History of the Ancient and Medieval World - Vol. 5

History of the Ancient and Medieval World - Vol. 5

History of the Ancient and Medieval World - Vol. 5

History of the Ancient and Medieval World - Vol. 5


The political organization of Greece comprising autonomous city-states served more to foster rivalries than lasting alliances as Greek civilization reached its zenith in the Classical period (fifth century BC). After defeating the common enemy, Persia, the two most powerful city-states, Sparta and Athens, engaged in the bitter Peloponnesian War, while Athens under the leadership of Pericles simultaneously reached great heights culturally.

With the defeat of Athens followed by continued skirmishes among the city-states, a new power was on the rise in the north in Macedonia. By the end of the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great ruled Greece and marched a huge army into the Near East, conquering the expanse of the Persian Empire and beyond and making it his own.

For two centuries (third and second centuries BC) Alexander’s successors (the diadochs) ruled this empire causing an intermixing of Greek culture with that of the varied indigenous Near Eastern peoples. Advances in scholarship in the arts and sciences including literature, philosophy, mathematics, and medicine continued in this period and an important learning center was established at Alexandria in Egypt.

While the Greek city-states were developing and colonies were set up in southern Italy in the eighth century BC, most of the Italian Peninsula was inhabited by various tribes including the Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans. The legendary founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus in 753 BC begins the long history of the powerful city and its growth into a citystate and imperial military power.

The development of the government of the Roman Republic is well documented in numerous sources written in Latin which also give a vivid picture of the personalities involved. A class structure of privileged patricians and peasant plebeians formed the basis of the system which had a senate, an assembly, and at first a king who was replaced by consuls. The army was also strictly organized, often having power of its own. Class struggles led to the establishment of written laws designed to protect the rights and property of all men (except slaves).

Tribal rivalries in the Italian Peninsula contributed to the rise of Rome and by the third century BC it had controlled most of the peninsula and turned to deal with the other great Mediterranean power, Carthage, based in North Africa. Long campaigns were waged (the Punic Wars) during much of the third century BC. By 201, Rome had conquered Carthage and its subjects including Sicily and Spain, thus ruling the west.

Warfare continued in the east (Greece, Asia Minor, Syria) and such prolonged campaigns and conquests led to changes and corruption in Roman society. A long line of public officials during the third and second centuries BC attempted to redress the ills by pressing for reforms—a movement which would continue. The second century brought yet more war abroad (Macedonia, Carthage again, Spain, northern German tribes) as well as at home in the first century (the Social War in Italy). All the while, the Roman republican system was tested and threatened by corruption in the senate and the dictatorship of Sulla (82 BC) who continued to favor the aristocracy. It would take a special personality to effect real and lasting change in govenment.

Suzanne Heim, Ph.D., Ancient Near East and Classical Art and Archaeology

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.