Ancient History 101: Greece 02 - The Classical Age.

The Classical age

Greece chapter 2 (500s - 323 BCE)

This is considered by very smart people, and also myself, to be the height of Greek civilization. It’s often referred to as The Golden Age.

Democracy pt. 1 - World’s First / Prologue (594 BCE)

The groundwork for democracy was laid in the two centuries before the Golden Age, which started around 500 years before the birth of Christ..

Remember, a democracy is where people govern themselves.

Previous to democracy, many city-states had councils that were made up of local aristocrats who ran the governments.

Ruling nobles were called archons.
Farmers who could afford armor and weapons were called warriors.

Violence erupted in the 600s when an Athenian aristocrat called Cylon tried to make himself the sole ruler. Commoners killed many of his supporters and local farmers demanded a greater say in government.

Following this, nobles tried to appease them by increasing commoners’ role and voice in government. A fellow named Draco wrote laws designed to give everyone equal footing in legal matters, but that often had very harsh consequences for what might be considered small offenses.

For example, stealing a cabbage would get you the death penalty, as would most types of theft on any level. They were still unfair and biased toward the ruling class, but they were written down and they were a beginning. And sometimes bad beginnings are better than no beginnings.

A draconian law is one that is considered excessively severe or harsh

These beginnings were not advancing fast enough for many commoners. Commoners wanted reform and like many revolutionaries, they didn’t want to wait peacefully for it to happen. This marked the beginning of civil war. Also, Draco eventually got driven out of Athens. Maybe he stole an olive.

Solon (594 BCE)

In 594 both sides asked an Athenian man named Solon to help settle their differences.

He got rid of most of most of Draco’s laws and began drastically reforming the economy and government. For example, many were in prison for debt-related reasons due to the draconian consequences for owing money, so many citizens were freed after he loosened these laws.

Only twenty percent of Athenians at this point were considered citizens. Slaves and women were outta luck. Not cool.

Other societal changes included:

  • Introduction of a social ranking based on wealth instead of birth.

  • Elimination of birth into a royal family as a requirement for holding public office.

  • Creation of the Council, which was a group of 400 men chosen by random drawing. They would make a list of important community matters that needed to be taken care of. The archons would then deal with these matters.

Thanks in large part to Solon’s reforms, Greece entered an era of trade and wealth and made significant advancements in art, culture, religion, philosophy, and architecture.

Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy (508 BCE)

Cleisthenes, a nobleman, enlisted the aid of common people to back him in return for his pushing for a series of democratic reforms. The people helped him, and he kept his word. He increased the power of the assembly, reduced the power of the nobility in politics, and gave all citizens equal rights.

Under Cleisthenes, the Assembly could:

Decide public policy
Grant citizenship
Establish colonies
Declare war
Make peace
A whole bunch more

The Council increased to 500 members. It prepared the agenda that the Assembly would discuss and vote on.

The strategos was a board of 10 elected military generals who could only serve for a year, but could be re-elected. They had a huge impact on foreign policy and could propose new laws and policies and lead discussions in the Assembly.

The most famous strategos was Pericles.

Pericles (495 - 429 BCE)

Pericles was the most famous statesmen and general of Athens during its Golden Age. He was a strong proponent of the arts and helped Athens become the educational and cultural center of the ancient world. Perhaps most importantly, he helped support and grow Athenian democracy. For example, he introduced ideas such as paying public officials a salary for their work. In other words, the poor were not not excluded from holding public office because they couldn’t afford to work for free.

He was very encouraging of Athenian citizens to participate in the assembly and to vote on important issues. This was an important step in direct democracy; citizens were able to give their voice and support to positions on war, foreign policy, and the elected officials who would administer the government.

Of course, only males with two Athenian parents were considered free, voting citizens.

Under Pericles, Athens developed a fair and reliable justice system. Juries had 400-500 members. It was almost impossible to bribe or threaten jurors to sway a verdict. Juries were both juries and judges.

Other city-states followed Athens’ model...and neighboring Sparta looked on with some envy at its success...

Family

oikos
family

Family included the parents, children, relatives, and house, as well as land, slaves, and animals.

A well-to-do family might have 15-20 slaves. They thought it was approved by the gods and was a natural part of life.

City-state populations were low, so the loss of a few families could have a huge impact on the economic situation and leave the city-state vulnerable to attack. Men married around 30; women around 14. Many men died young, so society wanted women to be able to remarry and have children.

Every family tried to have at least one male, as society was patriarchal. Property ownership passed from father to son, not mother to children. Women had few legal rights.

Women

Had limited inheritance rights
Could not hold public office
Could not vote or attend the Assembly

They were well respected and treated (relatively) and their skills and duties were considered vitally important.

But of course, they were still not considered full citizens with all the rights thereof. Not cool.

Athletics & Olympics

The connection between physical fitness and good health was very important. They wanted citizens to be both physically fit and seekers of knowledge.

gymnasion
comes from gymnos = naked

Enjoy that next trip to the gym.

Wrestling was a favourite sport. Swimming and horseback riding were also popular.

Olympics were held every four years, starting in 776 B.C., in honor of Zeus.

Religion

The Greeks were very pious and practiced some form of religious ritual every day. Their sacred sites were called oracles, where they believed prophecies were revealed.

Their gods were demanding and easily offended. Greeks thought that if a single person committed an offense against a god, a deity might punish the whole community. Therefore, it was very important to stay on the gods’ good side. There were many public ceremonies honoring and appeasing them. All public meetings and events began with prayer.

They believed the deities took human form and had humanlike personalities and flaws. The big difference was that the gods were immortal and possessed enormous power.

The Olympian gods

Zeus - chief god
Hera - his wife; protector of women
Poseidon - Zeus’s brother, ruler of the seas and earthquakes
Hades - Zeus’s brother, ruler of the Underworld
Athena - goddess of war and wisdom; protector of Athens
Apollo - god of prophecy, healing, sun, music
Aphrodite - goddess of love
Ares - god of war
Hermes - messenger of the gods, protector of traverers
Artemis - goddess of hunting, the moon, wild animals; protector of young girls
Hestia - goddess of the hearth
Hephaestus - god of forge, smith of the gods
Demeter - goddess of plants and fertility
Dionysus - god of wine, vines, fertility

Footnote

Introduction to Ancient History, from the Paleolithic Era to the fall of Rome, and how the lives, cultures, decisions, and actions of these periods affects our modern lives.

Education for most ages and for all curious people.
Written by Joseph Ivan Long with curiosity, humbleness, and a big grin.