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Classical Greece was a culture that was highly advanced and which heavily influenced the cultures of Ancient Rome and still has an enduring effect on Western Civilization. Much of modern politics, artistic thought, scientific thought, literature, and philosophy derives from this ancient society. In the context of the art, architecture, and culture of Ancient Greece, the classical period corresponds to most of the 6th, 5th and 4th centuries BCE (the most common dates being the fall of the last Athenian tyrant in 510 BCE to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE).

5th century BCE

Traditionally, classical Greek history begins with the first Olympiad, which occurred in 776 B.C.E., although Greek culture does not truly flourish until later.

From the perspective of Athenian culture in classical Greece, the period generally referred to as the 5th century BCE encroaches slightly on the 4th century. This century is essentially studied from the Athenian outlook because Athens has left us more narratives, plays, and other written works than the other Greek states. In this context, one might consider that the first significant event of this century occurs in 510, with the fall of the Athenian tyrant and Cleisthenes’ reforms. However, a broader view of the whole Greek world might place its beginning at the Ionian revolt of 500, the event that provoked the Persian invasion of 492. The Persians (called "Medes") were finally defeated in 490. A second Persian attempt failed in 481-479. The Delian League then formed, under Athenian hegemony and as Athens' instrument. Athens' excesses caused several revolts among the allied cities, all of which were put down by force, but Athenian dynamism finally awoke Sparta and brought about the Peloponnesian War in 431. After both forces were spent, a brief peace came about; then the war resumed to Sparta's advantage. Athens was definitively defeated in 404, and internal Athenian agitations mark the end of the 5th century in Greece.


In 510, Spartan troops helped the Athenians overthrow their king, the tyrant Hippias, son of Peisistratos. Cleomenes I, king of Sparta, put in place a pro-Spartan oligarchy headed by Isagoras. But his rival Cleisthenes, with the support of the middle class and aided by democrats, managed to take over. Cleomenes intervened in 508 and 506, but could not stop Cleisthenes, now supported by the Athenians. Through his reforms, the people endowed their city with isonomic institutions (i.e. ones in which all have the same rights) and established ostracism.

The isonomic and isegoric democracy was first organized into about 130 ’’demes’’, which became the foundational civic element. The 10,000 citizens exercised their power via the assembly (the ecclesia, in Greek) of which they all were part, headed by a council of 500 citizens chosen at random.

The city's administrative geography was reworked, the goal being to have mixed political groups—not federated by local interests linked to the sea, to the city, or to farming—whose decisions (declaration of war, etc.) would depend on their geographical situation. Also, the territory of the city was divided into thirty ’’trittyes’’ as follows:

  • ten trittyes in the coastal "Paralie"
  • ten trittyes in "Asty", the urban centre
  • ten trittyes in rural "Mesogia".

A tribe consisted of 3 trittyes, taken at random, one from each of the three groups. Each tribe therefore always acted in the interest of all 3 sectors.

This is this corpus of reforms that would in the end allow the emergence of a wider democracy in the 460s and 450s BCE.

The Persian Wars

In Ionia (the modern Aegean coast of Turkeymarker), the Greek cities, which included great centres such as Miletusmarker and Halicarnassus, were unable to maintain their independence and came under the rule of the Persian Empire in the mid 6th century BCE. In 499 BCE that region’s Greeks rose in the Ionian Revolt, and Athens and some other Greek cities went to their aid, though they were at first quickly forced to back down after defeat in 494 BCE at the battle of Lade. Asia Minormarker returned to Persian control.

Statue of King Leonidas of Sparta
In 492 BCE, the Persian general, Mardonius led a campaign through Thrace and Macedonia and while victorious, he was wounded and forced to retreat back into Asia Minormarker. In addition, the naval fleet of around 1,200 ships which accompanied Mardonius on the expedition was wrecked by a storm off the coast of Mount Athos. Later, the generals Artaphernes and Datis launched a naval assault on the Aegean islands, causing them to submit, then attempted a landing at Marathon in 490 to take Athens. In 490 BCE, Darius the Great, having suppressed the Ionian cities, sent a fleet to punish the Greeks. 100,000 Persians (historians are uncertain about the number; it varies from 18,000 to 100,000) landed in Atticamarker intending to take Athens, but were defeated at the Battle of Marathonmarker by a Greek army of 9,000 Athenian hoplites and 1,000 Plateans led by the Athenian general Miltiades. The burial mound of the Athenian dead can still be seen at Marathon. The Persian fleet continued to Athens but, seeing it garrisoned, decided not to attempt an assault.

Ten years later, in 480 BCE, Darius' successor Xerxes I sent a much more powerful force of 300,000 by land, with 1,207 ships in support, across a double pontoon bridge over the Hellespontmarker. This army took Thrace, before descending on Thessaly and Boetia, whilst the Persian navy skirted the coast and resupplied the ground troops. The Greek fleet, meanwhile, dashed to block Cape Artemisionmarker. After being delayed by the Spartan King Leonidas I at Thermopylaemarker, Xerxes advanced into Attica, where he captured and burned Athens. But the Athenians had evacuated the city by sea, and under Themistocles they defeated the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis. During peacetime in 483, a vein of silver ore had been discovered in the Laurion (a small mountain range near Athens), and the hundreds of talents mined there had paid for the construction of 200 warships to combat Aeginetanmarker piracy. A year later, the Greeks, under the Spartan Pausanius, defeated the Persian army at Plataea.

The Athenian fleet then turned to chasing the Persians from the Aegean Sea, defeating their fleet decisively in the Battle of Cape Mycale; then in 478 BCE the fleet captured Byzantium. In the course of doing so Athens enrolled all the island states and some mainland ones into an alliance called the Delian League, so named because its treasury was kept on the sacred island of Delosmarker. The Spartans, although they had taken part in the war, withdrew into isolation afterward, allowing Athens to establish unchallenged naval and commercial power.

Dominance of Athens

Map of the Athenian empire circa 450 BCE
The Persian Wars ushered in a century of Athenian dominance in Greek affairs. Athens was the unchallenged master of the sea, and also the leading commercial power, although Corinth remained a serious rival. The leading statesman of this time was Pericles, who used the tribute paid by the members of the Delian League to build the Parthenonmarker and other great monuments of classical Athens. By the mid 5th century the League had become an Athenian Empire, as demonstrated by the transfer of the League's treasury from Delos to the Parthenon in 454 BCE.

The wealth of Athens attracted talented, skilled people from all over Greece, and also created a wealthy leisure class who became patrons of the arts. The Athenian state sponsored learning and the arts, particularly architecture. Athens became the centre of Greek literature, philosophy (see Greek philosophy), and the arts (see Greek theatre). Some of the greatest figures of Western cultural and intellectual history lived in Athens during this period: the dramatists Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles; the philosophers Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates; the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon; the poet Simonides; and the sculptor Pheidias. The city became, in Pericles' words, "the school of Hellas".

The other Greek states at first accepted Athenian leadership in the continuing war against the Persians, but after the fall of the conservative politician Cimon in 461 BCE, Athens became increasingly open in its imperialist ambitions. After the Greek victory at the Battle of the Eurymedon in 466 BCE, the Persians were no longer a threat, and some states, such as Naxosmarker, tried to secede from the League, but were forced to remain members. The new Athenian leaders, Pericles and Ephialtes, let relations between Athens and Sparta deteriorate, and in 458 BCE war broke out. After some years of inconclusive war, a 30-year peace was signed between the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League (Sparta and her allies). This coincided with the last battle between the Greeks and the Persians, a sea battle off Salamis in Cyprusmarker, followed by the Peace of Callias (450 BCE) between the Greeks and Persians.

The Peloponnesian War


In 431 BCE war broke out again between Athens and Sparta and its allies. The immediate causes of the Peloponnesian War vary from account to account. However three causes are fairly consistent among the ancient historians, namely Thucydides and Plutarch. Prior to the war, Corinth and one of its colonies, Corcyramarker (modern-day Corfumarker), got into a dispute in which Athens intervened. Soon after, Corinth and Athens argued over control of Potidaeamarker (near modern-day Nea Potidaia), eventually leading to an Athenian siege of Potidaea. Finally, Athens issued the "Megarian Decrees", a series of economic decrees that placed economic sanctions on the Megarian people. Athens was accused by the Peloponnesian allies of violating the Thirty Years Peace through all of the aforementioned actions, and Sparta formally declared war on Athens.

It should be noted that many historians consider these to be merely the immediate causes of the war. They would argue that the underlying cause was the growing resentment on the part of Sparta and its allies at the dominance of Athens over Greek affairs. The war lasted 27 years, partly because Athens (a naval power) and Sparta (a land-based military power) found it difficult to come to grips with each other.

Sparta's initial strategy was to invade Atticamarker, but the Athenians were able to retreat behind their walls. An outbreak of plague in the city during the siege caused heavy losses, including that of Pericles. At the same time the Athenian fleet landed troops in the Peloponnese, winning battles at Naupactus (429 BCE) and Pylos (425 BCE). But these tactics could bring neither side a decisive victory. After several years of inconclusive campaigning, the moderate Athenian leader Nicias concluded the Peace of Nicias (421 BCE).

In 418 BCE, however, hostility between Sparta and the Athenian ally Argosmarker led to a resumption of hostilities. At Mantinea Sparta defeated the combined armies of Athens and her allies. The new fighting brought the military party, led by Alcibiades, back to power in Athens. In 415 BCE Alcibiades persuaded the Athenian Assembly to launch a major expedition against Syracusemarker, a Peloponnesian ally in Sicily. Though Nicias was a skeptic about the Sicilian Expedition, he was appointed along with Alcibiades to lead the expedition. Due to accusations against him, Alcibiades fled to Sparta where he persuaded Sparta to send aid to Syracuse. As a result, the expedition was a complete disaster and the entire expeditionary force was lost. Nicias was executed by his captors.

Sparta had now built a fleet (with the help of the Persians) to challenge Athenian naval supremacy, and had found a brilliant military leader in Lysander, who seized the strategic initiative by occupying the Hellespontmarker, the source of Athens' grain imports. Threatened with starvation, Athens sent its last remaining fleet to confront Lysander, who decisively defeated them at Aegospotami (405 BCE). The loss of her fleet threatened Athens with bankruptcy. In 404 BCE Athens sued for peace, and Sparta dictated a predictably stern settlement: Athens lost her city walls, her fleet, and all of her overseas possessions. Lysander abolished the democracy and appointed in its place a council of thirty to govern Athens.

4th century BCE

Related articles: Spartan hegemony and Theban hegemony

The end of the Peloponnesian War left Sparta the master of Greece, but the narrow outlook of the Spartan warrior elite did not suit them to this role. Within a few years the democratic party regained power in Athens and in other cities. In 395 BCE the Spartan rulers removed Lysander from office, and Sparta lost her naval supremacy. Athensmarker, Argosmarker, Thebesmarker, and Corinthmarker, the latter two former Spartan allies, challenged Sparta’s dominance in the Corinthian War, which ended inconclusively in 387 BCE. That same year Sparta shocked the Greeks by concluding the Treaty of Antalcidas with Persia. The agreement turned over the Greek cities of Ionia and Cyprus, reversing a hundred years of Greek victories against Persia. Sparta then tried to further weaken the power of Thebes, which led to a war in which Thebes formed an alliance with its old enemy Athens.

Then the Theban generals Epaminondas and Pelopidas won a decisive victory at Leuctra (371 BCE). The result of this battle was the end of Spartan supremacy and the establishment of Theban dominance, but Athens herself recovered much of her former power because the supremacy of Thebes was short-lived. With the death of Epaminondas at Mantinea (362 BCE) the city lost its greatest leader and his successors blundered into an ineffectual ten-year war with Phocismarker. In 346 BCE the Thebans appealed to Philip II of Macedon to help them against the Phocians, thus drawing Macedon into Greek affairs for the first time.

The Peloponnesian War was a radical turning point for the Greek world. Before 403 BCE, the situation was more defined, with Athens and its allies (a zone of domination and stability, with a number of island cities benefiting from Athens’ maritime protection), and other states outside this Athenian Empire. The sources denounce this Athenian supremacy (or hegemony) as smothering and disadvantageous.

After 403 BCE, things became more complicated, with a number of cities trying to create similar empires over others, all of which proved short-lived. The first of these turnarounds was managed by Athens as early as 390 BCE, allowing it to re-establish itself as a major power without regaining its former glory.

The Fall of Sparta

This empire was powerful but short-lived. In 405 BCE, the Spartans were masters of all - of Athens’ allies and of Athens itself - and their power was undivided. By the end of the century, they could not even defend their own city.

Foundation of a Spartan empire
On this subject there had been a heated debate among Sparta's full citizens. The admiral Lysander felt that the Spartans should rebuild the Athenian empire in such a way that Sparta profited from it. Prior to this, Spartan law forbade the use of all precious metals by private citizens, with transactions being carried out with cumbersome iron ingots (which generally discouraged their accumulation) and all precious metals obtained by the city becoming state property. Without the Spartans' support, Lysander's innovations came into effect and brought a great deal of profit for him - on Samos, for example, festivals known as Lysandreia were organized in his honor. He was recalled to Sparta, and once there did not attend to any important matters.

Sparta refused to see Lysander or his successors dominate. Not wanting to establish a hegemony, they decided after 403 BCE not to support the directives that he had set up.

Agesilas came to power by accident at the start of the 4th century BCE. This accidental accession meant that, unlike the other Spartan kings, he had the advantage of a Spartan education. The Spartans at this date discovered a conspiracy against the laws of the city conducted by Cinadon and as a result concluded there were too many dangerous worldly elements at work in the Spartan state.

Agesilas employed a political dynamic that played on a feeling of pan-Hellenic sentiment, launching a successful campaign against the Persian empire. However, the Persian empire reacted and - with access to Persian gold - changed from backing Sparta to backing the Athenians, who used Persian subsidies to rebuild their walls (destroyed in 404 BCE) as well as to reconstruct their fleet and win a number of victories, notably at Cnidus.

In 394, the Spartan authorities decided to force Agesilas to return to mainland Greece. For six years, Sparta fought Corinth, with Corinth partly drawing on Athenian support. This war had descended into guerrilla tactics and Sparta decided that it could not fight on two fronts and so chose to ally with Persia.

The peace of Antalcidas
An edict was promulgated by the Persian king, preserving the Greek cities of Asia Minor and Cyprus as well as the independence of the Greek Aegean cities, except for Lymnos, Imbros and Skyros, which were given over to Athens. It dissolved existing alliances and federations and forbade the formation of new ones. This is an ultimatum that benefited both Athens, which held onto three islands, and Sparta, chosen as the guarantor of the peace.

Spartan interventionism
On the other hand, this peace had unexpected consequences. In accordance with it, the Boeotian confederacy was dissolved in 386 BCE. This confederacy was dominated by Thebes, a city hostile to the Spartan hegemony. Sparta carried out large-scale operations and peripheral interventions in Epirus and in the north of Greece, resulting in the capture of the fortress of Thebes, the Cadmea, after an expedition in the Chalcidicemarker and the capture of Olynthos. It was a Theban politician who suggested to the Spartan general Phoibidas that Sparta should seize Thebes itself. This act was sharply condemned, though Sparta eagerly ratified this unilateral move by Phoibidas.

Clash with Thebes
In 378 BCE, Sphodrias, another Spartan general, tried to carry out a surprise attack on the Piraeusmarker, whose gates were no longer fortified, but was driven off before the Piraeus. He was acquitted by the Spartan court, but the attempted attack triggered an alliance between Athens and Thebes. Sparta would now have to fight them both together, with Athens trying to recover from the disaster of 404 BCE and the Thebans attempting to restore the former Boeotian confederacy with Epaminondas.

In the 370s, Sparta fought Thebes. Athens came to mistrust the growing Theban power, particularly due to Thebes’ razing in 375 BCE of the city of Plateamarker, and so negotiated an alliance with Sparta against Thebes in 375 BCE. In 371, however, Sparta suffered a bloody defeat at Leuctra, losing a large part of its army and 400 of its 2,000 citizen-troops. Sparta’s hegemony was over, replaced by that of Athens.

The rise of Athens

Return to the 5th century BCE
The Athenians forbade themselves any return to the situation in the 5th century. In Aristotle's decree, Athens claimed its goal was to prevent Spartan hegemony, with the Spartans clearly denounced as "warmongers". Athens’ hegemony was no longer a centralized system but an alliance in which the allies had a voice. The Athenians did not sit on the council of the allies, nor was this council headed by an Athenian. It met regularly and served as a political and military counterweight to Athens. This new league was a quite moderate and much looser organisation.

Financing the league
It was important to erase the bad memories of the former league. Its financial system was not adopted, with no tribute being paid. Instead, syntaxeis were used, irregular contributions as and when Athens and its allies needed troops, collected for a precise reason and spent as quickly as possible. These contributions were not taken to Athens--unlike the 5th century BCE system, there was no central exchequer for the league--but to the Athenian generals themselves.

The Athenians had to make their own contribution to the alliance, the eisphora. They reformed how this tax was paid, creating a system in advance, the Proseiphora, in which the richest individuals had to pay the whole sum of the tax then be reimbursed by other contributors. This system was quickly assimilated into a liturgy.

Athenian hegemony halted
This league responded to a real and present need. On the ground, however, the situation within the league proved to have changed little from that of the 5th century BCE, with Athenian generals doing what they wanted and able to extort funds from the league. Alliance with Athens again looked unattractive and the allies complained.

The main reasons for the eventual failure were structural. This alliance was only valued out of fear of Sparta, which evaporated after Sparta's fall in 371 BCE, losing the alliance its sole raison d'etre. The Athenians no longer had the means the fulfil their ambitions, and found it difficult merely to finance their own navy, let alone that of an entire alliance, and so could not properly defend their allies. Thus, the tyrant of Pherae was able to destroy a number of cities with impunity. From 360, Athens lost its reputation for invincibility and a number of allies (such as Byzantium and Naxosmarker in 364) decided to secede.

In 357 BCE the revolt against the league spread, and between 357 and 355, Athens had to face war against its allies, a war whose issue was marked by a decisive intervention by the king of Persia in the form of an ultimatum to Athens, demanding that Athens recognise its allies' independence under penalty of Persia's sending 200 triremes against Athens. Athens had to renounce the war and leave the confederacy to weaken itself more and more. The Athenians had failed in all their plans and were unable to propose a durable alliance.

Theban hegemony - tentative and with no future

5th century BCE Boeotian confederacy (447 – 386)
This was not Thebes’ first attempt at hegemony. It had been the most important city of Boeotia and the centre of the previous Boeotian confederacy of 447, resurrected since 386.

That confederacy is well known to us from a papyrus found at Oxyrhyncusmarker and known as "The Anonyme of Thebes". Thebes headed it and set up a system under which charges were divided up between the different cities of the confederacy. Citizenship was defined according to wealth, and Thebes counted 11,000 active citizens.

It was divided up into 11 districts, each providing a federal magistrate called a "Boeotarch", a certain number of council members, 1,000 hoplites and 100 horsemen. From the 5th century BCE the alliance could field an infantry force of 11,000 men, in addition to an elite corps and a light infantry numbering 10,000; but its real power derived from its cavalry force of 1,100, commanded by a federal magistrate independent of local commanders. It also had a small fleet which played a part in the Peloponnesian War by providing 25 triremes for the Spartans. At the end of the conflict, the fleet consisted of 50 triremes and was commanded by a "navarch".

All this constituted a significant enough force that the Spartans were happy to see the Boeotian confederacy dissolved by the king's peace. This dissolution, however, did not last, and in the 370s there was nothing to stop the Thebans (who had lost the Cadmea to Sparta in 382 BCE) from reforming this confederacy.

Theban reconstruction
Pelopidas and Epaminondas endowed Thebes with democratic institutions similar to those of Athens, the Thebans revived the title of "Boetarch" lost in the Persian king's peace and - with victory at Leuctra and the destruction of Spartan power - the pair achieved their stated objective of renewing the confederacy. Epaminondas rid the Peloponnesus of pro-Spartan oligarchies, replacing them with pro-Theban democracies, constructed cities, and rebuilt a number of those destroyed by Sparta. He equally supported the reconstruction of the city of Messenemarker thanks to an invasion of Laconia that also allowed him to liberate the helots and give them Messene as a capital.

He decided in the end to constitute small confederacies all round the Peloponnessus, forming an Arcadian confederacy (The king's peace had destroyed a previous Arcadian confederacy and put Messene under Spartan control.)

Confrontation between Athens and Thebes
All this explains Athens’ problems with her allies in the second league. Epaminondas succeeded in convincing his countrymen to build a fleet of 100 triremes to pressure cities into leaving the Athenian league and joining a Boeotian maritime league. This ended in 362 BCE with the result of the battle of Mantinea - a battle caused by the Thebans' difficulty with implementing confederations.

Sparta remained an important power and some cities continued to turn against her. The confederal framework was an artificial one, since it attempted to bring together cities that had never been able to agree. Such was the case with the cities of Tegeamarker and Mantineamarker, which re-allied in the Arcardian confederacy. The Mantineans received the support of the Athenians and the Tegeans that of the Thebans. The Thebans prevailed, but this triumph was short-lived, for Epaminondas died in the battle, stating that "I bequeath to Thebes two daughters, the victory of Leuctra and the victory at Mantinea".

In the end, the Thebans abandoned their policy of intervention in the Peloponnesus. Xenophon thus concludes his history of the Greek world in 362 BCE.

The end of this period was even more confused than its beginning. Greece had failed and, according to Xenophon, the history of the Greek world was no longer intelligible.

The idea of hegemony disappeared. From 362 BCE onward, there was no longer a single city that could exert hegemonic power - the Spartans were greatly weakened; the Athenians were in no condition to operate their navy, and after 365 no longer had any allies; Thebes could only exert an ephemeral dominance, and had the means to defeat Sparta and Athens but not to be a major power in Asia Minor.

Other forces also intervened, such as the Persian king, who was appointed as arbitrator between the Greek cities by the cities themselves. This situation reinforced the conflicts and there was a proliferation of civil wars, with the confederal framework a repeated trigger for wars. One war led to another, each longer and more bloody, and the cycle could not be broken. Hostilities even took place during winter for the first time, with the 370 invasion of Laconia.

Rise of Macedon

Thebes sought to maintain its position until finally eclipsed by the rising power of Macedon in 346 BCE.

Under Philip II, (359336 BCE), Macedon expanded into the territory of the Paionians, Thracians, and Illyrians. The Macedonians became more politically involved with the south-central city-states of Greece, but also retained more archaic aspects harking back to the palace culture, first at Aegae (modern Vergina) then at Pellamarker, resembling Mycenaean culture more than that of the classical city-states.

Philip's son Alexander the Great born in Pellamarker, Macedonia (356323 BCE) managed to briefly extend Macedonian power not only over the central Greek city-states, but also to the Persian empire, including Egyptmarker and lands as far east as the fringes of Indiamarker. He managed to conquer all of Greece and spread Greek culture throughout the known world.

The classical period conventionally ends at the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE and the fragmentation of his empire, divided among the Diadochi.

Legacy of classical Greece

Though somewhat eclipsed by technology today, the sense of a legacy was strongly felt by post-Renaissance European elite, who saw themselves as the spiritual heirs of Greece. As late as 1939 Will Durant could write "excepting machinery, there is hardly anything secular in our culture that does not come from Greece," and conversely "there is nothing in Greek civilization that doesn't illuminate our own".


  1. isegoria: equality in freedom of speech
  2. These sources include Xenophon's continuation of Thucydides’ work in his "Hellenica", which provided a continuous narrative of Greek history up to 362BCE but has defects, such as bias towards Sparta, with whose king Agesilas Xenophon lived for a while. We also have Plutarch, a 2nd century Boeotian, whose Life of Pelopidas gives a Theban version of events and Diodorus Siculus. This is also the era where the epigraphy develops, a source of the highest importance for this period, both for Athens and for a number of continental Greece city that also issued decrees.
  3. Durant, The Life of Greece (The Story of Civilization, Part II) (New York: Simon & Shuster) 1939: Introduction, pp vii and viii.

See also

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