Your guide to Ancient Greece: everything you wanted to know

There is much to fascinate in the stories of the ancient Greeks. Here, classicist and expert Professor Paul Cartledge answers key questions about one of the world’s greatest civilisations, and gives an overview of the key events that shaped the civilisation’s existence. Elsewhere, Paul Chrystal considers six facts about the societies of ancient Greece – from the position of women in society to the belief in gods and goddesses that regulated daily life…

An ancient Greek vase depicts animal sacrifice of a cow by two women

Few civilisations have made an impact on history quite like ancient Greece. Emerging out of a so-called ‘Dark Ages’ roughly three millennia ago, Greece’s powerful city-states would come to dominate the western world for centuries to come, making huge contributions towards the fields of science, philosophy, literature, medicine and art. Indeed, some of ancient Greece’s greatest intellectuals and thinkers – from Archimedes to Aristotle – are still lauded today, while tales from Greek mythology continue to capture the popular imagination.

Advertisement

In the article below and links to other expert features, we look at the story of ancient Greek civilisation across more than eight centuries. Accompanied on our journey by renowned classicist and expert Professor Paul Cartledge, we’ll also examine Greece’s role in the birth of democracy, the creation of the original Olympic Games, and the impact of war, religion and slavery on people’s everyday lives.

Follow the links below to jump to the highlights in each section:


Everything you wanted to know about ancient Greece

Professor Paul Cartledge answers key questions about one of the world’s greatest civilisations

Q: What time period do we define as ancient Greece, and which events bookend that period?

A: There’s really no such thing as ‘ancient Greece’, in the sense there’s a ‘modern Greece’. Ancient Hellas is what the Greeks would have called it, and it was really wherever Greeks (Hellenes) lived permanently – where they made homes, spoke Greek, worshipped gods in the Greek way, and so on.

The Greek language is attested as early as c1400 BC in a script we know as Linear B – this was a syllabic script, with every sign standing for a syllable rather than a letter. Linear B was devised for a very different Greek civilisation than the one we’re exploring in this essential guide. So, you could say that ancient Greece goes back as far as 1400 BC, but I would date it from around 1000 BC until the end of the Hellenistic period and the death of Cleopatra – who was an Egyptian Greek – in 30 BC. After that, the Roman period of Greek history takes over.

The Acropolis of Athens, photographed above the city with a blue sky above
The Acropolis of Athens, situated high above the city, was a key religious and municipal site in ancient times. (Image by Getty Images)

Q: How many ‘periods’ of ancient Greece were there?

A: Within ancient Greece (c1000– 30 BC) there were three broad periods: Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic. The beginning of the Archaic period used to be dated to 776 BC, which is the traditional year for the founding of the Olympic Games. This period goes on for about three centuries, so I would say from about 800–c480 BC. There was a turning point in the final two decades of the Archaic period when a tiny handful of Greek cities saw off a great Persian invasion (at the battles of Salamis and Plataea) and retained their independence. That’s traditionally when the Classical period is seen to have started, and that middle period lasted until the death of Alexander the Great, in 323 BC. And then there was the Hellenistic period, which, as I’ve mentioned, lasted until 30 BC. In this final period, we see a new Greek-dominated Middle East – as far east as modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan – that is dominantly Greek, but that incorporated a certain amount of oriental elements as well.

Q: How did Athenian democracy differ from democracy as we know it today?

A: Typically, those of us who live in a democratic country have a form of democracy known generically as ‘representative’. In other words, you and I, on a daily basis, do not rule: we choose people to represent us in parliament. Representative democracies differ from country to country, but they all are the same in that they choose people – representatives – who rule for them. The ancients didn’t have that notion. They thought if you’re going to rule; if you have power (kratos); if you choose officials; if you elect generals; if you sit on the council; or if you attend an assembly meeting and raise your right hand and vote, then that was it: they were ‘doing’ democracy. They were the ruler as well as the ruled; in other words, the Republican notion – no monarch, no single ruler and no tyrant, but everybody in turn fulfilling different roles at different times. And that included being judges. We think that the conduct of legal justice is something quite separate from legislation or holding executive office. The ancient Greeks didn’t have a notion of separation of powers. So they were a direct democracy.

The auditorium of a theatre at Athens, as seen from the stage during a performance of Agamemnon by Aeschylus, painted by 19th century artist William Blake Richmond. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
The auditorium of a theatre at Athens, as seen from the stage during a performance of Agamemnon by Aeschylus, painted by 19th century artist William Blake Richmond. (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Q: How has ancient Greek democracy influenced the way in which democracy has developed since?

A: Oddly enough, very little directly. The word ‘democracy’, coined by the ancient Greeks, is the universal term for whatever different countries decide their democracy should be. But the direct line of descent stops in ancient Greece; there is no ancient Greek-style direct democracy after the second or first century BC. When, in the early modern period, the word ‘democracy’ starts creeping back – especially in 17th-century England and 18th-century France and America – then democracy acquires a salience, and people start looking back to the ancient Greeks. But there was a universal agreement in the 19th century, when democracy started expanding quite considerably, that the system – partly because of size – must be indirect. It must be representative. There was, in fact, quite a lot of discussion about the dangers posed by direct democracy in ancient times, namely the danger of it shifting over into mob rule.

Q: Was Alexander the Great really as great as he is often made out to be?

A: Alexander III actually acquired the nickname ‘the Great’ after his death, but he was certainly unparalleled as a conqueror. As the commander of forces, both in pitched battle and sieges, and in traversing vast unknown terrains, he, quite frankly, was in a league with leaders like Genghis Khan – an elite ‘super league’ of commanders, if you like. One of the extraordinary things about Alexander the Great was that, technically, he was never defeated in any battle that made a difference. There were skirmishes when leaders under him were defeated, for example, but he personally never suffered a single failure as a general. And that’s really quite an extraordinary feat.

Alexander came to the throne at the age of just 20, after the assassination of his father, Philip II. But he had been commanding armies since the age of 16, and by the time he was 18, he was his father’s right-hand man in battle. By 330 BC, Alexander had effectively defeated the Persian empire, but it wasn’t enough for him: he then made the decision to push on to what he thought were the outer limits of the entire inhabited world.

The 'Alexander Mosaic' showing Alexander the Great

Q: Why were homosexuality and bisexuality accepted in ancient Greece but not in Rome?

A: It’s very, very hard to say. I think one possible explanation is that if you conquer a people and you think yourself, therefore, superior to them, you look for the things that differentiate your civilisation from theirs. And the Romans singled out their abhorrence, their rejection, of this ‘deviant custom’ of homosexuality among the Greeks, which they thought was effeminate. So I think that’s the answer: the Romans conquered the Greeks; Greeks were therefore seen as feeble; and one manifestation of their feebleness was seen to be their acceptance of homosexuality.

Q: Where was religion practised in ancient Greece?

A: There were specific sites of worship. The ancient Greeks actually had a word that meant a ‘cut out space’, where a sanctuary, which might or might not include a temple, was sited. So there were shrines and distinct religious spaces.

But religion was really practised everywhere. If you went to battle, you would slaughter an animal before that battle to get the will of the gods. The liver and entrails of the sacrificed animal would be removed and ‘read’ by manteis (seers); if the readings were favourable, you would go into battle. If they weren’t, you didn’t.

The liver and entrails of a sacrificed animal would be ‘read’ before battle

At home, you would have a statue of Hermes just outside your back door. You would pour a libation – wine, olive oil or some other liquid – and that would be your way of making your peace with the gods. There was a notion of there being a type of contract between mortals and the gods – if you, the human, did the gods favours, looked after them and gave them their due, then the gods were bound by contract to do you a favour in return. It was a give and take relationship.

Religion was everywhere, in principle, and just about any phenomenon could have a religious interpretation. A rainbow, for example, was a goddess called Iris; the Sun was the god Helios. So the ancient Greeks were incredibly religious, and that’s why it’s a bit of a paradox that some Greeks were able to draw a distinction and actually even question whether the gods – Zeus, Hermes and so on – were real, or whether they were figments of human imagination. In other words, we see the beginnings of atheism through humanism, as well as most Greeks being what we would call very religious.

An individual consults Pythia, the Delphic Oracle, on a vase
An individual consults Pythia, the Delphic Oracle, on this vase fragment from the fourth century BC (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Q: What role did Oracles play?

A: The Delphic Oracle – the high priestess of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi – was the most significant because it was thought to be the most holy and authoritative. You could consult an oracle by various means – by listening to the cooing of doves or by getting a prophecy, a form of utterance meant to be directly inspired by, in this case, Apollo. And that would tell you an answer to a question.

There were actually two main types of oracle: one was the public, official one, which advised a city or an individual ruler. The other was the purely individual type, which a lot of Greeks at one or other point in their life – typically during life crises such as marriages, births and deaths – would consult.

Professor Paul Cartledge is AG Leventis Senior Research Fellow and Emeritus AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book, Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, is now available in paperback (Picador, 2021). This interview first appeared in BBC History Revealed’s essential guide. Words: Charlotte Hodgman. You can listen to the full interview on our podcast:

Key milestones in ancient Greek history: a timeline

Ancient Greek civilisation spanned more than eight centuries, encompassing countless conquests, discoveries and battles – here are some of the most significant events. By Emma Slattery Williams

c800 BC 

Greece starts to emerge from its so-called ‘Dark Ages’ following the collapse of the Mycenaean civilIsation. City-states known as poleis begin to form on the Greek mainland, eventually expanding around the Aegean.

776 BC

The first Olympic Games are held in honour of Zeus at Olympia.

c750 BC

The Greeks set their sights further afield. One of their earliest western colonies is Pithekoussai in the Bay of Naples, with further settlements arising in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Around this time, the poet Homer writes The Iliad and The Odyssey.

743–724 BC

The First Messenian War is fought between the Greek city-states of Sparta and Messene. The latter is defeated and becomes annexed by Sparta, with most of its citizens reduced to slaves.

660–650 BC

The Second Messenian War begins as a slave revolt by the Messenians against their Spartan overlords. However, the uprising fails, and the Spartans remain in control. Meanwhile, the city-states of Athens, Sparta and Corinth continue to grow in power. 

c621 BC

A new body of laws is introduced in Athens, allegedly by an aristocrat and legislator called Draco. So brutal are the punishments prescribed that the so-called Draconian Laws are said to have been written in blood, and people are executed.

c600 BC

Coins are introduced and first used as currency in Athens.

594 BC

Statesman and lawmaker Solon institutes new constitutional and judicial reforms in Athens. Men over 18, regardless of social class, can now attend the ekklesia – the Athenian assembly. Property rights of the poor are protected, debt slavery (where people are enslaved to their creditors until they can pay them) is forbidden, and the Draconian Laws are revised.

570 BC

Mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras is born on the island of Samos – his work on the importance of numbers in understanding the natural world helps to develop the field of mathematics.

c507 BC

Athenian democracy is established by the statesman Cleisthenes, who furthers Solon’s efforts. He creates a series of reforms called demokratia (power of the people), which removes the monopoly over politics held by a small number of prominent families.

490 BC

The Persians are defeated at the battle of Marathon. According to popular legend, prior to the battle, an Athenian messenger named Pheidippides runs around 150 miles over two days to request help from the Spartans.

480 BC

Another Persian invasion sees a heroic, albeit failed, defence by an alliance of Greek city-states, led by King Leonidas I of Sparta at the battle of Thermopylae. Athens is burned but the Persian forces are defeated at Salamis a few weeks later, and again at Plataea in 479 BC. The failed Persian invasion ushers in the Classical period.

478 BC

The Delian League, a group of city-states under the leadership of Athens, is founded in the face of Persian aggression.

460–445 BC

The First Peloponnesian War rages between the two leading Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta. The Thirty Years’ Peace is declared, but this will only last for 14 years.

447 BC

Construction begins on the Parthenon, a temple to the goddess Athena, on the Athenian acropolis.

431–404 BC

The Second Peloponnesian War sees the Spartans emerge as the victors.

430 BC

A quarter of the population of Athens is killed due to an outbreak of plague, including its leader, Pericles.

399 BC

Famed Athenian philosopher Socrates is executed via poison after being condemned for impiety (irreverence to the gods) and for corrupting the youth of the city.

387 BC

Philosopher Plato establishes his academy in Athens, considered the earliest university in the world, where philosophy, mathematics, science and statesmanship are studied.

371 BC

Thebes ends Spartan dominance and becomes the leading military power in Greece after securing victory at the battle of Leuctra.

338 BC 

Philip II of Macedonia defeats Athens and Thebes. He establishes the League of Corinth, or the Hellenic League, an offensive and defensive alliance, which unites all of the Greek city-states (except Sparta) under his rule.

336 BC

Philip II of Macedonia defeats Athens and Thebes. He establishes the League of Corinth, or the Hellenic League, an offensive and defensive alliance, which unites all of the Greek city-states (except Sparta) under his rule.

336 BC

Alexander the Great becomes king of Macedonia (today this area includes North Macedonia as well as parts of Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia and Kosovo), and later conquers Egypt, making its new capital Alexandria. He goes on to defeat the Persian empire in 330 BC.

323 BC

Alexander the Great dies, and ancient Greece enters an era now commonly known as the Hellenistic period.

214–205 BC

The First Macedonian War is fought between Philip V of Macedonia and Rome, which is supported by its allies in the Aetolian League (a group of Greek states united in opposition to Macedonia). The conflict ends in stalemate.

200–196 BC

Philip V’s defeat during the Second Macedonian War causes him to lose much of southern Greece. The newly freed Greek states now find themselves under Roman protection.

171–167 BC

The Third Macedonian War ends the monarchy of Macedonia, which becomes divided into four republics subservient to Rome.

146 BC

The battle of Corinth is fought between Rome and Corinth, along with its allies in the Achaean League. Greece is defeated and becomes directly ruled by Rome.

6 facts you might not know about the ancient Greeks

1

The ancient Greeks shared many tales of the supernatural and the ancient Greek papyri are a veritable handbook of potions and spells

We first encounter Greek magic in Homer’s Odyssey, the epic poem written in the eighth century BC (though it’s set much earlier). Here, the hero Odysseus meets the witchy Circe who wields a staff, or rabdos, and concocts a potion that changes Odysseus’ crew into pigs.

Elsewhere, Helen of Troy prescribes a beneficent, recreational pharmakon to the soldiers of her husband Menelaus and in the last book of the Odyssey, Homer describes the spirits of Achilles and Agamemnon in Hades. In the Iliad, Homer describes the ghost of Achilles’s comrade Patroclus and tells the story of how Hera, queen of the gods, acquires Aphrodite’s love amulet in order to seduce Zeus, her unfaithful husband.

These passages establish how magic and witchcraft were viewed in the late Greek bronze age, the era of around the 13th century BC. Over hundreds of years, audiences listened to these stories of magic and the occult, no doubt associating them with similar experiences in their own times and communities.

Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios in Greek mythology, transforms Odysseus’s companions into pigs in this wood engraving from the 19th century. (Getty Images)
Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios in Greek mythology, transforms Odysseus’s companions into pigs in this wood engraving from the 19th century. (Getty Images)

The poet Pindar adds to our knowledge of the supernatural beliefs in ancient Greece by telling how the dead were led to the kingdom of Hades and judged there. Another two fragments of his poems describe the paradise-like land of Elysium and the transmigration of souls (basically, reincarnation). Pindar also cannot resist including Medea in a scene in which Aphrodite, paradoxically, uses magic to help Jason win Medea’s heart. He also describes the skills of Asclepius, god of medicine and shows how blurred was the line between ‘conventional’ and magical medicine. Incantations are used alongside drugs, pharmaka are useful herbs or magical potions, and both were imbibed and used in amulets.

Generally, the ancient Greeks – like the Egyptians before them and the Romans after them – were very superstitious. The dark arts have been dabbled in for as long as religions have been practised, in all societies, and ancient Greece is no exception. Sixteen hundred or so defixiones or katadesies (curse tablets or binding spells) have been found. Predominantly a practice of the lower orders, the curses were often provoked by an unfortunate turn of events such as a commercial dispute, a law suit, or unrequited and spurned love: they gave vent to the curser’s vengeful anger, jealousy, malice and vindictiveness. Here is one example:

“I bind you, Theodotis, daughter of Eus, to the snake’s tail, the crocodile’s mouth, the ram’s horns, the asp’s poison, the cat’s whiskers, the god’s appendage, so that you may never be able to have sex with another man… nor do anything that brings you pleasure with another man, unless I alone, Ammonion, the son of Hermitaris, am that man… Make this erotic binding-spell work, so that Theodotis, may no longer be penetrated by a man other than me alone, Ammonion, the son of Hermitaris, dragged in slavery, driven crazy, taking to the air in search of Ammonion, the son of Hermitaris, and that she may rub her thigh on my thigh, her genitals to my genitals, for sex with me for the rest of her life.”

 

2

Women were thought to be ‘incomplete, deformed males’

Of the 60 treatises written by the 20 or so Hippocratic writers, 11 cover gynaecology. The Hippocratics believed that women’s bodies were comprised of flesh which was softer and more porous than that of men, an example being the female breast as the woman’s nourishment is converted into milk. This ‘porosity’ was believed to be caused by the absorption of moisture in the form of blood, released each month during the woman’s period and the concept of porosity was linked to the knowledge of women’s menstrual fluid, sexual lubricant, and other discharge.

A marble relief depicting either Ascelpius, the god of medicine, or Hippocrates, a physician in Ancient Greece, treating an unwell woman. (De Agostini/Getty Images)
A marble relief believed to depict either Ascelpius, the god of medicine, or Hippocrates, a physician in Ancient Greece, treating an unwell woman. (De Agostini/Getty Images)

Blood ‘clogging up the venous system’ in the breasts signified that the woman was going mad – a physiological ‘explanation’ for the age-old stereotype that women are naturally neurotic, erratic and unpredictable. Menstruation as a purging agent was, then, considered a good thing. The ancient Greeks believed that amenorrhœa (the absence of a menstrual period) caused all manner of physical and psychological illness; virgins were particularly susceptible, which explained their tendency to hang themselves or jump down wells to their deaths. In essence, the physiological differences between men and women supported the ancient Greek belief that women were physically and mentally inferior to men.

The philosopher Aristotle taught that men were more perfect than women. Because women were less able than men to produce the heat that was vital for generation of the species (due to the ‘debilitating’ effect of menstruation) women were ‘incomplete’ or ‘deformed males’.

In contrast to his Hippocratic contemporaries, Aristotle believed that menstruation was not a good thing. Aristotle championed the long-standing myth that the womb comprised two separate compartments, often used to explain the birth of twins: males were born from the right (hotter) chamber; females from the left, with all its ‘sinister’ implications. He rejected the Hippocratic belief that ‘hysteria’ in women was attributable to the movements of the womb and made tentative steps towards an understanding of the Fallopian tubes, largely unknown in antiquity.

 

3

Thucydides (c460-c400 BC) was the father of ‘scientific history’

A major Athenian historian, political philosopher and general (strategos), Thucydides is famous for his History of the Peloponnesian War. It is a defining work of history which has led to his being called the father of ‘scientific history’ because of his rigorous research, reliance on eye-witness accounts, evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect. Unlike the work of fellow historian Herodotus, Thucydides’s history is devoid of interventions by the gods. He omits the arts, literature or the social circumstances in which the events take place, focusing instead on actual events, excluding what he may have seen as frivolous or irrelevant.

Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue is regarded as a seminal work of international relations theory which espouses political realism, while Pericles’ Funeral Oration is still widely studied in political theory, history, and classical studies. The oration formed the basis for Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address during the American Civil War. The funeral oration is one of many speeches in which the historian does not report verbatim but gives us the gist of what was said, or should have been said. Both feature in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

 

4

Spartan women could enjoy status and power that was unheard of in other parts of ancient Greece

Thucydides said it all when he famously asserted of women: “The greatest glory is to be talked about among men as little as possible, whether in praise or blame.”

The status and rights of women may have varied, but by and large, we can draw some general conclusions. We know that in Delphi, Gortyn, Thessaly, Megara and Sparta, women were allowed to own land but, generally speaking, women had no legal or political status. With the coming of democracy, women – like slaves, metics (resident aliens, including freed slaves) and children – did not have the vote. Like slaves, they were simply part of the oikos, the household, under the control of the male kyrios. Until they married, women lived under the guardianship of their father or another male relative; on marriage, the husband assumed the role of the woman’s kyrios and would look after any legal affairs which involved her. Because their right to property was limited, Athenian women did not qualify as full citizens, as citizenship and civil and political rights were defined in relation to property. However, women could have some property rights through gifts, dowry or inheritance, although her kyrios still had the right to dispose of a woman’s property as he saw fit.

Sparta, however, was another world; women played a vital role in keeping the Spartan war machine well-oiled and efficient. Generally, they enjoyed status, power, and respect that was unheard of in other parts of ancient Greece. Since Spartan men were fully occupied with military training, bonding in mess life and doing battle, it fell to women to run the farms and the home. It is estimated that by the fourth century BC, Spartan women actually owned between 35 and 40 per cent of all Spartan land and property, and that by the Hellenistic period (323 BC–31 BC), some of the wealthiest Spartans were women, controlling their own properties and looking after the properties of male kin who were posted away with the army.

Spartan women rarely married before the age of 20, unlike their Athenian counterparts. Whereas Athenian women wore clothes to entirely cover their bodies and were rarely allowed to go out of the house, the clothes of the Spartan women were much looser and more revealing. Spartan girls as well as boys received an education.

Why were Athenian women so suppressed? The usual answer is that this was a throwback to ancient patriarchal society. However, it is, ironically, more to do with democracy than anything else. Athenians were obsessed with the fear that a woman might commit adultery which would foster doubt regarding the paternity of her children and raise questions about inheritance; crucially if paternity could not be established, then the child could not be a citizen. Furthermore, adultery was thought to impair a woman’s chastity, and corrupt her mind.

 

5

The elephant was the first weapon of mass destruction

The Pyrrhic Wars (280-275 BC) were notable for the first deployments of elephants, or elephantries, by the Greeks against the Roman army.

The Indians were the first recorded to have used the elephant as an instrument of war where they make an appearance in the Sanskrit epics, and in later stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in the fourth century BC.

An engraving of Roman armies defeating elephant troops of Pyrrhus during the battle of Asculum. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
An engraving of Roman armies defeating elephant troops of Pyrrhus during the battle of Asculum. (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Their use spread westwards to the Persians in their wars with Alexander the Great. The first confrontation came at the battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, when the Persians deployed 15 elephants. Up against Porus, in the modern-day Punjabi region of Pakistan, Alexander faced up to 100 war elephants at the battle of the Hydaspes River. This was small fry compared to what the kings of the Nanda Empire (Maghada) and Gangaridai (present-day Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal) could throw against him: between 3,000 and 6,000 war elephants which effectively halted Alexander’s invasion of India.

Returning home, Alexander set up a unit of elephants to guard his palace at Babylon, and established the office of elephantarch to take command of his elephants. War elephants made their European debut in 318 BC, when Polyperchon, one of Alexander’s generals, besieged Megalopolis with the help of 60 elephants. Another ancient king, Pyrrhus, must be given credit for the introduction of the combat elephant to Italy, at the battle of Heraclea. Here, the elephants were of the Indian variety and were given the sobriquet ‘Lucanian oxen’ by the awe-struck Roman soldiers.

Paul Chrystal is the author of The Ancient Greeks in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2016)

Advertisement

This article was first published by HistoryExtra in September 2017