The Mycenaean civilization flourished on mainland Greece from around 1600 BC. It was a warlike society and weapons and armour have been found in their graves. Mycenae, city of Agamemnon, was one of several heavily fortified strongholds. They are also known for being great traders as they sailed far and wide. They traded with Egypt, Asia Minor, Italy and Cyprus. The Mycenaeans were very wealthy and archaeologists have uncovered many objects in gold, silver and ivory from their towns. Their writing system called ‘Linear B’ was adapted from a Minoan script. Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaeans spoke Greek. Around 1250 BC the Mycenaeans started to build huge defensive walls around the major towns because they were under threat from foreign invaders. By 1200 BC the cities began to be abandoned or destroyed.
1100-700BC, after the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization, Greece was plunged into a Dark Age. The rich Mycenaean towns and palaces fell into decline or were destroyed, writing was no longer used and trade with other countries decreased dramatically. Although very little is known about this period it is thought the population of Greece became much smaller with people living in fewer and smaller settlements possibly due to famine and the depopulation.
The Archaic Period was a time of great change in Greece from 700 -480 BC. Many cities like Athens, Corinth, Argos and Sparta, grew rich and powerful. Great temples to the gods were built in many places around Greece. The cities developed new ways to govern themselves. Many cities were ruled by kings or rich families. Others were ruled by a small group of people called an oligarchy. At the end of the 6th century BC, Athens developed a system in which many of its citizens helped to make the rules and decisions. This type of government was called democracy. Sparta invaded the neighbouring land of Messenia and forced most of its inhabitants into slavery. To make sure they could control such a large number of slaves, Sparta became a military society. Men and women were expected to be fit and strong. The men were forbidden to have jobs or trade because they were full-time soldiers. Many of the Greek cities joined together when faced with a common enemy. At the beginning of the 5th Century BC Greece was invaded twice by the Persians and even thought the Greeks were outnumbered they were still able to drive the invaders away from their land.
From 323-31 BC, the Hellenistic Period was the time from the death of Alexander the Great to the beginning of the Roman Empire. The Greek world was now dominated by large kingdoms ruled by dynasties rather than individual city states. This was a time when Greek influence spread throughout a great deal of the world. The countries that Alexander had conquered adopted the Greek language, religion and styles of art often mixing them with local traditions. Greek towns with gymnasia, temples and theatres were built in all parts of the empire, even as far away as Afghanistan.
The word politics come from the Greek word ‘polis’, meaning city-state or community. Greece was a collection of some 1500 separate communities scattered round the Mediterranean. Those cities that were not democracies were either oligarchies – where power was in the hands of the few richest citizens- or monarchies, called ‘tyrannies’ in cases where the sole ruler had complete power by force rather than inheritance. Of the democracies, the oldest, the most stable, the most long-lived, but also the most radical, was Athens.
Athens was the first city to develop democracy. Democracy meaning that all the citizens had a say in how a state or city is governed. In Athens the people, who acquired power and freedom, drove out the tyrants. All decision is Athens had to be voted for by the majority of the people. The assembly was the main forum of political life. At least 6000 people had to be present for a meeting to take place. The assembly made important decisions, for example, whether or not to declare war. In times of war, decisions were made about the defence of the city by a group of ten military commanders called ‘strategoi’. These were elected annually and could be re-elected many times. However, not everyone in Athens was allowed to take part in the democracy. Only male citizens had the right to vote. This meant that women and children could not take part in the government.
An Ancient Greek soldier was known as a Hoplite. He had to provide his own weapons and armour. A hoplite’s weapons and armour were very simple and left large areas of the body unprotected, but worked well when he fought in a phalanx. The hoplite’s armour consisted of; a bronze helmet with long nose guard and cheek guards, bronze cuirass (breastplate) designed to protect the top part of the body, large shield to protect the body and bronze greaves (leg guards) to protect the lower part of the legs. A hoplite’s weapons were a long spear and short sword.
The ancient Greeks believed that there were a great number of god’s and goddesses. They believed that all the gods were descendants of Gaia (the earth) and Uranos (the sky). These gods had control over many different things on earth. In many ways the Greek gods were very human. They could be kind or mean, angry or pleasant, cruel or loving. They fell in love with each other, argued with each other, argued with each other and even stole from each other! The ancient Greeks built great temples and sanctuaries to their gods. They held festivals in their honour, with processions, sports, sacrifices and competitions. Religion played a large part in the lives of ordinary people. Worshippers believed that the gods would treat them well and meet their needs if they offered the fruits of the harvest and animal sacrifices. Stories of the god’s lives were told to children by their mothers and to large audiences by professional storytellers.
One key individual of Greece was Alexander the Great. The story of his life sounded more like that of a Greek hero. He was a great military leader and courageous. Many thought he was a descendant of Hercules and another legend claimed he was the son of Zeus. His loyal army would follow him anywhere and he won the respect of the people he conquered. He died aged 33 thousands of miles from home in Macedon with an enormous empire. Another individual was Homer. He was a storyteller and a poet who lived sometime in the 8th century BC. He was greatly admired and created two of the most popular and enduring stories ever told, The Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer’s stories about Mycenae are still told today and reflect real incidents of war, battles and sieges.
Drama and theatre were Greek inventions. They held great festivals where plays were performed. At the end of the festival they would choose one of the plays as the winner. The two main types of play performed were tragedy and comedy. Tragedies dealt with terrible events like war or murder. Often they recreated famous Greek myths and legends. A comedy poked fun at current events and people. Many thousands of people would attend these festivals which were dedicated to the god Dionysus.