Chapter 4 Greece: Minoan, Mycenaean, Hellenic, and Hellenistic Civilizations, 2000-30 B.C.E.

Greek civilization is considered to be the basis of Western culture

Geography: unlike the vast continental expanses of China and India or the long river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia, Greece is all mountains and sea, a jagged peninsula stretching from the Balkans to the Mediterranean and rocky islands. Mountains and water kept each city-state isolated from its neighbors. GEOGRAPHIC FRAGMENTATION may have encouraged a fierce sense of independence and loyalty within these isolated communities.

I. Background: Greek civilization was preceded by Aegean Civilizations (Minoan and Mycenaean) 2000-1200 BCE

Minoans: 3000 BCE While pyramids were rising in Egypt and ziggurats were being built in Mesopotamia, people from Asia Minor migrated to the Greek islands. This early culture of the Aegean Sea area is named after King Minos of Crete. This was a pre-Greek sea-faring civilization based heavily on trade whose heyday was around 2200-1500 BCE. They had trading posts all around the Aegean and traded with Egypt and Mesopotamia. They exported olive oil, pottery, bronze, wine. Their system of trade was efficiently managed by a bureaucratic government that kept records on clay tablets (in a written language called Linear A). Archeologists have found little evidence of soldiers—looks like this was a culture based trade networks-- not one based on military or political dominance. The Minoans had extensive cultural contact and trade with Mesopotamia, Greece, and Africa. 1800 BCE there was great palace built on Crete (the largest of the Greek islands, at a city called Knossos). The palace at Knossos suggests an idyllic lifestyle (wall paintings show bare-breasted, bejeweled women strolling in gardens of flowers, people drinking wine, frolicking dolphins, see p. 62.)

Mycenaeans: 1500 BCE
This civilization was based on the mainland of Greece. These people were part of the great wave of migrating barbarian conquerors who intruded upon Eurasian civilizations during the 2nd millennium BCE (Aryans in Indus Valley, Hittites in Near East—these were all Indo-European language speaking, chariot riding, horse taming nomads.) Mycenaeans were traders (when they could muscle in on areas controlled by the Egyptians or the Hittites) and builders (they had walled cities) but mostly they were warriors (most famous for their conquest of Troy, the legend of which is the basis of Homer’s Iliad written a bit later, in the 8th century BCE, during the Greek Dark Ages.)

II. Rise of Hellenic Civilization 1200-500 BCE

Greek Dark Ages 1100-800 BCE lots of Indo-European invaders, Dorians (who later become the Spartans), Ionians. The population grew like crazy. Toward the end of this period Homer (The Iliad and The Odyssey) and Hesiod, the two most famous Greek poets, composed their works.

Rise of city-state 800 BCE
Because of the population surge, Greeks pursued colonization. They established colonies not only on the Greek islands of today but also around Asia Minor, the Black Sea, southern Italy, Sicily, Libya, France, and Spain. While they were spread out among many independent city-states, Greeks maintained a shared, loose cultural identity wherever they traveled and settled. No matter how great a colony became in its own right, it tended to retain ties with the city-state that had fathered it. All Greeks spoke dialects of the same language (they used the Phoenician alphabet to write in Greek) and they worshipped same god and goddesses. Early on they gathered for athletic competitions to honor their gods: 1st Olympic Games 776 BCE.

Greek city-state, the polis, was one of the wonders of human social organization. It didn’t last long, but while it did, it gave some people more say over their own lives than some people know today. The word politics comes from the word polis. The acropolis (literally: high city) was on a hill in the center of town with temples for their gods, it was the center of religious and political activity. Below the acropolis was the agora, which was the trading center or market, the center of economic activity. The polis belonged to all Greek citizens. Lucrative trade and a citizen infantry (as opposed to a warrior nobility) made them strong. The polis fostered several forms of government like aristocracy and oligarchy. But most importantly, democracy was developed by Cleisthenes in 508 BCE. Democracy (rule of the people) gave power to citizens, all of whom could participate in public life and political assemblies that determined public policy (much unlike the subjects of autocratic rule of Near East & Asia). Only native born men of certain economic standing could be citizens (of a population of 200,000 in 500 BCE 30,000 were citizens). The majority of the population: women, children, slaves, and foreigners, could not be citizens.

The Persian Wars 500 BCE
(The Persian empire had been built by Cyrus the great 500 years before when he and his son overran Mesopotamia and Egypt and pushed Persia's frontiers to India. Then, the following Persian ruler, Darius, adopted Zoroastrianism (the enlightened faith of Zoroaster) and divided the Persian realm into 20 very efficiently managed satrapies. See pages 30-31). Ultimately, the Greeks unexpectedly triumphed over the Persians, the greatest power at the time. The crucial battle was at Marathon. The Greeks were outnumbered yet they defeated the Persians. It is considered one of most important battles in history. It prompted Herodotus (“father of history”) to write that “free men fight better than slaves.” A messenger ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to convey the news of the victory.

Pericles’ Athens: Greek Golden Age (like Asoka of Mauryan dynasty in India) also known as the Classical Period
Pericles was a statesman who guided Athenian policy from 461-429 BCE. His leadership corresponded with Greece’s Golden Age period of great cultural achievement during the 5th century BCE and most of the 4th. Greece’s Golden Age is known for its
--art (its sculpture shaped the course of Western art)
--architecture (Parthenon, columns) see p. 28.
--literature (Sappho, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides; Homer’s poems were written in the 8th century BCE, they are “Hellenic” but precede the “Golden Age” of the 5th century BCE)
--philosophy (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle).

Hippocrates “the father of medicine” and Herodotus “father of history” also important figures of Greece's Golden Age.

"It has been said that the Greeks are the first ancient society with which modern western society (since the Renaissance, that is) feels some sort of affinity. The ancient Greeks were clearly a people who warred and enslaved people. They often did not live up to their own ideals. However, their achievements in the areas of art, architecture, poetry, tragedy, science, mathematics, history, philosophy and government were of the highest order and worthy of emulation by the Romans and others.

Western thought begins with the Greeks, who first defined man as an individual with the capacity to use his reason. Rising above magic and superstition, by the end of the fifth century, the Greeks had discovered the means to give rational order to nature and to human society.

The Greeks also created the concept (if not quite the reality) of political freedom. The state was conceived as a community of free citizens who made laws in their own interest. As a direct democracy, for example, the Athenian citizen discussed, debated and voted on issues that affected him directly. The Greek discovery that man (the citizen) is capable of governing himself was a profound one.

Underlying the Greek achievement was humanism. The Greeks expressed a belief in the worth, significance, and dignity of the individual. Man should develop his personality fully in the city-state, a development which would, in turn, create a sound city-state as well. The pursuit of excellence -- arete -- was paramount. Such an aspiration required effort, discipline and intelligence. Man was master of himself." (Steven Kreis History Guide Lecture 7 Classical Greece)


Peloponnesian War 400 BCE
This was an almost 30 year war between Athens and Sparta, the two city-states that dominated the political history of Greece during the classical period (the 5th century BCE and most of the 4th). Athens ultimately lost the war. This marked the end of the Golden Age of Greece.

III. Macedonian unification of Greece and the Hellenistic Age 336-30 BCE

Alexander the Great: 300 BCE

Philip and Alexander of Macedon created a brief but very significant dynasty of power. (Macedonia was a region to the north of Greece that was considered to be barbarian by the Athenians). Philip brought post-war unity to Greece. (See page 69 for a forensic reconstruction of his skull that shows the arrow wound to his eye.)

Alexander (Philip’s son) led an unrivaled string of victories that spread Greek culture from the Nile to the Indus. Alexander had been tutored by Aristotle and was a brilliant warrior who made a 12 year trek across Eurasia. He defeated the Persians and Darius III, founded Alexandria in Egypt, marched through Afghanistan into northern India. He sought cooperation and a “brotherhood of man” to unite East and West. He blended Persians with Greeks and Macedonians in his army and his administration and encouraged his soldiers to intermarry with people from other cultures (he married a Persian). Under Alexander, the Macedonian Empire grew to become the largest empire in the ancient world – larger even than the Roman Empire at its height.

He died of a fever (from poisoning some say) in Babylon at age 33. “Alexander ruled for only 13 years, but in many ways the world was never the same again. Greek culture and language were now spread throughout the old traditional empires of Northern Africa and southwestern and central Asia; native and invader alike were transformed in the process” (Brummett p. 78.)

With his death, Alexander’s empire was carved into three great successor states, which mark the beginning of the Hellenistic Age—a period of cosmopolitanism and the wide diffusion of Greek culture. (Also, Euclid, of geometry fame, lived during this period (300 BCE) as did Archimedes of pi and calculus fame.)

"Alexander has been portrayed as an idealistic visionary and as an arrogant and ruthless conqueror. How did he view himself? He sought to imitate Achilles, the hero of Homer's Iliad. He claimed to be descended from Hercules, a Greek hero worshipped as a god. In the Egyptian fashion, he called himself pharaoh. After victories against the Persians, he adopted features of their rule. He called himself the Great King. He urged his followers to bow down before him, in Persian fashion. He also married Roxane, a Persian captive, and arranged for more than 10,000 of his soldiers to do the same. He wore Persian clothes and used Persians as administrators. By doing this, Alexander was trying to fuse the cultures of East and West, of Asia Minor and Greece. This fusion, and all that it came to represent, is what historians mean by the expression Hellenization.

The history of the Greek world following the death of Alexander is one of warfare and strife as his generals struggled for control of Alexander's empire. By 275 B.C., Alexander's world had been divided into the three kingdoms of Macedonia (Antigonids), Western Asia (Seleucids) and Egypt (Ptolemaic). The kingdom of Pergamum (southern Asia Minor) was soon added as the fourth Hellenistic monarchy.

Hellenistic Greece was a predominately urban culture. The cities founded by Alexander were centers of government and trade as well as culture. These were large cities by ancient standards. For instance, Alexandria in Egypt contained perhaps 500,000 people. The Greeks brought their temples, their theatres and schools to other cities, thus exporting their culture and Greek culture became a way of life. The library at Alexandria is said to have contained some half a million volumes. The upper classes began to copy the Greek spirit. They sent their children to Greek schools and the Greek language  (Koine) became a common, almost international language, in the same way that Latin was for Europe for fifteen centuries, or French in the 19th century.

What the breakdown of Alexander's empire had accomplished was nothing less than the Hellenization of the Mediterranean world. Cultures once foreign to the Hellenic world now became more Greek-like – they were Hellenized. One of the most important developments in association with this process of Hellenization, was the shift from the world of the polis to the new world of the cosmopolis. Such a shift was decisive in creating the Hellenistic world as a world of conflicting identities, and when identities are challenged or changed, intense internal conflicts are the result." (Steven Kreis History Guide Lecture 9 From Polis to Cosmopolis: Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic World)

By 30 BCE Rome had annexed all the Hellenistic states but Egypt.