Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece is the cradle of Western Civilization.  Our modern concepts of philosophy, art and architecture, theater and democracy can trace its origins to this civilization.

But it was not an empire in the traditional sense. Greece was not ruled by one person. But, in terms of culture, Greece created an economic and cultural empire.  Through trade and economics, the Greek city-states spread out all through the Mediterranean Sea, creating colonies and trading posts.  For hundreds of years, the Greek city-states dominated the region.

Colonization of the Mediterranean Sea by ancient Greek city-states
(public domain)
Ancient Greek City-States.
(Creative Commons 3.0)

Ancient Greece was a collection of independent city-states.  A city-state in ancient Greece was called a polis. Each city-state was like a small country, each with its own values, culture and government.  Some city-states were ruled by kings. Others by wealthy individuals. Although they all shared a common language, they often competed with each other for resources---and some set out to dominate the others.  The reason one city-state did not conquer the others is simple: the geography of Greece made that very hard. The Greek peninsula is rocky and mountainous, making travel by land difficult. Thus, creating an empire by conquering territory is a very difficult thing to do in Greece.

For the longest time, one city-state dominated the region: Athens.  Through trade and economics, Athens was the richest and most powerful city-state.  They had the largest navy and was the cultural center of the Greek world.

(Public Domain)

Athens is where the first known democracy developed.  Every Athenian citizen was required to vote and participate in government.  From trials to laws, everything was decided by voting. During the "Golden Age" of Athens, a politician named Pericles strengthened the democracy of Greece by increasing the qualification for voting.  He also took public funds to build some of Western Civilization's most beautiful buildings, such as the temple to Athena located on the acropolis above the ancient city.  This building is called the Parthenon.

A modern view of the Parthenon on the acropolis above Athens.
(Creative Commons 3.0)
But there were limits to Athenian democracy: women were not allowed to vote, nor were foreign born residents, nor were slaves.  In fact, up to 50% of the population in Athens (and other city-states as well) were slaves.  In the end, only about 10% of the population in Athens could legally vote.

Athens would influence other city-states through their powerful navy.  Trade and economic built what is known as the "Athenian Empire." It also caused much resentment among the other city-states.

When the empire of Persia attempted an invasion of Greece in 492 BCE, the Greek world united to defeat Persia during what was called the Persian Wars. However, after that war, the Greek world turned on itself in a bloody civil war that pitted Athens against its arch-rival, Sparta.  Sparta was a powerful city-state in Southern Greece, known for its large army.

Sparta was not a democracy.  It was a military state where everyone--men and women--sacrificed for the glory of Sparta.  All men were required to be in the army and started training at the age of six. Dying in battle was considered the ultimate honor. (Click here to learn the 8 reasons why living in Sparta was not easy)

The Peloponnesian War
(Public Domain)
The Peloponnesian War (431 BCE-404 BCE) lasted for 27 years and resulted in the total defeat of Athens and her allies. Although Sparta had won the war, the entire Greek world was left divided and weak.  Athens had lost her democracy for a time.  The Greek city-states struggled to rebuild.

A small kingdom to the north of Greece saw an opportunity. And in 338 BCE all of Greece was conquered by King Philip of Macedonia.  His son would go on to create an empire of his own.

Important points to remember:
  • Ancient Greece is the cradle of Western Civilization.  Much of our own culture can be traced there
  • Ancient Athens was the birth-place of democracy
  • Through economics and trade, the Greek city-states created an empire in the Mediterranean Sea
  • The Peloponnesian War left Greece divided and weak, leading to its takeover by Macedonia