Between the Mediterranean and Aegean seas on a peninsula lies the land of Greece. A land sculpted by mountainous terrain with limited farmable land led the Greeks to be avid seafaring peoples. Ancient Greece has a very rich history separated by various periods that denote their success and decline as a civilization. A rather unconventional ancient civilization, early Greeks did not develop like their contemporaries, but grew to be quite isolated from one another due to the mountainous terrain that separated them. This isolation resulted in xenophobic behavior towards foreigners and neighboring poleis. The rise of Greece can be mainly attributed to the development of the polis, military advancements, science and philosophy, becoming skilled seafarers, and establishing a complex trade system. Its location was important as it directly influenced how Greeks developed their way of life. It is of no coincidence that the Greeks came to occupy relatively small poleis and be known as adventurous seafaring people because the composition of their land simply prohibited them from expanding inland due to mountainous and limited farmable land.
The first period of Ancient Greek civilization is found during the Bronze Age, or the Helladic Period, roughly between 3000-1100 B.C.E. This is where the earliest civilization in Greece is found, the Minoans. Established on Crete, an island found southeast of the Greek mainland, the Minoans were originally farmers and fishermen, however they developed a strong sense of maritime trade in 2000 B.C.E., and developed a writing system around 1900 B.C.E. At around the same time that writing began, the Minoans began constructing massive palaces and cities all throughout Crete. As the Minoans were thriving, another civilization began on the mainland of Greece, the Mycenaeans. The Mycenaeans, roughly between 1600-1100 B.C.E., founded the first Greek state, and archeological evidence paints them as a warlike people. Erecting palaces at notable locations such as Mycenae, Thebes, and Athens, these cities were secured by thick stone walls and gravesites filled with weapons and armor. The Mycenaeans and Minoans seemingly had a peaceful relationship that revolved around trade as Minoan pottery has been found throughout Greece proper. Around 1450 B.C.E., Crete suffered a sudden and catastrophic collapse, which left them vulnerable.
Although scholars are uncertain as to what occurred to cause Crete’s collapse, the Mycenaeans invaded Crete, destroying many cities, and seized Knossus, Crete’s capital, for the next 50 years. Undoubtedly, the Minoans influenced the Mycenaeans through their writing system. Although not identical, scholars believe that the Mycenaean writing script, Linear B, was derived from the Minoan writing script, Linear A. Mycenaean civilization consisted around a number of powerful monarchies, which were centered around the palaces they built throughout Greece. Mycenaean control was challenged between 1300-1100 B.C.E by kingdoms native and foreign to Greece and overall led to their demise. The collapse of the Minoans and Mycenaeans is attributed to the general collapse of the Bronze Age, and spiraled Greece into what is known as the Dark Age. This was the fall of Helladic Greece The Dark Age, beginning around 1100 B.C.E., initiated the fragmentation of city-states, and continual social problems and invasions.
During this period, literacy was lost as the Greeks during this age left no written records, and some scholars believe these people were illiterate. Additionally, most cities were either abandoned or destroyed, trade and food production rapidly declined, and population decreased. These factors influenced the migration of Greek people. Traveling all throughout the Aegean, the Greeks inhabited various islands and even reached the shores of Anatolia, which came to be known as Ionia. By migrating and occupying these territories, the Greeks effectively spread their culture by the end of the Dark Age. Also, the use of smelted iron became common for constructing weapons and farming tools, which helped increase food production. The Dark Age is appropriately named as so little is known about this time. Through the development of the polis, the Archaic Age was born. From approximately 800-500 B.C.E, the Archaic Age continued to spread Greek culture through colonization and led to the rise of two powerful poleis, Athens and Sparta.
This is where we truly begin to view the rise of Ancient Greece as a whole. The differentiating factor between a city-state and polis was that a polis was self-governing, or by groups of people. Poleis generally were not large and encompassed the surrounding areas for agriculture. Also, their political, religious, and physical aspects varied greatly between each other because of the makeup of differing ideologies, reinforcing the notion that Greece was fragmented altogether. Throughout this changing landscape, another technology that reemerged was writing. Greeks in this age would adopt and build off of the Phonetic alphabet. Throughout the hundreds of poleis that emerged, Athens and Sparta soon became central sources of power throughout the Greek state. These two poleis varied greatly, and often quarreled. Athens, found on the southern tip of Attica, offered significant and complex ideas that continue to sculpt the world today. Facing social and economic problems, Athens proposed the idea of a democracy, where each citizen had a voice in the polis.
No longer were the people condemned by one ruler, but could seize and pursue real social and economic change by their own doing. This fundamental idea changed the ancient and modern world as we know it, and many civilizations, including the Romans, implemented this revolutionary idea and built off of it for their own political system. The Athenians took advantage of writing as well, creating a cultural dominance over their contemporaries by controlling the inscription of Homeric work, and manipulating Ancient Greek history by placing themselves at the central role. Sparta, conversely, did not operate under a democracy but under an oligarchy. Located in the southern part of the Peloponnesian region, Sparta lacked farmable land and conquered Messenia. Sparta enslaved the Messenians, who became known as helots, and forced them to work under Spartan rule.
These helots revolted and ensued a conflict that lasted approximately 30 years until Sparta came out on top. Interestingly, after Sparta regained control, they sought to prevent an uprising such as this again, and became the most militarized polis in Ancient Greece. The Spartans introduced a new military strategy called the phalanx. A densely packed unit of soldiers carried long spears called “doru” and interlinked their shields to protect one another. This technique effectively thwarted the use of cavalry and placed an utmost importance on foot soldiers. Unlike every other polis where civilians without rigorous training would be called to arms, Sparta turned each of her citizens into battle-tested soldiers ready for any scenario. The fundamental rule of the state placed a much larger importance on their military. Athens may have lacked the formal discipline that Sparta gave to its soldiers, however, due to its location, Athenians built an impressive naval fleet, a key component the Sparta lacked. The development of the polis led to certain problems nevertheless.
As populations in Greek poleis increased, the Greeks had a shortage of food and could not sustain its growing numbers. In an attempt to overcome this obstacle, poleis would often coordinate migrations in order to find excess land that they could then colonize. Greeks voyaged throughout the Mediterranean and found residence in Sicily, southern Italy, France, and even Spain. By doing so, Greeks increased their food supply and manufactured goods. Through the expansion and colonization of poleis, conflict would soon arise in what is known as the Classical Period. Classical Greece, 500-338 B.C.E, brought about the end of Independent Greece. Wars as well as civil wars left Greece fragmented and set the stage to be conquered. Off the western coast of Anatolia lay a Greek colony, Ionia. At this point the Grecian colony, Ionia, remained in the territories under control of the Persian Empire. After unsuccessfully rebelling against the Persians, Ionia called for aid. Showing slightly apathetic behavior, Athenians provided some but not full support. Persia attacked Athens in response and ushered in the Persian Wars (499-404 B.C.E.). Under Sparta’s leadership, most of Greece united and defeated the continual invasions of the Persian forces.
After the Persians were kept at bay, Athens elected to create the Delian League, an alliance intended to free Ionia from Persian control. However, they abused their power and sought to control all of Greece. Greeks, seeing their own polis as superior, naturally rejected this notion. As Athens continued to grow in power under Pericles, Sparta and it’s allies eventually became alerted and Athens provoked Sparta, plunging Greece into a civil war, known as the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.). After the Peloponnesian War had ended, Sparta attempted to seize control over all of Greece but could not successfully unify it. Sparta fell to Thebes, however, as history often repeats, Thebes could not maintain control and bring peace to Greece. Despite the warfare, Classical Greece was not only made up of internal and external conflict. Notorious classical Greek art, festivals, and philosophy further developed.
Greeks also became to question their religious ideology to a greater extent wanting further explanations of how the nature order of the world operated. Classical Greece, or the Hellenic Period marks the end of the independent rule of Greece. Phillip II, a Macedonian king, observed the Peloponnesian War, and invaded each polis and eventually controlled all of Greece by 338 B.C.E. After conquering and uniting all of Greece, Phillip II sought to free Ionia from Persian control. However, he was assassinated in 336 B.C.E., and his son, Alexander, vowed to continue his plans The Hellenistic Period, 323-30 B.C.E., begins with Alexander conquering the Persian Empire and continued his campaign pushing as far to the borders of India before his soldiers refused to progress forward. Alexander died in Babylon (323 B.C.E.), and eventually his empire fractured due to the lack of an heir. His generals desired sole control of his empire and plunged into a civil war, tearing Alexander’s empire apart. In his wake, Alexander successfully Hellenized the majority of territories he seized by setting up cities all throughout his empire. These cities contained a mesh of Greek and non-Greek peoples.
It is here that we see Greek and other cultures splice together introducing new ideas, gods, and practices to the Greek culture. Cross-cultural diversity influenced sciences, mathematics, and religion. Notably, Epicureanism and Stoicism, which were practical philosophical ideas concerned with how to live a good life. The Romans would come to be interested in these practical philosophies as opposed to speculative philosophies written by Socrates and Plato. Overall, Greece did not just have one rise and fall, but many. During the Bronze Age, we see rise in the Minoans and Mycenaeans, developing writing scripts, establishing palaces, and creating complex trade routes. Following their downfall, Greece was sent into a depression, the Dark Age. Invasions persisted, writing was lost, and people migrated away from the destruction. The Dark Age eventually led to the development of the polis, which was dire for Greek continuation. The polis paved the way for Greek success and allowed Greeks to colonize and spread their culture.
Through colonization, Ionia rebelled against Persian control and thrust Greece into war. Following victory over the Persians, and with poleis continually gaining more power, Greeks began to quarrel with one another. This sent them into a civil war that ultimately led to their independent downfall. Even though Greece was conquered by Macedonian control, Greek culture continued to spread throughout the ancient world. The Greeks as a whole introduced new military, philosophical, and political practices, which ultimately shaped the ancient and modern world. Greece brought us the origins of theater, democracy, western philosophy, and Ionic, Doric, and Corinthian styles of architecture, which still lives on. Greek civilization influenced the Romans, Hellenistic societies, and others; although they may have fallen, their culture lives on today. Domination Through Intellectual Advances Over the course of ancient and modern history, civilizations have come to dominate their neighbors through economic, political, and military control. In the ancient world, most civilizations dominated through military power.
However, military power is generally contingent on intellectual advancements such as diverse military strategies, organized and disciplined soldiers, and new weaponry. Additionally, dominance can occur through other measures besides military action. Historical evidence describes military dominance and influential control in civilizations like Mesopotamia, Greece, and Egypt to name a few. Through intellectual advances, civilizations were able to invent technologically superior militarized weapons, armor and utilization of siege warfare that allowed them to control their neighbors. In Mesopotamia, a handful of Sumerian city-states developed the use of bronze. This advancement allowed them to create bronze weaponry. This provided a competitive edge over their contemporaries due to its increased durability and strength. When the Assyrians emerged in 900 B.C.E., they brought new advancements that would allow domination of their neighbors. Siege warfare was rarely seen before the Assyrians and they utilized this with other techniques to aid in their conquest.
The battering ram, a technology designed to destroy enemy walls and fortifications, aided the Assyrians conquest. Egyptian peoples adopted and utilized new weaponry and technological advancements introduced through the Hyksos including the use of bronze, the composite bow and war chariots. These new technologies aided Egypt in its expanding empire. Ancient Greece brought about new ideas as well. One of the most effective military formations was the phalanx. This formation was a dense unit of soldiers armed with long spears and interlocking shields. The phalanx allowed Greece to dominate neighboring civilizations by rendering cavalry less effective and placing a prominence on foot soldiers. Through intellectual advancements, Greece also created massive naval fleets consisting of triremes, large warships that contained rams, which aided in their nautical victories over the Persian Wars. Rams found on Triremes consisted of heavy timbers coated in bronze. They were located at the bow of the ship, and were used to destroy enemy vessels. Consequently, intellectual achievement was critical in the development of military accomplishments. Although sheer military dominance seems logically to be more critical and common in controlling a civilization’s neighbors, advancements in sociopolitical dominance was also critical in controlling neighboring societies. Advancements in social, political, and environmental components were also paramount in the management/control of neighboring societies. The advent of writing gave rise to systems of record keeping, literature, and legal systems for early civilizations. Specialized labor allowed for the creation of distinct social classes and spawned innovation and new developments by utilizing these practices while holding control over neighboring peoples.
The Phoenicians are a great example of dominance through nonviolent practices, especially during the Dark Age. A merchant and maritime people, the Phoenicians developed into incredible traders. Following the Bronze Age collapse, the Phoenicians supplied the majority of trade throughout the Mediterranean. Unlike the conquest and domination through militaristic action, the Phoenicians developed dominance through trade. Additionally, The Persian Empire is a key example of holding control over neighboring peoples in a relatively peaceful manner. Although the Persians also conquered territories through force, they would allow these absorbed civilizations to maintain their own customs and beliefs as long as they adhered to taxation and anti-rebellion laws. Persian rule developed and enhanced roads, which promoted communication and trade throughout its empire. These policies of toleration also brought forth the first Charter of Human Rights. This tenet was etched on a clay cylinder and promoted respect for the people creating a peaceful and stable empire.
Furthermore, Greece expanded its control through Hellenization as Alexander’s empire grew. Alexander established cities all throughout his empire and created a cultural dominance all throughout his kingdom. Overall, intellectual achievement also led to domination of neighboring peoples through trade, influence, and culture. Dominance is mainly attributed to intellectual achievement. Through advancement, military technologies and strategies were created and allowed early civilizations to dominate their neighbors. Military advancement solely doesn’t guarantee control over a society, as other important factors are needed. Civilizations lacking a strong central government and innovation will inevitably become fragmented and lose their control. Dominance can occur in multiple ways without military action conversely. Trade and culture can play a pivotal role in controlling neighboring societies as well. The attempt for domination requires military and intellectual progress to be successful.