Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Greek City-States for Kids

The Greek City-States
In the area in and around the Aegean Sea, an Indo-European speaking people, known as the Greeks, established themselves in small city-states sometime after 2000 B.C. The Greeks eventually created a brilliant civilization that became one of the foundations of modern Western civilization.

Early Greeks and the rise of city-states. Even before the Greeks appeared in the Aegean, an earlier people had established a powerful civilization on the island of Crete. The Greeks remembered this earlier civilization in their myths. Around A.D. 1900, archaeologists began to unearth evidence that proved the stories had a basis in fact. They named the people the Minoan civilization, after the fabled King Minos of Greek myths. Scholars believe that the civilization was already well established by 2000 B.C.

The Minoans were great seafarers and traders. They built magnificent palaces and homes for nobles decorated with beautiful frescoes and complete with running water. Sometime around 1500 B.C., however, a volcanic eruption on a nearby island sent great tidal waves crashing across Crete, causing enormous destruction. Although the Minoans rebuilt after the disaster, their civilization never fully recovered. Their last great palace at Knossos was destroyed around 1400 B.C., probably by Greek-speaking Indo- Europeans known as Mycenaeans, who had migrated to Greece after 2000 B.C.

The Mycenaeans built fortified cities in the southern part of Greece. By about 1200 B.C., however, most of their cities had been destroyed and a more primitive Greek people, the Dorians, had moved into the peninsula. Eventually, all these Greek-speaking peoples, influenced by the geography of the terrain and their own tribal organization, established city-states in the 800s and 700s B.C.

The Greek word for city-state is polis. All Greek city-states shared certain features. They tended to be small in area as well as in population though the two most important city-states, Athens and Sparta, were exceptions to this rule. Most city-states were organized around hilltops, known as an acropolis, where temples and other public buildings were located alongside a fort that could provide protection. In addition, each city-state had a market place, which could also be used as a public meeting place, as well as surrounding lands for agriculture and herding.

Greek government and society. According to tradition, the poet Homer gathered and wove together an earlier oral tradition into the two greatest Greek epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad told of the Trojan War, between the Mycenaeans and their Greek allies, and the city of Troy in Asia Minor. The Odyssey was the story of the homeward voyage of one of the Greek princes, Odysseus. Scholars often refer to the era of these epics as the Homeric Age. Through these poems we are able to get a glimpse of what early Greek society was like. The early city-states were tribal kingdoms that constantly waged war on each other.

During the Homeric Age, the Greeks developed religious ideas that focused on explaining the natural world and human actions rather than on moral issues and life after death. Their gods had many human characteristics. Believing that the gods delighted in displays of strength and courage, the Greeks held athletic contests in their honor the most famous of these were the games at Olympia, held every four years in honor of Zeus, the king of the gods.

Over time, the early kingships gave way to rule by the chief landowners, or aristocrats. The power of these nobles was in part due to the fact that they were the only ones who could afford the weapons and armor of warfare. But by 600 B.C., wealthy nonaristocrats could afford some weaponry of their own. A new class of nonaristocratic foot soldiers, known as hoplites, emerged. As the hoplites took on a larger and larger role in defending the city- states, the nonaristocrats began to demand more say in the government.

Some leaders took advantage of popular discontent to establish themselves as tyrants. The tyrants seized power unlawfully, but they ruled with the people’s support. Over time, however, they became harsh and unjust, and the word tyrant took on its present meaning of a ruler who exercises absolute power brutally and oppressively. Eventually, many city-states ousted their tyrants and adopted the idea that people could and should mle themselves. This led to the form of government called democracy a government in which all people take part.

Sparta and Athens. The differences that existed among the Greek city-states is perhaps best illustrated by Sparta and Athens. Spartan society developed primarily out of the need for security. The Dorian invaders who established Sparta had conquered and enslaved the surrounding peoples. Eventually, three social groups emerged in Sparta. The first group, known as the equals, was composed of all adult male descendants of the original Dorian invaders who had established Sparta. All land in the state was divided equally among these citizens and their families. Along with each allotment of land went state slaves, called helots, to work it. The second group was made up of so-called half-citizens, free men who paid taxes and might even serve in the army, but who had no political power. The third group consisted of the helots.

The helots greatly outnumbered the Spartans who lived in constant fear of a helot revolt. Consequently, the Spartans developed a rigid military social structure to guard against such a revolt. All Spartan males were trained from birth to be soldiers and Spartan females were raised to he wives and mothers of soldiers. The strict discipline of Sparta did lead to efficient government and an almost unconquerable army, but the Spartans paid a heavy price for this military might by sacrificing individual freedoms for the state. Furthermore, they produced little in the way of art, science, literature, or philosophy.

Athens on the other hand developed very differently. In Athens, as elsewhere in Greece, social standing and political power were closely linked. At the top stood the citizens consisting of all adult males born in the polis. Athenian women were also citizens but could not vote and were legally considered minors. People born outside Athens were noncitizens. Called metics, they worked as merchants or artisans, but could not own land or take part in politics. At the bottom of society stood the slaves who comprised more than half the population during Athens’s greatest period.

Initially a monarchy, Athens made the transition to an aristocratic form of government early on. By the late 600s, however, social discontent among non-aristocratic citizens led to reforms and the creation of Athens’s first written law code. About 594 B.C. the aristocratic leader Solon instituted further reforms, cancelling debts and outlawing the practice of enslaving people for debt. Still, unrest continued and around 546 B.C. a wealthy aristocrat named Peisistratus seized power as a tyrant. Finally, around 508 B.C., Cleisthenes overthrew the tyrannical government and established a direct democracy in Athens, in which all citizens played an equal role in making decisions for the state.

The Expansion of Greece. During the aristocratic period in Greek development, many cities sent out colonists to settle throughout the eastern and central Mediterranean world, even as far as the shores of the Black Sea. Both the Greek city-states and these colonies developed for a long time without interference from the empires of Southwest Asia. In 546 B.C., however, the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, conquered Lydia in Asia Minor and acquired the Greek city-states along the western coast of the Aegean Sea. After a series of revolts among these Greek cities, aided by Athens, both Darius I and his son Xerxes I sent huge armies to conquer mainland Greece. In 479 B.C., however, the Athenians and Spartans combined to defeat the Persians at the battle of Plataea.

After these Persian Wars, Athens used diplomacy to create the Delian League, an alliance with some 140 city-states. By the 450s B.C., however, the Delian League had become little more than an Athenian empire. Ironically, even as the League was being turned into an empire, under the Athenian leader Pericles, democracy was reaching its height in Athens. Pericles hoped to unite all Greece under Athenian leadership. Other city-states increasingly resented Athens’s domination, and in 431 B.C. the devastating reloponnesian War broke out, with Sparta leading a coalition of states against Athens. After almost a generation of warfare, Athens finally had to surrender to Sparta in 404 B.C.


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