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Hellenes – Ancient Greece


c3000 – 1400 Minoan Ages — Crete supreme.

c1400 – 1100 Mycenaean Age — Mycenae and other Peloponnesian cities, inhabited by Achaeans, supreme. Sometimes called ‘Homeric Age’ because Homer, who lived much later, described it.

c1100 – 800 Dark Ages — Dorian invasion. Greeks move into Ionia. Homer perhaps lived c 900.

800 – 600 Age of Colonisation — Colonies throughout Mediterranean and Black Sea. 776, First Olympic games. Delphic oracle gains influence. Spartan system established.

600 – 500 Sixth Century — Sometimes called the ‘Age of the Tyrants.’ Peisistratus at Athens. Solon and Cleisthenes found Athenian democracy. Philosophers and poets in Ionia and the islands.

500 – 400 FIFTH CENTURY DEFEAT OF PERSIANS (490, 480-479)


400 – 300 Fourth Century — Death of Socrates. Athens has lost her Empire, but her philosophers, orators and sculptors are famous. Greece submits to Philip of Macedon (338). Conquests of Alexander (332-323).

c30 – 146 Hellenistic Age — Alexandria more important than Athens as centre of learning. Greece becomes part of Roman Empire(146).

146 B.C. – 328 A.D. — Greece part of Roman Empire.

328 – 1453 — Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantine Empire starting with founding of Constantinople.

1453 – 1821 — Greece under Turkish rule. War of Independence begins (1821).

1832 — Greece an independent kingdom.


Cyrus the Great (549 – 529) — First King of Persia. Conquered Croesus.

Darius the Great (521 – 486) — “Remember the Athenians”.

Xerxes I (486 – 465) — Second invasion of Greece.

Artaxerxes II (45 – 362) — The “March-up Country”.

Darius III (336 – 330) — Last King of Persia. Defeated by Alexander.

Hellenistic Age – Alexandria and Byzantium

Hellenistic Age is the period after Alexander’s death. Alexander drank too much on an autumn night in the year 323, or because medical science was not yet far enough advanced to cure the fever which his excesses brought on, another experiment in philosopher kingship, or at least in philosopher-guided kingship, ended prematurely. Not that Aristotle had accompanied Alexander, but they had corresponded and if Alexander had thought of settling down and concentrating on administration, Aristotle, who studied the constitutions of 158 Greek states, would have been the man to advise him. On the other hand Alexander also corresponded with his mother, Olympias, a vile woman who had probably been concerned in the murder of his father, Philip. Whether her influence or Aristotle’s would have prevailed over the years is anybody’s guess. Alexander’s empire broke up after his death, but part of it (roughly, the countries west of the Euphrates) remained united by Greek language and customs; they had been “hellenized”. Historians therefore called the period after Alexander’s death the “Hellenistic Age” and the centre of “Hellenism” was Alexandria. The lighthouse there was among the seven wonders of the ancient world and Alexandrine learning shone as brightly. The Pharos of Alexandria was a lighthouse built in the third century BC. Nothing of it now remains, but it is thought to have looked like this. It was over 350 ft. high (St. Paul’s is 366 ft). The light was provided by a huge brazier and mirrors were somehow used to increase its brilliance. The Elements of Geometry by Euclid (323-283) was still a textbook in the 19th century; Eratosthenes (276-196) measured the circumference of the earth by a method not very different from that used to-day; dissection was allowed and medical knowledge therefore increased; the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek …

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Alexander of Macedon

Alexander of Macedon

Unity, for a time and a philosopher king, of sorts, finally came to Greece from Macedon in the north. In the year 356 Alexander was born. Macedon under King Philip, Alexander’s father, was already recognised as a rising power. At Athens the aged teacher of oratory Isocrates (b. 436) hoped that Philip would unite the Greeks in a new crusade against Persia. The orator Demosthenes (not to be confused with the general who died in the Sicilian expedition) was for resisting Philip. He flayed the King of Macedon in a series of orations which have given us the word philippic (= a furiously hostile speech, a tirade). Meanwhile Alexander of Macedon was growing up and needed the best teachers. Plato had died in 347 but his distinguished pupil Aristotle (b. 384), a native of Macedonia, was available and was appointed tutor to the young prince. Thus at the age of sixteen, Alexander was in the enviable position of being in daily contact with one of the most brilliant intellects the world has ever known, of ruling Macedonia while his father was away and of possessing an incomparable horse, Bucephalus. Two years later (338) he fought by his father’s side at Chaeronea, where the assembled states of Greece were beaten and lost their independence. (Demosthenes ran away with the rest of the Athenian contingent. He had done his best. Isocrates committed suicide). In 336 Philip was murdered, so at the age of twenty Alexander of macedon found himself king and commander of the superb army which his father had created. Using and improving this army Alexander conquered the Persian Empire. Three great battles (Granicus 334, Issus 333 and Arbela 331) and the sieges of Tyre and Gaza achieved this (332). Darius III fled. Unlike his ancestor, Darius the Great, he had …

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Dionysius enjoyed culture as well as cruelty. He wrote poems, which were recited at the Olympic Games and one of many tragedies which he entered in the Athenian competitions took first prize. He invited famous authors and philosophers to his court, among them Plato (429-347), the writer from whose Dialogues much of our knowledge of Socrates comes. Plato had been away from Athens since the death of his beloved master and had come to Sicily in the course of travels which had included a visit to Egypt. He soon quarrelled with the tyrant Dionysius and left his court, but he paid two further visits to Syracuse after Dionysius the Younger had succeeded his father (367). By this time Plato had settled in Athens again and his Academy had become famous. (The word ‘Academy’ in English means a school, but its Greek original was more nearly the equivalent of a university.) He had written his greatest work, the Republic, which consists of a long discussion on what is the best way to educate a people and govern them. His solution was anything but democratic. He favoured rule by a group of immensely well-educated despots — ‘philosopher kings’ — and it was hoped that Dionysius the Younger might become a practical example. The son, however, proved not to be a better pupil than the father. Plato went back to the Academy and Syracuse, though now the most glorious city of the Greek world, never became the model of good government of which the philosophers had dreamed. The problem of how best to educate people and govern them remains with us still. The importance of Plato is that he was the first writer to discuss it thoroughly. The fact that it is easy to pick out from the Republic ideas which now sound …

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Damocles’ Sword – The Fourth Century

damocles' sword

Damocles’ sword. Twice in Greek history the Spartans appear as heroes — when they fought under Leonidas in the pass of Thermopylae and when they marched under Xenophon from Babylon to the Black Sea. The rest of the time we are continually hearing of their Victories but never of their achievements. As the fifth century gives place to the fourth it is still the same story. Sparta has beaten Athens at last. Sparta is supreme, but nothing spectacular happens. She does not succeed in uniting Greece. In 371, as a result of the battle of Leuctra, Thebes began a brief period of supremacy, which lasted until 362, when her leader Epaminondas was killed. Unity was as far away as ever in mainland Greece and the Aegean, but in the west Dionysius of Syracuse (b. 430 – d. 367 — not to be confused with Dionysus, God of Wine) had stopped the advance of the Carthaginians and imposed his will on the Greek cities of Sicily and southern Italy. Most would have preferred disunity to the cruel discipline of Dionysius. According to one story he arranged a banquet for his courtier Damocles, but had a sword suspended above him by a single horse-hair. This was intended to impress upon Damocles, who had flattered Dionysius, the truth that the happiness of a wealthy and powerful ruler was not unmixed with anxiety. The hair held and the sword did not fall; but Damocles found himself unable to enjoy his dinner. He had learned his lesson.

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The other author who tells us about Socrates is Xenophon. We owe him much. In addition to writing down what he remembered of conversations with Socrates, he wrote a short account of the Peloponnesian War after 411 (Thucydides only completed his history up to that year, although he lived until 400 B.C). His most famous work was the Anabasis (“March up Country”). This describes how (401 B.C.) he joined a Greek force which had been hired by Cyrus, brother of the Persian King, in the hope of seizing the throne. The fact that Cyrus had been the ally of Sparta and that this mercenary force contained a large body of Spartans did not worry Xenophon. Cyrus led them and a large Persian army inland from Sardis and after a time made it clear that his object was to seize the throne of his brother, Artaxerxes, King of Persia. The “Ten Thousand” (we remember the Greek contingent by their numbers) marched through Asia Minor and along the Euphrates to Babylon together with the rest of the rebel army. Outside Babylon there was a battle in which Cyrus was killed. Soon afterwards the Greek generals were murdered and Xenophon found himself in command. He could not move back along the Euphrates, the way they had come, because no supplies were available. So he went north through the highlands of Kurdistan. After months of great hardship the advance guard’s cry: “The sea! the sea!” was passed excitedly down the straggling column and gave the men new hope. They had reached Trapezus (Trebizond), a Greek colony on the Black Sea, whence many were able to return home (399). However, the story of this remarkable journey cut no ice at Athens and Xenophon was banished for having helped Cyrus, the friend of Sparta. After that …

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Socrates’ Death

socrates' death

Socrates’ death occurred in the year 399 an Athenian court condemned Socrates for opposing the official religion of the state, a practice which in fact he studiously avoided and for “corrupting the youth”, which simply meant that he tried to get young people to think things out instead of yapping slogans. When the penalty was being discussed, Socrates said that, far from being punished, he thought he ought to be given free dinners for life in return for his services to the state. This independent line did not incline the court towards leniency and they were not interested when Socrates then offered to pay a fine. They condemned him to death. Socrates’ death by execution was dignified. Socrates was handed a cup of hemlock. He put it to his lips without trembling. He was not afraid of death, though he did not know what it might have in store for him. True to his often repeated maxim that our only certain knowledge is the knowledge of our own ignorance, he kept an open mind to the end. “Whether life or death is better, is known to God and to God only”, he said. “Thus died the man, who of all with whom we were acquainted was in death the noblest, in life the wisest and most just.” Those two quotations are from Plato (the first from the Apology, the second from the Phaedo).

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Oligarchy and Athens in Defeat


Oligarchy — “rule by the few” was a form of government which Athens had not experienced since the 6th century, though it was common in many of the Greek states. This closing stage was surprisingly long. Alcibiades, having made himself unpopular at Sparta, was allowed once more to take command of the Athenian fleet, which he did with some success. On the home front the Spartans were not in a hurry. For a people of such high military reputation they were astonishingly cautious. Year after year they were content to operate from Decelea. They never tried to capture Athens by assault. In this they were wise. The thorn festering in the flesh would infect the whole body in time. The Sicilian disaster roused so much distrust in democracy at Athens that it was possible for an oligarch); to seize power (411). In referring to earlier times the word “aristocracy” — “rule by the best”, i.e. the old-established wealthy families, is sometimes used, but the form of government described is the same as oligarchy-rule by a small wealthy group. The change of word simply indicates that, as time went on, the old families were not the only wealthy ones. The oligarchs only stayed in power for a few months. The men of the fleet at Samos threatened to sail against Athens if democracy was not restored. So in the autumn the chief oligarchs fled to Decelea and a limited democracy, which still excluded the poor, was established. Next year (410), again under pressure from the sailors, who were poor and justifiably pleased with themselves after a victory over the Spartan fleet, the full democracy was restored. There followed five years in which Spartan peace offers were contemptuously rejected, while good conduct of the war was made impossible owing to the reckless …

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Decelea, a Thorn in the Flesh


Decelea near the border of Attica and Boeotia was fortified by the Spartans (413). The first piece of good advice which Alcibiades gave the Spartans was to send Gylippus to Syracuse. The second was this: “Restart the war; but don’t just invade Attica for a few weeks of the year. Fortify a position on Attic soil and hold it.” (Gilbert Murray’s translation). Raids from this post made the growing of crops more difficult than ever and cut the route to Euboea, where the cattle and goats had been sent for safety. An attack on Athens itself had constantly to be guarded against. The silver mines at Laurium had to be closed and thousands of slaves slipped away to Decelea as deserters. (There may have been more slaves than citizens in Athens and though they were protected by the law and were less badly off than elsewhere in the Ancient World, plenty were ready to leave.) Decelea was a thorn in the flesh of Attica. The essentials of a thorn in the flesh are that it hurts all the time; then it festers and hurts more and more: finally the sufferer is ready to pay any price to have it taken out. The sufferings inflicted by the Decelea garrison were only beginning when, late in the year 413, a barber in the Peiraeus welcomed a customer who had just arrived in the port. This customer mentioned the Athenian disaster in Sicily, little knowing that he was first with the news. The Athenians put him in prison for spreading false rumours; but they soon knew he had told the truth and as the news spread among the subject islands and cities of the Aegean they began to make plans not so much for freedom, which was not a practical proposition, but for …

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Hecuba, Queen of Troy

Hecuba, Queen of Troy

In the year when the expedition sailed to Sicily (415) Euripides put on a play, the Trojan Women, in which the wives of the defeated heroes of Troy were shown in the first bitterness of enslavement. When he wrote, Euripides was burning with the shame of the massacre of Melos; but now to those among the parched and ragged remnant of the Athenian expedition to Sicily who remembered his words they must have seemed like prophecy. As they shuffled towards the slave market or the stone quarries these once proud citizens of Athens might well recall the despairing cry which Euripides had put into the mouth of Hecuba, Queen of Troy: God! 0 God of Mercy! . . . Nay: Why call I on the Gods? They know, they know, My prayers, and would not hear them long ago. (Gilbert Murray’s translation.) Athens had suffered the most crushing defeat in her history and Hecuba never recovered. The year 413 was the evening of the great day which had dawned at Marathon, seventy-seven years before. Make no mistake about it, despite all their cruelties and follies those years were great. No one reads with exultation about the failure of the Athenian expedition. It is tragic, in the most serious sense of the word. For the “tragedies” which Athenian dramatists gave to the world were plays which moved the audience to pity and terror over the inscrutable workings of fate. They were no melodramas in which good enjoyed a simple triumph over evil. No character in them was quite right or quite wrong and none was petty. Tragedy meant that what was great and noble somehow tumbled into the dust. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and many other writers had known how to write it. In the end, as we have seen, the Athenians …

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Hermes, Sicily

Greeks had first settled round the coasts of Sicily during the colonising period and in 480 they had united to defeat a Carthaginian attempt to oust them from Sicily. Their unity, however, like that of the mainland Greeks against the Persians, did not last long and already in 427 the town of Leontini had asked for help from Athens against the Corinthian colony of Syracuse. Already settled in Sicily, now, in 416, another enemy of Syracuse, Segesta, appealed to Athens. The Athenians sent ambassadors to Segesta. These ambassadors were impressed by the wealth of the place, which the Segestans exaggerated by sending round the same set of gold and silver plate to each house at which the ambassadors were entertained. Alcibiades looked at it this way. With the massacre of Melos the last resistance in the Aegean had been disposed of. If Athens was to go on extending her maritime Empire she must look westwards. No matter if the Segestans had to be accepted as allies on an equal footing until Syracuse was conquered. None knew better than the Athenians the steps by which an ally might be changed into a subject. There was also the point that the sympathies of Syracuse, since she was a Corinthian colony, inclined towards the Spartan alliance to which Corinth belonged. If therefore Syracuse should decide to join in the quarrel which, in spite of the Peace of Nicias, still divided mainland Greece, she would join the enemies of Athens. Far better, then, to strike at her first. Sicily, to illustrate the Athenian Expedition Nicias believed neither in the possibility of a new Athenian Empire in the west, nor in the risk of Syracuse allying herself with Sparta; but the Assembly preferred the arguments of Alcibiades, aged 35, to those of the elderly, timid, …

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