The Rise Of Hellenic Civilization, 1150-500 B.C.

The four centuries from c.1150 to 750 B.C., the Greek Dark Ages,

were marked by the disappearance of the major characteristics of Mycenaean civilizationcentralized and bureaucratic administration, wide-ranging commerce, sophisticated art forms (including monumental architecture), and writing.

Yet while the Dorian invasion was an undoubted catastrophe, it was also vital to the ultimate rise of a unique Hellenic (from Hellas, the Greek name for Greece) civilization that was not largely an offshoot of the Near East, as was Aegean civilization. A fresh start now had to be made.

The Influence Of Geography

Geographical factors played an important part in shaping the events of Greek history. The numerous mountain ranges that crisscross the peninsula,


which is about the size of Maine, severely hampered internal communication and led to the development of fiercely independent city-states and the failure of the Greeks to unite into a single state.

The mountains cover two thirds of the surface, and along the west coast they come close to the sea, leaving few harbors and arable plains. Elsewhere the deeply indented coast provides many natural harbors that invite maritime adventure.

The major cleft is the Gulf of Corinth, which made southern Greece almost an island - hence, it was called the Peloponnesus ("Pelop's island").

The indented coastline and the many islands offshore stimulated seagoing trade, and the rocky soil (less than a fifth of Greece is arable) and few natural resources encouraged the Greeks to establish colonies abroad.

[See The Aegean World]

The Homeric Age


Most of our information about the Greek Dark Ages, which followed the Dorian invasion, is derived from the epics put in final form during the last century of this period and attributed to the blind Ionian poet Homer.

Controversy surrounds the question of Homer's existence and whether he or several poets composed the Iliad and Odyssey. The Homeric epics retain something of the material side of the Mycenaean period.

Yet in filling in the details of political, economic, and social life; the religious beliefs and practices; and the ideals that gave meaning to life; the poet could only describe what was familiar to him in his own age.

The values that gave meaning to life in the Homeric Age were predominantly heroic values - the strength, skill, and valor of the preeminent warrior.

Such was the earliest meaning of aret, "excellence" or "virtue," a key term throughout the course of Greek culture.

To obtain aret - defined by one Homeric hero as "to fight ever in the forefront and outvie my peers" - and the imperishable fame that was its reward, men welcomed hardship, struggle, and even death.

Honor, like fame, was a measure of arete, and thei greatest of human tragedies was the denial of honor due to a great warrior. Homer makes such a denial the theme of the Iliad: "The ruinous wrath of Achilles that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans" when Achilles, insulted by Agamemnon, withdraws from battle.

To the Homeric Greeks, the gods were plainly human.

Zeus, the king of the gods, was often the undignified victim of the plots of his wife Hera and other deities, and he asserted his authority through threats of violence.

Hades, the abode of the dead, was a subterranean land of dust and darkness, and Achilles, as Homer tells us in the Odyssey, would have preferred to be a slave on earth than a king in Hades.

Society was clearly aristocratic - only the aristoi ("aristocrats") possessed aret - and the common man was reviled and beaten when he dared to question his betters.

Yet the common man had certain political rights as a member of the assembly that was summoned whenever a crisis, such as war, required his participation.

Two other instruments of government described by Homer were the tribal king and his council.

The king was hardly more than a chief among his peers, his fellow nobles, who sat in his council to advise him and to check any attempt he might make to exercise arbitrary power.

The economy was that of a simple, self-sufficient agricultural system much like that of the early Middle Ages in western Europe.

The City-State: Origin And Political Evolution

The polis, or city-state, the famed Greek political unit, did not exist in the Greek Dark Ages.

The nucleus of the polis, was the elevated, fortified site - the acropolis - where people could take refuge from attack.

In time this defensive center took on added significance as the focus of political and religious life.

When commerce revived in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., a trading center developed below the acropolis.

The two areas and the surrounding territory, usually smaller than a modern county, formed the polis, from which our word "politics" is derived.

The political development of the polis was so rich and varied that it is difficult to think of a form of government not experienced - and given a lasting name - by the Greeks.

Four major types of government evolved:

(1) monarchy, limited by an aristocratic council and a popular assembly, as described in the Homeric epics;

(2) oligarchy ("rule of the few"), arising when the aristocratic council ousted the king and abolished or restricted the popular assembly;

(3) tyranny, imposed by one man who rode to power on the discontent of the lower classes;

(4) democracy ("rule of the people"), the outstanding political achievement of the Greeks, which emerged after the tyrant was deposed and the popular assembly revived and made the chief organ of government.

After dissatisfaction with democratic government be-came widespread in the fourth century B.C., many of the city-states returned either to oligarchy or to one-man rule.

From Oligarchy To Tyranny

By the middle of the eighth century B.C., the nobles, who resented the power wielded by the tribal kings, had taken over the government, ushering in an age of oligarchy.

Ruthlessly exercising their superior power, the nobles acquired a monopoly of the best land, reducing many commoners to virtual serfdom and forcing others to seek a living on rocky, barren soil.

The hard lot of common people under oligarchy produced the anguished protest of Hesiod's Works and Days (c. 700 B.C.).

A commoner who had been cheated out of his parcel of land by his evil brother in league with "bribe-swallowing" aristocratic judges, Hesiod was the prophet of a more exalted conception of the gods and a new age of social justice.

To establish a just society, Hesiod argued, people must learn to pursue moderation (sophrosyne) in all things - apparently the first expression of this famous Greek ideal - and realize that "far-seeing" Zeus and the other gods punish evildoers and reward the righteous.

In contrast to Homer with his aristocratic heroes, Hesiod defined human excellence, or arete, in a way to make it attainable for commoni people. Its essential ingredients were righteousness and work - honest work in competition with one's fellows being a form of strife in moderation.

"Gods and men hate him who lives without work," Hesiod insisted. "His nature is like the drones who sit idle and eat the labor of the bees."

Furthermore, "work is no shame, but idleness is a shame," and "esteem," "glory," and "riches" follow work. ^3 All this sounds much like the Protestant ethic of disciplined restraint, sobriety, frugality, and industry taught by John Calvin and his followers.

[Footnote 3: Quoted in Werner Jaeger, Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939), vol. 1, p. 70.]

Hesiod's new ideals of moderation and justice were slow to take root.

The poor found relief only by emigrating to new lands overseas.

As Plato later noted, the wealthy promoted colonization as a safety valve to ward off a threatened political and economic explosion:

When men who have nothing, and are in want of food, show a disposition to follow their leaders in an attack on the property of the rich - these, who are the natural plague of the state, are sent away by the legislator in a friendly spirit as far as he is able; and this dismissal of them is euphemistically termed a colony. ^4

[Footnote 4: Plato Laws 5.735. In The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett (New York: Random House, 1937), vol. 2, p. 503.]

From 750 to 550 B.C. the Greeks planted colonies throughout much of the Mediterranean world, a development often compared with the expansion of Europe in modern times.

Settlements sprang up along the northern coast of the Aegean and around the Black Sea.

So many Greeks migrated to southern Italy and eastern Sicily that the region became known as Magna Graecia, or Great Greece.

Colonies were also founded as far west as present-day France - at Massilia, modern Marseilles for example - and Spain and on parts of the African coast.

Unique was Naucratis in Egypt, not a true colony but a trading post whose residents gained extraterritorial rights (their own magistrates and law courts) from the Egyptians.

In time colonization ameliorated Greece's economic and social problems.

By 600 B.C. economic progress and the use of coined money, learned from the Lydians, had created the beginnings of a middle class.

The Greek home states gradually became "industrialized" as a result of concentrating upon the production of specialized wares - vases, metal goods, textiles, olive oil, and wine - for export in exchange for foodstuffs and raw materials.

But before this economic revolution was completed, the continuing land hunger of the peasants contributed to a political revolution.

After 650 B.C. tyrants arose in many Greek states and, supported by the aggrieved peasantry and rising merchant class, seized the reins of government

from the nobility.

They were supported by a new heavy-armed infantry (the hoplite phalanx), composed of middle-class citizens wealthy enough to furnish their own equipment.

These tyrants (the word meant simply "master" and did not at first have today's unfavorable meaning) not only distributed land to the peasants but, by promoting further colonization, trade, and industry, completed the Greek economic revolution.

Athens To 500 B.C.

Athens and Sparta, the city-states destined to dominate the history of Greece during the classical period (the fifth and most of the fourth centuries B.C.), underwent markedly different developments during the period prior to 500 B.C.

While Athens' political, economic, and social evolution was typical of most other Greek states, Sparta's development produced a unique way of life that elicited the wonder and often the admiration of other Greeks.

During the seventh century B.C., the council of nobles became supreme in Athens.

The popular assembly no longer met, and the king was replaced by nine aristocratic magistrates, called archons, chosen annually by the council to exercise the king's civil, military, and religious powers.

While the nobles on their large estates prospered, the small farmers and sharecroppers suffered.

Bad years forced them to borrow seed from their rich neighbors, and when they were unable to repay they were sold into slavery.

To the small farmers' clamor for the cancellation of debts and the end to debt slavery was added the voice of the landless for the redistribution of land.

When the Athenian nobles finally realized that their failure to heed the cry for reform would result in the rise of a tyrant, they agreed to the policy of compromise advocated by the liberal aristocrat Solon.

In 594 B.C. Solon was made sole archon with broad authority to reconcile the lower classes.

Inspired by the ideals of moderation and justice promoted by Hesiod a century earlier, Solon instituted middle-of-the-road reforms that have made his name a byword for wise statesmanship.

For the lower classes, Solon agreed to canceling all debts and forbidding future debt bondage, but he rejected as too radical the demand for the redivision of the land.

His long-range solution to the economic problem was to seek full employment by stimulating trade and industry.

To achieve this goal, Solon required fathers to teach their sons a trade, granted citizenship to foreign artisans who settled in Athens, and encouraged the intensive production of olive oil for export.

Moderation also characterized Solon's political reformsthe common people were granted important political rights, but not equality.

While laws continued to originate in a new aristocratic Council of Four Hundred, they now had to be ratified by the popular assembly, which Solon revived.

And since wealth, not birth, became the qualification for membership in the Council and for the archonships, wealthy commoners acquired full political equality.

Furthermore, the assembly could now act as a court to hear appeals from the decisions of the archons and to try them for misdeeds in office.

Unfortunately, Solon's moderate reforms satisfied neither party.

The poor had received neither land nor full political equality, while the nobles thought Solon a radical who had betrayed his class.

Deeply discouraged, Solon described what is too often the lot of moderate reformers: "Formerly their eyes sparkled when they saw me; now they coldly scorn me, no longer friends but enemies." ^5

[Footnote 5: Plutarch Lives "Solon" 16.]

Solon had warned the Athenians to accept his reforms lest "the people in its ignorance comes into the power of a tyrant."


He lived to see his prediction fulfilled. In 560 B.C., after a period of civil strife, Pisistratus, a military hero and champion of the commoners, usurped power as tyrant.


He solved the economic problem by banishing many nobles, whose lands he distributed among the poor, and by promoting commerce and industry.


Together with extensive public works and the patronage of culture - thus starting Athens on the road to cultural leadership in Greece - these reforms gave rise to a popular saying that "Life under Pisistratus was paradise on earth."

Pisistratus was succeeded by his two sons, one of whom was assassinated and the other exiled after he became suspicious and cruel.


When the nobles, aided by a Spartan army, took this opportunity to restore oligarchy, Cleisthenes temporarily seized power in 508 B.C. and put through constitutional reforms that destroyed the remaining power of the nobility.


He disregarded the old noble-dominated tribes and created ten new ones, each embracing citizens of all classes from widely scattered districts.


The popular assembly soon acquired the right to initiate legislation and became the sovereign power in the state; there could be no appeal from its decisions.


A new and democratic Council of Five Hundred, selected by lot from the ten tribes, advised the assembly and supervised the administrative actions of the archons.


Cleisthenes' final reform was the peculiar institution of ostracism, an annual referendum in which a quorum of citizens could vote

to exile for ten years any individual thought to be a threat to the new Athenian democracy.

(A quorum consisted of 6000 of the 50,000 male citizens over the age of eighteen. The average attendance at an Athenian assembly, whose ordinary meetings were held every ten days, was about 5000.)

The 2500th anniversary of the establishment of the Athenian democracy will be celebrated in 1993.

Sparta To 500 B.C.

In sharp contrast to Athens was its rival Sparta. Sparta had not joined the other Greek cities in trade and colonization but had expanded instead by conquering and enslaving its neighbors.

To guard against revolts by the state slaves (helots), who worked the land for their conquerors, Sparta deviated from the normal course of Greek political development and transformed itself into a militaristic totalitarian state.

Aristotle called the government of Sparta a "mixed constitution"; for the small minority of ruling Spartans, it was a democracy, but for the great mass of subjected people it was an oligarchy.

The government included two kings, an aristocratic council, and an assembly of all 9000 Spartan citizens. Great power resided in five magistrates called ephors ("overseers"), created originally as an aristocratic check on royal authority, but later elected annually by the assembly.

While the Athenian state required only two years of military training for young men, the Spartan system - traditionally attributed to a legendary lawgiver named Lycurgus - was designed to make every Spartan a professional soldier and to keep him in a constant state of readiness for war.

To this end, the state enforced absolute subordination of the individual to its will.

State officials examined all newborn children, and any found sickly or deformed were abandoned to die.

At the age of seven a boy was taken from his family and placed in the charge of state educators, who taught him to bear hardship, endure discipline, and devote his life to the state.

At twenty the young Spartan enrolled in the army and lived in barracks, where he contributed food from his allotment of land granted by the state and worked by helots.

At thirty he was allowed to marry, but he continued to live in barracks, visiting his wife only at night.

Finally, at sixty, he was released from the army and could live at home with his family.

This lifelong discipline produced formidable soldiers and inspired them

with the spirit of obedience and respect for law.

Plutarch reports that Spartan training "accustomed the citizens to have neither the will nor the ability to lead a private life, but, like bees, to be organic parts of their community, clinging together around their leader, forgetting themselves in their enthusiastic patriotism, and belonging wholly to their country."

Although many Greeks admired the Spartan way of life, the typical Spartan was crude and aggressive, took few baths, and spoke few words. According to Plutarch:


  • One may judge their character by their jokes; for they are taught never to talk at random,
  • nor to utter a syllable that does not contain some thought. For example, when one of them was invited to hear a man imitate the nightingale, he answered, "I have heard the original." ^6

    [Footnote 6: Plutarch Lives "Lycurgus" 20.]

    Spartan girls also received state training in order to become healthy mothers of warrior sons.

    Clad in short tunics, which other Greeks thought immodest, they engaged in running, wrestling, and throwing the discus and javelin.

    As their men marched off to war, Spartan women bade them a laconic farewell: "Come back with your shield or on it."

    According to Plutarch, the Spartans

    did away with all seclusion and retirement for

  • women, and ordained that girls, no less than boys, should go naked in processions, and dance and sing at festivals in the presence of the young men....
  • This nakedness of the maidens had in it nothing disgraceful.

    It was done modestly, not licentiously, and it produced habits of simplicity and taught them to desire good health and beauty of body, and to love honor and courage no less than the men.

    This it was that made them speak and think as Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, is said to have done.

    Some foreign lady, it seems, said to her, "You Spartan women are the only ones who rule men." She answered, "Yes, for we are the only ones who give birth to men."

    While Sparta developed the finest military machine in Greece, it remained backward culturally and economically.

    Trade and travel were prohibited because the city fathers feared that alien ideas might disturb the status quo.

    Sparta is a classic example of how intellectual stagnation accompanies rigid social conformity and military regimentation.

    To provide additional assurance that its helots remained uncontaminated by democratic ideas, Sparta allied itself with oligarchic parties in other Peloponnesian states and aided them in suppressing their democratic opponents.

    The resulting Spartan League of oligarchic states, in operation by the end of the sixth century B.C., was shortly to be faced by an Athenian-led union of democratic states.