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Lecture 4:  Greece through the Peloponnesian War

Greece's "Dark Ages" (1150-800 BCE)

When, around 1150 BCE the Sea Peoples destroyed Mycenae, its cities crumbled and its population shrunk.  Peoples moved away from the coast and took up farming.  Self-sufficient families clustered in small villages.  Economic organization became based upon family ownership and control over property.  Much of Mycenaean culture was lost (including literacy), and remnants of Mycenaean religion and mythology took on new twists—the gods were no longer to be trusted (they were fickle).  Like the new economy, this new view of religion emphasized individual human action. 

Greece began pulling out of this "dark age" around 1000 BCE.  Some villages grew into cities, and old cities became repopulated.  Farmers produced a surplus, artisans became more skilled, and merchants revived trade with other cities and regions.  In particular, they traded with the Phoenicians, from whom they borrowed the Phoenician alphabet, artistic styles, and ship-building technology.  New style ships allowed Greek merchants to expand their sea trade; they also made Greek sailors into better pirates, which was an important source of wealth for many Greek cities.  In these new cities, families controlled their own individual property and wealth.  (Remember that elsewhere, the king and temple controlled the economy and redistributed wealth to the population.)  This eventually gave rise to a new kind of aristocracy based upon wealth, as families used their wealth to win political influence.  But the aristocrats claimed that their authority came from their superior characters and qualities.  An aristocrat was expected to demonstrate refined qualities—heroic qualities like those of the mythical heroes of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey

In about 800 BCE, someone (Homer?) set the stories of the great mythical heroes of Mycenae down in writing (in poetic verse, using the Phoenician alphabet).  These stories shaped how the Greeks understood the world, proper behavior, heroism, honor, friendship, love, etc.   Everyone knew these stories, and at great annual festivals across Greece men gathered to recite the Iliad and the Odyssey (which took days):  ordinary life would stop, wars would stop.  These myths were cultural glue that bound together the peoples of different Greek city-states.

Each Greek city state developed distinct local traditions and customs and a sense of local identity.  Athens, Corinth, Sparta, and Thebes shared a common over-all system of religion and myth, but each city had its own temples and patron gods, its own aristocrats, its own cultural values.  Still, the citizens of all the city states valued and prized individual autonomy and individual action (liberty and independence).  They organized government in their cities in a way that recognized these values.

Each city-state had its own version of an institution called the polis.  The polis was made up of the citizens (men only!!!) of a land (khora).  The khora usually included a city (with a large temple) and the villages around it.   The polis would meet in a city's market or some other large central gathering place (called the asty).  At the asty, all of the gathered citizens would participate in debates over how the polis should be governed.  In other words, by about 800 BCE the Greek city states had developed a form of self-government based upon citizens' participation.

 The Archaic Period (800-480 BCE)

The world of the Hellenes (the Greeks) expanded rapidly from about 800 BCE, as the city states began looking for new trade and resources.  Most city states began establishing colonies (sometimes through military conquest).  Some had excellent resources for ship-building and trade but little farmland (Corinth, for instance).  They needed colonies as sources of food.  Some were so overcrowded that they needed colonies as outlets for surplus population (Thebes, for instance).  Sparta had a different reason for expansion:  it had plenty of excellent farm land, but it was short of laborers, and so it expanded in order to gain control over slaves.   The Greek city states established colonies across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (often taking over areas that had been Phoenician colonies).  Self-governing Greek colonies had close cultural ties to their mother-cities, so colonization spread Greek (Hellenistic) culture.  Expansionism and colonization also increased the rivalries and conflicts between the city states. 

All Hellenes considered themselves part of a common "people" (thus Pan-Hellenic, "of all the Greeks).  Each city-state recognized the same pantheon of gods, sought advice from the Oracle at Delphi, took part in festivals like the recitations of Homer's epic poems, sent champions to the Olympic Games every four years, etc..  But each remained independent, and they were divided by different dialects of Greek (Ionian vs Dorain dialect).  And they often engaged one another in war.

In early archaic Greece, war meant individual combat.  Being a warrior required owning expensive swords and armor as well as training—things that common people could not afford.  So the wealthy aristocrats were the warriors.  Their role as warrior further increased the aristocrats' political power and social dominance over the polis.  But at some point in the 600s BCE, the Greeks started using a new form of warfare, called "Hoplite," based upon the coordinated movements of large numbers of armed men.  This style of warfare, which was probably adapted from the techniques of the Assyrians, brought an end to the aristocrats' dominance had over warfare. 

The hopla was a very large leather shield.  Rows of men with swords and spears in their right hands moved in very close rank holding their hopla with their left hands, so that each man's shield actually covered the man to his left.  If the soldiers moved in close coordination, then what their enemy saw was a wall of shields.  Hoplite soldiers had to be well trained and well disciplined.  In battle, rows of soldiers moving together would press spears forward into the enemy, each man pushing the man in front of him toward the enemy line until the enemy was speared or trampled. Discipline, coordination, and brute strength were the keys to hoplite warfare.  Hoplite tactics worked so well that every city state needed to train larger numbers men in these fighting skills.  Farmers and artisans who could afford armor, swords, and spears now became hoplites.  The aristocrats no longer had a monopoly on the prestige that came from warfare. 

Still, the aristocrats dominated political, economic, and cultural life in the city states.  They alone could afford to serve in the unpaid bureaucratic posts that wielded real power.  They controlled large landed estates.  They were patrons of the arts, who employed sculptors, painters, story tellers and musicians.   In particular, they were great lovers of poetry.  The poetic tradition in archaic Greece began with epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod—poems about heroes gods.  By the 600s BCE it had shifted to lyric poetry that focused on the emotions and feelings of the poet him or herself.

Note:  Lyric poems required musical accompaniment, usually flutes, skin drums, and the lyre.  Music was extremely important to the Greeks, and they developed a number of advanced theories regarding the mathematic basis of pitches and scales, the basis for the system of scales we use in western music.  But they never learned to use polyphony—their music was based entirely on melody, without little harmonic embellishment.

Aristocratic men socialized in an all-male environment (the only women allowed at their regular gatherings were prostitutes).  Teen-aged aristocratic boys were introduced to these social circles by older mentors, who also took them as lovers.  ("Homosexuality" was considered natural among the Greeks, who also engaged in heterosexual intercourse.)

Competition between elite aristocratic circles a particular city for political dominance often became so fierce that it led to fighting.  Aristocrats out of power often recruited hoplites to oust those in power and seize control over the government.  The elites who used military force to seize power were called "tyrants."  Once in power, the tyrant had to keep the hoplites on his side by granting them greater rights and legal protections. Keeping the hoplites satisfied was a difficult balancing act.  Time and time again, the hoplites would tolerate tyranny for only a decade or two before demanding that power be returned to the citizens (the demos).

The course of political events and the evolving political culture was different in each of the Greek city states.  There was a great difference between the political systems and traditions that developed in the two most famous Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta. 

Athens and the evolution of "democracy" 

Until about 800 BCE, Athens (in Attica) was a relatively unimportant city.  Athens had an agricultural economy.  Its aristocrats, all large landowners, controlled key state posts as elected magistrates and appointed state councilors (the Areopagus).  Each year a different aristocrat served as archeon, or administrator of the city-state.  The Areopagus chose the archeons, and once you were an archeon, you got to serve for life on the Areopagus.   This gave the aristocrats control over the law and government.

As Athens grew, a large portion of the population became impoverished and fell into debt slavery.  The gap between rich and poor became ever more extreme, with very little middle ground.  In the mid-600s BCE social tensions triggered fifty years of political chaos.  Athens only began to pull itself out of crisis in the 594 BCE, under the leadership of the archeon Solon. 

Solon abolished debt slavery, reorganized the courts so that ordinary citizens could serve on juries.  Citizens could appeal rulings of Areopagus to citizen-courts.  His reforms opened government posts to property owning non-aristocrats (the more wealth, the higher the post you could fill).  And all free-born men could now participate in the assembly of citizens (the ekklesia), which directed government decision making.  Solon proposed economic policies that also helped pull Athens out of crisis—he promoted the growing of new crops that made Athens an economic power house.  In agriculture, Athens gained competitive advantage over other Greek city states in cultivating olives for oils and grapes for wine.  He also promoted key artisan trades, especially ship building, which helped Athens develop the greatest fleet in all of Greece.

Ironically, Salon's democratic reforms advanced as a result of tyranny. In 546, an aristocrat named Peisistratos used a mercenary army to seize power.   To get support from the demos against rival aristocrats, he implemented democratizing reforms.  But in 510 BCE the citizens of Athens rose up in rebellion and overthrew Peisistratos' sons.  In 508 the demos of Athens actually chose their own leader—something no major civilization had done before.  The new director of the city government, Cleisthenese, issued more reforms giving decision making power to the citizens (the demos).  This system in which citizens shaped law and government through voting and direct participation was known as "democracy."  Democracy in practice could be harsh—one of the new laws introduced in 508 BCE allowed any citizen to nominate any other citizen to be "ostracized"—exiled from Athens for ten years.  This was meant as a way of preventing new tyrants from arising, but it became a weapon that men used against their enemies. 

Sparta and militarized "constitutional" monarchy 

In a very agriculturally rich corner of Peloponnesus (the southern peninsula), several villages merged to form the polis of Sparta.  Spartans had a dual monarchy (two kings who shared power).  They followed an unusual social and political system designed, they believed by a mythical citizen named Lycurgus, in an unwritten constitution called the Great Rhetra.  Sparta's entire society revolved around its army.  It had no aristocrats—all free men were to be soldiers, and all soldiers were equals (Spartai). 

At birth, each child was examined by city officials.  If healthy, they were allowed to live. If unhealthy or "deformed," they were thrown off of a cliff.  This crude form of selection meant that only the strongest lived to breed…   At age 7, Sparta removed children from their homes and sent them to "agope," schools for training warriors.  Boys and girls trained together, with an emphasis on developing skills for combat.  At age 12, girls went to a "finishing school" to learn the arts; boys underwent five more years of combat training.  (The fiercest boys were picked for special spying/death squads, which randomly killed slaves as a way of keeping the slaves in a constant state of terror.) At age 18, the boys hoped to be nominated for a "syssition" (their "mess tent, their military unit) by one of the older soldiers (who usually took his protégé as a lover).  Those not chosen lost their citizenship rights.  Those chosen spent the rest of their life in their syssition.  At 21, men were allowed to marry (most waited until their early 30s).  But once married, men still lived with their unit (and visited their wives infrequently).    

It is not surprising that Sparta suffered from a serious decline in population by the 400s BCE—this was probably Sparta's greatest weakness.  .

Because the men spent all of their time in their military units, and because they were often away from Sparta engaged in wars, women dominated daily life on the streets of Sparta.  Although women were not citizens, they had a greater public presence in Sparta than they did anywhere else in Greece.  (Other Greeks were as fascinated with Spartan women as they were terrified of Spartan men.)

All soldiers/citizens belonged to the government assembly (the apella).  The assembly elected a ruling council that advised the king and made laws.  The ruling council chose an inner council (the ephor), which had as much power as did the kings.  Citizens were full time soldiers and could have no other livelihood.  They could not be merchants or artisans or farmers.  Most of the work was done by slaves. 

In the 600s, Sparta invaded the neighboring territory of Messenia and enslaved its entire population.  The Spartans called the Messenian slaves "helots."  Other Greeks had slaves, but it was considered wrong to turn fellow Hellenes into slaves—by enslaving the Messenians, the Spartans had violated this "rule."  The Spartans kept the Helots in line through terror.  There were 10 Helots to every 1 Spartan, so crushing rebellion before it began was of extreme importance.  Besides slaves, the other people who kept Sparta's economy running were the free non-citizens—men who were not soldiers--the peroikoi. They could amass great wealth, but they could never have political or legal rights equal to the "Spartiates" (the soldiers).

This system made Sparta the most powerful military force in Greece for more than two centuries.  Other Greeks (and the Romans), considered Spartans models of discipline and physical perfection.  But they became very hide bound, very traditional—they did everything they could to prevent any change or variation from the system of Lycurgus.   

The Ionian city states 

Athens and Sparta by no means were the only important polis.  The region known as Ionia, on the western coast of Anatolia (Turkey) was just important to Greek culture in the archaic period.  And the most important city in Ionia was Miletus.  Miletus, a great military and trade power, served as the bridge between the Greek world and the Near East.  Miletus introduced the Greeks to ideas from the Lydians and helped spread Greek ideas and culture to the east—especially to colonies on the Black Sea and their trading posts in Egypt.  Miletus, not Athens (and certainly more than Sparta!), was the center of Greek poetry and philosophy in the Archaic period.  It was in Miletus that thinkers began to separate philosophy (rational examination of our world) from theology (religious doctrine).  They emphasized the importance and independence of human rationality and logic, human ability to explain the natural causes of phenomenon in the "kosmos." 

During the Persian Wars (below) many philosophers fled Miletus.  The most important was Pythagoras, who set up his own "cult" in Sicily.  Pythagoras introduced important discoveries in mathematics (especially geometry—i.e., the Pythagorean theorem).  But this was only one aspect of his general philosophy.  He argued that numbers were the basis of reality, that mathematical relationships were the essence of existence.  (Pythagoras saw music as the best expression of the mathematical harmony of nature, and did some of the most important early research into to basis of harmony, concord, and discord.)  By using reason to understand mathematics, man could understand and define the workings of nature and the cosmos.   Besides producing great philosophers, Miletus was also at the center of a conflict that changed the course of Greek history—Greece's war with the Persian Empire. 

The Wars with Persia                       

Around 500 BCE, Miletus became a puppet-state of Persia, run by a Persian-backed tyrant.  But this tyrant then double crossed the Persians and rebelled.  When Athens came to Miletus aid in attacking Persian outposts in Anatolia, it drew the attention of Persian King Darius.  In 494 BCE Darius crushed Miletus.  Four years later he launched an invasion against the Greek mainland, to make sure that the Greek city-states never again fostered rebellion against Persian rule.  When the Persian invasion force landed in Attica, at Marathon, Athens could not get Sparta and the other large cities to give it military aid.  So the Athenians engaged a much larger Persian force alone on the Marathon plain.  Thanks to the element of surprise and hoplite tactics defeated, the defeated the Persians. The Persians retreated.  Athens, knowing the war was not really over,  built a fleet of warships—the largest navy in the world at that time (more than 200 warships).

The Persians did return, under Darius' son Xerxes, who led the invasion of Greece himself in 480 BCE.  This time, all of the major Greek city-states agreed to cooperate in the war against the Persians (in an alliance called the Hellenic League, led by Sparta).  The Persians attacked a small Spartan-led force at the narrow pass called Thermopylae.  The Spartans fought to the last man, and held the Persians off for three days while the Athenian-led fleet destroyed much of the Persian fleet.  But the Persian army marched on to Athens.   The Persians found Athens empty--Athenian leader Themistocles had convinced the population to abandon the city.  The Persians looted and burned Athens, and it looked like the Greeks were finished.  But Persian dependence on their fleet for supplies made their army vulnerable.  The Athenian navy sank the Persian fleet in a battle near Salamis, and Xerxes had to retreat.  The Greek city-states had defeated the world's largest army.

 Classical Greece to the Peloponnesian War (480 BCE-400 BCE) 

Athens' role in defeating the Persians made it the new dominant force in Greece.  Its power came from its navy, from the tens of thousands of ordinary, lower-class men (thetes) who rowed its oars.  After defeating the Persians, these lowly sailors expected greater rights in the Athenian polis.  Their cause won political support from an important Athenian aristocrat, Pericles.  Pericles proposed that these lower-class men be given full citizens' rights as a means of winning over the favor of the demos.  It worked, and he was elected as Athen's administrator (strategos) in 462.  Once in power, Pericles introduced reforms that gave all Athenian citizens the right to vote on legislation and made it easier for ordinary men to hold office and participate in government.  He introduced policies that reduced poverty among citizens and shrunk the gap between rich and poor.  This brought him even greater lower-class political support, and for 30 years the demos elected Pericles as strategos.

Under Pericles, everyday life for the citizens (free property owning men) revolved around politics.  Every citizen was to keep informed on the issues of the day, attend the assembly, and vote.  These democratic duties were considered every bit (if not more) important than military service.  Under Pericles, Athens was constantly undertook new public building projects, to improve temples and theaters, strengthen the city wall, etc.  This contributed to a thriving economy.   Athens' economy was based upon farming—growing vegetables, grapes (for wine), olives (for oil), and raising goats (for milk and meat), sheep (for wool and meat), and pigs (for meat).  The Greeks generally imported wheat from the Black Sea.  Most food came from small family farms (although some aristocrats had large estates).  When possible, families owned land in the countryside around Athens (generally worked by slaves), but lived in the city.  Landownership gave a man citizenship. Small-scale artisan-style manufacturing employed a large portion of the urban population, and under Pericles there was a great deal of work for brick-makers, masons, carpenters, potters, sculptors, etc.   

But slaves did most hard physical labor (and some skilled labor).  Most free families owned at least one (and often up to six) slaves, who did field work, housework, etc.   A master legally could beat a slave and treat a slave as if he/she were not human.  Yet slaves also could hire themselves out for wages during their "free" time, and a slave who saved enough money to buy his freedom and become a metic (below).  

Athens' great fleet allowed it to control shipping routes throughout the Aegean Sea and to keep up regular commerce with colonial trade posts as far west as Spain, as far east as the Black Sea, and as far south as Egypt.  But most trade was done not by Athenians; it was done by the metics –foreigners who lived and did business in Athens (and who were required to pay taxes and serve in the army), but who had no political or property rights. (In Pericles' Athens, there were around 150,000 citizens, 35,000 metics, and 80,000 slaves [if we count all family members]).

 Under Pericles, Athens became the center of Greek philosophy.  A responsible citizen wanted to be educated so as to make wise, rational decisions.  A new profession arose—the teacher.  By the 450s BCE this position was filled by the Sophists, philosophers who taught that man was rational and should approach all topics from the perspective of "systematic doubt."  Some Sophists took doubting anything that could not be proven so far as to reject the gods; others argued that there was no absolute truth (relativism).

In reaction, a soldier-turned philosopher named Socrates argued that there were absolute truths.  Socrates argued that the goal of systematic analysis must be to establish truths to live by (and to reject all that is false).  His teachings and his "Socratic Method" of analysis (a form of question and answer to determine what ideas and principles are and are not rational), passed along by his student Plato, are among the most important intellectual and ethical influences shaping of western civilization

Under Pericles, Athens became the un-rivaled center of Greek cultural life. Audiences flocked to Athens to attend performances of tragedies by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides and the comedies of Aristophanes.  The Greeks loved theater, be it drawn from mythology, history, or daily life (many of the comedies of Aristophanes parodied well known Greek contemporaries and ridiculed contemporary fashions).   They performed plays at great outdoor festivals, where the audiences voted on which play had been their favorite (its author won a prize and bragging rights).  The Greeks had an enormous appetite for theater:  Aeschylus alone wrote at least 90 plays.  Their greatest plays are still performed regularly today (for instance, Aeschylus' "Oresteia" trilogy; Sophocles' Electra, Antigone, and Oedipus the King; Euripides' Medea and The Bacchae, and The Trojan Women; and Aristophanes' The Clouds, The Wasps and The Frogs).

The Greek reading public also was hungry for poetry, prose, philosophy and history.  The first serious studies of history come from Greece at this time—the books written by Herodotus (the "father of history") and Thucydides, which are still read today (see the Brophy book…)  And the visual arts in Greece underwent a tremendous and rapid transformation in this period as well.  In the mid-500s BCE the Greeks had tried to copy Egyptian art; by the 400s BCE, Greek artists had begun cast off these models and began portraying people in natural and fluid poses, with the aim of capturing beauty, motion, harmony, and balance.  The Greek sense of the beauty and aesthetics would have great influence on the Romans, and through them on all of western civilization.   

 Note:  Coffin hints that Greek popular culture was often "crude."  Out of delicacy, perhaps, the text does not explain that the graphic depictions of sex and of sexual organs (often very exaggerated) were part of everyday Greek life, part of daily religious rituals (linked to the importance for the Greeks of fertility, in mankind and in nature).

What about gender relations? Athenian society was extremely patriarchal.  The ideal Woman was beautiful, long-suffering, bore many children, and remained silent.  A father arranged his daughter's marriage (to an older man) as soon as she reached puberty.  Wives became part of their husband's property. Women were cloistered, secluded so that they were seen only men in their family.  They were expected to spend their time weaving (etc) and raising their children.  A married woman "ideally" gave birth every 24-36 months.  Theater, sports, the Assembly—all of the important public spaces in Athenian life were prohibited to women. Men, for instance, did all of the shopping in Athens, because it was scandalous for a respectable women to be out in public.  The public world was male.  Emotional relations between husband and wife were not based upon "romantic love," nor was marital sex considered an aspect of pleasure or romance—for those purposes, men commonly engaged in sex on their slaves, prostitutes, and other men.

We should note again that the status of women was different in Sparta than in Athens.  In Sparta, girls were encouraged to participate in athletics (and Spartan women were famous throughout Greece for the dancing and their athleticism), fathers waited until their daughters were at least 18 before arranging marriages for them, and women could come and go freely on the city's streets, and they could own property.  Still, though, Sparta was a patriarchal culture, and women could not be citizens.

 The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE)

Pericles proved more skilled at domestic politics than at diplomacy.  The Athenians abused their position as the leaders of the Delian League (the anti-Persian alliance), and treated their allies as subordinates instead of partners.  By 450 BCE, Athens had turned the Delian League—which was supposed to be an alliance of equals—into its own empire.  The greatest resistance to Athens' dominance came (surprise!) from Sparta.  In about 440 BCE, Pericles signed a peace treaty with the Persians, so that Athens could focus on its main rival—Sparta. That undermined the whole rationale for the Delian League, and many its member states now wanted out (members paid large contributions to Athens).  Athens clamped down on member states by force, which further violated the entire principle of the League (to defend Greek freedom)! Sparta, Corinth, and several other cities rebelled, seeing that the growing strength of Athens could only result in their own decline.  In 431 BCE, Sparta and Athens went to war.

The war demonstrated the relative strengths of the two city's militaries:  Sparta, with its famously disciplined hoplite soldiers, dominated the land war; Athens, with its equally famous fleet of war ships, dominated naval engagements.   The Spartans and their allies began the war with 35,000 hoplites and cavalry, while Athens had only 14,000 soldiers. The Spartans' overwhelming superiority on the ground soon had results.  They devastated the Attica countryside and put Athens under siege.  Only because of its fleet (and the fortress-walled corridor linking the city to its port) was Athens able to feed itself and carry on the war.  By 429 BCE, the siege was taking its toll.  People from surrounding towns and villages had crowded into Athens for protection.  Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and hunger proved the perfect breeding ground for epidemic diseases, and some type of plague ravaged the city population.  Among the tens of thousands of dead was Pericles.

Still, the war dragged on.  In 415 BCE Athens made a fatal mistake:  it launched a huge naval attack on the Spartan colony of Syracuse, in Sicily.  The Spartans sent some of their best generals to Syracuse in advance of the Athenian attack and set a trap.  The Athenians lost their invasion fleet.  The defeat at Syracuse triggered more political instability in Athens—for a period of two years (411-409 BCE), the demos even voted to turn power over to an oligarchy of wealthy aristocrats.  Internal dissent festered and the demos, frustrated by events, looked for scapegoats.  Many loyal Athenians found themselves ostracized.  In the mean time, Sparta entered into an alliance with Persia (their commander Lysander had good relations with the Persians).  Sparta now had the Persian fleet at its disposal and cut off Athenian shipping.  In 404 BCE, Lysander destroyed the Athenian fleet.  That was it for Athens—they no longer could feed or defend themselves.

Lysander chose not to sack and plunder Athens, and instead set himself up as the city's new ruler as the head of a government called the "Thirty Tyrants" and massacred all political opponents.  This proved too much for Sparta rulers, who recalled Lysander and ordered Athens' democracy restored.  But Athens remained in a state of upheaval and turmoil, eager to seek scapegoats for its failures.  (One of these was Socrates, who was publicly condemned for abusing the gods and "corrupting" the youth in 399 BCE:  rather than accept exile from his city, Socrates committed suicide.)

The war was over, Athens was humbled, and the Spartans now took its place at the head of the Greek defensive alliance.  But the Spartans proved even worse at holding the alliance together than the Athenians had been, and soon Greece was again embroiled in warfare.