The Classical (often termed the Hellenic) Age of Greece begins with the death of the last Athenian tyrant in 510 BC and ends with the assassination of Phillip II of Macedonia in 336 BC. It is fitting that the period is defined by the deaths of great men, for it was a bloody time – marked by two extended wars, the decline of influential city-states, the rise of Macedonian hegemony. But those 174 years also saw Greece lay the foundations for Western civilization: the beginnings of empiricism, artistic aesthetics, political structures, literary forms and most of what constitutes culture. So it was an age of contrasts, and an iconic period and place in world history.
The Greeks coined the term polis (which has been misused ever since) to denote their city-states; traditionally the term was used for the classic Athenian-style political unit – a central city dominating much smaller nearby towns and villages. But the term can also describe a grouping of allied smaller towns with no all-powerful central city, closer to the organization of Sparta. And that difference explains a lot about the history of classical Greece. There were four city-states more influential than the many others – Corinth, Thebes, Athens and Sparta. Each polis was a sovereign political entity, answerable only to its own citizens. Although the citizens of the city-states shared a common language, history and culture (Greek, of course), that did not stop them from bickering among themselves constantly and going to war with one-another as the mood took them. The Greeks might band together to face a common enemy, but such alliances were quickly abandoned when the immediate crisis was over and they could get back to slaughtering each other.
It all starts with the death of Peisistratus, the tyrant of Athens, in 512 BC. Having had enough of tyrants (note, the term did not have the modern pejorative sense), the Athenian nobles requested help from Sparta in overthrowing his son Hippias. The Spartan king Cleomenes tried to install a Spartan-style oligarchy to rule, but was trumped by the Athenian Cleisthenes who instituted a series of reforms that established an isonomic democracy where all citizens (save women and slaves, of course) have the same rights under law. Thus democracy came into civilization, and things just haven’t been the same since. The Spartans attacked Athens, seeking to restore their puppets, but the newly liberated citizens defended their city with great tenacity, and the frustrated Spartans were forced to withdraw. Thus began a rivalry between the two that would last for centuries.
The rivalry was quickly put on hold when a greater threat manifested itself … the Persians. From the 8th Century BC on, Greek colonists had been building cities in Ionia (the coast of Asia Minor). But by the mid-6th Century BC, these had all come under the dominion of the Persian Empire. In 499, these rose against their “oppressors” in the so-called Ionian Revolt; Athens and a few other Aegean city-states were intemperate enough to send military support to their fellow Greeks. Didn’t work. The allies were soundly defeated at the Battle of Lade in 494; then, in retaliation, the Persians marched through Macedonia and Thrace, pillaging everything, and sent a fleet through the Aegean, sinking everything. In 490 Darius the Great landed a Persian host (somewhere between 20,000 to 100,000 soldiers) in Attica intending to take Athens. They were met by a pitiful force of 9000 Athenians and 1000 Plataeans, who nevertheless stunned the Persians at Marathon. The victory bought the Greeks a decade to get ready for the next stage.
Not that they did much with the time except squabble among themselves. In 480 BC, the Persian Xerxes I launched another attack on Greece, this time personally leading some 300,000 troops onto the peninsula. The huge force rapidly overwhelmed the Greek cities in their path and marched inexorably towards Athens, supplied by sea from the equally large Persian fleet. After being briefly delayed by a small force of stubborn Spartans (only 300, so they say) along with 1100 Thespians and Thebans (whom nobody remembers) at the narrow pass of Thermopylae in September, Xerxes marched into Attica, taking and burning Athens, which had been evacuated.
Meanwhile, the Athenian-led coalition fleet of 271 galleys and triremes sallied to meet the Persians’ 800-some ships at the Straits of Artemisium. The day-long battle was a draw, but the Greeks could ill-afford the losses and, after hearing of the action at Thermopylae, valorously withdrew to the anchorage at Salamis. Xerxes, looking for a knock-out blow to force these stiff-necked Greeks to give up, rashly sent his fleet into the straits there. In the confined waters, the sheer number of Persian ships was a hindrance rather than a boon, and the superior Greek seamanship carried the day. (According to Herodotus, the lopsided casualty figures were the result of the fact that most of the Persians couldn’t swim, whereas the Greeks could make it to shore.)
Fearing being cut off in such a horrid place, and already short of food and supplies that couldn’t arrive by sea, Xerxes began a staged withdrawal towards the Hellespont. In 479 an allied force under the Spartan Pausanias defeated a sizeable Persian force left behind to “finish the Greeks.” The Athenian-led navy finished off the Persian fleet at Mycale, and then captured the Ionian Greek city of Byzantium the next year. Enrolling the island city-states into the Delian League (so named because its treasury was located on the sacred isle of Delos … though not for long), the Athenians swept the Persians from the Aegean. Sparta’s hoplites, having concluded that the war was over – as it was – went home.
With peace (or at least a facsimile), the Greeks settled down to create culture and civilization. Greek playwrights defined drama and comedy. Pericles plundered the Delian League treasury to build the Parthenon and other wonders. Sculptors Phidias and Myron and Polycletus brought marble, stone and bronze to life. Philosophers and sophists such as Socrates and Aristotle pondered the meaning of life and everything else in the Lyceum and libraries (and sometimes in the streets). Herodotus and Thucydides began recording “history.” Pythagoras and Eudoxus laid the foundations for Western mathematics. Religion was formalized, and the law codified. Hippocrates practiced medicine in Athens. And everything got written down, even those childhood fairy tales of Aesop’s. Who knows what else the Greeks may have accomplished … if they hadn’t started killing each other again.
Thucydides wrote the whole sordid affair down, so the world has a pretty good idea of what happened during the Peloponnesian Wars, a protracted struggle between the Athenian-led (putting it in the best light) Delian League and the Sparta-dominated Peloponnesian League. Even those city-states that tried to stay out of it – like Milos, which declined Athens’ offer to join the Delian League and was given the choice to either pay Athens taxes to be spared or be destroyed – ended up on the battlefield. The inconclusive First Peloponnesian War, begun in 460 BC ended in 445 with the Thirty-Years Peace, a treaty between Sparta and Athens that delineated their spheres of “influence.”
But each League tended to intrude on the affairs of the other, and soon enough, in 431 BC, they were at it once more. After a lot of marching about and bloodshed for a decade, the two sides agreed to the Peace of Nicias, the so-called “Fifty-Years Peace.” Didn’t last. More marching about, more bloodshed, lots of pillaging. Finally, in 415 Athens committed everything to a massive invasion of Syracuse in Sicily, a Greek colony of Corinth. It was a disaster, with the entire force utterly destroyed by 413. Meanwhile the Persians were supporting rebellions against Athens’ high-handed ways on the Aegean islands. The final blow came in 405 when the Spartan admiral and 180 Peloponnesian League ships destroyed the new Athenian fleet at Aegospotami. Athens surrendered the following year, and Sparta reigned supreme in Greece.
The Spartan hegemony did not work out quite the way Sparta’s kings envisioned the new world order should be. In fact, for the next half-century, various clashes between Sparta and Thebes, Sparta and Athens again, Sparta and Thebes again, Sparta and a resurrected Boeotian confederacy settled nothing. No one proved able to unite or dominate Greece. The details of deceit, betrayal, battle and massacre are all too tedious to relate; suffice to say that with the city-states of southern Greece weakened by decades of brutal warfare, the balance of power moved north, to Macedonia.
Around 359 BC, Phillip II assumed the leadership of Macedonia, before this an uncouth and barbaric fringe of the Greek world. Being an ambitious sort, Phillip’s Macedonian hoplites soon overran the nearby territories of Paeonia, Illyria, and Thrace, taking the latter’s largest port Amphipolis in 357. A year later, Phillip conquered the Athenian-protected port of Pydna. The great (and prophetic, as it turned out) orator Demosthenes began loudly encouraging the Athenians and others to vigorously fight against Macedonian expansion, to little avail until too late. In 338 BC Philip II led an army south, accompanied by his 16-year-old son, Alexander, who had already proven himself in battle, having led a small Macedonian army to crush a previous Thracian uprising. After dispatching several smaller forces, Philip thoroughly defeated the combined army of Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Megara, Chalcis, Achaea, Epidaurus and Troezen at the Battle of Chaeronea. It has been argued that Phillip’s victory here makes it the most decisive battle of the ancient world.
Be that as it may, Phillip now turned his attention on Sparta and its few allies, whom had stayed out of the campaign. He spent the next year ravaging Spartan lands, making peace with the Spartan allies that opposed him, and trying to reason with the Spartans. His efforts bore some fruit, for in the latter half of 337 BC he managed to forge the League of Corinth (named thus because his army was camped there), which guaranteed peace across the lands of the League and military assistance for Phillip against the hated Persians. Everyone signed … save Sparta. The League proceeded to elect Phillip II strategos (commander) for the invasion.
With Greece now, in effect, securely under the thumb of Macedonia, an advanced force was sent from the north into Asia Minor in 336 to open the war. Phillip was to follow with the allied Greeks, a much larger force capable of reaching the heart of Persia. But, instead of conquering the known world – he left that to his son to accomplish – Phillip was assassinated by one of his bodyguards during his daughter’s marriage festival. Alexander became king of Macedon, and de facto ruler of all Greece, at the age of 20. And the rest, as they say, is history.