The Greek Archaic Period: Foundations for the Classical Period

Ancient Greek History, That's History | 4 comments

a map of Archaic Greece

Above: A map of the Greek world during the Archaic Greek Period showing the areas in which city-states (poleis) developed, and the areas in which the old tribal organization remained.

Where We Left Off With the Archaic Greek Period

We discussed some of the beginnings of the Greek Archaic Period, and why we call it “archaic.” We primarily discussed the literature of the Greek Archaic Period, at least that literature which we have and know — the literature of Homer and Hesiod. We briefly discussed the development of the alphabet.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the Greek Archaic Period more generally. At the forefront of my discussion will be a connection between economic system, military structure, and political system. Keep in mind that all of these factors existed at once, and that to try to determine which caused which or what came first is like trying to answer the old question about the chicken and the egg.

So I’ll outline relationships without implying causation, since I can’t be certain what caused what. With moving pieces like this, things are usually a bit more complicated, anyway.

Our story begins with something we’ve already discussed: the transition in the Greek diet. During the Dark Age, Greeks ate a primarily meat-based diet. But at some point at the end of the Dark Age or during the early Archaic Period, that diet changed. The new Greek diet relied on cereals such as wheat, barley, and oats. This diet was more nutritious and could support a greater population, but also meant that nearly one hundred percent of the population needed to be active as farmers. Active farming from all sides of the population led to the development of a middle class, which fundamentally changed Greek society and politics.

a frieze from the late Greek Archaic Period

Above: A sculpture from the late Greek Archaic Period, showing artistic development during this time towards a more naturalistic, realistic style (as compared to Dark Age art). 

A society of small, independent farmers

What developed from this new economic system based heavily on agriculture? Well, a network of small, independent farms developed. The Greek landscape was certainly not suited to a large, plantation-style of farming. It was broken up by hills and valleys, making it much more conducive to small farming operations. Moreover, the soil in most parts of Greece wasn’t and still isn’t rich. In areas that weren’t good for growing wheat, farmers grew other grains as well as two iconic crops of Greece — olives and grapes. The Greek agricultural system was essentially based around the triad of wheat, olives, and grapes, each of which have a different growing cycle. 

As time went on, some successful farmers collected agricultural surpluses, which gave them buying power in the new economy of Archaic Greece. Some remained as farmers, but others took the chance to become craftspeople or — more commonly — merchants. At the same time, the traditional nobility recognized that it was losing power in the face of these “new rich.” Some nobles may have responded by taking up new trades and occupations. Some may have become merchants themselves. Others stewed about their misfortune. 

We have most of this information from poetry. You may be thinking, Of all things! But there were oodles of poets writing during this period — lyric poets, to be exact. And their work is not only beautiful, but it’s also one of our only gateways into the world of Archaic Greece. For that, we have to thank them. If you’re looking for an introduction to lyric poetry, I highly, highly recommend Greek Lyric: An Anthology in Translationtranslated by Andrew M. Miller. It covers all the major lyric poets.

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So how did all this economic and social change — essentially, the growth of a strong middle class — affect the political and military systems of ancient Greece? Let’s first talk about the development of the polis to understand what the developing political structure at the time was. 

The polis 

A polis is, essentially, a city-state. Imagine if your hometown and the towns surrounding it were autonomous entities with their own governments, like states. (I know that cities and towns have governments, too, but imagine if your hometown were as self-sufficient as possible, while maintaining trade connections with the surrounding towns.) By the mid Archaic Period, poleis had developed in quite a few areas of Greece, replacing old tribal systems that had relied on the protection of powerful, armed nobility. With the development of the polis, which sought self-sufficiency, and the growth of the middle class, the nobility lost power. They were no longer the only ones who could afford to fight in battle. Greek farmers became soldiers as well, defending their polis in times of war. 

And wars were common. They broke out between developing poleis for territory and resources — even human resources, like women. But warfare only occurred during small windows of the year — in gaps during the agricultural cycle when men didn’t need to be around tending to their farms. 

It’s likely that participation in warfare spurred middle class Greeks to demand political change. They wanted to have a hand in the government of their poleis. In some poleis, democracies began to develop. Sometimes, these democracies were overthrown by a small group of powerful citizens who formed an oligarchy. And both oligarchies and democracies suffered — and gained — from the occasional tyranny. In some ways, it’s likely that the repeated cycle of tyranny at, say, Athens, the city-state we know the most about, helped to form Athenian democracy. In fact, it’s practically indisputable. Tyrants were not always bad people, nor were they always bad leaders. They often supported the arts and culture and led their city-states to flourish. However, tyranny usually died out two or at maximum three generations beyond the initial tyrant. Then the citizens of the polis would establish a new government.

In Sparta, a city-state we know a little about from Herodotus — our other major source for Archaic Greece (you can read my article on Herodotus if you’re interested in learning more) — a kingship persisted. But there were two kings, perhaps representing a split in a family or the merging of two families, and there were also two councils. Most city-states relied on a combination of executive officers and legislative councils for governance, though both the executive officers and legislative councils could take many different forms. Almost universally, only landowning males over the age of 18 were considered citizens. This means that in Athens, only around a fifth of the total population of the polis ever participated in politics. The others were too young, slaves, non-landowners, alien residents of Athens, or women. 

About women… 

The Change in “Women’s Rights”

During the Archaic Period, as poleis rose and began to flourish, women generally lost power. I’ll use the example of Athens, because that’s the only city-state we really know anything substantial about. As the middle class grew, men realized that their wives no longer had to work. So her contact with the outside world began to decrease. Before long, she settled into the mold of the Classical Athenian woman: confined to the house. She was the master of the home and the servants when her husband wasn’t around, but she had no political power and little bearing in society. Property laws banned women from holding property and essentially made them the property of their fathers and husbands, once they were married.

In other city-states, like Sparta, the situation for women was a little different. Spartan women were encouraged to engage in physical activities, because the Spartans believed that a strong, healthy mother would produce strong, healthy children. (They were right.) Visitors to Sparta from other city-states often remarked on the Spartans’ strange customs when it came to women. Herodotus relates that an older husband was allowed to “lend” his wife to a younger man in order to conceive a son (who would be considered legitimate). It’s unclear, however, to what extent Herodotus exaggerated the differences between Athens and Sparta to play to his audience.

At any rate, women certainly had a lessened political standing, especially when comparing to the Minoan and Mycenaean societies, where it seems women played an active role in politics, society, and religion. 

To close, I’ll reiterate what I said at the very start of my discussion of Archaic Greece: Archaic Greece was a place of constant change. 

In fact, there’s so much to discuss about Archaic Greece that I took a whole course on it for my degree at Tufts. The course is called “Rise of the Greeks,” and I owe part of the title of this article to it. It’s taught masterfully by Professor Steven Hirsch. If you ever, by any chance, find yourself at Tufts, try to take it! There’s a lot of reading, but it’s worth the rigor. This is one of the least-covered areas of ancient Greek history (besides the Dark Age), and I’m very lucky to have been able to take a course on it at all. 

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