The Ancient Greeks had a major influence during their time as the most powerful civilization on Earth, and continue to have one more than two thousand years later. This might seem strange, as Ancient Greece consisted of not one country, but of many individual city-states. The ones most commonly referred to today are ones like Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Delphi, and Macedon. Each had their own distinct variation of government, art, traditions, and architecture. For example, Athens, which we now recognize as the birthplace of democracy, was different than Sparta, a militaristic city-state that enrolled all boys into the army at a young age, and was led by a king. Although Athenians had the right to vote, only landed men could do so, while Spartan women enjoyed rights years ahead of their time. Delphi, meanwhile, was a religious city-state, believed to be the seat of the god Apollo, who controlled the Sun, healing, music, poetry, and prophecy. Although now widely-believed to be a sham devised by priests, at the height of Greek power people could come and pray to Apollo, of course leaving a sacrifice of an animal or gold.
Although they were largely dominated by the much bigger and more powerful Persian Empire, they rallied together and fought as a coalition in the Greco-Persian wars in 499-449 B.C.E.. Led by Sparta, due to its military power. They expelled the Persians from key strongholds in the Peloponnesian Peninsula, such as Byzantium. By the last war, Athens had grown to be much larger than the other city-states, with an estimated population of 300,000-400,000, while Sparta had roughly 50,000 citizens. Athens therefore took over the lead of the coalition, known as the Delian League. By the time of the final Greco-Persian war in 449 B.C.E., the Greeks had well established their independence.
Enjoying their peace, Greek arts flourished. The Olympics were played, joining athletes from all the city-states. Any wars being fought during these events were paused, as people rooted for their athletes to take the laurel wreaths in Olympia. Poets such as Homer utilized the sophisticated language of the Greeks to record events such as the Trojan War and the Odyssey. Greek ships explored the Mediterranean, where they found another peninsula that they decided to colonize. Cities like Naples, Italy, can trace their origins back to these ancient settlers. The Greek economy largely consisted of trade. Their wine and olives were a mainstay of their culture, and brought them riches. They often sold it to their Phoenician neighbors, who ruled over Carthage. They also had many sheep and goats, due to their mountainous landscape, which led to their making cheese and milk.
Greek architecture is still influential today, as brilliant minds deduced facts like the power of the triangular shape, and Doric and Ionian columns remaining intact today. In fact, columns like these are so important they are often displayed alone in museums and galleries, or imported from ruins in Greece and Italy. Greek architecture, art, and other culture also formed the basis of Italian culture, although they largely split apart after the Medieval Era. Greek-style architecture and buildings in Italy today include the Pantheon, a feat of architectural wonder. Founded as a Hellenic temple that was later converted to a Christian church in Rome.
Other famous Greek sites include the Parthenon, a temple in Athens dedicated to the wisdom and combat goddess Athena. The ruins of Olympia, the city that hosted the Olympics, is also a site of classic architecture. It has a variety of buildings from the field, that was measured in the Greek hero Heracles’s (or Hercules) feet.
Oral storytelling also reached new heights as epics were created. Stories of all-powerful creatures, the Olympians, were passed on, generation to generation. Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Athena. Powerful beings with human characteristics. All had flaws, the most common being hubris. These stories told of terrible monsters, such as Medusa. Although many of the stories had morals that are still applicable today, some, like the origin of Pandora, are less so. They describe woman as a punishment for the greed of men, their sole reason of existence.
Eventually, hubris and greed took over the minds of the Greek leaders, leading to the Peloponnesian War. This war, fought between Athens and its allies, and Sparta and its allies, marked the downfall of the Greek city states. Although they would continue to produce great minds such as Socrates, Archimedes, and Aristotle, the war would exhaust their treasuries and manpower completely. The war was fought on land, Sparta’s strength, and sea, Athens’s strength. Sparta eventually won, winning control over Athens, although civil war broke out often. Poverty became common in the peninsula, making Macedon’s invasion in the 300s B.C.E., less than 100 years after the Peloponnesian War ended in 401 B.C.E. even easier. The city-states had never truly recovered from the war, which killed many of its citizens, and were no match for the military genius of Alexander the Great. He took over the Greek city-states, and went on to conquer Turkey, Persia (or Iran), Iraq, and Egypt. In Egypt he established Alexandria, which hosted the famous library and lighthouse that would later burn down and collapse in an earthquake. He also instituted the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, which was a series of Greek-speaking rulers who controlled Egypt. His conquests, which were made in rapid succession, reached an end at the border of India, at which point his men began to threaten mutiny after a years-long campaign. After Alexander’s death at a young age, his empire was divided into three states, all of which eventually fell to the Romans. Cleopatra, a Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, eventually died at the hands of the Romans, ending Greek rule over Egypt after more than a hundred years.
The Greek city-states are perhaps one of the most influential and enduring civilizations ever, along with their offspring, the Roman Empire. The ideas of its citizens are regarded as facts today, their legends epic, their architecture flawless, their culture magnificent.
“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.”
-Alexander the Great