The Greek Dark Ages, Classical Greece, and the Rise of Athens

The Greek Dark Ages

The Late Bronze Age collapse, or Age of Calamities, was a transition in the Aegean Region, Eastern Mediterranean, and Southwestern Asia that took place from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age. Historians believe this period was violent, sudden, and culturally disruptive. The palace economy of the Aegean Region that had characterized the Late Bronze Age, was replaced, after a hiatus, by the isolated village cultures of the Greek Dark Ages — a period that lasted for more than 400 years. Cities like Athens continued to be occupied, but with a more local sphere of influence, limited evidence of trade, and an impoverished culture, which took centuries to recover.

Many historians attribute the fall of the Mycenaeans, and overall Bronze Age collapse, to climatic or environmental catastrophe, combined with an invasion by the Dorians or Sea Peoples — a group of people who possibly originated from different parts of the Mediterranean like the Black Sea, though their origins remain obscure. Historians also point to the widespread availability of edged iron weapons as an exasperating factor. Despite this, no single explanation fits all available archaeological evidence in explaining the fall of the Mycenaean culture.

Many large-scale revolts took place in several parts of the eastern Mediterranean during this time, and attempts to overthrow existing kingdoms were made as a result of economic and political instability by peoples already plagued with famine and hardship. Some regions in Greece, such as Attica, Euboea, and central Crete, recovered economically quicker from these events than other regions, but life for the poorest Greeks would have remained relatively unchanged. Farming, weaving, metalworking, and potting continued at lower levels of output and for local use. Some technical innovations were introduced around 1050 BCE with the start of the Proto-geometric style. However, the overall trend was toward simpler, less intricate pieces with fewer resources being devoted to the creation of art.

None of the Mycenaean palaces of the Late Bronze Age survived, with the possible exception of the Cyclopean fortifications on the Acropolis of Athens. The archaeological record shows that destruction was heaviest at palaces and fortified sites. Up to 90% of small sites in the Peloponnese were abandoned, suggesting major depopulation. The Linear B writing of the Greek language used by Mycenaean bureaucrats ceased, and decorations on Greek pottery after about 1100 BCE lacks the figurative decoration of the Mycenaeans, and was restricted to simpler geometric styles. (45)

The Archaic Period

The Archaic period of Greek history lasted from the 8 th century BCE to the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. The period began with a massive increase in the Greek population and a structural revolution that established the Greek city-states, or polis . The Archaic period saw developments in Greek politics, economics, international relations, warfare, and culture. It also laid the groundwork for the classical period, both politically and culturally. During this time, the Greek alphabet developed, and the earliest surviving Greek literature was composed. Monumental sculpture and red-figure pottery also developed in Greece, and in Athens, the earliest institutions of democracy were implemented.

Some written accounts of life exist from this time period in the form of poetry, law codes, inscriptions on votive offerings, and epigrams inscribed on tombs. However, thorough written histories, such as those that exist from the Greek classical period, are lacking. Historians do have access to rich archaeological evidence from this period, however, that informs our understanding of Greek life during the Archaic period. (46)

Development of the Polis

The Archaic period saw significant urbanization and the development of the concept of the polis as it was used in classical Greece. However, the polis did not become the dominant form of sociopolitical organization throughout Greece during the Archaic period, and in the north and west of the country it did not become dominant until later in the classical period. The process of urbanization known as “synoecism” (or the amalgamation of several small settlements into a single urban center), took place in much of Greece during the 8 th century. Both Athens and Argos, for example, coalesced into single settlements near the end of that century. In some settlements, physical unification was marked by the construction of defensive city walls. The increase in population, and evolution of thepolis as a sociopolitical structure, necessitated a new form of political organization. (46)

Age of Tyranny

Archaic Greece from the mid-7 th century onward has been referred to as an “age of tyrants.” Various explanations have been provided for the rise of tyranny in the 7 th century. The most popular explanation dates back to Aristotle , who argued that tyrants were set up by the people in response to the nobility becoming less tolerable. Because there is no evidence from this time period demonstrating this to be the case, historians have looked for alternate explanations. Some argue that tyrannies were set up by individuals who controlled private armies, and that early tyrants did not need the support of the people at all. Others suggest that tyrannies were established as a consequence of in-fighting between rival oligarchs, rather than as a result of fighting between oligarchs and the people.

Other historians question the existence of a 7 th century “age of tyrants” altogether. In the Archaic period, the Greek word tyrannos did not have the negative connotations it had later in the classical period. Often the word could be used as synonymous with “king.” As a result, many historians argue that Greek tyrants were not considered illegitimate rulers, and cannot be distinguished from any other rulers during the same period. (46)

The Homeric Question

Image of manuscript of Homer's Iliad. The bottom half of the manuscript includes the Greek text of the Iliad. The top portion of the manuscript depicts the Trojan War.
Figure 4-6: manuscript of Homer’s Iliad by an unknown author from Wikimedia is licensed under Public Domain

The Homeric Question concerns the doubts and consequent debate over the identity of Homer, the author of theIliad and the Odyssey ; it also questions the historicity of the two books. Many scholars agree that regardless of who authored Homer’s works, it is highly likely that the poems attributed to him were part of a generations-old oral tradition, with many scholars believing the works to be transcribed sometime in the 6 th century BCE or earlier. Many estimates place the events of Homer’s Trojan War as preceding the Greek Dark Ages, of approximately 1250 to 750 BCE. The Iliad , however, has been placed immediately following the Greek Dark Age period. (46)

Archaic Greek Sculpture

The earliest large stone figures (kouroi — nude male youths and kore — clothed female figures) were rigid as in Egyptian monumental statues with the arms held straight at the sides, the feet are almost together and the eyes stare blankly ahead without any particular facial expression. These rather static figures slowly evolved though and with ever greater details added to hair and muscles, the figures began to come to life. Slowly, arms become slightly bent giving them muscular tension and one leg (usually the right) is placed slightly more forward, giving a sense of dynamic movement to the statue. Excellent examples of this style of figure are the kouroi of Argos, dedicated at Delphi (c. 580 BCE).

Around 480 BCE, the last kouroi become ever more life-like, the weight is carried on the left leg, the right hip is lower, the buttocks and shoulders more relaxed, the head is not quite so rigid, and there is a hint of a smile. Female kore followed a similar evolution, particularly in the sculpting of their clothes that were rendered in an ever-more realistic and complex way. A more natural proportion of the figure was also established where the head became 1:7 with the body, irrespective of the actual size of the statue. (47)

Picture of two nude male statues carved from sand stone. Like earlier Egyptian statues, these two figures are standing upright and face forward with arms to their side, and one foot positioned ahead of another.
Figure 4-7: Kouroi of Argos by Mark Cartwright is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Classical Greece

Classical Greece was a 200-year period in Greek culture lasting from the 5 th to the 4 th centuries BCE. This period saw the annexation of much of modern-day Greece by the Persian Empire, as well as its subsequent independence. Classical Greece also had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire, and greatly influenced the foundations of Western civilization. Much of modern Western politics, artistic and scientific thought, literature, and philosophy derives from this period of Greek history. The classical period was preceded by the Archaic period, and was succeeded by the Hellenistic period. (48)

Rise of the City-States

The term “city-state,” which is English in origin, does not fully translate the Greek term for these same entities, polis. Poleis were different from ancient city-states in that they were ruled by bodies of the citizens who lived there. Many were initially established, as in Sparta, via a network of villages, with a governance center being established in a central urban center. As notions of citizenship rose to prominence among landowners, polis came to embody an entire body of citizens and the term could be used to describe the populace of a place, rather than the physical location itself.

Polis were established and expanded by synoecism, or the absorption of nearby villages and tribes. Most cities were composed of several tribes that were in turn composed of groups sharing common ancestry, and their extended families. Territory was a less helpful means of thinking about the shape of a polis than regions of shared religious and political associations.

Dwellers of a polis were typically divided into four separate social classes, with an individual’s status usually being determined at birth. Free adult men born of legitimate citizens were considered citizens with full legal and political rights, including the right to vote, be elected into office, and bear arms, with the obligation to serve in the army during wartime. The female relatives and underage children of full citizens were also considered citizens, but they had no formal political rights. They were typically represented within society by their adult male relatives. Citizens of other poleis who chose to reside in a different polis possessed full rights in their place of origin, but had no political rights in their new place of residence. Otherwise, such citizens had full personal and property rights subject to taxation. Finally, slaves were considered possessions of their owner and had no rights or privileges other than those granted by their owner. (48)

Greco-Persian Wars

The Greco-Persian Wars, also referred to as the Persian Wars, were a series of conflicts that began in 499 BCE and lasted until 449 BCE, between the Achaemenid Empire of Persia (modern-day Iran) and Greek city-states. The conflict began when Cyrus the Great conquered the Greek-inhabited region of Ionia in 547 BCE. After struggling to control the cities of Ionia, the Persians appointed tyrants to rule each of them. When the tyrant of Miletus embarked on an unsuccessful expedition to conquer the island of Naxos with Persian support, however, a rebellion was incited throughout Hellenic Asia Minor against the Persians. This rebellion, known as the Ionian Revolt, lasted until 493 BCE, and drew increasingly more regions throughout Asia Minor into the conflict.

Eventually the Ionians suffered a decisive defeat and the rebellion collapsed. Subsequently, Darius the Great, the Persian ruler, sought to secure his empire from further revolts and interference from the mainland Greeks, and embarked upon a scheme to conquer all of Greece. The first Persian invasion of Greece began in 492 BCE, and was successful in conquering Macedon and re-subjugating Thrace. In 490 BCE, a second force was sent to Greece across the Aegean Sea, successfully subjugating the Cyclades. However, the Persians were defeated by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon, putting a halt to Darius’s plan until his death in 486 BCE.

In 480 BCE, Darius’s son, Xerxes, personally led the second Persian invasion of Greece with one of the largest ancient armies ever assembled. His invasion was successful and Athens was burned. However, the following year, the Allied Greek states went on the offensive, defeating the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea and ending the invasion of Greece. The Greeks continued to expel Persian forces from Greece and surrounding areas, but the actions of Spartan General Pausanias at the siege of Byzantium alienated many of the Greek states from the Spartans, causing the anti-Persian alliance to be reconstituted around Athenian leadership in what became known as the Delian League. The Delian League continued the campaign against the Persians for the next three decades. Some historical sources suggest the end of hostilities between the Greeks and the Persians was marked by a peace treaty between Athens and Persia, called the Peace of Callias. (48)

Athenian Democracy

Athenian democracy developed around the 5 th century BCE, in the Greek city-state of Athens. It is the first known democracy in the world. Other Greek cities set up democracies, most following the Athenian model, but none are as well documented as Athens. Athenian democracy was a system of direct democracy, in which participating citizens voted directly on legislation and executive bills. Participation was open to adult, land-owning men, which historians estimate numbered between 30,000 and 50,000 individuals, out of a total population of approximately 250,000 to 300,000.

Illustration of Solon
Figure 4-8: Illustration of Solon by Ernst Wallis et al is licensed under Public Domain

Before the first attempt at democratic government, Athens was ruled by a series of archons, or chief magistrates, and the Areopagus, which was made up of ex-archons. Archons were typically aristocrats who ruled to their own advantage. Additionally, a series of laws codified by Draco in 621 BCE reinforced the power of the aristocracy over all other citizens. A mediator called Solon reshaped the city-state by restructuring the way citizenship was defined in order to absorb the traditional aristocracy within it, and established the right of every Athenian to participate in meetings of governing assemblies. The Areopagus, however, retained ultimate lawmaking authorities.(48)


In 510 BCE, Spartan troops helped the Athenians overthrow their king, the tyrant Hippias, son of Peisistratos. Cleomenes I, king of Sparta, put in place a pro-Spartan oligarchy headed by Isagoras. But his rival, Cleisthenes, with the support of the middle class and aided by democrats, managed to take over. Cleomenes intervened in 508 and 506 BCE, but could not stop Cleisthenes, who was then supported by the Athenians. Through his reforms, the people endowed their city with institutions furnished with equal rights (i.e., isonomic institutions), and established ostracism, a procedure by which any citizen could be expelled from the city-state of Athens for ten years. (48)

Modern bust of Cleisthenes, known as 'the father of Athenian democracy,' on view at the Ohio Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio. Cleisthenes, the father of Greek democracy, reformed traditional Athenian government controlled by ruling tribes into the first government 'of the people' (a demos, or democracy).
Figure 4-9: Cleisthenes with permission by The Ohio Channel is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The isonomic and isegoric democracy was first organized into about 130 demes — political subdivisions created throughout Attica. Ten thousand citizens exercised their power via an assembly (the ekklesia, in Greek), of which they all were a part, that was headed by a council of 500 citizens chosen at random. The city’s administrative geography was reworked, the goal being to have mixed political groups — not federated by local interests linked to the sea, the city, or farming — whose decisions (declaration of war, etc.) would depend on their geographical situations. The territory of the city was subsequently divided into 30 trittyes. It was this corpus of reforms that would allow the emergence of a wider democracy in the 460s and 450s BCE. (48)

The Rise of Athens (508-448 BCE)

Persian soldier (left) and Greek hoplite (right) depicted fighting, on an ancient kylix, 5th century BC.
Figure 4-10: Greek-Persian duel by National Museums Scotland is licensed under Public Domain

In 514 BCE, the dictator Hippias established stability and prosperity with his rule of Athens, but remained very unpopular as a ruler. With the help of an army from Sparta in 511/510 BCE, he was overthrown by Cleisthenes, a radical politician of aristocratic background who established democracy in Athens.

Prior to the rise of Athens, Sparta, a city-state with a militaristic culture, considered itself the leader of the Greeks, and enforced a hegemony. In 499 BCE, Athens sent troops to aid the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor, who were rebelling against the Persian Empire during the Ionian Revolt. This provoked two Persian invasions of Greece, both of which were repelled under the leadership of the soldier-statesmen Miltiades and Themistocles, during the Persian Wars. In the decades that followed, the Athenians, with the help of the Spartans and other allied Greek city-states, managed to rout the Persians. These victories enabled Athens to bring most of the Aegean, and many other parts of Greece, together in the Delian League, creating an Athenian-dominated alliance from which Sparta and its allies withdrew. (49)


The 5 th century BCE was a period of Athenian political hegemony, economic growth, and cultural flourishing that is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Athens. The latter part of this time period is often called The Age of Pericles. After peace was made with Persia in the 5 th century BCE, what started as an alliance of independent city-states became an Athenian empire. Athens moved to abandon the pretense of parity among its allies, and relocated the Delian League treasury from Delos to Athens, where it funded the building of the Athenian Acropolis, put half its population on the public payroll, and maintained the dominant naval power in the Greek world.

With the empire’s funds, military dominance, and its political fortunes as guided by statesman and orator Pericles, Athens produced some of the most influential and enduring cultural artifacts of Western tradition, during what became known as the Golden Age of Athenian democracy, or the Age of Pericles. The playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all lived and worked in Athens during this time, as did historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the physician Hippocrates, and the philosopher Socrates.

Pericles was arguably the most prominent and influential Greek statesman, orator, and general of Athens during its Golden Age. One of his most popular reforms while in power was to allow thetes (Athenians without wealth) to occupy public office. Another success of his administration was the creation of the misthophoria, a special salary for the citizens that attended the courts as jurors. As Athens’ ruler, he helped the city to prosper with a resplendent culture and democratic institutions. (49)

The Parthenon

Diagram of the Parthenon illustrating the principal architectural features from the vantage of the façade on the left hand side and the cella (inner temple area) on the right hand side. Most notable here is that the columns outside of the temple stand lower than those inside though the base of the façade and the cella are the same. This gives the illusion that that the elevation of the temple's inner sanctum is greater than elevation outdoors.
Figure 4-11: Architectural Elements of the Parthenon by F. Banister is licensed under Public Domain

The temple was unprecedented in both the quantity and quality of architectural sculpture used to decorate it. No previous Greek temple was so richly decorated. The Parthenon had 92 metopes carved in high relief (each was on average 1.2 m x 1.25 m square with relief of 25 cm in depth), a frieze running around all four sides of the building, and both pediments filled with monumental sculpture.

The subjects of the sculpture reflected the turbulent times that Athens had and still faced. Defeating the Persians at Marathon in 490 BCE, at Salamis in 480 BCE, and at Plataea in 479 BCE, the Parthenon was symbolic of the superiority of Greek culture against ‘barbarian’ foreign forces. This conflict between order and chaos was symbolized in particular by the sculptures on the metopes running around the exterior of the temple, 32 along the long sides and 14 on each of the short. These depicted the Olympian gods fighting the giants (East metopes – the most important, as this was the side where the principal temple entrance was), Greeks, probably including Theseus, fighting Amazons (West metopes), the Fall of Troy (North metopes), and Greeks fighting Centaurs, possibly at the wedding of the king of the Lapiths Perithous (South metopes).

The most important sculpture of the Parthenon though was not outside but inside. There is evidence that the temple was built to measure in order to accommodate the chryselephantine statue of Athena by Pheidias. This was a gigantic statue over 12 m high and made of carved ivory for flesh parts and gold (1140 kilos or 44 talents of it) for everything else, all wrapped around a wooden core. The gold parts could also be easily removed if necessary in times of financial necessity. The statue stood on a pedestal measuring 4.09 by 8.04 metres. The statue has been lost (it may have been removed in the 5 th century CE and taken to Constantinople), but smaller Roman copies survive, and they show Athena standing majestic, fully armed, wearing an aegis with the head of Medusa prominent, holding Nike in her right hand and with a shield in her left hand depicting scenes from the Battles of the Amazons and the Giants. A large coiled snake resided behind the shield. On her helmet stood a sphinx and two griffins. In front of the statue was a large shallow basin of water, which not only added the humidity necessary for the preservation of the ivory, but also acted as a reflector of light coming through the doorway. The statue must have been nothing less than awe-inspiring and the richness of it — both artistically and literally — must have sent a very clear message of the wealth and power of the city that could produce such a tribute to their patron god. (50)

Picture of the statue of Athena found at Vanderbilt University. The colossal statue is a replica of the one that may have been at the Parthenon. Adorned almost entirely in golden garments, this statue stands forty-two feet in length, holds a golden statue of the god Nike in her right hand and a golden shield in the other.
Figure 4-12: Athena Parthenon by Mary Harrsch is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

5th Century Athenian Political Institutions

The administration of the Athenian state was managed by a group of people referred to as magistrates, who were submitted to rigorous public control and chosen by lot. Only two magistrates were directly elected by the Popular Assembly: strategos (or generals), and magistrates of finance. All magistrates served for a year or less, with the exception of Pericles, who was elected year after year to public office. At the end of their service, magistrates were required to give an account of their administration and use of public finances.

The most elite posts in the Athenian political system belonged to archons. In ages past, they served as heads of the Athenian state, but in the Age of Pericles they lost much of their influence and power, though they still presided over tribunals. The Assembly of the People was the first organ of democracy in Athens. In theory, it was composed of all the citizens of Athens. However, it is estimated that the maximum number of participants it witnessed was 6,000. The Assembly met in front of the Acropolis and decided on laws and decrees. Once the Assembly gave its decision in a certain matter, the issue was raised to the Council, or Boule, to provide definitive approval.

The Council consisted of 500 members, 50 from each tribe, and functioned as an extension of the Assembly. Council members were chosen by lot in a similar manner to magistrates and supervised the work of the magistrates in addition to other legal projects and administrative details. They also oversaw the city-state’s external affairs. (49)