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The Development Of Ancient Greek Cities

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The Greek polis became an effective way to establish political order between various city states without the implementation of a strong, centralized government. Initially used for protection in times of war, the earliest types of polis’s consisted of citadels and other fortified structures. However, over time, the function of the initial polis began to change; these locations became the site of urban growth, and led to the development of many powerful Greek city-states.

According to the “Iliad,” a famous work of the Greek poet Homer, many settlements within the Greek peninsula were subject to constant political and social instability because of constant warfare, such as that of the Trojan War. Because of ongoing political unrest, Greek poleis began to thrive. Though trade did occur between each of the Greek city-states, the poleis functioned separately from one another through differing forms of government. Athens, for example, functioned as a democracy, while Sparta’s form of government resembled an oligarchy. These two city-states, or poleis, rose to power and became important to the development of Greek innovation and culture. Gymnasia was one such innovation that became a very common feature in Greek cities; the gymnasia at Athens was not only used for sports, such as javelin and archery, but as an area for men to congregate daily and form relationships with one another. Like the gymnasia, the agora was used as a place of assembly to attract merchants, craftsmen, and retail traders. Though the agora primarily functioned as a central marketplace of its respective city-state, it was also the site to discuss politics among peers and arrange meeting with friends and acquaintances. The rise of power in multiple Greek poleis led to a multiple developments, such as organized forms of government and the creation of the gymnasia and agora.

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A key aspect of the Athenian city-state was their form of government, as they functioned as a democracy. Solon was the first Greek ruler to abolish hereditary rule in Athens, and created the assembly to reflect the interests of the common man. The assembly served as Athens’ main democratic body, with the men holding meetings at a minimum of once a month. The issues they discussed, such as organizing food supplies, military strategies, and the signing of treaties were all decided by a simple majority vote, and all free Athenian men could participate and vote in the assembly. When Solon left office, many of the programs he implemented faded as well, until Cleisthenes came to power and once again abolished the aristocratic hereditary rule. He reorganized Athens by creating a form of citizenship, registering each Athenian according to their geographical residence, or deme. Cleisthenes also reorganized Attica, creating ten electoral districts that led to the establishment of new political allegiances. Another reform initiated by Cleisthenes was the Council of Five Hundred, which carried out the decisions of the assembly. Members of this council were selected from each deme by a lottery, and enforced an Athenian political identity based off of geographical residence, not other variables such as class and wealth. With a new civic identity established, new residents were welcomed into the city regardless of their ethnic origin or eligibility of citizenship. The Athenians did not base their legal system on gods or by the rule of a powerful emperor, but on active participation of legislation by the people; the power of the Athenian government rested in the hands of the people.

Following the destruction of the Persians during the war years, the Athenians began to rebuild their city, leading to a growth of artistic and philosophical creativity that brought forth the Athenian Golden Age. The structure of the rebuilt architecture reveals social stratification among the Athenians, with the housing of the commoners being built from local materials like stone and mud, and the public centers of the agora having a more elegant structure. The agora served as a center for trade regarding a variety of goods, ideas, and decision-making. Further up the hill from the commoners and alongside the agora was the gymnasia, used for exercise and competition, and the amphitheater, which was utilized for the production of plays. At the top of the Athenian social stratification was the Acropolis, which held the chief temples of the city, the shrine of Athena, and the Parthenon. The Parthenon is a representation of the Doric Order, one of the three Classical Greek Architectural Orders. Sculpted by Phidias, and designed by Ictinus and Callicrates, the Parthenon represents multiple architectural innovations; the curvature of the structure’s base and the diminished diameter of the columns toward the top accompany a statue resembling the birth of Athena, further adorned with bronze accessories. Two noteworthy historians of Athens, Herodotus and Thucydides, provide insight of the history of Athens and the city’s relationships with its neighbors. In Herodotus’ “The Persian Wars,” the general histories of the Mediterranean, Persian, and Indian regions are provided by a narrative in the Greek perspective. In “History of the Peloponnesian War,” written by Thucydides, the nearly 30 year war between Athens and Sparta is documented. This documentation of history provided by Greek historians provides insight to the events happening in this specific time frame, as well as the viewpoint the Greeks had on these matters.

Philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle addressed a variety of subjects, ranging from questions regarding the purpose of life, to the investigation of physics, astronomy, and natural sciences. Socrates believed in the supremacy of the city-state over the individual, and saw no authority of the people to claim power from the state. He heavily disapproved of sophist philosophers, who gained profit from training statesmen to argue both sides of a question; instead, Socrates taught his student to think critically, utilizing a type of discussion called the Socratic Method. In this method, also known as maieutics, hypotheses are scrutinized, and general truths are tested alongside other beliefs to determine their consistency. Socrates’ student, Plato, was the founder of the Academy, Athens’ most well-known school of philosophy. Plato was involved in idealism, and believed good character and intensive training were the factors that contributed to his idea of an ideal ruler, a philosopher-king; he believed that much of the state’s power should be held by one ruler, opposing the democratic government present in Athens. Plato’s student, Aristotle, addressed philosophy alongside the natural sciences, such as physics, astronomy, and metaphysics. Despite this wide range of subjects, his most notable literary work, “Politics,” was related to the ethics and politics of the constitutional government; he also developed the scientific method, a reliable way to observe and experiment principles of the physical world. Ultimately, the works of Athenian philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle played a major role in the development of Western philosophical thought. In Athens, playwrights such as Aeschylus and Sophocles created dramas that reflected various aspects of the city, such as institutions, morals, and laws. In Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” the moral corruption of the king, Oedipus, brings about a plague that negatively affects his people. This work builds upon the ideas of Greek philosophers, specifically Plato, who believed that a king should have an innate good character; the lack of this trait would lead to a less than ideal city, developing into the corruption demonstrated by Oedipus. In “Antigone,” another work of Sophocles, the heroine Antigone decides to bury her brother, Polynices, in spite of a royal law to leave the corpses of enemies of the state unattended. This play is a clear reflection on the laws implemented in Athens at the time, suggesting that Athenian citizens should show loyalty to the city above any other bond, including familial ones. Another Athenian playwright, Aeschylus, created the “Oresteia” trilogy. In this trilogy, Athena ends a cycle of royal murder by acquitting Orestes. This suggests that in Athenian faith, it was believed that gods and goddesses had the divine power to enforce human justice among their people. Overall, Athenian dramas offered insight to the laws and values present during the time.

In the Athenian city-state, citizens were required to offer service and respect to the government, but were not granted with many rights in return. Citizenship was only offered to those born of native Athenian mothers and father; slaves were not eligible for citizenship, and neither were allies. This strict code of the Athenian democracy led to future tensions between allies, escalating into the Peloponnesian War. The Athenian society was very misogynistic, with women being unable to attend meetings of the assembly, participate in public office, become part of a jury, initiate legal cases, or own their own property. The segregation of women in Athens persisted due to an attitude that preferred women to be relegated to the private sphere, and not participate in activities traditional to that of a man. Plato, however, opposed this view in his work titled “Republic.” He believed that while men were naturally more talented than women, the education needed to function in major civic and professional roles should be provided to both genders. He advocated for equal political opportunity, promoting each citizen to reach their fullest potential. Aristotle agreed with Plato that women were less talented than men, and followed the traditional belief that a man’s role is to command, and a women’s role to obey. The anti-equality sentiment most Athenians had towards women was largely enforced due to the fact that Athens was very family oriented, with women preparing meals, weaving, and completing housework for the men of the household, who typically worked in fields or pursued higher education.

The Macedonian king, Philip, aimed to unify Greece by liberating states in Asia Minor from the Persians. Realizing that a powerful army could help him attain his goals, he constructed phalanxes, which consisted of cavalry soldiers armed with 15 foot spears. Because of this method of warfare, Philip was able to conquer and establish new towns ranging from the Aegean coast to the Black Sea. He was succeeded by his son, Alexander the Great, who continued his father’s conquest. Like his father, Cyrus II, and Darius I, cities conquered by Alexander still maintained local religions, hierarchies, and tax rates; he was a powerful but benevolent ruler. The expansion that led to the most cultured city of the Mediterranean, Alexandria, was accomplished by Alexander driving out Persian forces on the Mediterranean; from there, he eventually conquered Egypt, and laid the foundation of Alexandria on a portion of the Nile delta. Since the Persians did not show much respect for ancient Egyptian traditions, Alexander’s rule was welcomed in Egypt; he was anointed as “son of the gods” by a high priest, and became a Pharaoh in Memphis. With his sights later set on conquering the Persian Empire, Alexander faced Darius III in 331 B.C.E. at Gaugamela; Alexander subsequently destroyed Darius’ capital, Persepolis, and gained control of Babylon, Pasargadae, and Susa. Exerting control over the once powerful Persian Empire, Alexander captured the Indus River Valley and regions near the Oxus River. Alexander eventually perished because of a fever, with his decline accelerated by the hardships of war and heavy drinking.

The Hellenistic era took place from 323 B.C.E., the time of Alexander the Great’s death, and ended in 30 B.C.E, the death of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.


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