Events in ancient Greece have played a significant role in laying the groundwork for classical and modern Greece. The Archaic period in Greece saw many different political and geographical developments.
The greatest war of all time, the Trojan War, is documented in the earliest surviving examples of Greek literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Olympic Games also have their origins in ancient Greece. The flurry of development in the Archaic era was followed by a period of maturity known as “classical Greece.” Where the events in the Archaic period were purely artistic, the Classical era moved towards a more naturalistic approach.
Listed below are some major events and discoveries which throw light upon the structures, developments, and tragedies that took place in the bygone age of Greece:
1. Beginning of Mycenaean Period (1600 BC–1100 BC)
The Mycenaean civilization marks the declining phase of the Bronze Age in ancient Greece. It showcases the beginnings of an advanced culture in Greece, exemplified by its architecture, writings, art, and public organization.
The Mycenaean Greeks made innovations in the fields of military infrastructure, engineering, and architecture. These discoveries influenced trade in the Mediterranean and advanced their economy. Moreover, Linear B, their syllabic script, has been confirmed as one of the first written records in the Greek language. Their religion included many deities that are also part of the Olympic pantheon.
The civilization was controlled by an elite warrior class which ruled from a web of palace states. These states developed political, hierarchical, economic, and social systems which were entirely inflexible. The king or wanax was the head of society.
The Minoan civilization (2700 BC–1100 BC) which preceded the Mycenaean civilization, was a great influence on the development of the latter. Art, architecture, and religious practices were now better expressed, and the major Mycenaean centers included Mycenae, which was also the ancient home of Agamemnon; Tiryns, which was considered to be the oldest hub; Pylos, Nestor’s home; Sparta; and probably Athens.
Besides trade, art also flourished. Geometric designs and decorative motifs were popular. Pottery shapes were similar to the Minoan designs with some additions such as the alabastron and the goblet. Terracotta statuettes of standing female figures and animals were also popular. Frescoes depicted captured lions, plants, battle scenes, bull-leaping, and other popular Mycenaean activities. The Mycenaeans were very religious and burial was considered as a mandatory ritual.
However, this civilization had a mysterious ending in 1100 BC during the collapse of the Bronze Age possibly due to an earthquake, in-fighting, or invasion.
2. The Trojan War (1250 BC)
The actual existence of the Trojan War has always been ambiguous and debatable. While some scholars take it as a myth, others have found solid proof that it happened.
In Greek mythology, the Trojan War is the battle between the people of Troy and the Greeks. The conflict began after Paris, the Trojan prince, took away Helen, the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. When Menelaus asked for her return, the Trojans refused to give her back. Menelaus then cajoled his brother Agamemnon into leading an army against Troy. Agamemnon had the Greek heroes Ajax, Achilles, Odysseus, and Nestor with him, followed by a fleet of more than a thousand ships from all over the Hellenic world.
For the next nine years, the Greeks attacked Troy, its neighboring cities, and countryside. But the well-fortified town, guarded by Prince Hector and other sons of the Trojan royal family, held out and won the war. Not accepting defeat, the Greeks built a giant wooden horse to hide small groups of warriors inside. Despite repeated warnings by both Laocoön and Cassandra not to take the horse into the city, the Trojan king let it in. At night the Greeks returned, and their hidden countrymen piled out of the horse. They opened the city gates and attacked each and every person who stood in their way. Troy was finally destroyed.
However, although there is no evidence of Achilles and Helen’s existence, most scholars agree that Troy itself was an actual city, and that the Trojan War did happen. Historian Eric Cline says: “The archaeological and textual evidence indicates that a Trojan War or wars took place and that Homer chose to write about one or more of them by making it into a great 10-year-long saga.” Furthermore, according to a popular history channel, “The archeological excavation layer known as Troy VIIa is dated to 1180 BC, and revealed skeletons and carbonized debris. This may be evidence of the destruction that happened during wartime and hence the story of the Trojan War comes to mind.”
3. Introduction of the Olympic Games (776 BC)
The ancient Olympic Games were primarily considered part of a religious festival which took place in honor of the father of the Greek gods and goddesses, Zeus. The celebration and the games were held in Olympia, a rural sanctuary in the western Peloponnese. The sanctuary’s name came from Mount Olympus which was the highest mountain on the Greek mainland, and was believed to be the home of the Greek gods and goddesses. The ancient Olympic Games began when, in 776 BC, Koroibos, a cook from the nearby city of Elis, won the stadion which was a 600-foot-long race.
Apparently beginning with just a single foot race, the program grew to include 23 contests; an Olympiad never features more than 20. Participation in most events was limited to male athletes, but the equestrian events did allow women to take part by entering their own horses in these competitions. Running, boxing, pankration, horse racing, wrestling, chariot racing, two stade races, a long jump, discus throw, and the javelin throw were some of the main events.
4. The Rise of the Greek Tyrants (650 BC)
The tyrants were oppressive rulers in Greece. They were influential opportunists who remained in power with the help of mercenary soldiers. The tyrants often emerged from the aristocracy, and the force of public dislike of them varied from place to place.
The most popular tyrannies were those founded by Orthagoras at Sicyon and Cypselus at Corinth in about 650 BC. The most famous tyrant of Asiatic Greece was Thrasybulus of Miletus. At Sicyon, Cleisthenes ruled from 600 to about 570 BC.
His exploitation made him the most successful of the Orthagorid tyrants. Cypselus’ son Periander’s reign in Cornith lasted for 40 years, and he was considered one of the most evil tyrants. He died soon after the Corinthian tyranny fell in the 580s BC.
Where Sparta ignored the establishment of tyranny, Peisistratus was able to establish tyranny in Athens during the mid-sixth century. Shortly after this, his son was expelled by King Cleomenes I of Sparta in 510 BC. This ended the age of tyranny, but the tyrants themselves lived on.
5. Coin Currency Introduced (600 BC)
The first known coins were introduced in either Ionia in Asia Minor or Lydia some time before 600 BC, because the Greeks wanted a system of authenticated payment. These coins were made of an alloy of gold and silver known as electrum.
With technological advances by the middle of the sixth century BC, the production of pure gold and silver coins became simpler. King Croesus introduced a double metal standard that allowed currencies of pure gold and pure silver to be traded in the marketplace.
Most cities had their own coins which were used in inter-trade processes, and each city had its own symbols and signs carved on the coins. One such coin was the silver stater or didrachm of Aegina.
Athenian coins were based on the monetary standard, the Attic standard, which had a drachm equaling 4.3 grams of silver. As time passed, Athens’ plentiful supply of silver increased its dominance in trade and it was made the pre-eminent standard. These coins were also known as “owls” owing to their central design feature.
6. Age of Pericles (445 BC–429 BC)
The great statesman Pericles was a well-known orator who enjoyed tremendous success in the Greek Assembly. Athens grew under his reign, and the state introduced many different festivities and celebrations. The construction of the Parthenon also took place during the golden age of Pericles.
Pericles introduced several reforms, among which the thetes, or the lowest social class of citizens, were allowed into public office. The thetes were poor and this reform allowed them the opportunity to make a living. Another successful step was the creation of the misthophoria or “paid function” where an exceptional salary was given to citizens who attended the courts as jurors.
Athenians were well educated. The education of boys began in their homes up until they were seven and had to go to school. Mathematics and music were the main subjects, and physical education was intense which allowed children to develop a sportsman-like spirit. Athenian society was a patriarchy and so girls and women were expected to stay at home.
Pericles was an unchallenged ruler. He ruled over Athens throughout the fifth century and remained in power until his death in 429 BC.
7. Second Peloponnesian War: Athens versus Sparta (431 BC)
The great Peloponnesian War involved the whole of the Greek world but was principally a fight between the two major cities of Greece, Athens and Sparta, fought by the Peloponnesian League of Sparta against the Delian League of Athens. The battle is famous mainly because of the historian Thucydides’ documenting of it. This war showcased the brilliant warfare techniques of the Greeks and was fought in three phases.
The first phase was the Archidamian War in which Sparta repeatedly invaded Attica. Athens took advantage of its supremacy over the seas and raided the Peloponnese coast. This phase of the war ended with the signing of a treaty between the two leagues called the Peace of Nicias in 421 BC.
However, the treaty was undermined by the renewed fighting between Athens and Sparta. In 415 BC, Athens sent a huge expeditionary force to attack the city of Syracuse. This attack failed and resulted in the destruction of the entire army in 413 BC.
This failure led to the final phase of the war. This is referred to as the Lonian War or the Decelean War. In this third and last stage, Sparta received support from Persia, and rebellions took place in the subject states of Athens. The destruction of the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami ended the war. With this defeat, Athens surrendered the following year. Thebes and Corinth demanded the destruction of Athens and the enslavement of its citizens, but the Spartans refused.
8. Bubonic Plague in Athens (430 BC)
The terrible Plague of Athens was an epidemic which ravaged every corner of the city. It is said to have been introduced through the city’s port Piraeus which was the only point of entry for food and supplies.
The plague affected the whole of the Mediterranean region, although the outbreak in Athens was the most severe. The disease returned twice, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC.
Research has suggested there were around 30 pathogens which caused the plague, and many people died, leaving scenes of devastation in the city. The dead were piled on top of each other, left to rot in the street, or thrown into mass graves. If those carrying a dead body came across an already burning pyre, they would simply dump the body into the fire and move on.
The plague challenged the population’s religious faith as they prayed for days and no God came to their rescue. They saw the plague as an act of God in support of Sparta.
9. Alexander the Great Came to Power (336 BC)
Alexander III of Macedon, widely known as Alexander the Great, was the son of King Philip II of Macedon. He became king after his father’s death in 336 BC. He conquered almost the whole of the known world during his kingship. Known as “the great” both for his military prowess and his diplomatic qualities, he conquered not only the lands but also the hearts of the people.
As a king, he spread Greek culture, thought, religion, and language from Greece throughout Egypt, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and India. This widespread Greek culture initiated the Hellenistic era.
During his rule, he was able to fulfill his father’s Panhellenic project which aimed at the Greek conquest of Persia. He was just 32 when he died of malaria in 323 BC. He is one of the greatest names in history and impossible to forget.
10. Invasion of the Romans (146 BC)
The Greek peninsula came under the control of the Romans after the Battle of Corinth in 146 BC. Macedonia then became a Roman province. Where some Greeks managed to maintain partial independence, many others surrendered. As King Attalus III left all his territories to the Romans in his will, the Kingdom of Pergamon fell into Roman hands during 133 BC, and it was decided that Pergamon was to be divided among Rome, Pontus, and Cappadocia.
Following the lead of other Greek cities, Athens held a revolt in 88 BC, but the Roman general Sulla succeeded in crushing all their aspirations to become independent. The Roman civil wars continued to devastate the land until 27 BC when Augustus made the peninsula the province of Achaea. Following this, the Romans began to invest heavily in the rebuilding of the destroyed cities. Corinth was made the new province’s capital, and Athens flourished as a center of philosophy and learning.
Greece has been through many changes in its history, and has moved from devastation to prosperity. Ancient Greece has witnessed both artistic and geographical expansion, and the country we know today is a product of its rich cultural and political history.