While ancient Greek culture was unique, it also drew from other cultures. The Greeks modeled their society after those of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Phoenicians, and other societies active in the region. Greek civilization evolved from a series of city-states that began emerging around the ninth century B.C.E. The Greek city-states also were influenced by the Minoan and Mycenaean societies. These societies greatly defined Mediterranean commerce and politics in ancient times. From this it is evident that Greek culture was a combination of other cultures’ best qualities.
Greek culture’s biggest innovation, the city-state, was also its greatest asset. Unlike other classical civilizations, Greece was made up of these independent city-states, which were distinctive from each other in politics, culture, as well as in traditions. These city-states also interacted with each other, as well as peoples from different societies.
After the ancient societies Greek culture was modeled after passed, the city-state or polis became the central unit of government in Greece. The city-states began as fortified sites where people lived under the protection of walled communities and military protectors. Over time, they took on increasingly urban qualities and their populations increased. These polis took on a variety of forms. Some were under the power of generals while others were governed by ambitious politicians. The city-state system gave Greeks the independence of individual governments, but it also provided a level of unity.
An example of one of these militant city states is Sparta. Sparta arose in a fertile region known as Peloponnesus, and became militant in organization as well as in character. Spartans focused their resources on developing a military state. They were able to do so because of the sizable population of helots that were at the service of the Spartan state. The Helots were a group of people in service to Sparta. They were not free, but they were still subservient to Sparta. Helots worked primarily in agriculture.
The distinctive character of Sparta was not only its militant character but also its rejection of economic and social distinctions. Spartan citizens had no jewelry, or private wealth. The status of people was based on their military prowess, discipline, and skill in the battle.
In contrast to Sparta, Athenians established a government structure based on democratic principles. The principal beneficiaries of Athens polis were aristocratic landowners who controlled the Athenian government. Solon rescued Athens in the early sixth century B.C.E. when an uprising of less-privileged people were threatening to plunge the city-state into violent chaos. Solon resolved the tensions by allowing the aristocrats to keep their lands but the less privileged classes were freed from past debts. He enabled the common people to join governing circles and mechanisms. These changes transformed Athens into a more democratic state than it had previously been. They primarily took place under the statesman Pericles between 461 B.C.E. and 429 B.C.E. During Pericles’ time, Athens entered a golden age that featured an array scientists, poets, philosophers, dramatists, artists, and architects.
Greece’s trade and commerce by sea around the Mediterranean basin made them distinct from other colonizers. Greece’s trade routes included southern Italy, southern France, the Crimean peninsula, and southern Russia. Through their trading, Greek merchants brought wealth and Greek values to these areas
Ancient Greece was not free of conflict. The Persian Wars between 500 and 479 B.C.E. pitted the Greek city-states against the Persian empire. Led by Xerxes, the Persians sent one hundred thousand troops on a thousand ships to Greece. Athens was destroyed but the Persians’ victory was short lived. The Greeks responded at Plataea and forced the Persian army to retreat to Anatolia. Soon after, the threat of the Persian army began to dwindle.
In order to prevent any future threat, the Greek city-states resolved to ally with each other. Athens became a dominant force in what was known as the Delian League. This aroused the jealousy of Sparta which led to the Peloponnesian War between 431 and 404 B.C.E. Through Sparta’s militant advantage, Athens was beaten. This created conditions of chaos, disorder, and violence in the Greek city-states. Athens lost its status as the moral and intellectual center of the Greeks. It was now seen as the seat of an arrogant, insensitive power mongering people.
Philip of Macedon invaded in 338 B.C.E. took over large portions of the Greek world. He also had intentions to attack Persia, but was assassinated in 336 B.C.E. This invasion was later taken up by his son, Alexander, who later became known as Alexander the Great. Inheriting a veteran, well-equipped force of about forty-eight thousand, Alexander successfully conquered Persia. His further conquests included Ionia, Anatolia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and parts of India. He died unexpectedly in 323 B.C.E. To administer this vast empire, Alexander the Great used Persian administrators.
Hellenistic philosophy came to the forefront of culture during this time. Schools of philosophic thought included the Epicureans, Skeptics, and Stoics. Epicureans stressed that pleasure was the greatest good perusable. Skeptics refused to take strong positions on issues because they denied the possibility of certain knowledge. Stoics considered humans as members of a universal human family, and stressed that people had a duty to aid others and lead virtuous lives.
Historians refer to this as age of Alexander. They coin the period he ushered in as the Hellenistic Age. During this time Greek traditions and cultural values were a primary influence in the world.