Despite a background of continuing internal warfare and threats from outside forces like Macedonia, classical Greece managed to develop a sophisticated culture and society during the period 479-323 BC. This writeup will look at Greek society of the period in some detail, also examining the role of some of the intellectual giants of the time, Greek religion and mythology, and its architecture, trading exploits, and artistic life.
Democracy had been invented in Greece in 507 BC, when Cleisthenes had divided Athens into ten phylai or tribes, each of which chose 50 men to send to the city-state's council. Democracy was further strengthened by Ephialtes in 462 BC and by Pericles in 443BC. Politicians could also be ostracised into exile by a vote of the people. Slavery, however, was a vital part of the economy, and there were around 100,000 slaves in Athens alone.
Well-off women in Athens were not able to own property, and were largely confined to the gynaeceum to cook and make clothing. Some young girls went to sanctuaries sponsored by the goddess Artemis to become aware of their sexuality before they would be "tamed" by men in arranged marriages.
When a child was born, the father had the right to keep or abandon the child, before the house would be purified and the child welcomed to the household in a ritual ceremony. Once young men reached 18, they would have their hair cut short and embark on two years of military training.
Primary education was available to fee-paying boys, who learnt the alphabet, reading, writing, and arithmetic. By 410 BC, Sophists were teaching the art of rhetoric and debate.
The philosopher Socrates died in 399 BC after being sentenced to take the poison hemlock. He had taught the Socratic method of finding truth by repeated questioning. His student Plato set up a school in 385 BC, teaching political and intellectual theories, including the idea of an ideal Republic.
In 335 BC Aristotle opened a school at the Lyceum in Athens, where he taught the new philosophical method of logic. His reliance on facts led to a detailed study of animals, one of the first examples of the study of biology.
Two other Greeks, Herodotus and Thucydides, founded the study of history. Herodotus's Histories were in stark contrast to official propaganda, but coloured by supernatural intervention in human affairs. Thucydides was more rational in his method, relying on the memory of living people to ensure an accurate record. The physician Hippocrates also relied on rationality in founding the science of medicine. He was also the author of the famous Hippocratic Oath, followed by many doctors, even today.
Greek mythology and religion
Greece's many gods shaped the annual life of its people, with festivals and rituals in honour of Zeus, Athena, and Apollo, among others. The temple of Zeus in Olympia depicted the twelve labours of Hercules. A huge gold and ivory statue of Zeus dominated the temple. Poseidon was seen as the god of the seas, and brother of Zeus.
Funeral ceremonies prepared the dead for afterlife in Hades. The bodies were either cremated or buried in coffins. Gravestones marked burial sites.
The Orphic sect arose around 400 BC and paid homage to the poet Orpheus. Its members were vegetarians and sexual puritans, believing in reincarnation.
The highlight of Greek architecture was at the Acropolis in Athens, a magnificent temple complex including the Parthenon and the Erechtheum. The Parthenon featured a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena, and the buildings were supported by massive columns and statues. Olympia, too, featured columned temples such as those of Zeus and Hera.
The Greeks also used town planning based on a grid system, as was seen at Miletus on the Ionian coast, planned by Hippodamus.
Greek traders had sailed throughout the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea between c750-500 BC, colonising parts of southern Italy and Sicily and eastwards beyond Byzantium, into the coasts of the Black Sea. Trips to Egypt were not unknown and a Greek port existed at Naukratis on the Nile delta. The Egyptians traded with the Greeks in grain, metals and slaves. Strong links also existed with Italy, and a silver route existed to south-west Spain. Carthage and the Etruscans resented Greek Phocaeans' inroads into southern France and eastern Spain. Coinage was introduced by the Lydians, and wheat imports from Crimea and Ukraine became important. Slaves were also brought in, often from Thrace (modern Bulgaria) and Asia Minor.
Greek art and culture
One of the more famous cultural innovations of the Greeks was the Olympic Games, which took place at Olympia every four years, and where Greeks from throughout the Hellenic world competed in athletics and other events. The Games were suspended in 394 AD, but revived in their modern form in 1896.
Greek sculpture is justly renowned, and in c415 BC Polyclitus of Argos revolutionised the art form by using bronze and sculpting young athletes, unlike the gods sculpted by the likes of Phidia of Athens. More secular, humanistic sculptures began to appear between c510-350 BC.
Greek theatre was characterised by minimal cast, props, and scenery, and the wearing of masks to symbolise different parts. Greek tragedies by playwrights such as Euripides gave way to comedy and satire developed by Aristophanes.
Greek pottery falls into three main categories, Geometric style, Black Figure, and Red Figure. The Black Figure technique involved the unglazed red clay being painted in black, while the more sophisticated Red Figure allowed for more elaborate painting of figures in red against a black background.
Greek crafts included the carving of gems and cameos, metalwork, and the first pictorial mosaics.
As well as the philosophers and playwrights mentioned above, it is not possible to think of ancient Greek literature without at least mentioning Homer's great works the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Hesiod's long poem Works and Days.
In conclusion, then, modern society owes a lot to its Greek forebears, and their history is certainly worth further study by interested readers.
The Hutchinson Encyclopedia, Helicon Publishing Ltd, 1996
Chronicle of the World, Longman Group UK Ltd, 1989