By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
When we think of Athens, we typically think “powerhouse.” The bustling Agora, the high functioning politics, the exhaustive building programs – all point to a city that exists not just high up on the social scale, but one of military power. And while Athens did become a militarized state, she was certainly not one originally.
Before the Persian War, Athens had already incurred displeasure by Persia. Athens had sided with the Ionians in the Ionian Revolt and sent help to Asiatic Greeks seeking to free themselves from Persian control. While they were not the strongest military power in Greece, they certainly were not shy about defending Greece from attack. They were indeed a player on the Mediterranean and exercised their influence and support when needed.
However, at the outbreak of the Persian War, Sparta still dominated in military power. And while Athens was beginning to validate herself, in the minds of enemies, she was not much of a rival.
Until Marathon, that is.
Battle of Marathon
In 491 BC, Darius I, king of Persia, invaded Greece and sent envoys to ascertain the Greeks’ submission. When the envoys arrived, Athens and Sparta formed an alliance against the threat, vowing to protect Greece from the imminent invasion. What resulted was a decades long conflict between powers of Greece and Persia.
The Battle of Marathon was the first major battle of the Persian War and served many purposes. The Greek success in the battle delayed the Persians another 10 years, giving Greece time to amp up her army and navy – things that needed to be brought up to speed if they were expected to face mighty Persia.
The Battle of Marathon also served as a defining moment in the history of Athens. After her success at Marathon, Athens became more of a revered military power and eventually entered into a golden age. But was the Athenian success at Marathon sheer luck, or was it fine-tuned skill?
Turns out, a little bit of both.
The first stroke of luck that the Athenians had at Marathon was the very location of the battle. The Persians set up camp and docked their fleets at a sandy plain surrounded by mountains and valleys, surely with the intention of invading Athens itself soon (only a short ~25 miles from the city).
This gave the Athenians two major advantages: where they positioned themselves for battle, and their line of supplies. Since the Persian camp was so close to Athens, the Athenians who went to meet them were able to stay well supplied and equipped, even during an 8-day stalemate. Things like water and food were available to the Athenian troops, a luxury which the Persians did not enjoy. Camping with somewhere between 15,000 and 90,000 men, the Persians struggled to keep mouths fed and water available. They were cut off from the Greek mainland and could not receive any reinforcements.
The low-lying plain that the Persians set up camp on was fine as a temporary base, but when battle was imminent, the location proved perilous to their troops. Athenians were able to march quickly to Marathon and set up camp and stations on the plain’s flanks, surrounding the Persians below. The only escape they had was by sea, which would have been time-consuming and slow going with so many men.
Battle of Marathon map
The second piece of luck the Athenians enjoyed was word that the Persian cavalry was away from camp. The Athenian commanders knew that they would not stand a chance against the highly feared and trained cavalry forces of the Persians, even if the Greeks had them surrounded. The horses and their warriors were fast, precise, and soldiers on foot would have been easily out maneuvered. After 8 days of holding off the Persians’ attack in hopes that the Spartans would arrive in time for battle, news of the horse-less camp proved too good an opportunity to pass up. The Athenians attacked the plain, knowing full well that if the cavalry forces were there, the day would have turned out very different.
The third prong to this lucky battle some may view as a disadvantage, but when discussing the success of the Athenians and their resulting power, it certainly ends up being a lucky advantage.
This would be the fact that the Spartans never showed up to battle. The Athenians and her few allies tackled the Persians alone. The Spartan troops had been sent for and they agreed to come, but only after their festival concluded. The Athenians were then able to prove their military prowess and potential without it being shaded by the Spartan showmanship. The Spartan absence made the narrative of the Athenian underdog possible, catapulting the Battle of Marathon to near epic standards. Had the Spartans arrived in time for battle, we can assume that the Athenians would not have received the confidence boost and military trust they did when they fought it alone.
Of course, the Athenian success at Marathon was not just luck, but skill. The Athenians simply outmaneuvered the Persians and their tactics decisively won them the day.
Thanks to the low-lying plain and the vantage points the Athenians took surrounding the Persian camp, when it came time for battle, the Athenians attacked from the flanks, with weaker concentration in the center. This allowed the Athenians to constantly push the Persians back on all sides, their only avenue for retreat being the sea. So, even though the Persians greatly outnumbered the Athenians, it didn’t matter thanks to the limiting geography of the battlefield and the superior tactics employed by the Athenian army.
Either way you look at it, be it luck or skill, the Battle of Marathon truly transformed the Athenian psyche and perception in the Mediterranean. They became a military power and there was no doubt about it.
We haven’t lived in the city long enough to become nostalgic for the town that it once was.
We can’t mourn for the destruction of the original Astor Hotel (demolished in the early 20th century) or lament the fate of the original Pen Station- a beautiful, classically inspired, architectural jewel that was leveled in the 60s and replaced with a dumpy concourse deep under Madison Square Garden.
That being said, we do tend to notice that the city has an uncanny ability to demolish and replace buildings seemingly overnight. After a quick survey, we notice that there are four construction sites within a one-block radius of our apartment.
Properties that were once home to ramen stands, parking lots, lamp retailers, and student housing, are now becoming condominium towers and luxury hotels.
The city has undergone several building booms over the years. Post war New York saw the destruction of buildings that had been considered first-of-their-kind technical achievements only a few years before. They were swiftly replaced with new skyscrapers boasting modern necessities like air conditioning, elevators, and open-floor office plans.
A new building boom is going on today, but rather than accommodating more office space, the skyscrapers of tomorrow are built almost exclusively to house the ultra rich, the “oligarchs” that our curious friend mentioned.
“One developer called these apartments safe deposit boxes with views because they’re expected to hold their value. Apartments start around $10 million and go up from there to almost a hundred million. This is pretty much what former Mayor Michael Bloomberg had in mind when his administration changed zoning rules to make it easier to build super tall towers.
For our part, we’re indifferent to the whole ordeal. We try maintaining our Stoic demeanor at all times.
But these new revelations have gotten us curious. The ancient world, you see, also had building booms. In many respects, they were similar to the booms of our modern age- they were undertaken to accommodate the expanding economy of a city or city-state.
In other respects… they were different.
If it walks like an empire…and talks like an empire…
Let’s start with different.
In the 5th century BC, classical Athens had acquired herself a sizeable empire. As the de facto leader of the Delian League (the coalition of Greek city-states assembled for the purpose of defending the ancient Greeks from the invading Persian Empire) Athens was in a position of power and influence.
By force or fraud, the Athenians bullied smaller cities into joining their military coalition and paying member dues (which went straight to the treasury located on the Athenian Acropolis).
It is estimated that Athens received, in contemporary terms, hundreds of millions of dollars every year from subject states. With an adult, male population of about 45, 00, this meant unrivaled prosperity.
Athenian Empire in 5th century BC
Source: Wikimedia Commons
By about 465 BC, the Delian League was a coalition only in name. It had transformed into an Athenian Empire. While Athens had evolved into a formidable, imperial power, the city itself did not look the part.
Many of the Athenian temples had been destroyed during the razing of Athens at the hands of King Xerxes of Persia during the Greco-Persian wars several decades previously. Most of the Athenian assembly meetings were still being held out in the open fields of the Athenian agora.
Such a state of affairs would not do for the most powerful city in the classical Greek world. That was the thinking of a new statesman who consolidated power over Athens in 461 BC. He was a man with bold ideas and foresight for the future- Pericles.
And here’s the part you’ve been waiting for… the Athenian building boom.
The (ancient) building boom
Athens, under the rule of Pericles, embarked on an aggressive series of building projects that cost, in contemporary terms, roughly three billion dollars. It is the buildings constructed during this time that are often associated with the “Golden Age” of classical Greece. That includes the Hephaisteion (Temple of Hephaestus) and, of course, the Parthenon.
The building plans were initiated in 447 and were completed within fifteen years. The building projects were popular among the demos as they supplied a steady flow of work for the citizens. Notably, one such citizen was a young Socrates, who likely helped hew and shape the stones that went into the temples.
A photo from your editor’s trip to Greece.
Hephaisteion in the foreground, Parthenon in the background.
The only true opposition to the Periclean building plans came from the wealthy Athenian aristocrats who did not appreciate funds from the treasury being funneled to the working class. Even still, they could not muster enough political power to stop Pericles or his building proposals.
N.B. an interesting note from history is that the funds used in the construction of these building projects came from the Delian League treasury, a fund that was originally intended solely for the defense of the Greek lands against invaders. As a result, some historians point to the building of the Parthenon as one of the first embezzlement scandals in the Western world.
A source of everlasting fame
Perhaps the most interesting element of the ancient Athenian building boom was the motivation of Pericles. The Athenian building projects were not, unlike modern New York, undertaken to accommodate more office space or to create housing for wealthy foreigners.
Pericles’ motivation was to glorify the city, construct monuments that could weather the ravages of time and emblazon the glory days of Athens on the consciousness of Western history.
And in that regard, he succeeded.
All kinds of enterprises should be created which will provide an inspiration for every art, find employment for every hand… we must devote ourselves to acquiring things that will be the source of everlasting fame.
–Pericles (Plutarch’s Life of Pericles)
So what conclusions to draw, dear reader?
Are we the proverbial Athenians, building monuments to commemorate and glorify our achievements as a society?
Two thousand years from now, will tourists roam the ruins Empire State Building and learn how the ancient New Yorkers used to live?
You might remember two weeks ago we had something of a chat about a rather interesting bit of history. How is it that an alliance of cities with the unobjectionable goal of protecting their homeland from foreign invaders eventually turned into one of the first empires of the ancient world?
Well, it’s kind of a funny story, albeit not a very original one. Anybody with a basic understanding of history, or human nature, will recognize the cycle. A government comes to power and a country, often through conquest, rises to prominence. Once they have gotten a taste of the good life, so to speak, they are rather reluctant to go back to the way things used to be.
And so by force or by fraud, the government takes it upon itself to maintain the status quo, to preserve their prosperity.
“Governments were set up to take control. Ruling elites – by force of arms – established laws, protocols and armies to try to prevent anyone from taking their place. Their wealth, power and status were to be preserved at all costs.” –Bill Bonner’s Diary of a Rouge Economist (April 1st, 2015)
I really could not have said it better myself. The article continues by detailing how ruling elites throughout history maintained their status by force right up until the advent of the firearm. After all, every farmer in the American colonies had a rifle. As a result, a ragtag group of insurgents (with the assistance of the French Navy) were able to defeat the greatest army in the world.
So, the newsletter continues, the powers that be had to find another way to keep the commoners in their place. They turned to fraud.
Now that is all very interesting. But keep in mind that our topic of interest took place over two thousand years ago; back in the good old days when whoever had the most guys with pointy sticks was inevitably the top dog. And as we discussed last week, Athens, after a few decades in the Delian League, had an abundance of pointy sticks, warships, and men willing to go to war for glory and loot.
If you are not an avid Classical Wisdom Weekly reader, then you can catch part one of this article by clicking here. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Back already? Wonderful! Let’s recap.
The year is 479 BC and the Greek alliance has just expelled the Persian Empire from the Hellenic mainland. The entire Greek force is basking in PanHellenic pride. The following year, a congress of about 150 city-states makes an alliance on the island of Delos. The purpose of this “Delian League” was to continue to battle the Persian forces in Northern Greece, Asia Minor, and the Aegean islands.
The de-facto leader of this alliance is Athens. With the dues paid by the other allied cities, the Athenian government builds up their already impressive navy and begins a series of successful military engagements against the Persian armies.
Athens collects the looted treasures of the cities they conquer while continuing to receive dues from member states. It is estimated that the league was collecting hundereds of millions of dollars in contemporary terms every year. With an adult male population of about 45,000 in Athens, this meant unrivaled prosperity for the Athenians.
Additionally, the continued success of the Delian League armies brought more glory for the Athenian elite. Men like Cimon, an Athenian general who was the son of the hero of the Battle of Marathon, continued to cement his place within his cities most privileged faction with each victory over the Persian forces.
The Athenian commoners, perhaps surprisingly, also benefited from the continued existence of the Delian League and the military campaigns. Unskilled laborers could be hired as rowers on Athenian triremes. It is estimated that a rower could make as much in a month as a farmer could make in a year.
Put very simply, the Delian League had propelled Athens to a level of prosperity that had been unheard of during this time. Athens had every reason to maintain the alliance, and they would do anything to prevent a loss of power.
Athens’ determination to maintain the hegemony can be seen in 465 BC when they lay siege to the island of Thasos after the island’s government had unilaterally voted to withdraw from the league. Athens conquered the city-state, tore down its walls, confiscated its navy, and forced the island to continue to pay tribute.
Naxos and the city of Erythrai in Asia Minor were similarly put down and subjected to Athenian rule after they had attempted to withdraw from the alliance. The Delian League was a union now only in name. There were no allied uprisings during this time that were not swiftly squashed by the Athenian military.
“The subject states of Athens were especially eager to revolt, even though it was beyond their capability.” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VIII)
After these allied revolts, and the subsequent force enacted by Athens to maintain control, a new type of member emerged within the Delian alliance: a subject state. These members, members like Naxos and Thasos, were ruled over by Athenian garrisons and acted as Athens’ puppets within the leagues assembly.
Combining these members with the smaller city-states who were either intimidated by Athens or relied upon her for protection, the outcome of assembly votes was never in question. Whatever Athens wanted would always be done. The assembly would not even bother considering military action if it did not clearly benefit the Athenian interests.
The assembly would eventually become irrelevant and was disbanded around 435 BC. Athens continued to rule by decree alone. Their empire was well and truly established.
“After the Athenians had gained their empire, they treated their allies rather dictatorially, except for Chios, Lesbos and Samos. These they regarded as guardians of the empire, allowing them to keep their own constitution and rule over any subjects they happened to have.”- Aristotle (Consitution of Athens)
What is interesting is that this rapid Athenian expansion did not take place under the rule of an oppressive tyrant, nor was it a series of oligarchs that made designs to craft an empire. Athens’ policies of extreme imperialism came about during a time of what some refer to as “radical” democracy.
It was during this time that significant reforms were set in place. Athenian citizens could participate on juries, for the first time in the city’s history. Juries often determined the guilt of a defendant after only one round of voting and there could be no appeals.
Additionally, the office of general (strategos) was voted upon directly by the citizenry of Athens. It is for this reason that the Athenian generals, wishing to maintain the support of the populace, were so bold, and occasionally over eager, to participate in further military expeditions.
It is ironic that this type of Athenian democracy, which aimed at achieving absolute egalitarianism for the Athenian citizens, was never allowed for the other member states within the alliance. Any states attempting to achieve any semblance of independence from Athens were struck down by force.
Athenian expansionism would continue into the 450’s when a wealthy aristocrat named Pericles came to the fore. Smart, affluent, and wildly popular with the commoners, Pericles would be the dominant politician in Athens for the next two decades.
While Athens had indeed established itself as an imperial force, the Athenian city looked anything but. Much of the damage inflicted by Xerxes’ army several decades earlier had never fully been repaired. Many of the Athenian assembly meetings consisted of men lounging on a hill in the ancient Agora. Athens needed a lesson in playing the part of a magnificent empire, and Pericles was here to show them how.
In 454 BC Pericles moved the Delian league’s treasury from the neutral island of Delos and stored it within the Athenian acropolis. The official reason for the transfer was so that the treasury could be protected from Persian invaders or marauding pirates. Plutarch, however, suggests that there might have been an ulterior motive.
“…the demagogues enlarged it (the treasury) little by little, and at last brought the sum total up to thirteen hundred talents, not so much because the war, by reason of its length and vicissitudes, became extravagantly expensive, as because they themselves led the people off into the distribution of public moneys for spectacular entertainments, and for the erection of images and sanctuaries.” –Plutarch (Life of Aristides)
Pericles had initiated public building projects in 454 BC. As a result, many of the most iconic structures of the ancient world were erected during this time; chief among them is the Parthenon. And while the building projects were funded primarily through Athenian taxation and donations from Athens’ wealthiest, Plutarch seems to suggest that the building of the Parthenon, at least partially, was funded by the tributes paid by the league.
If this is correct, then it would mean that funds intended to be used for the protection of all of Greece had been spent by the Athenians to create their magnificent temples. This is often pointed to as being one of the first embezzlement scandals of the Western world.
In addition to his expansive building projects, Pericles established colonies on confiscated lands as a means to discourage revolts from Athenian subjects.
“Pericles sent out one thousand settlers to the Khersonese, five hundred to Naxos, 250 to Andros, one thousand to Thrace to make their homes with the Bisaltai … and, by setting up garrisons among the allies, to implant a fear of rebellion.” (Plutarch, Life of Pericles)
Athens’ rapid rise to power and their tendency to bully their neighbors into getting what they wanted had not gone unnoticed. Sparta had watched the rise of the Athenian empire with a weary eye. And here we come to the crux of our story.
In the words of Thucydides…
“The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.” –Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I)
Athens had managed to broker a peace with Sparta in 445 BC. However, Athens’ continued support of Spartan enemies would increase tensions over the next fifteen years. In 431 BC, there could be no more truce. Fighting broke out, and the Peloponnesian War had officially begun.
The fighting would last for thirty years. During that time Athens saw the death of Pericles, the introduction of a terrible plague, and the defection of one of their greatest generals, Alcibiades.
In 404 BC, faced with starvation, disease, and a Spartan army laying siege to their city, the Athenians surrendered. They were stripped of their walls as well as all their overseas possessions. Athens’ system of democracy was disbanded. The Athenian Empire had fallen.
The Athenians ought to have counted themselves lucky that the Spartans did not destroy their city and scatter the populace. After their victory, the Spartan government allowed Athens, a city that had done so much for the Greek people, to limp on.
So what can we learn from all this? Well, we can see that the intentions of the Athenians at the birth of the Delian League had been largely honorable. They wished to protect their homeland and maintain an alliance amongst their neighbors.
However, the continued success of the league brought Athens unrivaled prosperity and power. Once they had a taste of true supremacy, they could not give it up. Athens would attempt to maintain their dominance by force, subjugating long-time allies and creating resentment among their neighbors. There could be only one outcome for the Athenian empire: violence, war, and eventual collapse.
The rashness of the Athenian assembly was partially due to its democratic nature. While oligarchs might have been more reserved when it came to continued expansion, the Athenian generals were consistently pushed to adventurism again and again because of the potential reward it held for the people as well as for their political clout.
For this reason, the story of the Athenian Empire is often looked at as more than just an interesting historical anecdote. It is an endearing testament to the true nature of man and the potential danger of democracy. Put in the same position, any of us would have done the same. Thucydides put it best when he wrote…
“We have done nothing surprising, nothing contrary to human nature, if we accepted leadership when it was offered and are now unwilling to give it up.” –Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book I)
Those of you who are members of the Classical Wisdom Society know that this month we have been looking at Herodotus’ The Histories and the epic struggle for supremacy that was the Greco-Persian wars. And that certainly is a topic worth discussing. It has been argued that had the Greeks been unable to stay off a Persian invasion, the growth of ancient Hellenic culture would have been severely stunted and, by extension, all of Western Society.
However, once the fighting is over, the typical thing to do is to fast-forward a few decades to when the next epic struggle for supremacy took place, The Peloponnesian War. After all, who doesn’t love a bit of military history?
Nevertheless, the time between the expulsion of Xerxes’ army from the Greek lands and the inevitable standoff between the combatants of the Peloponnesian War is filled with some very interesting pieces of history.
As our colleague Joel Bowman put it, “History does not necessarily repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme.” And since we do live in an age of a sometimes volatile geo-political climate, I thought it might be fun to look through the ages and reexamine the rise, fall, and failings of one of history’s first empires.
So where to start?
After the decisive battle of Plataea in 479 BC, the Greeks surely must have been basking in PanHellenic pride. The united city-states, against all odds, had defeated the seemingly invincible Persian Empire and had expelled them from their lands.
Perhaps it was the realization that a Greek alliance could accomplish greatness that prompted the Greek cities to cement their union even with the immediate danger of Persian invasion extinguished. In 478 BC, an alliance of roughly 150 city-states was formed on the island of Delos. The congresses would be held in the temple on the island and the central treasury would be kept there as well.
The purpose of this “Delian League” was to continue the fight against the Persians and ensure that they were never capable of invading the Hellenic lands again. Thucydides tells us that the representatives present at the formation of the league simultaneously dropped pieces of metal into the sea to symbolize the permanence of their commitments to one another.
Sparta was notably absent from this new alliance. Always fearful of a slave revolt at home, the Spartans opted out of what would surely be a costly and dangerous series of campaigns. After all, fighting the Persians on Greek soil was one thing. Picking a fight with them on their home turf was quite another.
In order to be a member of this new alliance, it was required that the affiliate states contribute money, warships, soldiers, raw material, or a combination of the four. While Thucydides tells us that Chios and Lesbos did contribute ships, the majority of the participants were happy enough to contribute funds and allow the leader of the alliance, Athens, to do all the heavy lifting.
This arrangement worked fine for the Athenians who used the dues from member cities to bolster their already impressive navy. Additionally, the Athenians took advantage of their numerous impoverished citizens. Unskilled men could act as rowers on Athenian triremes and be paid handsomely for their efforts. It is estimated that an Athenian rower made about as much in a month as a common farmer made in a year.
Well funded and well equipped, the league waged war against the Persian outpost in Northern Greece and the Aegean islands for the next decade. And, perhaps surprisingly, they were largely successful.
Under the command of Cimon, son of the hero of Marathon, Miltiades, the league captured the Persian fortress of Eion on the Thracian coast (northern Greece) and continued to wage war against the Persians across the Aegean and into Asia Minor. By about 465 BC, much of the Aegean was free from the Persian Empire.
As the league continued to battle the Persians out of the Aegean, they regularly set up allied colonies and transported Athenian citizens to settle the newly democratic societies. The defeated cities were also compelled by Athens to join the Delian League. As Plutarch tells us, joining the alliance was not always a choice.
“…the town of Phaselis, which though inhabited by Greeks, yet would not quit the interests of Persia, but denied his (Cimon) galleys entrance into their port. Upon this he wasted the country, and drew up his army to their very walls” –Plutarch (The Life of Cimon)
The Athenians dealt with the small city of Carystus in Euboea in a similar fashion. Carystus had declined to join the league on a number of occasions. Fearing that the nearby city could prove a valuable foothold for the Persians, the Athenian war vessels visited the small civilization and conquered the city. They were then forced to join the expanding league.
Even with these instances of aggressions, the early decades of the Delian League’s existence were largely productive. The various members acted largely autonomously and had equal voting rights at the Delian councils.
The Athenians certainly benefited from the existence of the league. As the de facto leader, Athens continued to fill their coffers with plundered treasure and captured slaves. The spoils of war that the Athenians took were not only monetary in nature. With continued victory came glory for Athenian aristocracy like Cimon, and glory meant a stronger standing within the Athenian elite.
Additionally, it is estimated that the tributes paid each year to the alliance was equivalent to $200,000,000 in contemporary terms. With a an adult male population of about 40,000, these figures meant unrivaled prosperity.
Athens now had a reason to preserve the league, no matter the cost.
It is difficult to pinpoint when exactly the Delian League transformed into an Athenian Empire. It is probable that the shift began around 465 BC. The Persian presence in the Greek lands had been all but eliminated. With the purpose of the league fulfilled, the city of Thasos attempted to withdraw from the alliance. Athens could not allow this to happen. They had already tasted the spoils brought to them by the Delian league and the power that came with it. The abolishment of the alliance would mark the end of Athenian supremacy.
And so, needing to maintain the alliance, Athens sent warships to Thasos with the intent of conquering the city. The Thasians appealed to the Spartans for help, but the powerhouse of the Peloponnese was preoccupied with the largest slave riot in their history.
After two years of fighting, Thasos could hold out no longer. They surrendered to the Athenian general Cimon. As punishment for their rebellion, Athens tore down the walls surrounding the city, confiscated Thasos’ army and navy, and lay claim to the rich gold mines in the region. Additionally, Thasos was forced to continue to pay tribute to the Athenians.
“…the Thasians in the third year of the siege obtained terms from the Athenians by razing their walls, delivering up their ships, and arranging to pay the moneys demanded at once, and tribute in future; giving up their possessions on the continent together with the mine.” –Thucydides (History of the Peloponnesian War)
No longer an autonomous member of the Delian League, Thasos had effectively become an imperial subject, one of the first in a budding Athenian Empire.
Come back next week to learn what happens next and to read about the largest embezzlement scandal of ancient history.
The ebb and flow of empires, societies and cultures… these are the elements that make western culture what it is today. More specifically, the spreading of ideas, agriculture and religion across different, often disparate cultures accounts for the rich diversity that makes up our combined heritage.
This “cultural diffusion”, as it is often called, also usually involves centuries of imperialism and violent upheaval.
For instance, the advance of culture in the Mediterranean, especially from the Middle East, devastated Ancient Greece and ended the Bronze Age there – but the collision between Phoenician traders and Greek citizens also helped lay the foundation for the Classical Period in Greece. This, in turn, spread across the Adriatic into Southern Italy, influencing the Romans and setting the stage for what would later become the Renaissance in Italy.
But let’s start from the beginning… with the Phoenicians.
They came from the Fertile Crescent, or Eastern Mediterranean (today’s Syria and Lebanon). They were a Canaanite culture that spread from 1550-300 B.C., and were unique in their advancements, especially when it came to shipbuilding and governing. In fact, their alphabet provided the basis for all later “phonetic” alphabets.
These merchants and magi were both revered and feared by the Greeks, who referred to them as the “traders in purple” (due to the rare Murex sea-snail that produced the dye they used in their clothing). They were a fierce seafaring people who carted objects from Egypt and Assyria, told tales of distant lands, friendly or hostile natives, and exposed their hosts to rare materials they had never seen before.
The Invasion of the Sea Peoples, as it is sometimes called, had both positive and negative effects on Greek culture. Initially, contact with the more advanced culture of the Phoenician raiders decimated Greek rule, destroyed their cities and plunged them into a Dark Ages for nearly five hundred years.
The Mycenaean Age was abandoned, its palatial cities burned, and its literacy lost. Greece experienced a massive population shift and a decline in arts and craft. But despite their political defeat, much of Hellenic culture persisted.
Greece actually emerged from this tumultuous period a more advanced civilization – in fact, they enjoyed the most rapid advancement of any civilization in history, accelerating their developments in arts, sciences, language and maritime rule. The “cultural diffusion” experienced at the end of the Mycenaean Age actually helped Greece transition from the Archaic to the Classical period, when they emerged as a polycentric seafaring civilization – one with a rich Pan-Hellenic religion that included Egyptian, Semitic, Iranian and Indian influences.
It was then time for the Greeks themselves to extend into other territories…
“Magna Graecia” is what the Greeks called their colonies in Southern Italy. Between the 8th and 5th century B.C., Greek rule expanded to include coastal cities from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. “Great Greece” would eventually be comprised of coastal city-states from the Iberian Peninsula all the way to Asia Minor.
As Plato said, “We Greeks sit around the sea like frogs around a pond.”
Meanwhile, the ancient Italians, especially Southern Italians, trailed behind the Greeks in material progress for centuries (much like Greece lagged behind their eastern neighbors). Metallurgy in Italy developed around 1800 B.C. as opposed to 2800 B.C. in Greece, and the Iron Age didn’t begin in Italy until 900 B.C. (about 400 years after it did so in Greece). Sicily, with its lucrative copper and iron mines, became one of the first Greek overseas efforts, which took place in 800 B.C. – thus beginning a campaign of Greek colonization in Southern Italy that lasted about 250 years.
Ancient Greek civilization at the beginning of the Iron Age was eclectic to say the least, and not nearly as uniform as Etruscan civilization. They promoted productive competition among their various city-states, and they were tolerant of many beliefs besides their state sanctioned religion, Hellenism.
Egyptian tribes that developed along the southern coast of Sicily, for instance, were allowed to erect their own temples, and eventually their gods were incorporated into the Greek pantheon as well. (Dionysus, among others, was thought to have come from Egypt.)
But these ancient Greek city-states, which dotted the coasts of Italy, Western Turkey and Greece still corresponded with Phoenician trade routes, and contact with the Persians continued for hundreds of years.
Indeed, it was the Persian invasions in the 5th century B.C. that helped unite Ancient Greece, especially following the decisive Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.
But back in Southern Italy, Greek colonization wasn’t over…
From 500 to 400 B.C. many Greeks, like the famous statesman and general Pericles, were still pressing for an Athenian city to be instituted in Italy. Empedocles, a Greek pre-socratic philosopher, also signed up to be a part of this “new city,” one that was to be founded on the most rational principles of the day.
Although Athens was a strong naval power, there was so much fighting in the Pan-Hellenic colonies at this time that it was impossible for the Greeks to maintain order within their dwindling population. Italians were too busy fighting the Persians, and eventually there just weren’t enough Greeks to populate a distant colony.
Although the new city, Thurii, did eventually gain approval from the Delphic Oracle, it was to be one of the last colonies of Magna Graecia, only lasting about five years before succumbing to neighboring invasions. Thurii’s allegiance with Rome led to the Pyrrhic War from 280-275 B.C.
Greece suffered a lot during this period, including not only attacks from Persia, but also Italy as well as Carthage – most notably the second Punic War, during which Hannibal demolished the Greek colonies.
Meanwhile, Rome, which had become a new power by 300 B.C., was busy forging alliances among the coastal city-states of Magna Graecia. The old independent Greek colonies along the coast of Southern Italy soon lost their independence and became supporters of the Pax Romana. Once Central Italy and Carthage had formally established themselves, it pretty much spelled the end of Greek maritime rule, and Greece lost hold of their Italian colonies. They were too busy defending themselves from being cleaned out by invaders on all sides.
The Romans finally conquered Greece in 146 B.C. at the Battle of Corinth.
Although the independent Greek spirit was officially subdued in Southern Italy, it had forever transformed the country. The cultivation of the vine and olives, which the first Greek settlers had brought with them, survived – along with many of their gods, such as Apollo and Heracles, who soon became Italian characters.
In the Middle Ages, Constantinople took control Eastern Italy, and there was a sharp divide among Italians. Western non-Greek Italy, for instance, did not share the language of eastern Italians, and remained separated.
These findings provided the seeds of one of the most important cultural movements in Western civilization. Boccaccio’s discoveries also coincided with the end of the Dark Ages, when royal power was finally replaced with secular societies, and the Greek spirit officially returned to Rome in the “re-birth” of classical culture that we know as the Renaissance.
Magna Grecia, in a way, lived on in her successors, much to our everlasting benefit.
Before the time of a democratic Athens, or a conquering Alexander the Great, there existed a fledgling Greek society that remains shrouded in mystery. A time so mysterious, that it was often regarded by the Classical Greeks as a time constructed by myth more than by man. It was a civilization that appeared from nothing, building palatial city-states and expanding trade across the known world. They conquered neighboring societies and waged wars that would become legend hundreds of years later. They were the Mycenaeans. A society that once ruled the Late Bronze Age of Greece, they promptly vanished from history and slowly faded into legend.
The Bronze Age of ancient Greece, which lasted from about 3000 to 1200 BCE, is the historical backdrop for much of Greek mythology as well as the Homeric epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. It was a time period that fascinated the classical Greeks and prompted many stories of Trojan wars and meddling gods. And for the longest time that is what people believed they were, stories. It wasn’t until 1872 that Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman turned archaeologist, uncovered a Bronze Age, walled citadel that would be identified as the ancient city of Troy.
Four years later Schliemann began excavation of the fabled city of Mycenae in southern Greece which, according to legend, had been ruled by King Agamemnon, the conqueror of Troy.Lavish tombs filled with gold were quickly uncovered. Schliemann even uncovered a gold burial mask that he believed had once belonged to Agamemnon himself. It became clear that the stories of the ancients had been more than myth. Because of the numerous accomplishments and the serious impact this civilization had on shaping later Greek history, the tail end of the Bronze Age is often referred to as The Mycenaean Age.
The Mycenaean civilization sprang to life suddenly in southern and central Greece in about 1600 BCE. Developing from seemingly nothing, this civilization would grow to prominence and become one of the most dominant civilizations of the in Aegean for hundreds of years. It is believed that the Mycenaean civilization owes much of it’s growth to the neighboring, Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. It is believed that trade relations between Crete and mainland Greece began around 2000 BCE and would transform an infantile collection of tribes into a flourishing Bronze Age civilization.
Along with goods for trade, the Minoans seemingly transported their entire societal structure to the fledgling Mycenaeans. The Mycenaeans accepted gladly and adopted much of Minoan culture; including their writing system, their city-state model, as well as their architecture. It was in this way that the Mycenaeans took the dramatic steps from clustered tribes to advanced society. The similarities between the Minoans ans the Mycenaeans were so striking that the early archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, concluded that the palaces of mainland Greece had to have been conquered and occupied by Cretan kings. This idea was largely accepted for several decades.
Mask of Agamemnon
It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that Michael Ventris, a talented British linguist, decoded several tablets found at the palace complex of Pylos on the south-western mainland of Greece. He discovered that the writing, although using Minoan style, was actually written in Greek. This means that it was not the Minoans that invaded the Mycenaeans. It was main land Greece that invaded the island nation of Crete. This would explain why almost every Minoan palace was burned to the ground around 1490. Cnossus, the legendary palace of King Minos, is one of the few remaining structures that was spared by the Mycenaean invaders.
During the height of the Mycenaean reign, palaces extended throughout southern and central Greece. Trade was established in all directions including modern day Italy, Turkey and Egypt. From bronze weapons and armor found in tombs, as well as from frescos and vase paintings, we know that the Mycenaeans were capable of conducting warfare on a large scale. The invention of the chariot around 1600 BCE, allowed for brutal charges against enemy lines. Similar to stories told in The Iliad, it is believed that military leaders would have fought alongside infantry during the numerous military engagements.
Achilles from the Iliad
The Mycenaean civilization would reach a peak in 1300 BCE and would most likely have been one of the dominant empires in the Aegean region. It is strange then, that only 100 years later, around 1200 BCE, the civilization began to disappear. The Mycenaean palaces, still functioning and filled with treasure, were abandoned. Villages and towns were burned to the ground and the once content civilians were scattered across Greece. By the end of the 12th century, the palace system that had constituted the power of the Mycenaean civilization, had vanished.
The Greeks were not alone in their suffering. Around 1200, much of the eastern Mediterranean region was overwhelmed with turmoil. Civilizations in Italy, Anatolia and Syria were slowly destroyed by this new menace that had consumed the land. The kingdom of Egypt was one of the few civilizations that managed to repel these mysterious invaders. Egypt was attacked numerous times in the early 12th century, yet managed to maintain control over their empire. Ancient Egyptian texts describe the attackers as “men from the northern lands” and “people of the countries of the sea”.
Interestingly enough; at this same time the ancient city of Troy fell to invaders and was burned around 1250 BCE. Homer would then seem to suggest that it was the Mycenaeans who were the invaders who tried, and failed, to conquer Egypt. The Greek civilization would have been damaged by a costly war and become easy prey for marauding bands of warriors from the north and west of Greece. Still other’s believe that the Mycenaean civilization self destructed, in a manner of speaking. Wars between palace-states, slave revolts, or inappropriate agricultural practices could have lead to a weakened Mycenaean empire which would then be vulnerable to other attackers.
We may never know what truly killed the Mycenaean civilization so abruptly and with such finality. A civilization that rose to prominence in 1600 BCE, they would remain intact for only 400 years. Their sudden disappearance would plunge Greece into a dark age for hundreds of years. And when civilization did begin to reform with the coming of the Archaic and then Classical periods of Greece, it would be so different from the Mycenaeans that the Greeks, when the looked back on their past, would imagine it as something of a dream world where gods and men mingled together, slowly shaping the future.