History of the Ancient & Medieval World - Vol. 4

History of the Ancient & Medieval World - Vol. 4

History of the Ancient & Medieval World - Vol. 4

History of the Ancient & Medieval World - Vol. 4

Excerpt

The Ancient Greeks covers the history and culture of Greece from the Dark Age (ca. 1050–750 BC) through the early Classical period in the mid-fifth century BC. The volume opens with a discussion of the Iliad and the Odyssey, addressing the issues of authorship and historicity relating to Homer and the Homeric epics; the society of Dark Age Greece, as reflected in these epics, is contrasted with earlier Mycenaean society. During the Dark Age, the migrations of the Dorians, Aeolians, and lonians altered the ethnic geography of Greece and brought extensive Greek settlement to the coast of Asia Minor. The succeeding Archaic period (ca. 750–500 BC) is characterized by colonial expansion on the part of the emerging Greek city-states.

Trading settlements and colonies were established throughout much of the Mediterranean region and on the shores of the Black Sea. A concomitant feature of Archaic Greek culture was the absorption of Near Eastern and Egyptian influences, observable in the arts, in religious beliefs, and most significantly, in the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet.

The Archaic period was also a time of political development, as the focal point of social organization gradually shifted from local aristocracies to the city-state, the polis, governed through a council and an assembly of free citizens. The two city-states about which we have the most information are Sparta, with its notoriously rigid social system, whose economy depended on the exploitation of a subject population (the helots)', and Athens, where, though great inequalities in wealth persisted, Solon's reforms helped to assure that members of all four classes of citizens would enjoy the right of political participation. Tyrants arose in several Greek city-states, for instance, Corinth and Athens; the emergence of tyranny inadvertently promoted democratic developments in some cases. Toward the end of the sixth century, following the downfall of the Peisistratid tyranny, the aristocrat Cleisthenes reorganized the governing institutions of Athens in favor of the demos, the [people.]

The Persian Wars, opening the Classical period, catalyzed the emergence of a Greek national consciousness. Athens and Sparta cooperated in leading a coalition of Greek city-states to victory over the invading forces deployed by the Persian Empire. Athenians in particular used the opportunity provided by their newfound leadership to expand their city's international role and enhance its status as a cultural center. Thus Athens acquired hegemony over much of the Greek world by the mid-fifth century. Under the leadership of the statesman and general Pericles, Athenian democracy also achieved its high point during this period, with which this volume concludes.

Besides political history, the topics treated here include literature, theater, religion, philosophy, and science. Greek religion combined an Indo-European heritage with indigenous (pre-Greek) elements and influences from the Near East and elsewhere. The intellectual expansion that accompanied the phase of colonial expansion and Orientalization in the Archaic period led to new literary forms, exemplified by the lyric and elegiac poets, and of new ways of thinking about the natural world, exemplified by the Ionian philosophers of the sixth century BC. These developments culminated in the flourishing of Greek drama and rational philosophy in the fifth century, along with other genres of prose composition and the plastic arts. Extensive quotations from ancient authors, from tragedians to historians, illustrate the discussion throughout.

Eva von Dassow, Ph.D., Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, New York University, New York City . . .

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