Skip to Content

Category Archives: History

[post_grid id="10050"]

Greece Versus Rome: Polybius Decides

by March 3, 2021

By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
It is the eternal question for all classics enthusiasts: brawn versus brains, power versus beauty, empire versus empiricism – Rome versus Greece.
Which team do you support?
Picture of Athens

Which is better? Greece or Rome? Illustration of Ancient Athens

Of course the equation is far, far more complex than that. Indeed, most of the choices listed above are somewhere on the spectrum between ridiculously oversimplified or downright wrong; too false to even make a false dichotomy.
From our remote distance of time and space we may feel unable to adequately, or at least authoritatively, answer this question. However, there was one man uniquely placed to give his opinion on the subject – Polybius.
The Greek Roman Historian
Polybius was a Greek historian who had been taken hostage by the Romans in the 160’s BC. From that time on he became an important and prominent member of Roman society and embraced the country and culture that had rent him from his homeland.
Steele of Polybius

The stele of Kleitor depicting Polybius, Hellenistic art, 2nd century BC, Museum of Roman Civilization

Thus, Polybius gives us an intelligent outsider’s view of a budding young empire, one that was already making huge waves in the Mediterranean two centuries before the age of the Caesars.
But how did these waves occur? What tiny ripples set them in motion?
Well, Book VI of Polybius’ The Rise of the Roman Empire is devoted to explaining exactly how Rome became the world beater it was. Not through events (that is tackled elsewhere in his work), but through organization.
According to our historian, the only way for people to prosper in the ancient world was if they had a strong constitution… and Polybius idealized the Roman constitution.
The Robust Roman Constitution
Reconstruction of Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome, built on a strong constitution? Reconstruction of Ancient Rome

He thought it was optimal because it combined the three theoretically sound, but easily corruptible, systems of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Together these became more than the sum of their parts and acted as checks and balances against one another, thus making sure no one body became predominant.
Moreover, each system, Polybius states, inevitably decays and devolves down the social ladder before completing a full cycle (i.e. monarchy becomes aristocracy which becomes democracy which becomes monarchy…). This governmental anacyclosis, or perpetual revolution, according to Polybius, is what made his countrymen inferior to his captors.
So what manifestation did these political pillars take?
Well, first let’s look at the aristocracy – the privileged, out-of-touch members of society who controlled all the wealth of the empire and were nigh on impossible to remove from power.
Yes, of course we’re talking about the heartbeat of Roman politics… the Senate!

Cicero Denounces Catiline in the Roman Senate (1888), by Cesare Maccari

While Polybius propounds the virtue of a balanced system of government, nothing could have been further from the truth, because, in reality, the Senate held all the cards and, by and large, did whatever it wanted to do.
This included the monarchical arm of government, the Consuls, which were appointed by the Senate. Two men were chosen together on one-year terms to be the commanders-in-chief, as well as be responsible for the purse strings of the state. And strictly speaking, one was not eligible for the position of Consul unless he had completed the cursus honorum (path of honor), meaning he had already held every significant office of government.
Meanwhile, the democratic element of Rome’s constitution was the most flimsy and theoretical of the three. Polybius claimed that nothing could be done without first being ratified by the plebeian classes, but in actuality, this was but a tiny obstacle for the Senate to circumvent (or sometimes completely ignore).
Roman Consuls

Roman Drawing – Two Roman Consuls On Their Thrones by Mary Evans Picture Library

Thus, despite technically being a balanced, democratic government with a qualified and responsible head of state, Rome was de facto ruled by a self-interested and pernicious elite.
Such a thing is, of course, unimaginable to us now!
AntiFragile Constitution?
Polybius didn’t merely believe Rome’s constitution to be strong, but felt it was one able to withstand any disaster, one perfectly devised, and therefore eternally fit, for purpose.
And perhaps the Roman constitution was ideal in Polybius’ day. Certainly there was sound reasoning behind his argument; he was no blind acolyte. Rome supremely dominated his known world and it must have been previously unimaginable that Greece/Macedon could ever be knocked off its lofty perch.
After all, the tripartite constitution was borne out of the ashes of the fallible and inferior systems of the old world; Rome had learned the mistakes of its decaying predecessors. And with this knowledge it was ready to be the caput canis for evermore.
However, Polybius could not have predicted Rome’s meteoric rise, its expansion in all directions, its resources and responsibilities, its supreme and unrivaled status.
Statue of Polybius

Statue of Polybius, Vienna Parlimanet Austria.

Had he done so, then he may not have been so dogmatic in his assertion that the state’s current constitution determines its future strength; he may have conceded that, as nations evolve, so must the manner in which they are governed.
With the blessing of hindsight this is easy enough to say. Thankfully with such well-documented events readily available to anyone with the remotest curiosity in constitutional history, we can sleep safely in the knowledge that the present political arbiters will not commit the same folly of the Romans and needlessly shipwreck the state!
‘New’ World Allure
It’s easy to understand why Polybius wrote the way he did.
As an alien from the old world, the splendor and riches of a foreign country so much mightier than his homeland must have dazzled him.
Interior of the Pantheon

Rome’s Glory: The interior of the Pantheon in Rome, a concrete mausoleum with a beautiful dome and rows of columns.

And so, he simultaneously excused Greek inadequacies and explained his host’s dominance by the system of government the Romans employed.
It was the constitution that made Rome successful, he argued, and not fallible individuals, a disparity of natural resources or a more clement climate. And it certainly wasn’t the two most consistently important factors that have benefited states throughout all of history… timing and luck.
Rome Versus Greece
Book VI of Polybius’ history doesn’t merely talk about Rome’s superiority in governmental structure; the Greek armies also come in for plenty of criticism.
Polybius states that they were obsessed with using natural terrain, rather than discipline and tactics, as the default method of triumphing in battle. The reason being the Greeks were simply too lazy to build trenches or camps.
He also claims Greek bureaucrats were untrustworthy and corrupt when compared to their Roman counterparts.
Not that he puts this down to a weakness in the blood, but because Greeks (unlike Romans) were not sufficiently god-fearing.
He goes on to state that religion (literally ‘superstition’) stops the lower classes from behaving in a decadent and lawless manner. Despite his support for all things godly, he also believes that religion would not be necessary if all men were wise!
Ancient Greek Funeral Painting

The lying in state of a body (prothesis) attended by family members, with the women ritually tearing their hair, depicted on a terracotta pinax by the Gela Painter, latter 6th century BC

Concurrent and parallel with the religious theme is one of ancestral devotion and public funerary rites, which was a great honor for a citizen.
During the ceremony a notable member of society read out the achievements of the deceased’s ancestors. This made diligent service to Rome not only a thing of civic and personal pride, but through these public funerals, a source of family pride as well.
For all these reasons, Polybius believed the Romans had achieved superior feats to the Greeks.

What Newly-Found 2,000-Year-Old Celtic Coins Tell Us About Boudica

by January 27, 2021

Written by Tom G. Hamilton, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
As of this writing, news of the largest hoard of early Roman-era Celtic gold coins ever found— unearthed by a bird-watcher in Britain—are making headlines. The coins are reported to be Boudica-era gold “stater” Iceni coins. There is an understandable excitement all across the land, the front-page news making a change from the pandemic. 
There is one symbol on the coins which pertains to Boudica’s story—and even points to her origin, which was not the British Isles.
That symbol—a horse—can help us discover who Boudica really was.
In ancient times, the Western Atlantic was well-established as home to the ancient Celtic peoples. This Atlantic cultural reality divided it from what is now “middle” Europe. The Celtic-from-the-West idea (John Koch/Barry Cunliffe) points us to the Iberian peninsula in the search for ancient Celtic roots. DNA study supports this. There was frequent movement and migration from Iberia to Britain, not just Celtic but also Phoenician. The Phoenicians, who had flourished in the Iberian peninsula since 1000BC, mined in Britain. They were a sea-faring people. They were cod-fishing in British waters before there was any Brexit to complicate fishing rights.
There were no nations, no frontiers, and no governments, just ancient Celtic tribal confederations who lived in lands bordered by rivers and mountain ranges, and within these confederations there were simple tribes or clans who lived for the most part in hillforts. It was one, homogenous, Western Atlantic homeland. Iberia was part of this reality.

Argemela – location of prominent ancient Celtic hillfort and one of the Boudica stones.

The Vettones were one such tribal confederation, living in the Iberian meseta between the Tagus (now Tejo) and Douro rivers.
The Vettones were known for being artistic and musical, but above all for being among the fiercest warrior tribes of Iberia. Also, the women fought alongside the men. West of their lands, spreading towards the Atlantic, lived the Lusitani. 
Valiant Lusitani warriors such as Viriathu led the resistance against Roman occupation thanks to an alliance with their neighbors, the Vettons. It took the Romans 200 years to subdue this westerly, mountainous and hostile terrain.
Finally, tired of endless losses and exhausted by the guerilla-type warfare of the Lusitanian-Vetton alliance (also the embarrassing sight of their captured banners flying on the hilltops), the Romans became more aggressive.
In the end, it was only by trickery and deceit—and atrocities—that they subdued the western Iberian tribes, producing euphoria in the Roman senate in 150 BC. It was believed that at long last, they had finally conquered the Vettones.
This was the pre-history to the Roman invasion of Britain, without which we cannot properly understand it. Iberia provided Rome with everything. There were fertile lands for grain, wine and, especially, olive oil. There were also metals. The Romans set-up mega mining operations in areas previously used by the Phoenicians (whom the Romans persecuted because of Hannibal), taking vast quantities of silver, gold, copper, tin, iron and lead.

Area showing the “conhals” – huge piles of stones left by the Romans during massive gold mining exploration along the Tagus river.

Part of the Roman strategy was the systematic dismantling of the Celtic hillforts. This forced the Celtic clans down into the valleys below, where their spirits could be tamed and their whole mode of existence could be conditioned by the Roman ideals. 
This inevitably meant re-organization, so Iberia was split up into regions. First they created Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior, then they created sub-regions, including their own Lusitania, which essentially amalgamated the Lusitani, Vettones and Celtici peoples. That was clever. Now the most valiant of peoples, the Vettones, would gradually forget their own customs and culture and become like the Roman role model, the Turdetani in the south. These, the Romans boasted, had embraced Roman ideals to the extent that they had even forgotten their own language. It was ethnic cleansing. The populations were decimated around the Tagus. Extensive gold mining used slave labour.
But the Vettones had something which was worth more than its weight in gold – horses. And the Vettones sure knew how to ride them. Even today in the small region of Beira Baixa, just north of the Tagus river, everyone can ride a horse. It’s just in the blood. Archaeologists marvel at the paleolithic horse drawings abundantly distributed in the river valleys of the Erges, Tejo, Ocreza, Coa and Zezere valleys.
The Lusitanian horse was bred (and still is) in the beautiful region just north of the Tagus. The Arabian horse is known for its speed, but the Lusitanian horse is famed for its courage and agility. The Vetton people had learned how to handle the horse over thousands of years, and they became expert and highly-feared warriors, carrying the severed heads of their enemies with them as trophies.

A Lusitanian horse. The horses are famed for their courage and agility. Note the long, curved neck and down-pointing head.

Previously headhunted by the great Hannibal Barca—key to famous victories like Cannae—the Romans weren’t the first to recognize the enormous potential of the Vetton horsemen. The Roman generals, including Julius Caesar, coveted their skills. So it was that the Alae Vettonum Hispanorum  was formed–the Vetton Winged Cavalry. By offering them money, these valiant horsemen were tempted to leave their homeland and ally themselves with Rome in a bid for fame, fortune and adventure.

Diploma showing part of the name of the Vetton cavalry regiment that served in Wales, UK.

The Alae were first stationed in Germania, then Britain. They were among the first regiments to serve Rome in Britain under the Emperor Claudius in 43AD. However, it is possible some had returned with Caesar’s earlier, limited preliminary expedition.
Lusitanian horses are quite distinct and stand apart from their Arab horse cousins. This is true of their character as well as their appearance. However, it is not the short neck of the Arab horse with its sky-pointing tail that we see on the Iceni coins of Boudica’s reign, nor the Dartmoor ponies, but the long, curved neck and downward-pointing, slightly-curved head of the Lusitanian horse. It is unmistakable.

Lusitanian horse

So, what is the Lusitanian horse doing on the Boudica-era coins?

Iceni coins from time of Boudica showing the Lusitanian horse. Photo credit: Appolo Numismatics

According to onomastic academic experts (who study the use of common names, history and etymology), Boudica’s name as written by the Latin writers was exclusive to the small region north of the Tagus river, known as Beira Baixa. This is precisely the place where the Alae Vettonum Hispanorum were formed. Three ancient stones dated to the first century era were found, each with Boudica’s name written on them, as transcribed by the Latin writers.

Map showing where the three first century stones with the name Boudica written on them in Latin text.

Can it be a coincidence, then, that her husband’s name is also linked to the region? For his name was not “Prasutagus”–this was a composite, a sort of nickname given by the Romans, which identified him as being their appointed governor over the Iceni people (Prasu–governor, Tagus–his Iberian name).
Boudica’s name, Tagus, the horses–all three indicate the small region in the interior of what is now Portugal for their origin. If they had been serving in the Roman cavalry, then that explains not only how they got to Britain, but also how they were promoted as governors of the Iceni and amassed wealth.
All was apparently going well until the despot Nero became Rome’s most powerful man. His excessive, riotous, extravagant lifestyle brought Rome to near bankruptcy. Nero introduced the 50% inheritance tax (which Tagus had adhered to, leaving half to Nero and half to his daughters), but then Nero upped it to 100%. 
Boudica was flogged and her daughters raped because—the coin hoard find suggests—the “tax money” had been  purposefully hidden. Humiliated but brought to her senses, Boudica revolted—the Vetton’s trust had been broken. She returned to her roots as a Celtic warrior, mounting her horse and leading a rebellion. At last, she’d seen through the thin facade of lies and deceit that were the promises offered by Rome.
As a special message to each emperor, first to Claudius, she took her army to Camulodunum (now Colchester) and destroyed the temple erected in his honor. Then she went to Londinium, the other main Roman colony, and graphically sent a message to Nero whom she derided as being effeminate and a bad musician.
To her, mother of two children, Nero and Rome had become mother-killers. Nero had killed his own mother in cold blood. So it was, in graphic detail, that Boudica took her famed Iberian sword, the Falcata, and had the breasts of the impaled noble women sewed to their mouths as a message to Nero. Motherhood was sacred to the Vettones, and Rome was bringing about its own downfall. 
Today, Boudica’s statue stands next to the palace of Westminster, the houses of the British parliament. Although she was an Iberian woman, she is a cultural symbol of Britain. Her statue forever reminds us of her inseparable bond with horses.
While she was in revolt, in 60/61AD, Roman commander Suetonius had taken the Roman army to Wales to destroy the Druid stronghold in a radical move to ethnically-cleanse the Celtic memory, as they had done with the Phoenicians. As they were committing this genocidal atrocity, Boudica was coming to her senses, seeing through the false facade and illusion of cultural superiority that was Rome. At the time, Rome was all but an inch from abandoning Britain. That is why she will always be with us.
Western Atlantic Celtic Origins: Celtic from the West Barry Cunliffe, John T. Koch 2010
Turdetani model Roman tribe: Strabo Geography book 3 . 2.140
Exclusivity of Boudica name to Beira Baixa: La onomástica personal prelatina en la antigua Lusitania, Salamanque , 1957 Palomar Lapesa, 1957, p. 63
Cassius Dio, Roman History 62:1–12

Hellenistic Greece: When the Greeks Ruled the World

by December 18, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

The ancient Greek world reached its apex in the Hellenistic era (323-146 BC). Dating from the death of Alexander to the rise of Rome, the period marked the decline of the city-state, the rise of empires, and great achievements in science, art and philosophy.

The Early Years of the Hellenistic Age

The death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) left his vast empire, which stretched from India to central Europe, in chaos. He left no heir, so the empire was partitioned between his generals and commanders. They were called the Diadochi (successors), and for some fifty years they fought each other for control of the Macedonian Empire. Antigonus nearly succeeded in uniting the empire but was defeated at the battle of Ipsus (301 BC), ending the Diadochi Wars.

Three large states arose out of the Diadochi Wars: in Asia, Seleucus established the Seleucid, in Egypt, Ptolemy ruled, and Macedonia and Greece were ruled by the Antigonids. These states fought each other constantly and were ruled by monarchs. Meanwhile, many Macedonians and Greeks settled in the new areas, populating the cities founded by Alexander.

The Hellenistic World

The Seleucid Empire experienced periods of prosperity and power, especially under Antiochus I and Antiochus III, but was constantly battling rebels and invaders. The Greeks in Bactria broke away from the Seleucids and established a great state in what is now Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The Ptolemaic Empire was beset by Egyptian mutinies and court-intrigue. The Ptolemies adopted many Egyptian religious practices but remained a separate caste from that of the native population.

Macedonia was relatively weak, and its hold over much of Greece was never absolute. However, despite wars and instability, the Hellenistic states managed to rule much of Alexander’s empire. Indeed, the Bactrian Greeks even expanded into India and created a powerful empire, something Alexander the Great failed to accomplish.

Greece in the Hellenistic Age

The old city-states of Greece, including great cities such as Athens, began to decline during the Hellenistic period. While Sparta remained independent, it became a political backwater. The city-states simply could not compete militarily with the successor states. However, some Greeks remained independent, forming political and military groups such as the Aetolian League.

A mosaic of the Lighthouse of Alexandria (labeled Ο ΦΑΡΟϹ), Olbia, Libya c. 4th c. AD

The Hellenistic World was very interconnected, and trade flourished.  Hellenistic monarchs such as the Ptolemies supported trade by projects like the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria. This brought great prosperity to Greece in particular.

Technology and Farming in the Hellenistic Age

The exchange between the Greeks and other societies inspired many technological innovations. New architectural and shipbuilding techniques were developed. Scientific instruments such as water-clocks were invented. Heron of Alexandria developed the world’s first steam engine, known as the aeolipile. New agricultural practices were also pioneered, particularly in Ptolemaic Egypt.

Heron of Alexandria’s aeolipile

The Hellenistic world encompassed a vast geographical area, allowing for a diverse exchange of products. For example, at this time the writing parchment papyrus became ubiquitous in the Greek world. Mathematics and science also flourished. Indeed, in Alexandria, scientists argued that the world was round and rotated around the sun, over 1500 years before Copernicus.

Cultural Achievements in the Hellenistic Age

While the Hellenistic world was politically divided, the region was unified culturally and very cosmopolitan. A Greek dialect known as Koine became the lingua franca of much of the known world. Sculpture and painting became more human-focused, a phenomenon that resurfaced later in the Renaissance. The period saw the creation of many artistic masterpieces, such as the famous statue Nike of Samothrace. Such works later greatly influenced Roman art.

The Nike of Samothrace

The era also signaled changes in religion. Mystery religions such as Orphism became popular. There was a great deal of religious syncretism, especially in Ptolemaic Egypt, as many of the Hellenistic monarchs were curious and open-minded. The Greeks in Bactria even became Buddhists, greatly influencing the development of classic Buddhist art.

Perhaps due to the turbulence of the era, many turned inward, focusing more on personal salvation and peace of mind. Some important philosophical schools also arose at this time. The Cynics believed that civilization was a fraud and people should live as close to nature as possible. The Stoics believed in self-control, arguing that a rational life brings peace of mind and is in accordance with divine law. Epicureans held that the meaning of life was to enjoy rational and moderate pleasure.

The Romans were deeply influenced by the Hellenistic culture. Many members of the Roman elite wrote and spoke Greek. Indeed, after 146 BC, a Graeco-Roman culture came to dominate the Mediterranean World.

The End of the Hellenistic Age

The rise of Rome was the death-knell of the Hellenistic era. The Seleucid Empire was in decline due to constant Parthian incursions. While Antiochus II the Great was able to restore the empire to its former glory, he threatened Roman influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. At the Battle of Magnesia, Antigonus was decisively defeated.

This was the beginning of the end of the Seleucid Empire. Within a few decades, Rome was appointing its kings and much of its territory was annexed by the Parthians. The Romans fought the Macedonians in Three Wars (214-148 BC). In 148 BC, the Romans triumphed and the kingdom of Alexander the Great became a vassal state of Rome. In the fourth and final Macedonian War, the Romans were again victorious. Corinth was sacked and this marked the start of Rome’s domination of Greece. By 146 BC, only the Greeks in Bactria and India retained power.


The Hellenistic Age was decisive. It saw the end of the city-state system and mainland Greece was politically marginalized. Hellenic civilization dominated, influencing peoples from the Western Mediterranean to India. The era saw stunning achievements in the arts, philosophy, and technology. Cosmopolitan societies arose — very reminiscent of the current age.  While Rome ended the Hellenistic Age, they were also its heirs.


Boardman, John The Oxford History of Greece & the Hellenistic World 2nd Edition Oxford University Press, 1988.


Archaic Age Greece: Foundation of Classical Civilization

by December 16, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

We are all familiar with the achievements of Classical Greece. The era produced great art, philosophies, and political systems that still influence us to this day.

However, the Classical period was born out of the Archaic period, dating from the 8th century BC until the second Persian invasion (480 BC). This is the era when Greece emerged from the Dark Ages.

It was also a period that transformed Greece, laying the foundations for not only the Classical age but all of Graeco-Roman Civilization.

The End of the Dark Ages

The 8th century BC saw several rapid socio-economic changes in Greece. International trade revived, and many Greek communities began to specialize in products for foreign markets. This, in turn, encouraged the development of a new economy based on money, and this new economy grew. At the same time, more arable land came under cultivation, and the population grew rapidly.

The era also marked important cultural changes, such as the introduction of a new alphabet based on the Phoenician model. This led to the development of written Greek literature based on the oral tradition. It was at this time that the Homeric epics were written down and Hesiod wrote his didactic poem, Works, and Days. Lyric poetry also emerged, with Sappho and Pindar leading the way.

In the 6th century BC, poetry contests in honor of the god of wine led to the first dramatic performances in Athens. It was during the Archaic period that Greek literature began and in which some of its greatest works were produced.

A scene from Euripides’ Bacchae, ancient Roman painting, House of Vettii, Pompeii

Increased international trade led to greater cultural exchange, producing more realistic and naturalistic sculptures. The growing need for vessels to store food spurred advances in pottery, and this became a Greek art form. Decorated earthenware, often portraying mythic scenes, became extremely popular all over the Mediterranean. Also at this time the Greeks revived the Olympic Games, which continued uninterrupted for a millennium.

The Age of Colonization

Due to overpopulation, many Greeks were obliged to look for new lands. Colonists set out to look for new opportunities, and Greek outposts were soon established in the Black Sea area and as far as Spain. These communities maintained their cultural identity, and their settlements soon grew into towns and even cities. The Archaic period saw the expansion of the Greek world. Some colonies, such as Syracuse, went on to play a key role in the development of the Hellenic world.

Greek trireme

Military Reforms

The Archaic period saw changes in the way the Hellenes engaged in conflict. Growing prosperity ensured more soldiers could afford armor. The hoplite, or heavy infantryman, came to dominate the battlefield for centuries. The phalanx was developed. New naval technologies also came into play, producing the first triremes, or warships. These allowed the Hellenes to dominate much of the Mediterranean.

The Growth of Cities

One of the key developments of the Archaic period was urbanization. The Greek polis, literally “city,” came into being. In some places, such as Athens, the polis was the result of several communities coming together. The polis led to the development of the city-state. Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Sparta all developed as cities during the Archaic period.

Increasingly, the inhabitants of the new cities saw themselves as citizens of the polis, instead of identifying with a tribe or clan. This new urban lifestyle produced important cultural and social changes. To govern the new cities, constitutions and laws were developed. The Greeks developed the art of politics and the basic principles of law.


Portrait of the poet and legislator Solon of Athens (circa 640-c. 588 BC). Painting by Merry-Joseph Blondel (1781-1853), 1828. Picardie Museum, Amiens, France (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Politics of the Archaic Age

While rural Greece was controlled by elites, in the cities — due to the breakdown of tribes and clans — classes emerged. This doesn’t mean that the rich, who were often members of the old aristocracy, didn’t try to dominate the polis. Many city-states, such as Corinth, were dominated by oligarchies that used their wealth and prestige to maintain power. The poor were oppressed, and some were even enslaved due to debts.

Meanwhile, the rising class of traders wanted a greater say in the government. This led to increasing social and political unrest. In Athens, Solon the lawgiver issued reforms aimed at diffusing tension by addressing inequality.

Not all Greek cities did likewise, opening the door for populists to come to power in many urban centers. Cypselus, for example, seized power in Corinth in 655 BC. These populists became tyrants in many Greek cities, including Athens. However, they were not tyrants in the modern sense — rather, they ruled by illegal and non-traditional means. Indeed, the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus did much to improve the city and was a patron of the arts in the 6th century BC.

However, many became corrupt over time and the population became restive. Those who served as hoplites in the army wanted more power. This led to the growth of democratic ideas in many cities— ideas that would lead to the widespread adoption of democratic ideas in Athens and elsewhere in Greece in the 5th century BC.

Greece in the Archaic Age

Power and Politics in the Archaic Age

The Archaic age saw the rise of the two powers that would dominate the Greek world. Athens became a serious military and naval power. Sparta fought three wars with the Messenian, who inhabited the southwestern Peloponnese, eventually dominating and enslaving them.

In order to maintain control over growing territory, Sparta developed a society based on military principals and became the greatest land power in the region. By 550 BC, it had dominated all of the Peloponnese. The Archaic period thus saw the emergence of these two powerful Greek city-states, whose rivalry and cooperation would determine the politics of the Hellenic world until the rise of Macedonia.


The Archaic period was crucial to the civilization of Greece. It was a time that saw the emergence of Hellenic literature and art. The growth of cities transformed the lives of people and led to the development of politics and the law. The Greek military saw innovation and expansion, and the Greeks colonized many parts of the Mediterranean. What they achieved in the Archaic Age laid the foundations not only for the glories and achievements of Classical Greece, but also that of the modern world.


Grant, Michael (1988). The Rise of the Greeks. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Gargin, Michael (ed.)  (2010) The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Classical Greece: Golden Age and Time of War

by December 8, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

When we think about Ancient Greece, we most likely think of the Classical Age. Starting with the first Persian invasion and ending with the rise of Macedonia, this was the period in which Athens and Sparta vied for control of Greece. It was also a time of remarkable cultural and intellectual achievement.

The Socio-Economic Background of Classical Greece

The Classical Age saw the flourishing of the polis, or the city-state. At this time, the Hellenic world was largely separated by nascent city-states. These young city-states needed new institutions for governance, leading to the development of modern politics. Many of the city-states were democratic, but the old aristocracy was still influential.

Picture of Athens

Illustration of Ancient Athens

With Athens taking the lead, democratic institutions and the rule of law were developed. However, parts of the Greek world, such as Thebes, were still dominated by the elites. During the Classical Age, Greek ships dominated the trade of the Mediterranean and cities such as Corinth were great centers of manufacturing. Hellenic culture and political institutions spread all over the Greek world, and even influenced neighboring peoples such as the Etruscans and Celts.

War and the Rise and Fall of Empires

In 490 BC, the Athenians defeated the Persians. When Sparta refused to continue the war with Persia, Athens emerged as the leader of the Greek world. The Athenians became the leaders of the Delian League, which continued the war against the Persian commander Xerxes. This war drove the Persians back while at the same time increasing Athens’ power, particularly at sea.

The Athenians eventually turned their allies in the Delian League into their subjects, creating an informal empire. This led to a bitter rivalry with Sparta and its allies, paving the way for the First Peloponnesian War (460-425 BC). This ended in the so-called “Thirty Years Peace.” In Athens, Pericles was the de-facto ruler of the city, then at the height of its political power.

Painting of Pericles

Pericles Addressing the Crowd

Tensions between Sparta and Athens exploded into the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). Their respective allies became involved, convulsing the whole of the Hellenic world in war. Pericles urged the Athenians not to fight the Spartans on sea instead of on land.

This strategy worked, and the Peace of Nicias ended the first phase of the war in 418 BC. At this point, the Athenians were restless. Following the lead of Alcibiades, they agreed to invade the powerful Sicilian city-state of Syracuse. This was the turning point in the war. The Athenian expedition to Syracuse was a disaster.

Weakened, Athens was put on the defensive. Sparta and its allies were able to dominate but they could not defeat them due to the power of the Athenian navy. However, the Persians intervened, helped Sparta to build a navy and in 405 BC, they inflicted a devastating defeat on the Athenians at the Battle of Aegospotami.

Statute of a helmed hoplite

Marble statue of a helmed hoplite (5th century BC), possibly Leonidas (Archaeological Museum of Sparta, Greece)

Sparta emerged as the victor and Athens came under the rule of some pro-Laconian tyrants. The Spartans dominated Greece for fifty years. Under the Spartans, Athens recovered some of its power. They briefly invaded the Persian Empire and achieved some minor victories.

However, Thebes and other Boeotian cities chaffed under the Spartan hegemony. Some Theban exiles even expelled a Spartan garrison from their city and went on to defeat the Spartans at Tegyra (375 BC) and at Leuctra (371 BC). These defeats ended the myth of Spartan invincibility, and signaled the end of their hegemony over Greece. The Thebans emerged as the most important force in Greece.

However, in 364 BC, the Thebans were defeated by Sparta and her Peloponnesian allies, leading to a follow-up battle in which the Thebans triumphed in a tactical victory. However, the Theban leaders were all killed, weakening their power. By 360 BC, Greece consisted of three major powers: Athens, Sparta and Thebes.

Rise of Macedon

Phillip II became king of Macedon, and immediately began turning it into a major Hellenic power. He used marriage alliances to cement his position in Greece. He also took advantage of the Greeks in-fighting, especially during the Third Sacred War. He soon became very powerful and at the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), Phillip II decisively defeated the Athenians, Thebes and their allies. After his death, his son Alexander the Great brutally repressed Thebes and destroyed it. This marked the end of the autonomy of the Greek city-states, who were to largely stay under the influence of Macedonian rulers, on and off until the arrival of the Romans.

Map of Reign
Lands controlled by Macedon at the end of Philip’s reign in 336 BC

The Culture of Classical Greece

Classical Greece produced some of the greatest artistic works of all time, most of it in Athens. The Parthenon was built, and many remarkable sculptures were made in the city. There was innovation in the sciences, and disciplines as diverse as astronomy and urban-planning. Athenians and other Greeks placed a great emphasis on reason and logic, leading to new innovations in mathematics. It also led to the development of philosophy.


The Parthenon at night, Athens. Andreas Kontokanis/ Flickr

The Greek sophists taught rhetoric and were relativists. Socrates reacted against them by demonstrating that there were eternal truths, developing the “Socratic method” of reasoning. He is regarded as the founder of modern ethics. Plato was his pupil and in his dialogues, a new philosophy arose. He is regarded as the greatest philosopher of all time. Then came Aristotle, who developed highly influential theories in ethics and metaphysics. The Athenians also developed tragedy and comedy. The great tragedians Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus wrote their masterpieces in 5th century BC.


Classical Greece was a turbulent time, beset by wars and the rise and fall of empires. It saw the defeat of the Persians and the rise of Athens, Sparta and Thebes. The rise of Macedon ended the era of the Greek city-state. What is most remarkable about the Classical Age was its cultural, artistic and intellectual achievements. Without this period, the modern world as we know it likely wouldn’t exist.

Roman Greece: Partner in Empire

by December 1, 2020

Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

Greece was dominated by the Roman Empire for many centuries. The Greeks and the Romans had a complicated relationship. Roman Greece played a critical role in the culture of Rome and Classical culture, laying the basis for the Byzantine Empire.

The Origins of Roman Greece

Roman influence began to grow in Greece during the Macedonian Wars, which pitted the Hellenistic Kingdom of Macedonia against the Roman Republic.

In 168 BC, Roman legions vanquished the Macedonians at Pydna. In the final war, a pretender to the Macedonian throne attempted to expel the Romans with the support of Corinth and other Greek city-states. Rome promptly quashed this attempt, and the destruction of Corinth in 146 BC is seen as the beginning of Roman rule in Greece.

The Sack of Corinth, by Thomas Allom

The Roman Senate appointed a governor to what is now Greece, and the city-states lost much of their independence. In 89 BC, the Greeks rose against their overlords during the Second Mithridatic War, but this was crushed by Sulla. Until Augustus’ victory at Actium, Greece was a battleground.

It was only under Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, that Greece began to prosper, paving the way for two centuries of peace in the peninsula.

The Cultural Influence of Greece

The Romans had been deeply influenced by Greek culture long before they occupied Greece.

They greatly admired Greek architecture, art, literature and philosophy, and most members of the elite could also speak Greek. Many Italian nobles were educated in Athens and other Greek academic centers, such as Rhodes.

Greece, with Athens leading the way, became an influential cultural center. Greek culture was dominant in the Eastern Mediterranean, more so than even the Latin culture of the conquerors. Roman Emperors, including Nero, visited Greece and even participated in the Olympic Games.

Bust of the Emperor Hadrian, 125-30 AD, the British Museum, London

Roman Emperor Hadrian was a great admirer of Hellenic culture. He commissioned many buildings in Greek cities and encouraged them to cooperate in League. This led to the so-called Second Sophistic, a period when Greek culture flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Many Greek intellectuals, such as Galen, contributed to the life of the Roman Empire and Greek authors such as Longus were very much admired. Many Romans saw the Greeks as near-equals in the running of the Empire and some even speak of a Graeco-Roman Empire.

Greek trade and Pax Romana

The Romans brought peace to the Greek world. For the first time in centuries, its cities were not at war. This allowed trade to flourish, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greek merchants took advantage of Greece’s centralized location in the Mediterranean and trade increased, accruing wealth. Those who engaged in long-distance trade and manufacturing also flourished, as did agriculture. This allowed the urban elite to prosper, and many even joined the Roman Senate.

Greek trade

The Crisis of the Third Century

The long peace came to an end after the death of Marcus Aurelius. By the third century, the Roman Empire was in military, political, economic, and social crisis. It could no longer keep the “barbarians” out. 

For several decades, the Romans were unable to defend the Greeks. In 254 AD, an army of Goths was blocked by Romano-Greek forces at Thermopylae, and this prevented the devastation of Greece, although the German tribes managed to get away with a great deal of booty. Then the Heruli, a German tribe that had settled near the Black Sea, began ravaging the Eastern Mediterranean by sea. They attacked and sacked Athens (267 AD) as well as other leading cities. The Athenians finally drove them out, but the city never fully recovered.

The Rise of Christianity

Greek culture was very influential. It even influenced early Christians, such as St. Paul, who wrote in Greek. Hellenic philosophy had a deep impact on the early evolution of Christianity. Starting in the first century AD, small communities of Christians appeared in Greece, and they played a key role in the Christianization of the Roman Empire. For example, the first church in Rome was founded by Greeks. By the fourth century AD, Greece was a bastion of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Christian church dating to 550 AD, Philippi, Greece

The Byzantine Empire

Greece was ravaged by the Goths under Alaric in the fifth century, who were then diverted into Italy. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD.  However, the Eastern Roman Empire, which included Greece, continued to prosper and was relatively stable. Its cities remained centers of trade and culture.

As of 395 A.D, Greece is considered to have become part of the Byzantine Empire. Roman Greece played an important role in the development of the Byzantine Empire, with its unique combination of Greek and Roman characteristics.


Greece was conquered by Rome and reduced to the status of a province. However, the cultural prestige of the Hellenes played a crucial role in the development of the Roman Empire. Greece became a center of culture and a base for early Christianity. For much of the Roman period, it prospered. After the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, Roman Greece evolved to become one of the heartlands of the Byzantine Empire.


Boardman, John (1988) The Oxford History of Greece & the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press