Today, we’re discussing one of my major areas of interest — Greek history. This is a brief, simple article on ancient Greece and its timeline meant for someone who wants a cursory look at Greek history or for someone refreshing their knowledge!
In addition to being a writer and a blogger, I’m also a college student! (Cue unenthusiastic “yay” on my part.) I go to Tufts, where I study history with a classics concentration. I also study math. And I originally thought I was going to study chemistry, so I’ve taken enough chemistry to be a pre-med (which I’m not). That’s how you end up with a blog like this one.
All that aside, classics is one of my biggest areas of interests. By classics, I mean ancient Greece and Rome — the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, all that jazz. Now, Rome is cool, but ancient Greece is my real love. There’s never enough information when it comes to Greek history. There aren’t enough sources to fulfill my curiosity. The imagination has to make up parts of Greek history and fill in the gaps, piecing together disparate facts to create a cohesive whole. This is why I love Greek history and especially early Greek history. The more mystery, the better history. You never know everything you want to know. There’s a futility to it.
Anyway, I thought I would do something novel today and educate people on something I’m actually sort of qualified to educate them about! This isn’t a totally novel idea — I did do a post on Herodotus, the original ancient Greek historian, the other day. If you have no idea who Herodotus is or only a vague idea, check it out if you want to learn something new.
Today I’m going to talk about ancient Greece in the broadest sense and define the time periods of ancient Greece. Don’t worry, there aren’t that many, and I’ll keep it short. And not too many dates, I promise. And no test at the end.
Here’s your introduction to ancient Greece and its timeline.
What is ancient Greece?
I would call ancient Greece a civilization, but moreover a cultural movement. Until Alexander the Great, who was not Greek in the strictest sense of the world (though was likely considered Greek enough), the Greek world was not united. It was divided into a myriad of city-states called poleis. You’ve probably heard of the most well-known ones — Athens and Sparta. If you’ve studied the Bible, you might know a few others — Corinth, Thebes… Greeks recognized broad regions — the city-state of Sparta as well as thousands of others inhabited the Peloponnese, and in the north there were a few kingdom-like regions — Thessaly, Illyria, and eventually Macedonia.
Within themselves, the Greeks made a few attempts at “unity,” but these mostly involved a hegemonic power bringing other powers under its umbrella via a “league.” Even after Philip II (Alexander’s father) and Alexander “conquered” Greece, the Greek city-states were still largely independent. One of them, Sparta, never even yielded to the Macedonians.
Ancient Greece, time-wise, is defined by the periods that make it up. There are four such periods: the Dark Age, the Archaic Period, the Classical Period, and the Hellenistic Period. That’s it! I’m going to give you the date ranges for each period and tell you a little bit about what happened during each one. If you’re trying to remember something, remember the happenings. Don’t bother with the dates.
The Dark Age
The Dark Age, sometimes called the Dark Ages, lasted roughly three hundred years, from c. 1100 B.C. to c. 800 B.C. In history, a “dark age” is a period of time for which we don’t have many written sources or archaeological evidence. The historical thread runs thin, the timeline dark. The Dark Age of ancient Greece began in roughly 1100 B.C. with the fall of the Mycenaean civilization, a proto-Greek civilization that had thrived on war and had inhabited palatial fortress-cities. The Dark Age ended around 800 B.C. with the development of the Greek city-state or poleis.
What happened during the Dark Age?
The Mycenaeans had centered their civilization around their palaces and created a complex redistributive economy. This means that farmers brought their grain to the palaces, where it was put into storage, and then the grain was redistributed to the population in terms of need. We know this because the Mycenaeans left records in a proto-Greek script called Linear B. Linear B uses the syllabary (think an alphabet, but each letter represents a syllable, not a single letter) of an earlier, non-Greek language, Linear A, which was used by the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. (The Minoans were a pre-Greek, possibly indigenous Aegean civilization.)
With the collapse of the Mycenaean palace centers — in the face of an unknown threat — the Greek world decentralized rapidly. During the Dark Age, several important shifts occurred. Leadership moved into a landed noble class who were able to afford the arms and armaments and horses for war. Economically, the redistributive system came to an end, and a more free-market, capitalist system (to borrow a modern word) took root. Because they were more isolated from the rest of the world and the rest of the Greek world than they had been before, Greeks in different areas began to develop somewhat distinct cultures. They kept the Greek language and Greek religion, but formed the bases for the later city-states. Eventually, poleis began to emerge, each with a distinct identity and a distinct way of government.
The Archaic Period
The Archaic Period picks up where the Dark Age ends, at the inception of the Greek polis. It ends in exactly 480 B.C., with the second (and ultimately failed) Persian invasion of Greece. That’s the invasion depicted inaccurately by the popular movie 300. The term “archaic” is a borrowing from art history. Art historians long ago decided that the art of the Archaic Period was more “archaic” than the art of the Geometric Period (coinciding with the Dark Age). Don’t think down on this period in Greek history, though. It was one of the most vital, in which the Greeks developed many of their most lasting innovations — including democracy.
What happened during the Archaic Period?
During the Archaic Period, city-states centralized. Most of them cast of their kings and formed either democracies — with officials elected by the male, landowning citizens of the poleis — or oligarchies — with a small group of wealthy or influential male citizens exerting control over the poleis. City-states often went through several “tyrannies” before they cast off their former government. Tyrants were not always bad rulers. They often helped city-states and promoted art and culture, and since they appealed to a different base than the noble elite had, they may have indirectly aided the rise of democracy through the empowerment of the lower and middle social classes.
Greek diet changed near the beginning of the Archaic Period (or near the end of the Dark Age). Mycenaean Greeks had eaten a predominantly meat diet. Now, Greek farmers had begun growing more sustainable and nutritious crops — including wheat and barley. Cereals became a major part of Greek diet. The new, cereal-based diet could sustain a much larger population, which in turn led to greater agricultural production. The Greek world began to blossom.
The muse learned to write. Again, sometime near the end of the Dark Age and the beginning of the Archaic, Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet. The Phoenician alphabet, via the Greek alphabet, is the basis of our modern Latin (or Roman) alphabet. The development of an alphabet allowed for more records, the writing of myths and stories, and the emergence of a historical tradition.
At the end of the Dark Age, many Greek city-states showed that they could band together in support of a single cause: rebuffing the Persian advance. For the Greeks, “defeating” Persia was a big deal. They had defended their home turf. Persia viewed it as a minor inconvenience, having an empire that stretched for thousands and thousands of miles at their back.
The Classical Period
The Classical Period is the best known of Greek periods. It lasted from precisely 480 B.C., with the failed second invasion of Persia, to 323 B.C., marking the death of Alexander the Great. During this period, Greek culture flourished. Sculptors, artists, and writers produced some of the best known classical works.
What happened during the Classical Period?
Like I said, culture flourished. We call the artistic style of the period “classical.” Think those white marble statues and gleaming marble temples. Actually, those were painted at the time. The paint has faded since, and the Western eye has become accustomed to plain white buildings and statues. If the ancient Greeks visited our banks and monuments, they might think them very bland!
Conflicts also developed between the two Greek superpowers, Athens and Sparta, who fought a series of Peloponnesian Wars. The last broke Athenian hegemony over the Greek world, and established a Spartan hegemony which would last until Sparta’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Thebes in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. The “Theban world order,” however, would prove short-lived. By the 330s B.C., Philip II of Macedonia (Alexander the Great’s father) had effectively conquered or subjugated all of Greece except Sparta, which was no longer strong enough to exert any influence against the Macedonians.
The end of the Classical Period — 336 B.C., when Philip II was assassinated, to 323 B.C., when Alexander the Great died in Babylon — contains the campaigns of Alexander against the Persian Empire and beyond.
The Hellenistic Period
The Hellenistic Period picks up in 323 B.C. after the death of Alexander and lasted until 31 B.C., when Roman forces led by Octavian (later Augustus) defeated Egyptian forces led by Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium. The following year, Rome defeated Ptolemaic Egypt, one of the four successor states to Alexander the Great’s empire.
What happened during the Hellenistic Period?
Alexander the Great, who had created an empire spanning from Greece into central Asia, left no clear successor. His generals squabbled over the empire. Eventually, through a series of wars (known as the wars of the diodochi, diodochi meaning successors), they divided the empire into roughly four parts. The most well-known of these parts was Ptolemaic Egypt, dominated at first by Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy and then by his descendants. The Greek world was effectively divided. Greek culture continued to flourish, but not to the extent it had flourished during the Classical Period.
Towards the end of the Hellenistic Period, the Greek world came into conflict with the burgeoning Roman world. It’s important to note that “Hellenistic” refers to all areas under Greek control or influenced by Greek culture — which, after the conquests of Alexander the Great, were numerous. The defeat of Ptolemaic forces in the Battle of Actium signified a shift in power. The period that comes after the Hellenistic Period in Greek history is called Roman Greece, since it was at this time that Rome overtook and conquered Greece.
That’s your introduction to ancient Greece and its timeline!
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning something new (or refreshing something old)! My next entry into this historical series will hop back in time and discuss the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations which existed before what we think of as ancient Greece.
If you enjoyed “An Introduction to Ancient Greece and Its Timeline,” read more articles!
If you’re interested in more historical articles like this one, check out my article on Herodotus. You can also read about a small slice of American history in my long-form article about the sexual abuse allegations surrounding Michael Jackson and his legacy.
If you want to take a deeper dive into the world of ancient Greece, I recommend Ancient Greece by Thomas R. Martin to you. It’s a textbook I used in my first college course on ancient Greece, and it provides a pretty concise summary of Greek history.
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