2 Ancient Greece & the Golden Age of Athens

a rocky cliff on the side of a body of water
Zakynthos Landscape Coast – Greek Island by 12photostory on Unsplash

Greek Dark Ages

The Greek Dark Ages (1100 BCE-750 BCE) were ushered in by a period of violence and characterized by the disruption of cultural progress. Despite the darkness, many things were evolving at this time that contribute to the power and influence Greece has had on Western Civilization, and, arguably, beauty. What threads can you identify as contributing to things we value today? How do those things contribute to what is beautiful?

Age of Calamities

The Late Bronze Age collapse, or Age of Calamities (1200 BCE-1150 BCE), was a transition in the Aegean Region, Eastern Mediterranean, and Southwestern Asia that took place from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age. Historians believe this period was violent, sudden, and culturally disruptive. The palace economy of the Aegean Region that had characterized the Late Bronze Age was replaced after a hiatus by the isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Age, a period that lasted for more than 400 years. Cities like Athens continued to be occupied but with a more local sphere of influence, limited evidence of trade, and an impoverished culture, which took centuries to recover.

Fall of the Mycenaeans

Many historians attribute the fall of the Mycenaeans, and overall Bronze Age collapse, to climatic or environmental catastrophe, combined with an invasion by the Dorians or Sea Peoples—a group of people who possibly originated from different parts of the Mediterranean like the Black Sea, though their origins remain obscure. Historians also point to the widespread availability of edged iron weapons as an exasperating factor. Despite this, no single explanation fits all available archaeological evidence in explaining the fall of the Mycenaean culture. Many large-scale revolts took place in several parts of the eastern Mediterranean during this time, and attempts to overthrow existing kingdoms were made as a result of economic and political instability by peoples already plagued with famine and hardship, which contributes to this period being referred to as the Greek Dark Ages.

Society During the Greek Dark Ages

Greece was most likely divided into independent regions during the Greek Dark Ages according to kinship groups and the oikoi, or households. Excavations of Dark Age communities, such as Nichoria in the Peloponnese, have shown how a Bronze Age town was abandoned in 1150 BCE, but then reemerged as a small village cluster by 1075 BCE. Archaeological evidence suggests that only 40 families lived in Nichoria and that there was abundant farming and grazing land. Some remains appear to have been the living quarters of a chieftain. High status individuals did exist during the Dark Ages; however, their standards of living were not significantly higher than others in their village.

the entrance to the tholos tomb of Nichοria
Entrance Tholos Tomb at Nichoria by Wikimedia Commons is licensed CC BY 4.0

Archaic Greece

The Archaic Period (800 BCE-480 BCE) saw the increasing urbanization of Greek communities, and the development of the concept of the polis. The Archaic period saw developments in Greek politics, economics, international relations, warfare, and culture. It also laid the groundwork for the classical period, both politically and culturally. During this time, the Greek alphabet developed, and the earliest surviving Greek literature was composed. The Illiad and the Odyssey are from this period. Monumental sculpture and red-figure pottery also developed in Greece, and in Athens, the earliest institutions of democracy were implemented.

Some written accounts of life exist from this time period in the form of poetry, law codes, inscriptions on votive offerings, and epigrams inscribed on tombs. However, thorough written histories, such as those that exist from the Greek classical period, are lacking. Historians do have access to rich archaeological evidence from this period, however, that informs understanding of Greek life during the Archaic period.

The Rise of Classical Greece

Classical Greece was a 200-year period in Greek culture lasting from the 5th to the 4th centuries BCE. Classical Greece also had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire, and greatly influenced the foundations of Western civilization. Much of modern Western politics, artistic and scientific thought, literature, and philosophy derives from this period of Greek history.

Rise of the City-States

The term ” city-state,” which is English in origin, does not fully translate the Greek term for these same entities, polisPoleis were different from ancient city-states in that they were ruled by bodies of the citizens who lived there. Many were initially established, as in Sparta, via a network of villages, with a governance center being established in a central urban center. As notions of citizenship rose to prominence among landowners, polis came to embody an entire body of citizens and the term could be used to describe the populace of a place, rather than the physical location itself.

Dwellers of a polis were typically divided into four separate social classes, with an individual’s status usually being determined at birth. Free adult men born of legitimate citizens were considered citizens with full legal and political rights, including the right to vote, be elected into office, and bear arms, with the obligation to serve in the army during wartime. The female relatives and underage children of full citizens were also considered citizens, but they had no formal political rights. They were typically represented within society by their adult male relatives.

Athenian Democracy

Athenian democracy developed around the 5th century BCE, in the Greek city-state of Athens. It is the first known democracy in the world. Other Greek cities set up democracies, most following the Athenian model, but none are as well documented as Athens. Athenian democracy was a system of direct democracy, in which participating citizens voted directly on legislation and executive bills. Participation was open to adult, land-owning men, which historians estimate numbered between 30,000 and 50,000 individuals, out of a total population of approximately 250,000 to 300,000.

“Early Periods in Greek History” by LibreTexts is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0


The Rise of Athens (508-448 BCE)

Prior to the rise of Athens, Sparta, a city-state with a militaristic culture, considered itself the leader of the Greeks, and enforced an hegemony. In 499 BCE, Athens sent troops to aid the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor, who were rebelling against the Persian Empire during the Ionian Revolt. This provoked two Persian invasions of Greece, both of which were repelled under the leadership of the soldier-statesmen Miltiades and Themistocles, during the Persian Wars. In the decades that followed, the Athenians, with the help of the Spartans and other allied Greek city-states, managed to rout the Persians. These victories enabled Athens to bring most of the Aegean, and many other parts of Greece, together in the Delian League, creating an Athenian-dominated alliance from which Sparta and its allies withdrew.

Athenian Hegemony and the Age of Pericles

The 5th century BCE was a period of Athenian political hegemony (the power of one state over another), economic growth, and cultural flourishing that is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Athens. The latter part of this time period is often called The Age of Pericles. After peace was made with Persia in the 5th century BCE, what started as an alliance of independent city-states became an Athenian empire. Athens moved to abandon the pretense of parity among its allies, and relocated the Delian League treasury from Delos to Athens, where it funded the building of the Athenian Acropolis, put half its population on the public payroll, and maintained the dominant naval power in the Greek world. With the empire’s funds, military dominance, and its political fortunes as guided by statesman and orator Pericles, Athens produced some of the most influential and enduring cultural artifacts of Western tradition, during what became known as the Golden Age of Athenian democracy, or the Age of Pericles. The playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all lived and worked in Athens during this time, as did historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the physician Hippocrates, and the philosopher Socrates.

Pericles was arguably the most prominent and influential Greek statesman, orator, and general of Athens during its Golden Age. One of his most popular reforms while in power was to allow thetes (Athenians without wealth) to occupy public office. Another success of his administration was the creation of the misthophoria, a special salary for the citizens that attended the courts as jurors. As Athens’ ruler, he helped the city to prosper with a resplendent culture and democratic institutions.

Athenian Society

Classical Athenian society was structured as a democratic patriarchy that strived towards egalitarian ideals.

In the Assembly of the People, Athenian citizens decided matters of state. In theory, it was composed of all the citizens of Athens; however, it is estimated that the maximum number of participants it included was 6,000. Since many citizens were incapable of exercising political rights, due to their poverty or ignorance, a number of governmental resources existed to encourage inclusivity. For example, the Athenian democracy provided the following to its population:

  • Concession of salaries to public functionaries
  • Help finding work for the poor
  • Land grants for dispossessed villagers
  • Public assistance for war widows, invalids, orphans, and indigents

In order to discourage corruption and patronage, most public offices that did not require specialized expertise were appointed by lot rather than by election. Offices were also rotated so that members could serve in all capacities in turn, in order to ensure that political functions were instituted as smoothly as possible regardless of each individual official’s capacity.

Athenians in the Age of Pericles

The Athenian elite lived modestly and without great luxuries compared to the elites of other ancient societies. Wealth and land ownership was not typically concentrated in the hands of a few people. In fact, 71-73% of the citizen population owned 60-65% of the land. By contrast, thetes occupied the lowest social class of citizens in Athens. Many held crucial roles in the Athenian navy as rowers, due to the preference of many ancient navies to rely on free men to row their galleys. During the reforms of Ephialtes and Pericles around 460-450 BCE, thetes were granted the right to hold public office.

Boys were educated at home until the age of seven, at which time they began formal schooling. Subjects included reading, writing, mathematics, and music, as well as physical education classes that were intended to prepare students for future military service. At the age of 18, service in the army was compulsory.

Athenian women were consigned to the care and upkeep of the family home. Athenian society was a patriarchy; men held all rights and advantages, such as access to education and power. Nonetheless, some women, known as hetaeras, did receive an education with the specific purpose of entertaining men, similar to the Japanese geisha tradition. Hetaeras were considered higher in status than other women, but lower in status than men. One famous example of a hetaera is Pericles’ mistress, Aspasia of Miletus, who is said to have debated with prominent writers and thinkers, including Socrates.

Adapted from “Athens” by LibreTexts, which is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0.

Questions to consider: What do you think of when you think of Greece? What do you think life was like in Greece during the Greek Dark Ages?


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Being Human Copyright © 2023 by Jacqui Shehorn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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