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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Dorians and Ionians
Classical Greece
     The Greek identity
     Government and the city-state
     Sparta and Athens
     The Delian League
     Peloponnesian Wars
     Mutual destruction

Philip and Alexander
New empires
Ottoman empire
Kingdom of Greece
To be completed

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The Greek identity: from the 8th century BC

The Persian defeat of Ionia comes at a time when the outlines of classical Greece are emerging from the mists of prehistory.

The Greeks are increasingly conscious of themselves as a special group of people, linked by the shared language which distinguishes them from the barbarians (an Indo-European word common to both Greek and Sanskrit, imitating the sound of incomprehensible strangers who seem to be babbling 'baa-baa').


The link between all Greeks, wherever they may be, has been strengthened in the 8th century by the development of the Greek alphabet. Writing heightens the awareness of a Greek identity - for example through the Homeric epics which begin the great tradition of Greek literature.

Religion also is a bond. The Greek communities have local gods, but there is a central pantheon shared by all. Two shrines to Apollo, in particular, bring worshippers from far and wide. One is on the island of Delos (considered the central island of the Aegean) and the other is at Delphi, which goes one step better. It is believed to be the centre of the world. A stone called the omphalos ('navel') marks the actual spot.


The same spirit of coming together, in an essentially Greek gathering, is expressed in the athletic contests held every four years at Olympia. This ability to identify with each other, in a bond against barbarians, enables the Greeks to triumph - against all the odds - when threatened by the might of Persia in the 5th century BC.

But there is another side to the coin. The races in the Olympic games are bitterly contested between athletes representing their own city or state. This underlying rivalry contributes in the 5th century to a Greek failure as significant as the success against the Persians. The internal feud known as the Peloponnesian War inflicts grievous damage on the whole of Greece.


All Greeks identify, above all, with the place of which they are a citizen. This place is their polis, a Greek word with several meanings: the city as a place; the city and its supporting countryside as a political unit (the word 'political' derives from polis); and the city as a collection of living citizens.

With these complex associations, polis is usually translated into English as a 'city-state'.


Government and the city-state: from the 8th century BC

Citizenship, all-important in Greek life, is restricted to a small proportion of the people living in a city-state. Neither women nor children can be citizens. Nor can slaves, who form much of the work force throughout Greece.

Citizens are free male adults. They take a passionate interest in the affairs of their city-state, effectively inventing the art of politics as they violently argue the merits of three rival forms of government. One extreme is the rule of a single all-powerful tyrant; then there is the middle ground of oligarchy, or rule by a few; and finally the radical solution of democracy, in which power is shared by all the citizens.


The tradition from which classical Greece develops is the Homeric one of a feudal society, with each region ruled by a king or prince backed up by an aristocracy of nobles. In Greece's dark ages this often degenerates into a lawless world of rival clans, whose chieftains fight each other for land and power.

By the 7th century stability is returning to most parts of Greece, and with it prosperity. A new class acquires wealth, and military strength - through providing the hoplites who are the mainstay of any Greek army. This new class, impatient with the old aristocracy, is ready for power.


A frequent event in the Greek city-states of the 7th and 6th centuries is the seizing of power by individual members of this class. These men rise on the grievances of others like themselves. But they rule with a personal authority as absolute as that of the kings whom they replace.

The Greek word for such a man, coming to power by a military coup, is turannos, a tyrant. It has not yet acquired its later brutal and despotic connotation. The tyrants of many Greek city-states improve the methods of government. But on the whole they fail to establish dynasties. Their authority dies with them.


Sparta and Athens: 5th century BC

By the 5th century the days of the tyrants are over. The battlefield of Greek politics is cleared for a dispute between oligarchy and democracy. The struggle is a long one, though in many ways it is merely a reflection of a broader conflict between rival alliances.

The two most powerful states, Sparta and Athens, become associated respectively with oligarchy and democracy. Any group scheming to replace an oligarchy will appeal to Athens for help. Similarly the opposition in a democracy will look to Sparta.


In 480 the threat from Persia brings Sparta and Athens together, with most of the other city-states of mainland Greece, in a rare show of unity. During the Greco-Persian wars the leading position of Sparta is acknowledged by all.

By the time the Persians withdraw at the end of 480, soundly defeated, Sparta's military reputation has been enhanced at Thermopylae and Plataea. The Athenians, by contrast, have lost their city, laid waste by the Persians. Yet on balance it is the Athenians who emerge stronger. The navy which routs the enemy at Salamis is largely theirs. And it is becoming evident that control of the Aegean Sea is the best defence against Persia.


The Delian League: from 478 BC

A shift in the balance of power between Athens and Sparta is emphasized in 478, when representatives of Athens and other Aegean states meet on the island of Delos to form a coalition, subsequently known as the Delian League. Members will subscribe to a common fleet, either by contributing ships and crews or in a minority of cases by a tribute of money. One of the aims is to liberate the Greek territories held by Persia on the east coast of the Aegean.

Sparta is not interested in membership, having little in the way of a fleet. So Athens is unmistakably the leader of this new Greek alliance.


In its early years the Delian League grows in strength, achieving several significant victories against Persia. This in itself is alarming to Sparta. Even more so is the way Athens begins to treat the League as an Athenian empire, with its fleet at the automatic disposal of Athens.

The behaviour of Athens towards its supposedly equal allies is soon that of an imperial bully. States which attempt to bow out of the league are forcibly retained. Annual subscriptions are demanded instead of ships. Most significant of all, in about 454 the accumulated funds of the League are transferred from Delos to Athens.


Build-up to the First Peloponnesian War: 478-460 BC

Sparta is having difficulty in retaining the loyalty of the members of its own Peloponnesian League, several of whom adopt democratic governments hostile in principle to the Spartan oligarchy.

Sparta's troubles are compounded by a devastating earthquake in 464. Indirectly it brings to a head the simmering hostilities between Sparta and Athens.


The earthquake destroys much of the city of Sparta and kills many Spartiates - the Greek term for Sparta's warrior citizens. The helots seize the opportunity to rise in revolt. The Spartans manage to contain the rebels in the region of Mount Ithome, in Messenia, but they lack the strength to defeat them. They appeal to their allies for help.

Athens, at this stage technically an ally of Sparta, is among the city-states which send an army.


Instead of welcoming this Athenian support, the Spartans send the soldiers back to Athens without involving them in the campaign. The precise reason is not known, but is probably political. The decision follows the news that Athens is in the process of introducing a more radical democracy, a measure profoundly offensive to aristocratic Sparta. The episode is interpreted as a snub by the Athenians, who are constitutionally inclined to distrust Sparta.

Soon after this event Athens makes provocative alliances with two city-states opposed to Sparta. Open hostility breaks out in 460, the year commonly taken as the start of the First Peloponnesian War.


Mutual destruction: 5th - 4th century BC

The war is spasmodic and has a built-in element of stalemate. Athens tends to win battles at sea; Sparta and her allies are stronger on land. In 446 a Thirty Year Treaty is agreed, in principle safeguarding the status quo. Sparta recognizes the Delian League, which has by now unmistakably evolved into an Athenian empire. Athens, in turn, will not take steps to diminish the Peloponnesian League.

The peace makes possible the heyday of Athens under Pericles, but it lasts for only half its intended thirty years. Athens is unable to resist interfering in Peloponnesian affairs. Amid recriminations as to which side has broken the treaty first, war resumes in 431 BC.


The war continues in fits and starts for more than twenty years. Neither side establishes a clear advantage until, from 414, the Persians intervene on the Spartan side. By 404 the Athenian fleet has been destroyed, and a punitive peace treaty is imposed on Athens. Sparta is once again the undisputed leader of the Greek city-states.

For more than a century Greece has been torn by lethal squabbles as cities change sides, betray treaties, make surprise attacks on each other, impose new forms of government or encourage treachery. The Greek invention of politics seems like the poison in the brew. This has been a century of political intrigue elevated to the status of war.


Sparta, from 404 BC, has the opportunity and the strength to impose some sort of unity on Greece, but her hidebound social structure is ill-equipped to provide the necessary leadership.

Instead Athens recovers sufficient prestige to put together, in 377, a revised version of the Delian League. This alliance proves strong enough to defeat the Spartan navy off Naxos in 376. A few years later the Spartan army receives a terminal blow when overwhelmed by a smaller number of Thebans, thanks to the revolutionary tactics of Epaminondas, at Leuctra in 371. In 369 Epaminondas liberates Messenia, the neighbouring territory long exploited by the Spartans and the basis of much of Sparta's strength.


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