Ancient Greece in 18 minutes

Ancient Greece in 18 minutes


Homer, The Minotaur, 300 spartans, Greek theatre, Parthenon, democracy — everything that you once knew, but forgot, in a crash course video by Arzamas.

Narrated by Brian Cox.

Prometheus was one of the first Titans to be thrown out by Zeus and the other Olympians, but he was miraculously one of only a handful to avoid imprisonment in Tartarus. Prometheus continually clashed with Zeus, and after Zeus took fire away from humans, Prometheus stole it back and returned it to mankind. As a punishment, the gods tied him to a stone in the Caucasus mountains forever while a hawk (the image of Zeus) would travel to the rock and eat his liver. Since he was immortal, his liver perpetually renewed itself, ready for the cycle to continue again the following day. In the end, Hercules liberated Prometheus from his torment.


Classical antiquity in the Mediterranean region is commonly considered to have begun in the 8th century BC [5] (around the time of the earliest recorded poetry of Homer) and ended in the 6th century AD.

Classical antiquity in Greece was preceded by the Greek Dark Ages (c. 1200 – c. 800 BC), archaeologically characterised by the protogeometric and geometric styles of designs on pottery. Following the Dark Ages was the Archaic Period, beginning around the 8th century BC, which saw early developments in Greek culture and society leading to the Classical Period [6] from the Persian invasion of Greece in 480 until the death of Alexander the Great in 323. [7] The Classical Period is characterized by a "classical" style, i.e. one which was considered exemplary by later observers, most famously in the Parthenon of Athens. Politically, the Classical Period was dominated by Athens and the Delian League during the 5th century, but displaced by Spartan hegemony during the early 4th century BC, before power shifted to Thebes and the Boeotian League and finally to the League of Corinth led by Macedon. This period was shaped by the Greco-Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian War, and the Rise of Macedon.

Following the Classical period was the Hellenistic period (323–146 BC), during which Greek culture and power expanded into the Near and Middle East from the death of Alexander until the Roman conquest. Roman Greece is usually counted from the Roman victory over the Corinthians at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BC to the establishment of Byzantium by Constantine as the capital of the Roman Empire in AD 330. Finally, Late Antiquity refers to the period of Christianization during the later 4th to early 6th centuries AD, consummated by the closure of the Academy of Athens by Justinian I in 529. [8]

The historical period of ancient Greece is unique in world history as the first period attested directly in comprehensive, narrative historiography, while earlier ancient history or protohistory is known from much more fragmentary documents such as annals, king lists, and pragmatic epigraphy.

Herodotus is widely known as the "father of history": his Histories are eponymous of the entire field. Written between the 450s and 420s BC, Herodotus' work reaches about a century into the past, discussing 6th century historical figures such as Darius I of Persia, Cambyses II and Psamtik III, and alluding to some 8th century persons such as Candaules. The accuracy of Herodotus' works is debated. [9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

Herodotus was succeeded by authors such as Thucydides, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Plato and Aristotle. Most were either Athenian or pro-Athenian, which is why far more is known about the history and politics of Athens than of many other cities. Their scope is further limited by a focus on political, military and diplomatic history, ignoring economic and social history. [14]

Archaic period

In the 8th century BC, Greece began to emerge from the Dark Ages which followed the collapse of Mycenaean civilization. Literacy had been lost and Mycenaean script forgotten, but the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, modifying it to create the Greek alphabet. Objects inscribed with Phoenician writing may have been available in Greece from the 9th century BC, but the earliest evidence of Greek writing comes from graffiti on Greek pottery from the mid-8th century. [15] Greece was divided into many small self-governing communities, a pattern largely dictated by its geography: every island, valley and plain is cut off from its neighbors by the sea or mountain ranges. [16]

The Lelantine War (c. 710 – c. 650 BC) is the earliest documented war of the ancient Greek period. It was fought between the important poleis (city-states) of Chalcis and Eretria over the fertile Lelantine plain of Euboea. Both cities seem to have suffered a decline as a result of the long war, though Chalcis was the nominal victor.

A mercantile class arose in the first half of the 7th century BC, shown by the introduction of coinage in about 680 BC. [17] This seems to have introduced tension to many city-states, as their aristocratic regimes were threatened by the new wealth of merchants ambitious for political power. From 650 BC onwards, the aristocracies had to fight to maintain themselves against populist tyrants. [a] A growing population and a shortage of land also seem to have created internal strife between rich and poor in many city-states.

In Sparta, the Messenian Wars resulted in the conquest of Messenia and enserfment of the Messenians, beginning in the latter half of the 8th century BC. This was an unprecedented act in ancient Greece, which led to a social revolution [20] in which the subjugated population of helots farmed and labored for Sparta, whilst every Spartan male citizen became a soldier of the Spartan army permanently in arms. Rich and poor citizens alike were obliged to live and train as soldiers, an equality that defused social conflict. These reforms, attributed to Lycurgus of Sparta, were probably complete by 650 BC.

Athens suffered a land and agrarian crisis in the late 7th century BC, again resulting in civil strife. The Archon (chief magistrate) Draco made severe reforms to the law code in 621 BC (hence "draconian"), but these failed to quell the conflict. Eventually, the moderate reforms of Solon (594 BC), improving the lot of the poor but firmly entrenching the aristocracy in power, gave Athens some stability.

By the 6th century BC, several cities had emerged as dominant in Greek affairs: Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and Thebes. Each of them had brought the surrounding rural areas and smaller towns under their control, and Athens and Corinth had become major maritime and mercantile powers as well.

Rapidly increasing population in the 8th and 7th centuries BC had resulted in emigration of many Greeks to form colonies in Magna Graecia (Southern Italy and Sicily), Asia Minor and further afield. The emigration effectively ceased in the 6th century BC by which time the Greek world had, culturally and linguistically, become much larger than the area of present-day Greece. Greek colonies were not politically controlled by their founding cities, although they often retained religious and commercial links with them.

The Greek colonies of Sicily, especially Syracuse, were soon drawn into prolonged conflicts with the Carthaginians. These conflicts lasted from 600 BC to 265 BC, when the Roman Republic allied with the Mamertines to fend off the new tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero II, and then the Carthaginians. As a result, Rome became the new dominant power against the fading strength of the Sicilian Greek cities and the fading Carthaginian hegemony. One year later the First Punic War erupted.

In this period, Greece and its overseas colonies enjoyed huge economic development in commerce and manufacturing, with rising general prosperity. Some studies estimate that the average Greek household grew fivefold between 800 and 300 BC, indicating [ citation needed ] a large increase in average income.

In the second half of the 6th century BC, Athens fell under the tyranny of Peisistratos followed by his sons Hippias and Hipparchos. However, in 510 BC, at the instigation of the Athenian aristocrat Cleisthenes, the Spartan king Cleomenes I helped the Athenians overthrow the tyranny. Sparta and Athens promptly turned on each other, at which point Cleomenes I installed Isagoras as a pro-Spartan archon. Eager to secure Athens' independence from Spartan control, Cleisthenes proposed a political revolution: that all citizens share power, regardless of status, making Athens a "democracy". The democratic enthusiasm of the Athenians swept out Isagoras and threw back the Spartan-led invasion to restore him. [21] The advent of democracy cured many of the social ills of Athens and ushered in the Golden Age.

Classical Greece

In 499 BC, the Ionian city states under Persian rule rebelled against their Persian-supported tyrant rulers. [22] Supported by troops sent from Athens and Eretria, they advanced as far as Sardis and burnt the city before being driven back by a Persian counterattack. [23] The revolt continued until 494, when the rebelling Ionians were defeated. [24] Darius did not forget that Athens had assisted the Ionian revolt, and in 490 he assembled an armada to retaliate. [25] Though heavily outnumbered, the Athenians—supported by their Plataean allies—defeated the Persian hordes at the Battle of Marathon, and the Persian fleet turned tail. [26]

Ten years later, a second invasion was launched by Darius' son Xerxes. [27] The city-states of northern and central Greece submitted to the Persian forces without resistance, but a coalition of 31 Greek city states, including Athens and Sparta, determined to resist the Persian invaders. [28] At the same time, Greek Sicily was invaded by a Carthaginian force. [29] In 480 BC, the first major battle of the invasion was fought at Thermopylae, where a small rearguard of Greeks, led by three hundred Spartans, held a crucial pass guarding the heart of Greece for several days at the same time Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, defeated the Carthaginian invasion at the Battle of Himera. [30]

The Persians were decisively defeated at sea by a primarily Athenian naval force at the Battle of Salamis, and on land in 479 at the Battle of Plataea. [31] The alliance against Persia continued, initially led by the Spartan Pausanias but from 477 by Athens, [32] and by 460 Persia had been driven out of the Aegean. [33] During this long campaign, the Delian League gradually transformed from a defensive alliance of Greek states into an Athenian empire, as Athens' growing naval power intimidated the other league states. [34] Athens ended its campaigns against Persia in 450 BC, after a disastrous defeat in Egypt in 454 BC, and the death of Cimon in action against the Persians on Cyprus in 450. [35]

As the Athenian fight against the Persian empire waned, conflict grew between Athens and Sparta. Suspicious of the increasing Athenian power funded by the Delian League, Sparta offered aid to reluctant members of the League to rebel against Athenian domination. These tensions were exacerbated in 462 when Athens sent a force to aid Sparta in overcoming a helot revolt, but this aid was rejected by the Spartans. [36] In the 450s, Athens took control of Boeotia, and won victories over Aegina and Corinth. [37] However, Athens failed to win a decisive victory, and in 447 lost Boeotia again. [38] Athens and Sparta signed the Thirty Years' Peace in the winter of 446/5, ending the conflict. [39]

Despite the treaty, Athenian relations with Sparta declined again in the 430s, and in 431 the Peloponnesian War began. [40] The first phase of the war saw a series of fruitless annual invasions of Attica by Sparta, while Athens successfully fought the Corinthian empire in northwest Greece and defended its own empire, despite a plague which killed the leading Athenian statesman Pericles. [41] The war turned after Athenian victories led by Cleon at Pylos and Sphakteria, [42] and Sparta sued for peace, but the Athenians rejected the proposal. [43] The Athenian failure to regain control of Boeotia at Delium and Brasidas' successes in northern Greece in 424 improved Sparta's position after Sphakteria. [44] After the deaths of Cleon and Brasidas, the strongest proponents of war on each side, a peace treaty was negoitiated in 421 by the Athenian general Nicias. [45]

The peace did not last, however. In 418 allied forces of Athens and Argos were defeated by Sparta at Mantinea. [46] In 415 Athens launched an ambitious naval expedition to dominate Sicily [47] the expedition ended in disaster at the harbor of Syracuse, with almost the entire army killed and the ships destroyed. [48] Soon after the Athenian defeat in Syracuse, Athens' Ionian allies began to rebel against the Delian league, while Persia began to once again involve itself in Greek affairs on the Spartan side. [49] Initially the Athenian position continued relatively strong, with important victories at Cyzicus in 410 and Arginusae in 406. [50] However, in 405 the Spartan Lysander defeated Athens in the Battle of Aegospotami, and began to blockade Athens' harbour [51] driven by hunger, Athens sued for peace, agreeing to surrender their fleet and join the Spartan-led Peloponnesian League. [52]

Greece thus entered the 4th century BC under a Spartan hegemony, but it was clear from the start that this was weak. A drastically dwindling population meant Sparta was overstretched, and by 395 BC Athens, Argos, Thebes, and Corinth felt able to challenge Spartan dominance, resulting in the Corinthian War (395–387 BC). Another war of stalemates, it ended with the status quo restored, after the threat of Persian intervention on behalf of the Spartans.

The Spartan hegemony lasted another 16 years, until, when attempting to impose their will on the Thebans, the Spartans were defeated at Leuctra in 371 BC. The Theban general Epaminondas then led Theban troops into the Peloponnese, whereupon other city-states defected from the Spartan cause. The Thebans were thus able to march into Messenia and free the helot population.

Deprived of land and its serfs, Sparta declined to a second-rank power. The Theban hegemony thus established was short-lived at the Battle of Mantinea in 362 BC, Thebes lost its key leader, Epaminondas, and much of its manpower, even though they were victorious in battle. In fact, such were the losses to all the great city-states at Mantinea that none could dominate the aftermath.

The exhaustion of the Greek heartland coincided with the rise of Macedon, led by Philip II. In twenty years, Philip had unified his kingdom, expanded it north and west at the expense of Illyrian tribes, and then conquered Thessaly and Thrace. His success stemmed from his innovative reforms to the Macedonian army. Phillip intervened repeatedly in the affairs of the southern city-states, culminating in his invasion of 338 BC.

Decisively defeating an allied army of Thebes and Athens at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), he became de facto hegemon of all of Greece, except Sparta. He compelled the majority of the city-states to join the Hellenic League, allying them to him and imposing peace among them. Philip then entered into war against the Achaemenid Empire but was assassinated by Pausanias of Orestis early in the conflict.

Alexander, son and successor of Philip, continued the war. In an unequalled series of campaigns, Alexander defeated Darius III of Persia and completely destroyed the Achaemenid Empire, annexing it to Macedon and earning himself the epithet 'the Great'. When Alexander died in 323 BC, Greek power and influence were at their zenith. However, there had been a fundamental shift away from the fierce independence and classical culture of the poleis—and instead towards the developing Hellenistic culture.

Hellenistic Greece

The Hellenistic period lasted from 323 BC, the end of the wars of Alexander the Great, to the annexation of Greece by the Roman Republic in 146 BC. Although the establishment of Roman rule did not break the continuity of Hellenistic society and culture, which remained essentially unchanged until the advent of Christianity, it did mark the end of Greek political independence.

After the death of Alexander, his empire was, after quite some conflict, divided among his generals, resulting in the Ptolemaic Kingdom (Egypt and adjoining North Africa), the Seleucid Empire (the Levant, Mesopotamia and Persia) and the Antigonid dynasty (Macedonia). In the intervening period, the poleis of Greece were able to wrest back some of their freedom, although still nominally subject to Macedon.

During the Hellenistic period, the importance of "Greece proper" (the territory of modern Greece) within the Greek-speaking world declined sharply. The great capitals of Hellenistic culture were Alexandria in the Ptolemaic Kingdom and Antioch in the Seleucid Empire.

The conquests of Alexander had numerous consequences for the Greek city-states. It greatly widened the horizons of the Greeks and led to a steady emigration of the young and ambitious to the new Greek empires in the east. [53] Many Greeks migrated to Alexandria, Antioch and the many other new Hellenistic cities founded in Alexander's wake, as far away as present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and the Indo-Greek Kingdom survived until the end of the first century BC.

The city-states within Greece formed themselves into two leagues the Achaean League (including Thebes, Corinth and Argos) and the Aetolian League (including Sparta and Athens). For much of the period until the Roman conquest, these leagues were at war, often participating in the conflicts between the Diadochi (the successor states to Alexander's empire).

The Antigonid Kingdom became involved in a war with the Roman Republic in the late 3rd century. Although the First Macedonian War was inconclusive, the Romans, in typical fashion, continued to fight Macedon until it was completely absorbed into the Roman Republic (by 149 BC). In the east, the unwieldy Seleucid Empire gradually disintegrated, although a rump survived until 64 BC, whilst the Ptolemaic Kingdom continued in Egypt until 30 BC when it too was conquered by the Romans. The Aetolian league grew wary of Roman involvement in Greece, and sided with the Seleucids in the Roman–Seleucid War when the Romans were victorious, the league was effectively absorbed into the Republic. Although the Achaean league outlasted both the Aetolian league and Macedon, it was also soon defeated and absorbed by the Romans in 146 BC, bringing Greek independence to an end.

Roman Greece

The Greek peninsula came under Roman rule during the 146 BC conquest of Greece after the Battle of Corinth. Macedonia became a Roman province while southern Greece came under the surveillance of Macedonia's prefect however, some Greek poleis managed to maintain a partial independence and avoid taxation. The Aegean islands were added to this territory in 133 BC. Athens and other Greek cities revolted in 88 BC, and the peninsula was crushed by the Roman general Sulla. The Roman civil wars devastated the land even further, until Augustus organized the peninsula as the province of Achaea in 27 BC.

Greece was a key eastern province of the Roman Empire, as the Roman culture had long been in fact Greco-Roman. The Greek language served as a lingua franca in the East and in Italy, and many Greek intellectuals such as Galen would perform most of their work in Rome.


The territory of Greece is mountainous, and as a result, ancient Greece consisted of many smaller regions each with its own dialect, cultural peculiarities, and identity. Regionalism and regional conflicts were prominent features of ancient Greece. Cities tended to be located in valleys between mountains, or on coastal plains and dominated a certain area around them.

In the south lay the Peloponnese, itself consisting of the regions of Laconia (southeast), Messenia (southwest), Elis (west), Achaia (north), Korinthia (northeast), Argolis (east), and Arcadia (center). These names survive to the present day as regional units of modern Greece, though with somewhat different boundaries. Mainland Greece to the north, nowadays known as Central Greece, consisted of Aetolia and Acarnania in the west, Locris, Doris, and Phocis in the center, while in the east lay Boeotia, Attica, and Megaris. Northeast lay Thessaly, while Epirus lay to the northwest. Epirus stretched from the Ambracian Gulf in the south to the Ceraunian mountains and the Aoos river in the north, and consisted of Chaonia (north), Molossia (center), and Thesprotia (south). In the northeast corner was Macedonia, [54] originally consisting Lower Macedonia and its regions, such as Elimeia, Pieria, and Orestis. Around the time of Alexander I of Macedon, the Argead kings of Macedon started to expand into Upper Macedonia, lands inhabited by independent Macedonian tribes like the Lyncestae, Orestae and the Elimiotae and to the West, beyond the Axius river, into Eordaia, Bottiaea, Mygdonia, and Almopia, regions settled by Thracian tribes. [55] To the north of Macedonia lay various non-Greek peoples such as the Paeonians due north, the Thracians to the northeast, and the Illyrians, with whom the Macedonians were frequently in conflict, to the northwest. Chalcidice was settled early on by southern Greek colonists and was considered part of the Greek world, while from the late 2nd millennium BC substantial Greek settlement also occurred on the eastern shores of the Aegean, in Anatolia.


During the Archaic period, the Greek population grew beyond the capacity of the limited arable land of Greece proper, resulting in the large-scale establishment of colonies elsewhere: according to one estimate, the population of the widening area of Greek settlement increased roughly tenfold from 800 BC to 400 BC, from 800,000 to as many as 7½-10 million. [56]

From about 750 BC the Greeks began 250 years of expansion, settling colonies in all directions. To the east, the Aegean coast of Asia Minor was colonized first, followed by Cyprus and the coasts of Thrace, the Sea of Marmara and south coast of the Black Sea.

Eventually, Greek colonization reached as far northeast as present-day Ukraine and Russia (Taganrog). To the west the coasts of Illyria, Sicily and Southern Italy were settled, followed by Southern France, Corsica, and even eastern Spain. Greek colonies were also founded in Egypt and Libya.

Modern Syracuse, Naples, Marseille and Istanbul had their beginnings as the Greek colonies Syracusae (Συράκουσαι), Neapolis (Νεάπολις), Massalia (Μασσαλία) and Byzantion (Βυζάντιον). These colonies played an important role in the spread of Greek influence throughout Europe and also aided in the establishment of long-distance trading networks between the Greek city-states, boosting the economy of ancient Greece.

Political structure

Ancient Greece consisted of several hundred relatively independent city-states (poleis). This was a situation unlike that in most other contemporary societies, which were either tribal or kingdoms ruling over relatively large territories. Undoubtedly the geography of Greece—divided and sub-divided by hills, mountains, and rivers—contributed to the fragmentary nature of ancient Greece. On the one hand, the ancient Greeks had no doubt that they were "one people" they had the same religion, same basic culture, and same language. Furthermore, the Greeks were very aware of their tribal origins Herodotus was able to extensively categorise the city-states by tribe. Yet, although these higher-level relationships existed, they seem to have rarely had a major role in Greek politics. The independence of the poleis was fiercely defended unification was something rarely contemplated by the ancient Greeks. Even when, during the second Persian invasion of Greece, a group of city-states allied themselves to defend Greece, the vast majority of poleis remained neutral, and after the Persian defeat, the allies quickly returned to infighting. [58]

Thus, the major peculiarities of the ancient Greek political system were its fragmentary nature (and that this does not particularly seem to have tribal origin), and the particular focus on urban centers within otherwise tiny states. The peculiarities of the Greek system are further evidenced by the colonies that they set up throughout the Mediterranean Sea, which, though they might count a certain Greek polis as their 'mother' (and remain sympathetic to her), were completely independent of the founding city.

Inevitably smaller poleis might be dominated by larger neighbors, but conquest or direct rule by another city-state appears to have been quite rare. Instead the poleis grouped themselves into leagues, membership of which was in a constant state of flux. Later in the Classical period, the leagues would become fewer and larger, be dominated by one city (particularly Athens, Sparta and Thebes) and often poleis would be compelled to join under threat of war (or as part of a peace treaty). Even after Philip II of Macedon "conquered" the heartlands of ancient Greece, he did not attempt to annex the territory, or unify it into a new province, but simply compelled most of the poleis to join his own Corinthian League.

Government and law

Initially many Greek city-states seem to have been petty kingdoms there was often a city official carrying some residual, ceremonial functions of the king (basileus), e.g., the archon basileus in Athens. [59] However, by the Archaic period and the first historical consciousness, most had already become aristocratic oligarchies. It is unclear exactly how this change occurred. For instance, in Athens, the kingship had been reduced to a hereditary, lifelong chief magistracy (archon) by c. 1050 BC by 753 BC this had become a decennial, elected archonship and finally by 683 BC an annually elected archonship. Through each stage more power would have been transferred to the aristocracy as a whole, and away from a single individual.

Inevitably, the domination of politics and concomitant aggregation of wealth by small groups of families was apt to cause social unrest in many poleis. In many cities a tyrant (not in the modern sense of repressive autocracies), would at some point seize control and govern according to their own will often a populist agenda would help sustain them in power. In a system wracked with class conflict, government by a 'strongman' was often the best solution.

Athens fell under a tyranny in the second half of the 6th century. When this tyranny was ended, the Athenians founded the world's first democracy as a radical solution to prevent the aristocracy regaining power. A citizens' assembly (the Ecclesia), for the discussion of city policy, had existed since the reforms of Draco in 621 BC all citizens were permitted to attend after the reforms of Solon (early 6th century), but the poorest citizens could not address the assembly or run for office. With the establishment of the democracy, the assembly became the de jure mechanism of government all citizens had equal privileges in the assembly. However, non-citizens, such as metics (foreigners living in Athens) or slaves, had no political rights at all.

After the rise of democracy in Athens, other city-states founded democracies. However, many retained more traditional forms of government. As so often in other matters, Sparta was a notable exception to the rest of Greece, ruled through the whole period by not one, but two hereditary monarchs. This was a form of diarchy. The Kings of Sparta belonged to the Agiads and the Eurypontids, descendants respectively of Eurysthenes and Procles. Both dynasties' founders were believed to be twin sons of Aristodemus, a Heraclid ruler. However, the powers of these kings were held in check by both a council of elders (the Gerousia) and magistrates specifically appointed to watch over the kings (the Ephors).

Social structure

Only free, land-owning, native-born men could be citizens entitled to the full protection of the law in a city-state. In most city-states, unlike the situation in Rome, social prominence did not allow special rights. Sometimes families controlled public religious functions, but this ordinarily did not give any extra power in the government. In Athens, the population was divided into four social classes based on wealth. People could change classes if they made more money. In Sparta, all male citizens were called homoioi, meaning "peers". However, Spartan kings, who served as the city-state's dual military and religious leaders, came from two families. [ citation needed ]


Slaves had no power or status. They had the right to have a family and own property, subject to their master's goodwill and permission, but they had no political rights. By 600 BC chattel slavery had spread in Greece. By the 5th century BC, slaves made up one-third of the total population in some city-states. Between forty and eighty per cent of the population of Classical Athens were slaves. [60] Slaves outside of Sparta almost never revolted because they were made up of too many nationalities and were too scattered to organize. However, unlike later Western culture, the Ancient Greeks did not think in terms of race. [61]

Most families owned slaves as household servants and laborers, and even poor families might have owned a few slaves. Owners were not allowed to beat or kill their slaves. Owners often promised to free slaves in the future to encourage slaves to work hard. Unlike in Rome, freedmen did not become citizens. Instead, they were mixed into the population of metics, which included people from foreign countries or other city-states who were officially allowed to live in the state.

City-states legally owned slaves. These public slaves had a larger measure of independence than slaves owned by families, living on their own and performing specialized tasks. In Athens, public slaves were trained to look out for counterfeit coinage, while temple slaves acted as servants of the temple's deity and Scythian slaves were employed in Athens as a police force corralling citizens to political functions.

Sparta had a special type of slaves called helots. Helots were Messenians enslaved during the Messenian Wars by the state and assigned to families where they were forced to stay. Helots raised food and did household chores so that women could concentrate on raising strong children while men could devote their time to training as hoplites. Their masters treated them harshly, and helots revolted against their masters several times before in 370/69 they won their freedom. [62]


For most of Greek history, education was private, except in Sparta. During the Hellenistic period, some city-states established public schools. Only wealthy families could afford a teacher. Boys learned how to read, write and quote literature. They also learned to sing and play one musical instrument and were trained as athletes for military service. They studied not for a job but to become an effective citizen. Girls also learned to read, write and do simple arithmetic so they could manage the household. They almost never received education after childhood. [ citation needed ]

Boys went to school at the age of seven, or went to the barracks, if they lived in Sparta. The three types of teachings were: grammatistes for arithmetic, kitharistes for music and dancing, and Paedotribae for sports.

Boys from wealthy families attending the private school lessons were taken care of by a paidagogos, a household slave selected for this task who accompanied the boy during the day. Classes were held in teachers' private houses and included reading, writing, mathematics, singing, and playing the lyre and flute. When the boy became 12 years old the schooling started to include sports such as wrestling, running, and throwing discus and javelin. In Athens, some older youths attended academy for the finer disciplines such as culture, sciences, music, and the arts. The schooling ended at age 18, followed by military training in the army usually for one or two years. [63]

Only a small number of boys continued their education after childhood, as in the Spartan agoge. A crucial part of a wealthy teenager's education was a mentorship with an elder, which in a few places and times may have included pederasty. [ citation needed ] The teenager learned by watching his mentor talking about politics in the agora, helping him perform his public duties, exercising with him in the gymnasium and attending symposia with him. The richest students continued their education by studying with famous teachers. Some of Athens' greatest such schools included the Lyceum (the so-called Peripatetic school founded by Aristotle of Stageira) and the Platonic Academy (founded by Plato of Athens). The education system of the wealthy ancient Greeks is also called Paideia. [ citation needed ]


At its economic height in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the free citizenry of Classical Greece represented perhaps the most prosperous society in the ancient world, some economic historians considering Greece one of the most advanced pre-industrial economies. In terms of wheat, wages reached an estimated 7-12 kg daily for an unskilled worker in urban Athens, 2-3 times the 3.75 kg of an unskilled rural labourer in Roman Egypt, though Greek farm incomes too were on average lower than those available to urban workers. [64]

While slave conditions varied widely, the institution served to sustain the incomes of the free citizenry: an estimate of economic development drawn from the latter (or derived from urban incomes alone) is therefore likely to overstate the true overall level despite widespread evidence for high living standards.


At least in the Archaic Period, the fragmentary nature of ancient Greece, with many competing city-states, increased the frequency of conflict but conversely limited the scale of warfare. Unable to maintain professional armies, the city-states relied on their own citizens to fight. This inevitably reduced the potential duration of campaigns, as citizens would need to return to their own professions (especially in the case of, for example, farmers). Campaigns would therefore often be restricted to summer. When battles occurred, they were usually set piece and intended to be decisive. Casualties were slight compared to later battles, rarely amounting to more than 5% of the losing side, but the slain often included the most prominent citizens and generals who led from the front.

The scale and scope of warfare in ancient Greece changed dramatically as a result of the Greco-Persian Wars. To fight the enormous armies of the Achaemenid Empire was effectively beyond the capabilities of a single city-state. The eventual triumph of the Greeks was achieved by alliances of city-states (the exact composition changing over time), allowing the pooling of resources and division of labor. Although alliances between city-states occurred before this time, nothing on this scale had been seen before. The rise of Athens and Sparta as pre-eminent powers during this conflict led directly to the Peloponnesian War, which saw further development of the nature of warfare, strategy and tactics. Fought between leagues of cities dominated by Athens and Sparta, the increased manpower and financial resources increased the scale and allowed the diversification of warfare. Set-piece battles during the Peloponnesian war proved indecisive and instead there was increased reliance on attritionary strategies, naval battles and blockades and sieges. These changes greatly increased the number of casualties and the disruption of Greek society. Athens owned one of the largest war fleets in ancient Greece. It had over 200 triremes each powered by 170 oarsmen who were seated in 3 rows on each side of the ship. The city could afford such a large fleet—it had over 34,000 oarsmen—because it owned a lot of silver mines that were worked by slaves.

According to Josiah Ober, Greek city-states faced approximately a one-in-three chance of destruction during the archaic and classical period. [65]

Piracy in ancient Greece

Piracy has been in the headlines in the UK a lot recently, particularly following the on-going abduction of a British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean in 2009. The realities of this gruesome situation are a far cry from the romanticised notion of pirateering embodied in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

In the ancient Greek world, however, piracy was, much more than just an occasional headline, it was an endemic part of how the ancient world operated. Alongside the continual military campaigns that crisscrossed the Aegean sea, a citizen of any city was perfectly free to fit out a private ship, capture enemy vessels and keep the spoils for themselves.

Often these ‘pirate’ ships would band together into their own pirate fleets to increase their chances of success. Certain islands in the Aegean were renown for providing safe harbour for pirates, like the island of Melos, and others were well known as places in which to trade stolen goods and slaves, like the island of Aegina just off the coast of Athens.

Outside the Aegean was no safer. The Adriatic sea, between Italy and Greece, had an even more cosmopolitan mix with Greek and Etruscan (the native inhabitants of Italy before the Romans) pirates sharing the waters. Indeed the city of Zankle (modern day Messina) on the coast of Sicily was well known for producing some of the most ferocious and successful pirates in the whole of the ancient world.

But what is even more interesting is the reaction of the city and state authorities of ancient Greece to the problem of piracy. There were occasional attempts to attack pirate vessels and ransoming captured individuals was not unheard of. But much more often, city authorities chose to work with the pirates.

Generals would sometimes employ pirate ‘fleets’ as a ‘shock and awe’ first wave of attack before sending in their own troops. Conversely the admirals of large city fleets would often extract protection money from islands in the Aegean to keep them safe from pirates.

But perhaps the most outrageous case is this. In 355 BC, according to the orator Demosthenes, Athenian ambassadors were on their way to Karia in Turkey on state business when they made a detour to capture a ship sailing from Egypt and pocketed for themselves the wealth on board!

Ancient Greek thinkers tried to find an explanation about the world beyond mythology or religious views and looked to reason, observation and empirical evidence. By studying the world, the seas, and the solar system, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle shaped philosophy as we know it.

It was the Greeks who introduced the idea of utilising light, via a lighthouse, as a way to safely guide ships into the port. Indeed, the first lighthouse ever built stood in Alexandria in Egypt, a city founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC and part of the Hellenistic kingdom. The Lighthouse of Alexandria, also known as Pharos, was one of the tallest man-made structures in the ancient world, and it serves as a model for lighthouses to this day.

The Ancient Origins of High Heels – Once an Essential Accessory for Men

High heel shoes are today a form of footwear worn almost exclusively by women. Yet, the history of high heels shows us that this was not always the case. On the contrary, high heels were, at various points of time in history, worn by men as well. In addition, whilst high heels are worn today for aesthetic purposes, it has not always been so in the past, as it served practical purposes at times.

Whilst it is unclear when high heels were first invented, it seems that it was used by ancient Greek actors. The ‘kothorni’ was a form of footwear worn from at least 200 BC, which raised from the ground by wooden cork soles that measured between 8 and 10 cm. It is said that the height of the shoes served to differentiate the social class and importance of the various characters that were being portrayed on the stage. Thus, this form of raised footwear served neither a practical nor aesthetic purpose, as it was a piece of garment worn exclusively by members of a certain profession, theatre performers in this instance, when they were at work.

The next appearance of high heels can be traced to the Middle Ages in Europe. During this period, both men and women wore a kind of footwear known as pattens. The streets of many Medieval European cities were muddy and filthy, whilst the footwear of that period were made of fragile and expensive material. Thus, to avoid ruining these garments, both men and women wore pattens, which were overshoes that elevated the foot above the ground.

Louis XIV wearing his trademark heels in a 1701 portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud ( Wikipedia)

Whilst the patten was used mainly for practical purposes, another type of European footwear served both a practical and symbolic function. The chopine was a type of footwear related to the patten, and was popular amongst the upper classed women of Venetian society during the 15 th to 17 th centuries. It is said that the higher the chopines, the higher the status of the wearer, with some examples of this footwear reaching a height of 50 cm. As one may guess, it was not exactly the most practical sort of footwear to be walking around in. This meant that the women who wore the chopine required servants to help them maintain their balance. Perhaps the display of wealth and status was not only displayed through the height of the chopine, but also by the fact that servants were needed just to assist a wealthy woman in the act of walking.

Chopine shoes were worn to reflect the status of the wearer. ( Source)

Whilst the patten and chopine both raised the wearer’s feet above the ground, they bore greater resemblance to platform shoes than high heels. To find footwear that is more similar to today’s high heels, one has to leave the streets of Medieval Europe and travel eastwards to Persia. It is unknown exactly when high heels were used in the East, but an image of a horse rider on a Persian ceramic bowl suggests that it was worn since at least from the 9 th century A.D. High heels were used by Persian cavalrymen as they were highly effective at keeping the wearer’s feet in the stirrups. At the end of the 16 th century and at the beginning of the next, diplomats were sent by the Persian Shah, Abbas I, to Europe to seek alliances against a common enemy, the Ottoman Turks. It has been claimed that the European aristocrats who saw the Persian high heels quickly adopted it as it was a symbol of masculinity, apart from its practical use for horseback riding, and as a status symbol.

By the 17 th century, women were also wearing the high heel, as there was a supposedly a craze in adopting male fashion for women. Whether this may be interpreted as merely a fashion craze or as a conscious effort on the part of women to appropriate male power and achieve equality is an entirely different matter to consider. Regardless, male obsession with high heel would cease by the 18 th century. The Enlightenment not only brought a change in the way men thought, but also in the way men dressed. Man as a ‘rational’ being was reflected in his dour clothing. Thus, high heels, makeup and extravagant clothing, which were deemed irrational were abandoned.

17 th century Persian cavalry shoes. Photo source:

Interestingly, women also eventually stopped using high heels, as they were undoubtedly an impractical form of footwear. This was not to be long, however, as high heels made a comeback as early as the middle of the 19 th century. Among the first people who embraced the invention of photography were pornographers. Models in photo shoots were apparently dressed in nothing but a ‘modern’ (according to the standards of the day) form of high heels. This may be the beginning of the association of high heels with female sexuality. The rest, as they say, is history.

To view an infographic on the history of high heels, click here .

Featured image: The Vision of Saint Eustace, Pisanello, 1438–1442. Rider wearing high heels. (Wikimedia)

5. Homer

Homer was the composer of the Iliad and Odyssey, arguably two of the greatest poems ever written. Even more astonishing is the fact that he created these powerful epics more than 2,800 years ago, way back somewhere between the eighth and ninth centuries BC (although other historians think that he may have lived much earlier, around the 12th century BC). Since not much was documented about him at the time, the exact whereabouts or date of his birth and details about his life still remain a mystery.

However, this does not detract from his poems for they are the symbolic roadmap to world mythology. From the narration of the Iliad, which was a city within the state of Troy during the time of the Trojan War, to the specific focus on the 10-year journey Odysseus made from Troy to Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War in the Odyssey, Homer did create two classic epics that lie at the very heart of Western literature. And we cannot ignore the legend of the Trojan horse and the heroics of Achilles and Hector that have inspired writers and artists around the world.

These epics went on to have a massive impact and influence on the history of literature, giving readers a valuable insight into life in ancient Greece.

About 2000 and 1200 BC, all Greek city-states seem to have been monarchies, ruled by kings. After the dark ages in Greece, kingship gradually began to decline. In the archaic period, most city-states were ruled by oligarchies.

In around 600 and 500 BC, a lot of city-states were taken over by tyranny.In around 510 BC, Athenian democracy developed the most revolutionary of all political systems. In the city-state of Athens was sowed the seeds of democracy. It was a system of direct democracy where the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right.

Introduction to Ancient Greek History

This is an introductory course in Greek history tracing the development of Greek civilization as manifested in political, intellectual, and creative achievements from the Bronze Age to the end of the classical period. Students read original sources in translation as well as the works of modern scholars.

This Yale College course, taught on campus twice per week for 75 minutes, was recorded for Open Yale Courses in Fall 2007.


This is an introductory course in Greek history tracing the development of Greek civilization as manifested in political, intellectual, and creative achievements from the Bronze Age to the end of the classical period. Students read original sources in translation as well as the works of modern scholars.

Pomeroy, Burstein, Donlan and Roberts. Ancient Greece. Oxford University Press: New York, 1999.

Kagan, Donald. “Problems in Ancient History.” In The Ancient Near East and Greece. 2nd ed., vol. 1. Prentice-Hall: New York, 1975.

Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of the Athens.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War.

Students will have an opportunity to choose one of two programs for completing their work in the course:

Plan A
Students electing Plan A will take an in-class midterm and final examination. The midterm will cover all assigned readings to that date. Students in this program will also submit a paper on Herodotus, not to exceed 1500 words. The topic for the paper will be announced in class.

Plan B
Students electing Plan B will take an in-class midterm and final examination and will enroll in discussion sections which meet once a week for fifty minutes. These sections will offer the students an opportunity to discuss in detail issues raised in the course. Students in Plan B are encouraged to propose topics for discussion to the teaching fellow who will lead the discussions. Students following Plan B will submit a paper, not more than 1500 words long, on a topic of their own choosing, subject to the approval of the section leader.

Students in Plan B are required to attend their section meetings regularly and to come prepared to discuss the topic announced the week before by the section leader. Classroom participation will be one factor in determining grades.

The grades for students electing Plan A will be determined by computing the average grade on the paper, the midterm examination and the final examination all three will count equally.

Grades for students electing Plan B will be determined by weighing the midterm, final and paper grades at 30% each and performance in section at 10%.

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