Ancient Greece

What is ancient Greece

Ancient Greece was the civilization founded by the ancient Greek peoples. This civilization is distinguished in history by the heritage of political ideas such as democracy, educational institutions such as academies, and influential artistic and architectural styles in the world.

Greek civilization emerged after the fall of the Mycenaean civilization around 1100 BC and lasted until the Greek defeat by Rome at the Battle of Corinth in 146 BC.

With the outcome of the Battle of Corinth, the Romans conquered most of Hellas, the original name of ancient Greece. Even so, Greek cultural influence in both the Roman world and the Middle East and Egypt continued throughout the Hellenistic period (323-31 BC).

The Hellenes – as the Greeks were called – inhabited steep and rocky territories near the Mediterranean coast. For this reason, they did not develop large-scale agriculture like other ancient civilizations.

Its economic growth depended on the expansion of maritime trade. In their period of splendour, the Greeks occupied cities in the south of the Balkan Peninsula, the islands of the Aegean Sea and the west coast of Asia Minor. The Hellenic colonies also extended to southern Italy and the northern coast of Africa.

Archaic Greece map

Map showing the extent of Greek culture in the ancient world at the end of the Archaic period.

History of ancient Greece

The history of Hellas was born with the arrival of peoples from northern Europe in the Balkan Peninsula. These migrants already spoke archaic Greek dialects. By settling in the Peloponnese, they founded one of their most important citadels: Mycenae.

The Mycenaean civilization takes its name from this city which prospered between 1600 and 1100 BC Then it was destroyed and abandoned. The peoples of the Mycenaean civilization were called “Achaeans” in The Iliad Yes The Odysseythe epic poems that Homer sang centuries later.

The Greeks remembered the Achaeans as great warriors, victorious in the Trojan War. However, with the destruction of Mycenae, probably at the hands of the Dorian peoples who also migrated to Hellas, its civilization collapsed. Thus began the dark ages.

Timeline of ancient Greece

Chronological table of ancient Greece.

Dark Age (1100-776 BC)

This period coincides with the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age in the region. This stage is called dark because of the loss of written records and how little can be known from the small number of archaeological finds.

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Everything indicates that it was a period of demographic decline, with small communities and economic backwardness.

Archaic period (776-490 BC)

We take 776 BC. AD as a starting point, date of the celebration of the first Olympic Games, so called because they took place in the community of Olympia. The archaic period saw the renewal of exchanges between the communities, writing also reappeared, the Greeks adopting the Phoenician alphabet. The polis emerged and developed.

The polis was the autonomous city-state. In these appeared forms of political organization such as:

  • the oligarchy: the government of a group of nobles and wealthy.
  • Tyranny: government taken over by a despot through coups or revolts. That is to say, to impose itself outside the constitution of the city, although on many occasions it had the popular support.

During these centuries, the Greek peoples: Achaeans, Ionians, Dorians and Aeolian spread and founded colonies throughout the Mediterranean. Thus, epic poetry spread, and in the 6th century BC, the origin of philosophy took place.

The end of the Archaic era is when Athens, Sparta and other cities related to the two form the alliance of common defense against the advance of the Persian empire of Darius I in Hellenic lands.

Classic Period (490-323 BC)

During the classical period, Greece flourished in its humanistic and artistic manifestations. However, the freedom of their polis was threatened by the hunt of an external enemy: the Persian Empire.

The Persian Wars (490-449 BC)

The polis proved invincible by battling the Persian emperors Darius I, Xerxes I and Artaxerxes for half a century. After many setbacks suffered in the Persian Wars, Persia finally accepted the Peace of Callias (449 BC) and relinquished its claims on Greece.

Birth of democracy

Between the 5th and 4th centuries BC, a political system emerged that gave all citizens of the polis a voice to participate in decision-making on public affairs. As in this power was given (in Greek Kratos) at the village (give), then it was called democracy.

The most famous democracy is that of Athens because of the written records of its laws and decrees. Descriptions of democratic functioning can also be found in texts by historians such as Thucydides, in plays such as those of Aristophanes, and in fragments of speeches by orators such as Pericles and Demosthenes.

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Other cities with democratic forms were Syracuse, Argos, Corinth, Megara and the island of Rhodes. But little is known about how they work given the lack of sources describing them.

See also Democracy.

Philosophy, culture and arts

Classical Greek culture experienced an explosion of creativity. Sages like Socrates reflected on issues such as love, justice, and knowledge. His ideas were recorded in the texts of his pupil Plato, founder of the Academy of Athens and teacher of Aristotle.

History was born as a discipline that tried to tell the truth about what happened. Thus, the first historians, Herodotus and Thucydides used memory and real testimonies to tell what happened during wars and other events.

In the arts, writers like Sophocles brought to the theater the conflicts between virtues and human passions in their tragedies. The sculpture of the time is manifested in the realism of faces that express feelings and bodies in motion. Notable sculptors included Polykleitos and Myron.

Myron's Discus Thrower

The discus thrower, sculpture by Myron of Eleutheras (480-440 BC). The image shows the reproduction present in the Botanical Garden in Copenhagen.

Classical architecture was enhanced by the construction of impressive amphitheatres, hippodromes and temples. Greek architects appreciated above all the balance of proportions in their constructions. The decorative styles or orders were distinguished in the columns. The main orders were Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.

An outstanding example of classical period architecture is the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. This Doric style temple was designed by the architects Ictinio and Calícrates. Its construction began in 447 BC to house a monumental statue of the goddess Athena, protector of the city.

parthenon painting

The Parthenon. Painting by Ippolito Caffi (1809-1866).

See also:

  • Greek philosophy.
  • Greek literature.
  • Greek tragedy.

The Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 BC)

Once the Persians were expelled from the Hellenic territories, Athens increased its economic and political power. But soon the rivalry rose between this one and Sparta, which saw its influence diminish. The two polis formed confederations which joined other cities in alliance.

The Peloponnesian league supported Sparta, while the Delian league sided with Athens. After nearly thirty years of fighting, the Spartans are victorious. But, most cities, including Sparta, were devastated or impoverished.

This gave rise to the fact that soon after, in the 4th century BC, King Philip II of Macedon decided to impose his will on Greek territory. Philip II’s successor was his son, the conqueror Alexander the Great, who changed the history of antiquity and brought about the advent of the Hellenistic world.

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Peloponnesian War

Map showing the allies of Sparta and Athens on the eve of the Peloponnesian War. The Balkan Peninsula stretches from Thrace and Illyria in the north to the peninsular extension of the Peloponnese in the far south, which is barely connected to the rest by the Isthmus of Corinth. Image courtesy of: Marsyas and Molorco.

Greek Empire and Hellenistic Civilization (323-31 BC)

Alexander the Great of Macedon was able to bring together the armies of the Greek polis with a common goal: to be conquerors. These triumphed over the Persian Empire and seized the territories of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Their victories have taken them so far that they have even reached the borders of India.

This expansion generated the mixture of classical Greek culture with the culture of the East. This period born of the imperial advance of the Alexandrian troops is called Hellenistic. The empire, however, lasted only a short time. Alexander died in 323 BC when he was only 33 years old.

Upon his death, the commanders dispute the leadership of the empire. The claims led to disagreements, and the vast territories ended up being divided into three kingdoms and several satrapies (governorates).

The disintegration of the Greek empire

The most important lines that emerged from the imperial division were those established by the generals Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt, and Seleucus, who ruled Mesopotamia and Syria. However, after decades of domination by their descendants, they succumbed to the emerging power of Rome.

In 146 BC, the Roman army defeated the Achaean League at Corinth. The Seleucid Empire collapsed in the 1st century BC. The last dynasty standing was that of the Ptolemies.

Finally, in 31 BC. AD, the forces of Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, were defeated at the Battle of Actium. Its failure turned the last great Greek kingdom into a Roman province. The influence of Greece would then only remain through its art, culture and language for centuries to come.


Finley, Moses (2000) Ancient Greece. Economy and society. Publisher’s booklet. Madrid.

Finley, Moses (1982) Early Greece: The Bronze Age and the Archaic Age. WW Norton & Co. New York.

Ober, Josiah (2015) The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece. Princeton University Press. Princeton.

Petit, Paul and Laronde, André (2014) Hellenistic Civilization. Editorial juice. Mexico.