Ancient Greece Background Information

General Information:

The ancient Greeks are one of the most influential groups we will study this year. Many of their inventions are still used in some format today. We are studying what is considered to be the Classical Period or Golden Age of Greece which took place from 800 BCE until approximately 300 BCE. The ancient Greeks made many contributions to our world, until they lost power and became part of Rome.

Chronology of ancient Greece:

750 BCE individual city-states rise to power (monarchy and

500-338 BCE Classical or Golden Age of Greece

338 BCE Philip II of Macedonia defeats the Greeks and takes
control (all city-states accept his rule, except Sparta)

336-323BCE Alexander the Great (Philip’s son) rules and expands

323-146 BCE Hellenistic Period (ruled by Macedonia, but based on
Greek way of life)

146 BCE Romans conquer Greece


Greece is located on a peninsula in southern Europe. The Greek Peninsula stretches south into the Mediterranean Sea. It is bordered on the east by the Aegean Sea and on the west by the Ionian Sea. Ancient Greece included the Greek Peninsula and many islands in the Aegean Sea. It also included some land along the coast of Asia Minor.

Unlike the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India, ancient Greece did not begin near a river. There are few rivers and little fertile soil in Greece. The Greek civilization developed in narrow mountain valleys and on small plains along the coast. Only there did farmers find good farmland. The Greeks could not grow enough food; they needed to get food from other lands. Two of the crops that did grow well in their area were olives and grapes, since they required little land, a warm dry environment and long periods of sunshine.

The people of ancient Greece could not farm most of their mountainous, rocky land, so they became excellent sailors who traveled to distant lands. The mountainous land also meant that it was difficult to invade Greek lands. The Balkan Mountains in the north and the Mediterranean Sea form barriers that made it difficult for outsider to attack.


Greece had many tall mountains. Around 800 BCE the Greeks began to build many city-states on the flat land between the mountains. The mountains kept the people of Greece apart, which led each city-states to be independent. The ancient Greeks referred to themselves as citizens of their individual city-states. Each city-state (polis) had its own personality, goals, laws, rulers, money and customs. Ancient Greeks were very loyal to their city-state.

The city-states had many things in common. They all believed in the same gods. They all spoke the same language. But if you asked an ancient Greek where he was from, he would not say, "I live in Greece." If he was from Sparta, he would say, "I am a Spartan." If he lived in Athens, he would say, "I am Athenian." The city-states might band together to fight a common enemy. But they also went to war with each other.

Greece was not yet one country; there was no central government in ancient Greece. Each city-state had its own form of government. Some city-states, like Corinth, were ruled by kings. Some, like Sparta, were ruled by a small group of men - called an oligarchy. Others, like Athens, experimented with new forms of government.

While many city-states made important contributions, Athens has by far given the most to the world. For much of the historical era we are studying, most of the city-states were following Athens, which some historians describe as the Athenian empire.

Advancements in Government:

Throughout the history of ancient Greece, government went through several transitions. First, there were monarchs in power. They lost power to groups of wealthy landowners called aristocrats. As trade increased, many merchants and traders became wealthy. They began to demand a voice in the government. But most aristocrats refused to share power with merchants and traders. Farmers and fishermen also suffered under the aristocrats and began to resent their ruling. Rebellions broke out in many city-states. Leaders who had the support of the merchants and farmers took power from the aristocrats. This led to the new form of government started in ancient Greece.

Athens became the world’s first democracy. All citizens were equal under the law. Each citizen had the right to speak freely and to vote in the assembly. Each citizen, whether rich or poor, could become a government leader. To be considered a citizen a person had to be male, over 18 and born in the polis. All other people were not considered to be citizens, so they did not have equal rights nor did they have a voice in government.

How their Democracy worked:

All citizens were expected to take an active part in government. They were required to attend the Assembly meetings to vote on issues (passing laws) concerning the city-state. Also, they were required to serve in the military to defend the polis, if needed. Other than the Assembly, their system had two other branches to help rule, the Ten Generals and the Council of Five Hundred. The Ten Generals were members of the Assembly (ten of them); they were in charge of the military and served as judges. The Council of 500 was made up of 500 randomly chosen members of the Assembly. They were in charge of proposing laws and advising the Assembly; they ran the “day to day” business of government.

Citizens had several rights including: speaking for themselves in court, owning land, voting, and holding public office. In exchange for these rights, citizens had several responsibilities, including: having to take part in government, defending the polis and sponsoring events for the polis, such as festivals.

Women, children and males born outside the polis were not considered to be citizens – so they were not given any of the rights that citizens had.

Slavery and Systems of Labor:

Slaves were very important to the ancient Greek way of life. Slaves cleaned and cooked, worked in the fields, shops, in the mines, and on ships. Most slaves’ lives were not that different from a poor Greek citizen's life. There were things slaves could not do. They could not go to school, or enter politics. They were the property of their owner, not citizens of ancient Greece. People became slaves in many ways. Some people became slaves when captured in battle. Some were the children of slaves. Some children were sold into slavery by poor families, and some children were kidnapped. Slaves were so important to the culture of ancient Greece, that some historians believe there were as many slaves as citizens. Slaves were a vital piece of the public works done in ancient Greece, such as constructing and maintaining the buildings of ancient Greece.

Values and Beliefs:

Religion was very important in the everyday lives of the ancient Greeks. All actions were to please or honor the deity (gods/goddesses). They had many gods (polytheistic) who ruled over every part of their lives. The Greeks built temples and statues to honor the deity members. Festivals, theater, prophecies, mythology, sacrifices all centered on the deity.

Festivals played an important role in their lives, they were held to honor gods/goddesses. Most were held yearly. The Olympics were held every 4 years to honor Zeus (king of the gods) – even wars would be stopped for this festival.

Education was valued in ancient Greece. Wealthy boys attended school to educate both their minds and bodies. Poor boys and all girls were not sent to school - boys were taught a trade and started working at an early age; girls were taught at home.

Men & Women were not treated equally in ancient Greece. Men were citizens; had jobs; were active in politics; attended festivals; and fought in wartime. Women were controlled by husband, brother or father; rarely had any form of public life; couldn’t inherit property; and spent their life taking care of the home.

Religion was the most valued aspect of life in Greece. Everything that they did was done to honor the deity, from learning, taking pride in themselves, their knowledge, beauty and accomplishments. Beauty was valued highly by the Greeks, since they saw it as a reflection of their faith. Also, they were searching for ways to be healthier, again as a way to show honor to the deity, the foundations of our modern medical systems have their root in the Greek world.

Importance of Trade:

As already explained, the Greeks were not self-sufficient, they needed to trade with other cultures to meet all of their needs. They did benefit from the bodies of water surrounding them, through fishing and travel/trade. Many of the jobs they had also were based on this natural resource. Another way we can tell the Greeks benefited from their natural environment would be the large variety of pottery they made. The Greeks are well known for their pottery, which was made from the mud that was abundant along their coastal regions.

Most interactions with other cultures occurred through trade. Not only were items exchanged through barter, but this was how ideas, knowledge, and beliefs were passed on. Societies grew from these interactions. The ancient Greeks traded with several areas outside of their mainland – such as other civilizations along the Silk Road, countries around the Mediterranean Sea and Greek colonies.

Merchants became very powerful in ancient Greece, since they controlled the items being imported and exported along with setting the prices for those items.

They imported items such as silk, spices, gold, tin, timber (lumber), grain, ivory, slaves, artwork, lead and amber.

They exported items such as olives/olive oil, honey, grapes, wool, pottery/vases, wine, slaves, and metal work.

Cultural Legacies:

The Greeks made many advancements during this historical era. Cultural legacies are products (tangible or intangible) created or improved by a society that have influenced societies after them, their impacts may still be seen today. The world has many legacies from ancient Greece including:

Democracy– form of government they started – still used in many parts of the world today

Architecture – their classical style of building has been reproduced often; there are still several examples surviving in Greece today

Coins – made from bronze, silver and gold – use became more widespread; later cultures used their ideas and improved upon them

Olympics – games/festival to honor the deity members every 4 years; currently they no longer have religious ties but are still held throughout the world every 4 years with many countries participating

Medicine – they studied the human body, sickness and methods of healing; modern western medicines have grown from the work they started

Mythology– stories based on their polytheistic religion showing the interactions of the deity with humans; people today still study these writings

Theater – credited with starting two main forms – drama and comedy; only men were allowed to participate; it has grown and continue to develop from what they started

Triremes – Greek fighting ships; were the best made at the time that others tried to recreate; are still viewed as great naval structures

Vases - pottery vessels to hold a multitude of items; were very decorative; were both artwork and practical since they used them for many areas of their lives; they provide us with pictures into what their lives were like.

Several Famous Greeks:

Socrates was a Greek Philosopher. He led many people to question their reality and to further their thinking. He taught that people should be in a constant search for the truth in all aspects of life. He was put to death for his ideas about questioning the rules and accepted ideas

Plato was a philosopher and politician. He set up a school for philosophers called the Academy. He also wrote down many of Socrates’ ideas (was his student). He wrote several important books including The Republic and The Dialogues.

Aristotle was a great thinker and teacher. He was a student of Plato and wrote more than 200 books. He also started a system for classifying living things.

Cleisthenes was a noble and government leader in Athens. In 509 BCE, he wrote the world’s first democratic constitution.

Pericles was the main leader of Greece during the “Golden Age”, he ruled for more than 30 years. He was known as the “First Citizen” of Greece. He encouraged art, literature and philosophy.

Hippocrates was a famous doctor; he is considered to be the founder of modern medicine. His ideas are still the basis for medical ethics.

There were several historically significant wars for the ancient Greeks:

Trojan War
· Trojans (people of Troy) vs. Mycenaeans (early Greeks)

Fighting over kidnapped Helen and to get revenge (from the Iliad as told by Homer)

Persian War

Persians vs. the Greek city-states (Delian League)

Fighting for control of land areas /power struggle

Peloponnesian War

Athens vs. Sparta

Struggle for power and prestige

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