Many Western Civilization textbooks begin with the ancient Greeks. As noted in the introduction of this book, however, there are some problems with taking that approach, most importantly the fact that starting with the Greeks overlooks the fact that the Greeks did not invent the essential elements of civilization itself. That being noted, the Greeks were unquestionably historically important and influential. They can be justly credited with creating forms of political organization and approaches to learning that were and remain hugely influential. Among other things, the Greeks carried out the first experiments in democratic government, invented a form of philosophy and learning concerned with empirical observation and rationality, created forms of drama like comedy and tragedy, and devised the method of researching and writing history itself. It is thus useful and productive to consider the history of ancient Greece even if the conceit that other forms of ancient history are less important is abandoned.
- 5.1: The Greek Dark Age
- During the Bronze Age, as described in the last chapter, the Minoans and Mycenaeans were two of the civilizations that were part of the international trade and diplomacy network of the Mediterranean and Middle East. The Minoans were a major seafaring civilization based on the island of Crete. They created huge palace complexes, magnificent artwork, and great wealth. They eventually vanished as a distinct culture, most likely after they were conquered and absorbed by the Mycenaeans.
- 5.2: The Archaic Age and Greek Values
- The Greek Dark Age started to end around 800 BCE. The subsequent period of Greek history, from around 800 BCE - 490 BCE, is referred to as the “Archaic” Age, which saw the re-emergence of sustained contact with foreign cultures, starting with the development of Greek colonies on the Greek islands and on the western coast of Anatolia called Ionia. These Greeks reestablished long-distance trade routes, most importantly with the Phoenicians, the great traders and merchants of the Iron Age.
- 5.3: Greek Culture and Trade
- The Greek poleis were each distinct, fiercely proud of their own identity and independence, and they frequently fought small-scale wars against one another. Even as they did so, they recognized each other as fellow Greeks and therefore as cultural equals. All Greeks spoke mutually intelligible dialects of the Greek language. All Greeks worshiped the same pantheon of gods. All Greeks shared political traditions of citizenship and took part in a range of cultural practices.
- 5.5: Sparta and Athens
- Two of the most memorable poleis of the Archaic Age were Sparta and Athens. The two poleis were in many ways a study in contrasts: an obsessively militaristic and inward-looking society of “equals” who controlled the largest slave society in Greece, and a cosmopolitan naval power at the forefront of political innovation.
Thumbnail: Probable Spartan hoplite (Vix crater, c.500 BC). (Public Domain; via Wikipedia).