Ancient Greece

Temple of Zeus

Remnants of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, Greece

blue bar

And so I am looking through my notes to decide what to write here about the Greeks, and I've discovered that I have eleven folders with information on different aspects of Ancient Greece. I'll list the topics here, just for the fun of it:

  • Early Greece
  • Greek Olympics
  • Greek Civilization
  • Alexander
  • Antigone (not sure why I have this one)
  • Athens
  • Aristotle
  • Pericles (Obviously, I have a lot of information about Pericles as we have a important assignment that centers on the Pericles Funeral Oration in our online courses.)
  • Pythagoras
  • Socrates
  • Themistocles
  • PS. As I was refiling the folders, I found the missing folder on Plato. That makes 12!
Folders of lecture notes

The Ancient Greeks contributed much to the development of Western culture in so many different areas: alphabet, drama, comedy, poetry, politics, democracy, medicine, architecture, science, sculpture and philosophy. Much of the Greek experience remains deeply embedded in the Western world today; and not just as letters to distinguish one fraternity or sorority from another. The Greek use of rational thought, and not supernatural explanation, to understand the natural world formed the basis of Western philosophy and science. The Greek appreciation of the value and beauty of the individual was crucial to the ensuing artistic and aesthetic history of the West. The Greeks also developed the idea and practice of "democracy," an idea and practice so radical in the ancient world and much different than the current understanding and use of the concept. (You could argue that the contemporary understanding of democracy is still not all that clear.)

Whereas the Hebrews provided an ethical religion for the West (in the form of Judaism and the idea of ethical monotheism), the Ancient Greeks provided an ethical philosophy. Both focused on the role of the individual (and not community responsibility for events), and both would complement each other (ethical irrationalism in the form of religion and ethical rationalism in the form of philosophy) when merged later in Christianity. I'll repeat that in my comments on Christianity.

The Greek city states--it is important to remember that there was never any unified kingdom or state of Greece even under Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE--let's get back to my point about the Greek city states. They were all individual polities, and all engaged in colonization. Colonial expansion first began relatively early in the eighth century. Already by the 600s BCE, Greeks had established overseas settlements/colonies throughout the Mediterranean and Black Seas (Marseilles, Syracuse, Odessa, etc.). Some historians have theorized that the colonialism was a response to overpopulation, but in any case by the fifth century (400s BCE) there were Greek settlements scattered all along the Mediterranean and Black Sea shorelines. Many of these later came under the imperial control of Athens, but these settlements ensured that Greek language and culture spread widely and influenced local societies wherever there was cultural and economic contact.

Here's a quick timeline of Ancient Greece. (all dates BCE)

  • The Greek Dark Ages, 1100-800; we know little specifically about this time period, but consider that it was approximately three hundred years, longer than the existence of the United States.
  • The Archaic period, 800-500; this time is largely associated with the epics (Iliad and Odyssey) of Homer and Hesiod's Theogony (Genealogy of the gods) which crystallized much of the image of Greek heroic excellence. At this time Greek mythology and the Olympian religion also stabilized. The Olympics, by tradition, started in 776 BCE. (This is often considered the starting point of classical Greece.)
  • Athens and Sparta and the Classical Age of the fifth century; at this time occurred the great war with Persia, 490-80, and then wars between Athens and Sparta culminating in the 2nd Peloponnesian War of 431-404. Note that by this time we began to have actual, recorded history by Thucydides (460?-400?), the father of history with his History of the Peloponnesian War. It is important to note that in his history, the gods played no role!
  • The Hellenistic Period, roughly 336 (accession of Alexander the Great to the throne) to 146 BCE (beginning of Roman domination of Greece)

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic World

The emergence of Macedon, to the north of the Greek Peninsula, culminated in the reign of Philip II, king of Macedon, 359-336 (assassinated). He used his professional army to defeat the individual Greek city-states and create the League of Corinth under his complete control.

Alexander 3 of Macedon, aka the Great, born 356, became king 336, died 323 (possible poisoned), the great warrior who created an empire extending eastward to India and including Syria, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, present-day Pakistan. This was the largest empire up to that time (before Rome).

As Alexander spread Greek civilization eastward, it is often said that he kind of orientalized it in the process, i.e., he merged Greek, Persian and other cultures to create a cosmopolitan empire in which science, philosophy, art all flourished. That's why it is called the Hellenistic world; it was no longer solely a Greek (Hellenic) empire; it was Hellenistic, a merged Greek empire.


We often associate the ancient Greeks with philosophy. Feel free to investigate all of these different philosophic schools as they are all part of the philosophical heritage of the world today. These are just some quick notes.

Classical Greek Philosophy

  • Protagoras, 490?-420?, was a leading sophist; man is the measure of all things; everything is relative to man; relativism
  • Socrates, 470?-399, debated the sophists; we only know of him through Plato's dialogues, asked questions to get to the root of ethics and morality
  • Plato, 429?-347?, authored numerous dialogues and also The Republic, which we used to read in HIS 101; The "allegory of the cave" is part of The Republic and a good description of his idea of forms--a higher realm of ideal forms existed and the real world is an imperfect copy of those forms, the shadows on the cave wall. Plato was no believer in democracy and believed that power should be wielded by a class of guardians.
  • Aristotle, 384-322, had studied at Plato's Academy; wrote quite a bit ad relied on observation and empirical study. In contrast to Plato, he asserted that form and matter are of equal importance and that there are no ideal forms out there somewhere. He was a scientist! Also, in contrast to Plato, he advocated neither a monarchy nor a democracy but a polity, a commonwealth of the middle class.

Hellenistic Philosophy

  • Cynics like Diogenes, 412?-323, who lived in a tub/jar and went about with a lantern always looking for an honest man, which I don't think that he was ever satisfied in finding
  • Skeptics like Pyrrho, 360?-270?, denied that truth could be learned by man; ataraxia, freedom from disturbance or worry
  • Epicureans like Epicurus, 341-270, pleasure was the only good, the only goal is to live simply to know pleasure and not fear death
  • Stoics like Zeno, 333-264, goal of life is not pleasure but preservation of the being and doing one's duty faithfully; the universe is governed by a Divine reason, and no one is a master of his fate; but live a good life.

Some recommended online lectures and websites:


This page is copyright © 2008-20, C.T. Evans
For information contact