was ruled by a series of archons, or chief magistrates, and the Areopagus, which was made up of ex-archons. Archons were typically aristocrats who ruled to their own advantage. Additionally, a series of laws codified by Draco in 621 BCE reinforced the power of the aristocracy over all other citizens. A mediator called Solon reshaped the city-state by restructuring the way citizenship was defined in order to absorb the traditional aristocracy within it, and established the right of every Athenian to participate in meetings of governing assemblies. The Areopagus, however, retained ultimate lawmaking authorities.(5)

Solon (c. 640–c. 560 BCE) was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet, who is credited with restructuring the social and political organization of Athens and thereby laying the foundations for Athenian democracy.(19)

Athens was facing a period of economic crisis and the particular problem that ownership of agricultural land had become over-concentrated into the hands of a small aristocracy. This meant that a significant number of citizens were forced to work as dependents (hektemoroi) to the landed class to whom they paid a share (one sixth) of their crops or even become slaves if they could not pay their debts. Solon was charged with finding a remedy for this increasing problem and given the title of diallaktes or mediator. Ancient writers suggest that, in a radical move, Solon proposed to cancel all debts. To prevent poor workers slipping into slavery, Solon also forbade the use of one’s person or family members as security on loans. Those hektemoroi who had become slaves through debt were freed from their bondage.

Besides changing debt practices Solon also re-structured the Athenian class system, creating four distinct groups classified by agricultural production, and therefore, wealth. These were: the pentakosoimedimnoihippeiszeugitai, and thetes. This four-class classification also gave certain political rights. Thetes could participate in the Athenian assembly and jury system but they could not hold high political office. That privilege was reserved for the pentakosoimedimnoi and hippeis only. The zeugitai could hold minor positions in Athens’ institutions. Solon also created a council of 400 which prepared business for deliberation by the larger plebeian assembly.

For the poor these political changes perhaps did not alter their lives very much but it certainly did for the richer, landed class who could now be on level terms with the traditional Athenian aristocracy. Previously, the latter had dominated politics but now positions were based on property ownership only and not family ties.

Solon produced, then, a new law code. Athens had previously worked according to Draco’s Law Code, produced c. 621 BCE. Draco’s laws regarding murder were preserved but, otherwise, these sometimes harsh decrees were abandoned or modified by Solon. Set down on wooden beams (axones), then later carved in stone, these new laws (and many subsequent ones) became associated with Solon for the next 200 years, such was the lawmaker’s lasting reputation.(19)


Bust of Cleisthenes. Modern bust of Cleisthenes, known as “the father of Athenian democracy,” on view at the Ohio Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio. Cleisthenes, the father of Greek democracy, reformed traditional Athenian government controlled by ruling tribes into the first government “of the people” (a demos, or democracy).
Wikimedia | CC BY-SA

In 510 BCE, Spartan troops helped the Athenians overthrow their king, the tyrant Hippias, son of Peisistratos. Cleomenes I, king of Sparta, put in place a pro-Spartan oligarchy headed by Isagoras. But his rival, Cleisthenes, with the support of the middle class and aided by democrats, managed to take over. Cleomenes intervened in 508 and 506 BCE, but could not stop Cleisthenes, who was then supported by the Athenians. Through his reforms, the people endowed their city with institutions furnished with equal rights (i.e., isonomic institutions), and established ostracism, a procedure by which any citizen could be expelled from the city-state of Athens for ten years.(5)

The isonomic and isegoric democracy was first organized into about 130 demes— political subdivisions created throughout Attica. Ten thousand citizens exercised their power via an assembly (the ekklesia, in Greek), of which they all were a part, that was headed by a council of 500 citizens chosen at random. The city’s administrative geography was reworked, the goal being to have mixed political groups—not federated by local interests linked to the sea, the city, or farming—whose decisions (declaration of war, etc.) would depend on their geographical situations. The territory of the city was subsequently divided into 30 trittyes. It was this corpus of reforms that would allow the emergence of a wider democracy in the 460s and 450s BCE.(5)

The Pre-Socratic Philosophical Tradition

The Pre-Socratic philosophers, following Thales’ lead, initiated what would become the scientific method in exploring natural phenomena. The first group of Greek philosophers is a triad of Milesian thinkers: Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. Their main concern was to come up with a cosmological theory purely based on natural phenomena. Their approach required the rejection of all traditional explanations based on religious authority, dogma, myth and superstition. They all agreed on the notion that all things come from a single “primal substance”: Thales believed it was water; Anaximander said it was a substance different from all other known substances, “infinite, eternal and ageless”; and Anaximenes claimed it was air.

Observation was also important among the Milesian school. Thales predicted an eclipse which took place in 585 BCE and it seems he had been able to calculate the distance of a ship at sea from observations taken at two points. Anaximander, based on the fact that human infants are helpless at birth, argued that if the first human had somehow appeared on earth as an infant, it would not have survived: therefore, humans have evolved from other animals whose offspring are fitter.(10)


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