Historical Eras of Ancient Greece

    Gods and Myths     Heroes and Monsters     Iliad and Odyssey     Early City-States     Persian War     Athenian Empire     Late Classical     Hellenistic Era

Gods and Myths—Legendary

Gaia and Uranus to Reign of the Olympians

The myths and legends of Ancient Greece are such an essential part of Greek culture that the first three units of the Ancient Greece Classical Curriculum are dedicated entirely to myth and folklore. Greek mythology is important, not only because it reflects the pagan religion of the Ancient world, but also because it gives great insight into Greek thought and expression. References to Greek Gods and folklore are present throughout the recorded history of the ancient world, in religious symbols and ceremonies, in literature, in poetry, in art, in archeological artifacts, and in day to day life.

The Greeks worshiped Pagan gods but did not credit them with the same qualities of omniscience and goodness that Christians associate with their God. Greeks Gods shared many human foibles so the legends that arose concerning them were almost invariably dramas involving jealousy, indulgence, revenge, debauchery, and misunderstandings. Greek myths were often quite humorous and frequently involved a morale applicable to human relations.

The myths, heroes and legends of Ancient Greece are too numerous to list, but a few general categories of the types of heroes and stories can be given. The first category of Greek myths involves the Gods, or immortals, who have a human form, and decidedly human personality traits, but possess enormous powers over the earth. The twelve Olympians are the most important, and they include Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades who rule over the heaven, Sea, and Underworld respectively. Most of the rest of the Olympians are either sisters or children of Zeus, the King of Gods.

The Olympians are the third generation of Greek Gods, descended from the Titans, who in turn, descended from the Primordal "Mother Earth" and "Father Sky." Besides the twelve Olympians and their ancestors, there there are hundreds of other lesser gods, fairies, and demigods that preside over a vast variety of entities, such as field and stream, poetry, music and medicine. A list of the fields of influence of the Titans, Olympians, and lesser gods is provided here.

The second category of Greek myths involves human, or semi-human heroes, and a spectacular array of monsters and villains. Many legendary Greek heroes are demigods, who descended on one side from a human, and from the other from a God and have superhuman power. But others are merely humans, whose lives were blessed or cursed by the gods, and whose feats were immortalized in Greek folklore and literature. The final category of Greek legends involves the famous characters who appear in the Iliad and Odyssey, the two epic poems most closely associated with Ancient Greece.

This unit deals only with the legends surrounding the Greek Gods and Titans. It begins with the overthrow of the Titans by the Olympian descendents of Cronus and Rhea. It explains how Prometheus created the human race and gave it the gifts of craftsmenship, agriculture, and fire. The myth of Pandora's box, explaining how evil entered the world of man, is similar in some ways to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden, while the story of Decaulion and the Flood has some similarities to the story of Noah's flood. The section also covers the founding of several important cities in Greece, and how the race of Hellenes—the original Greeks, came into existence.

Heroes and Monsters—Legendary

Exploits of Perseus to Death of Hercules

Greek folklore only begins with the stories of the Greek Gods. The second category of Greek mythology involves human, or semi-human heroes, and a spectacular array of monsters and villains. These hero legends are often associated a specific town or region and may have been loosely based on historical characters, since the aristocratic classes in many Greek cities claimed descent from them. The four most important Greek heroes are Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts, Theseus, and Hercules.

There are elaborate stories detailing the exploits of the four heroes mentioned above, most of which involve fending off some of the most creatively horrible monsters ever imagined. Perseus, for example, needed to capture the head of Medusa, a snake-haired gorgon whose horribly ugly visage turned men instantly into stone. Theseus, a prince of Athens, is most famous for killing the Minotaur, a man-eating half-man, half-bull, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of young Athenian.

Jason and the Argonauts met with dozens of adventures on their voyage, including run-ins with fire-breathing bulls, bronze giants wielding gigantic boulders, flying witches who stole food from sailors' mouths, bewitching maidens who lured soldiers to their death, a sorceress who turned men into animals, and a sea-monster who sucked ships into a giant whirlpool.

And all of the monsters so far discussed are just a prelude to the amazing creatures that contended with Hercules, the greatest of the Greek heroes. Lions with impenetrable fur, man-eating horses, a three-headed guard-dog of Hades, birds with metal beaks, serpent-shaped dragons, a multi-headed water monster, and a gigantic rampaging boar, were just a few of the monsters that Hercules was tasked with killing. And beyond these famous champions, are dozens of lesser known heroes such as Bellerophon, the tamer of Pegasus, Atalanta, the huntress, Daedalus, the ingenious craftsman, and Castor and Pollux twin heroes gifted at the arts of Boxing and Wrestling.

Yet even the well-known hero/monster tales so popular with young people of all ages are only one part of the great panoply of Greek folklore. The stories of Greek mythology are rich, complicated, and varied, and they provided the basis for a great deal of the Greek literature of the classical age. Many of the plays of the great Greek tragedians were based on Greek mythological characters and heroes. The story of Oedipus, the king of Thebes who unintentionally killed his father, is the basis for the famous trilogy by Sophocles. The story of the homecoming of Agamemmnon is the subject of the Oresteia tragedy by Aeschylus. The death of Hercules, the murderous jealousy of Jason's wife, the debauchery of Dionysius, and the punishment of Prometheus are just a few other mythological stories that became the subjects of famous Greek playwrights.

A great deal of what we know about Greek mythology comes from the poems, plays, dialogues, and other literary masterpieces of classical Greece. The Gods, heroes, and sorcerers of Greek mythology personified important ideas, virtues, and vices and are still used to symbolize abstract concepts. The story of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection gave his name to our word for self-love. The story of Icarus, who flew with waxen feathers too near the sun is a parable of the dangers of hubris. The myth of Echo tells of a talkative nymph who was cursed by Hera to only repeat the words of others.

These and hundreds of other familiar stories are so intertwined with common words and ideas that it is impossible to understand the roots of Western Culture without a good introduction to Greek mythology. The world of Greek folklore, and the extraordinary sophistication and intelligence of the ancient Greeks is an a subject of enormous fascination. From Aesop's Fables, which have delighted children for over 2500 years, to the works of the great Greek Tragedians, which are still studied today, Greek mythology and folklore are as foundational to the study of Western Civilization, as Greek history itself.

Iliad and Odyssey—1000 B.C.

Trojan War to Return of Odysseus

The Iliad and the Odyssey were epic poems that told of events that occurred during and immediately after a great war between Achaean Greeks and the city of Troy. They were said to have been created by a blind minstrel named Homer, who lived several hundred years after the Trojan War. Very little is known with certainty about Homer, although he authored what are widely believed to be the oldest and most important epics in Western Civilization.

It cannot be said too strongly how important these stories were to the Ancient Greeks. Every Greek was familiar with them – even Greeks that were illiterate. Many minstrels were thought to know them by heart (all 25,000 lines), and for hundreds of years Greeks of all occupations, from all over the Greek speaking world, listened to bards singing these stories as a favorite form of entertainment. The Homeric Epics held the same importance to Greek culture as the Bible holds to Christian culture. And like the stories in the Bible, the stories in the Iliad and Odyssey are not just about people, but about characters, values, and free will, and how the will of God (or Gods) influences human activity. A short summary of these immortal epics follow:

The Iliad—A Story of the Trojan War

From the Mortals' point of view, the Trojan War began when a beautiful Greek Princess named Helen was kidnapped by Paris, a Trojan Prince. In order to honor a previously agreed upon pact, all of the Kings of Greece form an alliance to go to war with Troy and win her return. From the point of view of the Gods however, the Trojan War is the result of some bickering between jealous Goddesses on Mount Olympus, with Aphrodite and her lover Ares favoring the cause of Troy, but Athena, Hera and their allies, on the side of the Greeks.

Most of the action of the Iliad takes place in the last year of the war, when the two Greek leaders Achilles and Agamemnon argue over a slave girl, and Achilles, who is considered the Greek’s greatest warrior, lays down his weapons and refuses to fight. Achilles sulks and sits out the battle until his best friend Patroclus is killed. At that point his desire for revenge overtakes his self-pity and he leads the Greeks to a great victory before being killed himself.

Of course, this outline does not begin to describe the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the Gods (who have been forbidden by Zeus to interfere directly, but are constantly scheming behind his back), and the complicated sub-themes of desire, envy, war-weariness, honor, loyalty, friendship, pleasure-seeking, glory-seeking, fate, and fear of death that are developed in the epic that made it so fascinating to the Greeks.

The Odyssey—The Ten-Year Voyage of Odysseus

The second of Homer’s books concerns the story of Odysseus, one of the Greek Heroes of the Trojan War. When called to fight in the War against Troy, he was happily married to his wife Penelope on the Island of Ithaca. He did not desire to go to war but could not avoid service, so his wife waited patiently for his return. But even after ten years, at the close of the Trojan War, when all the other heroes returned to their homes, Odysseus did not return.

Although Odysseus greatly desired to return home, he was delayed by a series of adventures. He incurred the wrath of Poseidon by blinding his son, a Cyclops, and was denied a safe passage home. Instead, Odysseus and his crew were buffeted about the seas, meeting with cannibals, sorcerers, sea monsters and sirens. After successfully avoiding all these dangers, his crew was caught in a terrible storm and shipwrecked. All perished except Odysseus, who was castaway on the island of the beautiful Nymph Calypso. Although she offered him immortality if he would stay with her, he chose instead to continue his journey home.

On his return to Ithaca, however, he found the island in a terrible state. Believing that Odysseus was dead, hundreds of "suitors" had come to contend for Penelope’s hand in marriage, and were entertaining themselves at the expense of his household. But the faithful Penelope refused them all through delay and trickery. Soon after Odysseus returned in disguise, she promised to marry the man who could shoot the bow of Odysseus, knowing that no one else could bend it. Then Odysseus, dressed as a beggar, asked to shoot the bow. He, of course, succeeded and used it to kill the intruders, and thereby drove the unwanted suitors away from his property.

Like the Iliad, the Odyssey is rich in eternal themes. The ideas of duty, family, fidelity, fate, the longing for home, the art of deception, and the meaning of mortality, are only a few of the ideas discussed. The Iliad and Odyssey have been read, discussed, and admired for over 2600 years, and are two of the pillars of a classical education.

It is almost imcomprensible to modern students to realize that both poems, which comprise over twenty-six thousand lines of beautiful verse, were "composed" before the Greek Alphabet and writing were well established and were passed down primarily through oral tradition. They were not read by the Greeks, but memorized. And it is not unreasonable to conclude the habit of memorizing enormous tracts of insightful and spiritually uplifting verse may have had something to do with the undeniable genius of the classical Greeks.

Early City-States—800 to 500 B.C.

Rise of Sparta to Reforms of Cleisthenes

In contrast to the Persian Empire, which had a centralized and despotic government, the Greek cities were largely independent and self-governing, likely due to the mountainous terrain of the Greek mainland. The government of most cities was oligarchic, that is, controlled by several powerful families. In some cases, there were local tyrants but the city-states themselves were generally independent of each other and there was no Greek overlord to which all cities paid tribute. Instead of a common government, the Greek towns were held together by a common language, religion, and culture.

Spartan youth
The two most important cities in Ancient Greece were Sparta, a military powerhouse, and Athens, which rose to predominance in the fifth Century BC as a center of culture and commerce. Not only were these cities different in character from those under the sway of Eastern tyrants, they were radically different from each other. Sparta was possessed of a stoic, severe, military temper, and Athens exhibited an epicurean, or artistic temperament. They were both, however, vigorous examples of the Greek dedication to self-government and love of freedom.

The city of Sparta, located in the center of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, rose to distinction among Greece cities after it underwent a transformation in culture, under the leadership of Lycurgus in about 750 BC. After a devastating series of wars with neighboring Messina, he convinced the Spartan nobility to give up their riches and their land, and to allow for the equal division of wealth among all Spartan citizens. He further prohibited most displays of wealth, and occupations that would tend towards accumulation of wealth. Sparta was henceforth to be a military aristocracy, and all its citizens were engaged full time in developing the military virtues of strength, courage, and dedication to country. Pedestrian matters such as tending fields, craftsmanship, and commerce, were left to slaves (called helots), and neighboring townsmen (called peroci). Sparta had two kings who acted as generals in battle, but the state itself was lead by a council of city elders. Sparta recognized her heroes, but didn't grant them political power until relatively late in life.

The city of Sparta did not cultivate the arts, and so relative to Athens, there are few relics of Ancient Sparta, but its cultural influence on the rest of Greece was enormous—"greatly admired but hated", probably sums up the situation well. There is no question that the impulse to military excellence that infused all of Greece was centered in Sparta, but it embodied as well, many of the other great stoic virtues. One of the many striking things about the city of Sparta was its enormous stability—its government was among the least changeable in human history. During an age of constant political upheavals and conquests, in which cities were often besieged and overthrown, and their inhabitants killed or sold into slavery, Sparta, an unwalled city, was an unperturbed fortress. From the time of the Messenian War, in about 750 BC to the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, no enemy ever marched on Sparta's soil. In later days, even Macedonia and Rome, who held sway over all of Greece long after Sparta's glory days, were content to isolate, rather than conquer the famous city.

The early government of Athens was more typical of other Greek towns. Athens was the greatest city of the Ionian Greeks, who were scattered throughout the islands of the Aegean Sea and the West Coast of Asia Minor. In ancient times they had a king, but by about 600 BC they were governed as an oligarchy. Draco and Solon were two of their early law-givers. They wrote laws that prevented some oppressions of the lower classes by the richer, but the democratic reforms that made Athens famous in later years, came about slowly over times. Pisistratus, ruled as a tyrant for many years, but was nevertheless, responsible for laying much of the foundation for democracy in Athens. He also worked to make Athens a cultural center, while later reformers, such as Cleisthenes, reorganized the Athenian government to more fairly represent all classes.

Other important Greek cities in the era before the Persian War included Thebes and Delphi, to the northwest of Athens, and Corinth, Argos and Olympia, on the Peloponnesian Peninsula. In addition to the mainland cities, some important Islands were Euboea, Samos, Lesbos, and Delos. There were also many Greek cities on the cost of Asia Minor, such as Miletus and Halicarnassus but most of these fell under the sway of the Persian Empire. The Greeks that settled in the islands and coasts near Asia Minor were called the Ionian Greeks, and along with Athens, produced most of the well known philosophers, scientists, and writers of early Greek. Some well known Ionian Greeks who lived before the Persian war include Pythagoras and Polycrates of Samos, and Thales of Miletus.

Persian War—560 to 472 B.C.

Rise of the Persia to Aftermath of Persian War

Like the Trojan War, the Persian War was a defining moment in Greek history. The Athenians regarded the wars against Persia as their greatest moment, and the history of the Persian War as recorded by Herodotus is one of the oldest and most famous histories ever written.

Battle of Salamis
The Persian king first decided to attack Greece after Athens came to the aid of the the Greek colonies in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) who were in rebellion against the Persian empire. The rebellion was ultimately crushed, but Darius the Great was so angered by Athens' interference that he determined to send an army across the Aegean sea to crush the offending city-state.

The population and resources of the Greeks were dwarfed by the limitless wealth of the Persians, but Athens resolved to defend itself. They were led by Miltiades, a general who had been involved in the revolt against Persia. At the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) he urged the Athenians to attack the Persians immediately after they landed on the Greek peninsula, without waiting for reinforcements. Although their army was only a fraction of the size of the Persians, the Athenians prevailed in their daring assault. The Battle of Marathon is perhaps the single most important battle in Greek history. Had the Athenians lost, Greece would have eventually come under the control of Persia and all the accomplishments of the Greeks may have been lost to posterity.

The Persians did not attack Greece again for ten years, but when Darius’s son Xerxes became king, the Persians launched another expedition against Athens. This time Xerxes was determined to use overwhelming force so he gathered an army of several hundred thousand infantry and a navy of six hundred ships. He demanded that the Greek city-states submit to him without resistance and many did, including Thebes. The Athenians and Spartans however, insulted the Persian ambassadors and vowed resistance to the end. Fortunately for all of Greece the Athenian politician Themistocles had foreseen trouble many years ahead of time and had convinced the Athenians to begin building a navy so by the time of the great Persian invasion, Athens had over two hundred battle ships.

While Xerxes gathered his army at the Hellespont, the Greek city states that had decided to resist the Persians (many of the smaller cities had already conceded defeat and refused to send armies), were fielding a united Greek army, under the leadership of Sparta. The first great battle of the Greeks against Xerxes army was at Thermopylae, a narrow pass in the north of Thessaly. It was there that the Spartan King Leonidas, with 300 Spartans, fantastically outnumbered, held out for three days, before being overcome by treachery. Eventually the Spartans were killed to a man, but not before inflicting horrific damage to the elite Persian fighting troops and delaying Xerxes' passage by critical days.

While Leonidas held the pass at Thermopylae, Greek ships worked to evacuate Athens and its surrounding communities to local islands. The Greek fleet was stationed on the island of Salamis in sight of the ruins of Athens when, after a fit of infighting, the decision was made to give battle to the Persians at once. At the ferociously fought naval Battle of Salamis, the Greeks won a dramatic and decisive victory, destroying much of the Persian fleet. The thoroughly traumatized Xerxes returned to Persia, after the disastrous battle, leaving Mardonius in charge of the conquered region. Athens was still under Persian domination but most of the citizens fled to local islands and refused to return to the occupied city, while the Spartans returned to the fortified Peloponnese peninsula.

It was not until the following spring that the Greeks emerged from their fortified peninsula, ready to drive the Persians from Greek soil. But finally a terrific battle was fought at Plataea, and the Persians were annihilated by a united Greek army, led by Sparta on one wing and Athens on the other. The Persian war was remarkable not only for its ferocious battles, which showcased the superiority of Greek military methods, but also for the striking personalities involved, the democratic character of the military command, and the ability of the fractious Greeks to drop their strong divisions and unite behind a single cause. The war is a popular one to study, not only because of its striking military engagements and historical significance but also for the great human dramas that were played out behind the scenes.

The Rise of Persia

The Histories of Herodotus are most famous for their spellbinding account of the Persian War, but they also contain many fascinating stories about the rise of the Persian empire under .

In the century prior to the Persian war, Greece was a poor and disunited collection of independent city-states, surrounded by wealthier and more powerful empires, such as Lydia, Media, Babylon, and Egypt. The region directly east of mainland Greece was populated with Greek speaking colonies, but by 600 BC most of the region was controlled by Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia.


Directly South of Lydia were the nations of Assyria (Syria), Babylon (Iraq), Phoenicia (Lebonon), and Judea (Israel). In Ancient Times, the control of this region alternated between the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian Empires. By 600 BC the most powerful empire in the region was Babylon, under Nebuchadnezzar. To the East of Babylon was the empire of the Medes (Iran) and the small kingdom of Persia, which was only a vassal kingdom of Media.

In 560 BC, Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia started a career of conquests and brought all of the above mentioned regions, under his control. The Persian Kingdom, which arose under his leadership, became the most powerful Empire the Ancient world had ever seen. Cyrus ruled for 30 years, but died in 529 on a campaign in Scythia. His Empire was briefly ruled by his son Cambyses who extended his conquests into Egypt, but died shortly thereafter. As Cambyses died with no heir, there was considerable palace intrigue before an heir was settled on, but the headship eventually fell to Darius the Great, the king who ordered the first unsuccessful Persian invasion of Greece.

The kingdoms of the east varied significantly in customs, religion and livelihood. They included sea-faring kingdoms, such as Phoenicia, agricultural kingdoms, such as Phrygia, and pastoral kingdoms, such as Media, but all were governed as autocracies. Cities and states paid tributes to the emperor, and all city administrators served at the pleasure of an autocratic higher authority. The idea of self-governing city-states was nearly unknown outside of the Greek colonies. Even more striking and unique were the Greek ideas of satire and open dissent toward authority figures, and the idea that all citizens shared in the common culture. The Greeks were self-consciously civilized, and considered their neighbors, however wealthy and powerful, to be mere slaves.

Athenian Empire—478 to 404 B.C.

Formation of Delian League to Fall of Athens

In the years following the Persian War, Athens was rebuilt and the Greek navy expanded its domination of the Aegean Sea. Further naval victories over Persia resulted in the freeing of several Ionian Greek colonies from the Persian yoke and the increased prestige of Greece as a sea power. Athenian control of the Greek navy was made possible the by creation of the Delian league, a group of Greek colonies located in the Aegean Sea united for defense. Although this league was nominally a confederation, it was dominated by Athens, and eventually became the foundation of the Athenian Empire. Athens became very wealthy due both to its domination of trade in the region and also to the inflow of tribute that had to be paid to Athens in return for protection from Persia.

Statue of Athena
The most important statesmen in Athens in the years immediately after the Persian War, were Cimon, son of Miltiades, and Aristides. Both were involved in the organization of the Delian league and the rebuilding of Athens, including the construction of a fortified wall around the city to protect it from future invasions. Sparta opposed the building of walled cities, lest they fall into enemy hands, but the Athenians insisted and eventually a great wall was built from Athens to the sea, wide enough to drive two Chariots abreast. During the same period, great temples and state houses were built, funded mostly from the Delian league tributes, on a scale never before seen on the continent of Europe.

In 461 BC one of the greatest statesmen in Greek history came into power in Athens. Pericles, more than any other person, determined the character of classical Athens. He was a patron of the arts and architecture, and he extended the democratic franchise to virtually all Athenian citizens. Greek theatre thrived under his leadership, and all four of the great Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, lived during his thirty year reign. He made Athens the cultural center of the Mediterranean and paid pensions to philosophers, artists, sculptures, and poets, to encourage their contributions. The Parthenon and many other great public buildings were built under his leadership, and the famous Greek Historians, Herodotus, and Thucydides were both contemporaries.

Sparta, although shunning luxury and empire, looked upon Athens with distrust and jealousy. As Athens became more arrogant and contemptuous of the rights of its colonies, the dispute between the cities grew, and eventually Sparta and its allies declared war on Athens, and thus began the Peloponnesian War. It was a futile and drawn out affair, lasting almost 30 years, with many horrendous atrocities, and its only long term effect was to critically weaken and depopulate all of mainland Greece. Athens for the most part, avoided meeting Sparta in battle on land and instead trusted to its fortified walls and control of the seas to provide for its people during the long years of siege. The first ten years of warfare resulted in almost no change in the state of affairs and eventually a ceasefire was arranged.

The Peace of Nicias lasted several years, until Athens, under the influence of Alcibiades, undertook an ill-fated expedition to conquer the island of Sicily. This disastrous campaign was the turning point of the war. It destroyed Athens naval supremacy and greatly weakened it in its continuing struggle against Sparta. For ten more years the conflict raged on, until Sparta defeated the last remnant of the Athenian navy at the battle of Agos Potami, and starved the walled city into submission.

Even during the Peloponnesian war, Athens produces some of its greatest geniuses. Socrates, Aristophanes, Euripides and Thucydides all lived during this period, and their writings are among the most cherished in Western Civilization. Undeniably, however, the Peloponnesian war was a disaster from which Greece and Athens never fully recovered. Athens eventually regained its reputation as a center of culture and education, but was never again dominant over the other unruly city states.

Late Classical—404 to 338 B.C.

Thirty Tyrants in Athens to Battle of Chaeronea

After the defeat of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta became the undisputed first power among the Greek city-states. The walls of Athens were pulled down and the Spartan general Lysander appointed thirty men who were loyal to Sparta to run the city. The leaders were called the "thirty tyrants" and they put many of their political opponents, including Socrates to death. Plato was a student of Socrates and witnessed these oppressions and they greatly influenced his later writings.

Liberation of Sicily
The period immediately after the Peloponnesian war is called the "Spartan Hegemony" because, although Sparta did not collect tribute, it allowed only governments which were friendly to Sparta to exist throughout Greece. The major figure of this period was Agesilaus, a brave and noble Spartan king who came very near to freeing all of the Greek Colonies in Asia Minor before he was recalled to deal with a political crisis at home. While Agesilaus was off fighting Persians in the east, the Spartan government had fallen into a great deal of trouble. The spoils from the successful wars had done much to corrupt Sparta; there was intrigue and infighting and wars with Corinth and Thebes.

These problems combined with a significantly reduced population led to the disaster the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. Only 33 years after they prevailed in the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans suffered a humiliating defeat against Thebes, the first major land battle that the Spartans had lost to another Greek city-state in 500 years. Sparta never recovered its mystique. The spoils of victory had done more to damage Sparta in a generation then any enemy had been able to do in half a millennium.

The rise of Thebes as a dominant power in Greece was unprecedented. Although always a large and prosperous city it had never had particularly talented military leaders until the rise of Epaminondas and Pelopidas. Under their leadership, Thebes achieved a military predominance over most of Greece and provided a real check to Sparta’s influence. The battle of Leuctra revealed Epaminondas as a military genius of first rank, and his subsequent diplomatic victories also showed his talent as a statesman. The period of Theban influence however, did not survive the death of Epaminondas in 362 BC. Sparta was humiliated, Thebes was leaderless, and no great power arose to provide dominant leadership to Greece. The fortunes of Athens eventually improved, but it never recovered its former predominance, and it was not prepared to resist the Macedonian threat when it did arise.

Macedonia was a semi-barbaric country north of Greece that had never been considered as fully civilized by the great city-states of the Greek mainland. Philip of Macedonia, however, spent his youth as a hostage in Thebes under the great Epaminondas. There he had learned the best of Greek military strategies and became a great admirer of Greek culture. He ascended to the throne of Macedonia in 359 and spent the early part of his reign reforming the Macedonian military, expanding his power, and promoting Greek culture. His first military dealings with Greece involved the Sacred War during which he generously defended the interests of the Oracle at Delphi against a band of marauding Phocians. Once this foothold was made, he used statesmanship and diplomacy to gain ascendency over many weaker Greek allies until Athens and Thebes, at the behest of the Athenian orator Demosthenes finally recognized the threat. When Philip finally met their combined forces in 338 BC at the Battle of Chaeronea, the Greeks were soundly thrashed, and Athens fell under the Macedonian Yoke. Philip was however, an admirer the Greeks and granted them many freedoms, but little power. Greek culture and philosophy continued to thrive in Athens for many years afterward, but the political autonomy on mainland Greece was gone forever.

Just as mainland Greece was losing its independence, the island of Sicily was preparing to overthrew Dionysius the Younger, a tyrant whose family had reigned in Syracuse for two generations. The tyrants of Syracuse were notoriously oppressive and paranoid, although the younger Dionysus made pretensions of high culture and was a patron of the arts. He even hired the great philosopher Plato as a private tutor for several years, but that episode did not end well. Eventually, Timoleon, a native of Corinth, became the great hero of the Sicilian Wars, when he overthrew the tyrant of Syracuse, fought off invaders from Carthage, and established an independent Greek republic in Syracuse that thrived for over 100 years, until it was conquered by Rome.

Hellenistic Era—336 to 146 B.C.

Reign of Alexander to Rome Destroys Corinth

Philip of Macedonia died shortly after the battle of Chaeronea leaving his young son Alexander the Great to the throne. The Greeks, led by Thebes, immediately tried to throw off the Macedonian garrison, but Alexander, only twenty years old at the time, quickly put down all revolts with an iron hand. He razed Thebes to the ground, sold their citizens into slavery, and prevented a revolution in Athens by a combination of threats and diplomacy.

Alexander the Great
Immediately after pacifying Greece, he started planning for an ambitious Invasion of Persia. The idea was not originally his, since his father had already laid the groundwork by building up the Macedonian army into the finest fighting force of the ancient world. Alexander also had his father’s favorite generals, including Parmenio, and Antipater to rely on. Nevertheless, Alexander’s own military instincts were near genius, as his subsequent series of victories against enormous Persian armies showed. Macedonia was a very poor nation and Alexander crossed the Hellespont with only about 40,000 Greek and Macedonian soldiers. With this, he set about to conquer an empire of around forty million people, the largest and wealthiest in the ancient world.

The story of Alexander’s conquest of Persia is full of interest, but boils down to several large scale battles, in each of which the Macedonian forces prevailed over a vastly larger Persian host. The four great battles of Alexander’s conquest of Persia were Granicus, Issus, Guagamela, and Hydaspes, which won for him the Near East, Syria, Media, and Hindustan respectively. The entire conquest took only seven years and was completed before Alexander’s 30th birthday. It was his very youth that caused his downfall however, not to a conqueror, but to dissipation. Only a few years after returning from his farthest campaign in India he succumbed to an illness undoubtedly brought on by excessive drink.

The results of Alexander’s conquests were enormous both culturally and politically, but when he died, he left neither a legitimate heir, nor an outstanding general strong enough to hold his empire together. It was therefore divided, after twenty years of civil war, between four of his generals. The main divisions early in the wars were Ptolemy I in Egypt, Seleucus in the Far East, Antigonus I in the Near East, and Antipater in Macedonia and Greece, but in the final settlement, the descendents of Antipater lost their kingdom to those of Antigonus. The kingdoms were all of the traditional despotic variety, with no pretense of self-rule or democratic government.

The cultural effects of Alexander’s conquests were, therefore, much more striking than his political legacy. Alexander, who had grown up with Aristotle as a tutor, believed that Greek culture was superior to any other and did all he could to spread the Greek language and learning throughout the regions he conquered. Both Alexander and his generals founded many new cities based on the Greek model, with streets laid out in grids, market places, gymnasiums, theatres, council halls, and baths. The Greek language became the one used for education and higher learning. Libraries and schools of learning were maintained in most major cities. In the east, many of the towns founded by the Macedonians never really took root, but in the Mediterranean regions, Greek culture became dominant, and prevailed until the Moslem Conquests of the seventh century.

Fall of Corinth
The first contact between Roman and Greco-Macedonian powers occurred during the Pyrrhic Wars in Italy in 291 BC when the Greek city states in southern Italy invited the Pyrrhus, King of Epirus and the greatest general of his age to help them resist Rome. Although Pyrrhus was at first successful, he was eventually overcame by Rome and the Greek cities in Italy were absorbed in Rome's growing sphere of influence. It was not until 80 years later, however, that a Roman Army was sent into Macedonian territory to punish the Macedonian king for making an alliance with Hannibal. Three Roman Macedonian Wars followed, with Rome increasing its influence over Macedonia in each.

The first phase of the Roman Macedonian Wars occurred during the Second Punic War, and the last, culminating in the Battle of Pydna, resulted in the complete overthrow of Macedonian rule over mainland Greece. About this time, several of the city-states in the Peloponnese fought a series of Wars of the Achaean League to defend their interests. Their intrigues led to an uprising in 146 BC against Roman rule, and as a result, a Roman army invaded Greece and destroyed the city of Corinth. After this, mainland Greece was ruled as a Province of the Roman Empire.

The influence of Greek culture on that of Rome was tremendous. Even before the Roman conquest of Greece, Greek scholars and teachers were very influential in Rome, since Greek was the language of learning throughout the Mediterranean. The Roman religion, art, philosophy, literature, and even the formalization of Latin grammar was heavily influenced by Greek culture. Educated Greek slaves were very expensive and sought after by aristocratic Romans families as teachers for their children. But just as in Classical Greece, where there was tension and distrust between stoic Sparta, and cultured Athens, the Greek influence was resisted by stoic Romans, such as Cato (the censor), who feared its decadent influence.

Eventually Rome conquered the eastern portion of the territory that was once part of Alexander’s Hellenistic empire. By that time, however, Greek culture was so well-established that it remained the language of commerce and learning in the eastern Mediterranean long after Rome’s political domination of the area. It was only the western part of the Empire, including Italy, Gaul, and Britain, where Latin became the predominant language. The Greek centers of learning in the east, including Athens, Alexandria, Rhodes, Ephesus, Tarsus, Perganum, continued to prosper under the Pax Romana, and produced many of the greatest scholars of Roman times, in the fields of literature, medicine, geography, astronomy, philosophy, and many others. Among them were Archimedes, one of the greatest scientists of Ancient times, Plutarch, the great biographer, Eratosthenes, who correctly measured the size of the earth, Galen, who made great advances in medicine, and Hypatia, a female philosopher and teacher. In addition, Christianity thrived in the eastern empire, and produced many of the most important early saints and missionaries of the time.