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History of Ancient Greece. Classic period. (General overview)

Socio-political basis of the classical period

Polis structure

The classical period in the history of Ancient Greece, according to the accepted periodization, covers the time from the turn of the VI-V centuries to 338 BC. This is the time of the highest rise of Greece, the full flowering of all those phenomena that were formed in the archaic era, the time of the domination of such a peculiar form of socio-economic and political organization of society as the polis. According to many researchers, it is the polis form of the organization of society that explains the main features of the development of ancient Greek society, including the nature of culture and art.

Athena Promachos. Bronze. 450 BC.

Athena Promachos. Bronze. 450 BC.

Usually, a polis is defined as a civil community, thereby emphasizing its two elements: the communal nature of this social organism and the uniqueness of this community, which differs from other types of communities (tribal, family, territorial, etc.). The main feature of the ancient civil community was that it was based on the ancient form of ownership. It is distinguished from other forms of property: the dual nature, the dialectical unity of the public and private principles of property. This feature of the ancient form of ownership explains the main features of the ancient Greek polis. First of all, the coincidence in principle of the political collective (the collective of full-fledged citizens) and the collective of land owners, the interdependence of the civil status and the right of ownership of land. All groups of the population that do not have civil rights are excluded from the right to own land. There is also an inverse relationship, although it is not so pronounced: in many policies, the loss of a plot of land meant the loss of political rights. The Polis, as a collective of citizens, had the right of supreme ownership of the land. The mutual conditionality of land ownership and civil status, the coincidence in principle of social and political structures, led to the fact that citizens had, ideally, equal political rights. In polis there were various governing bodies (council, magistrates), but the supreme body (even in polis with clearly oligarchic tendencies) was always the people’s Assembly, which had the right to make the final decision on all the most important issues. This determines the democratic trend in the development of ancient Greek society. Another important feature of the polis was the coincidence of political and military organizations. The armed forces of the civil community — the militia of citizens. The citizen-owner was at the same time a warrior, who ensured the inviolability of the policy and thus of his personal property.

The dying warrior. Detail of the western temple of Athena on Aegina. Around 500-480 BC.

dying warrior. Detail of the western temple of Athena on Aegina. Around 500-480 BC.

The economy of the polis was based primarily on agriculture, which represented the main sphere of employment of the citizen. Even in the most economically developed polis, such as Athens, the vast majority of citizens were engaged in agriculture. The main economic principle of the policy is the idea of autarky, i.e. self-sufficiency. Autarky served as the economic foundation of freedom. Neither the individual nor the polis as a whole felt completely free if their means of subsistence depended on someone else. In accordance with these principles, a polis system of values was also developed, which continued to exist and influence even when the conditions of life changed. The most important element of this system of values was the firm belief that the policy is the highest good, that the existence of a person outside its framework is impossible, that the well — being of an individual depends on the well-being of the policy. This also included the idea of the superiority of agricultural labor over all other activities, the condemnation of the desire for profit, the desire to keep the economic basis and all other living conditions unchanged, the priority of traditions. In general, the polis appears to us as a kind of” peasant republic ” with all the features inherent in such a social organism.

Classic type of slavery

Another important phenomenon is characteristic of this era: the beginning of widespread classical-type slavery in Greece. There were two main forms of slavery:

  • slavery of the type of Helotia, attested not only in Sparta, but also in a number of other agricultural areas,
  • and slavery of the classical type, most common in economically developed centers.

In classical slavery (best known from the example of Athens), the slave is not only deprived of ownership of the tools and means of production, but also represents the “talking tool” itself and as such is completely owned by his master. The right of ownership of the slave owner to the slave is not limited by anything. The children of the slaves were called offspring and also became slaves. Slaves of the classical type in Greece, as a rule, were not native to it, they were captured in other countries during military operations and pirate raids. Then they entered the slave markets, becoming a living commodity. The polis is transformed into a” machine ” that ensures the domination of slaveholders over slaves. Formed due to a number of features of the natural conditions of Hellas and the peculiarity of its socio-economic and political development, the polis was a phenomenon almost unknown in the world of ancient civilizations of the Near East, sharply different from the forms of social organization that existed there. The formation and development of the polis was a phenomenon of world-historical significance, since the polis world created a fundamentally new civilization, a new variant of the development of the slave-owning system.

The struggle with Persia

The head of a deity. A Roman copy from the original of the fifth century BC.

head of a deity. A Roman copy from the original of the fifth century BC.

Already at the very beginning, the polis civilization had to defend its identity and the right to exist in the struggle against the “world” Achaemenid power, which was expanding to the West. The reason for the war was the revolt of the Greek cities of Asia Minor against the power of the Persians in 500 BC. e. The unequal struggle that lasted for five years ended in the defeat of the Greeks. Using as a pretext the aid of the rebels from some of the polis of the Balkan Peninsula, the Persians increased their pressure on the West. In 490 BC. The Persian army landed at Attica, near Marathon, but was defeated in the battle that took place here. In 480 BC, a huge Persian army and fleet under the leadership of King Xerxes again invaded Greece. Some Greeks recognized the Persian power, others remained neutral, and only a small number of polis, led by Sparta and Athens, were determined to fight to the end for their freedom. Despite the heroic resistance of a detachment of Spartans led by King Leonidas in the Thermopylae Gorge, the Persians broke into Central Greece. The population of Athens fled, the conquerors captured the city and plundered it. But the further advance of the Persians was stopped by the victory of the Greek fleet at the island of Salamis. The decisive role in this battle was played by the Athenian fleet, built between 490 and 480 BC at the initiative of the prominent Athenian politician Themistocles. The main events took place in 479 BC, when the Persians suffered two defeats — both on land and at sea. The Persian troops left Greece, and the Greek cities of Asia Minor were liberated. Military operations continued for another 30 years, but the course of the war radically changed. Greece was able to defend its independence, the world of policies proved its viability.

Greece after the victory over Persia

A woman's head. Around 420 BC

A woman’s head. Around 420 BC

These successes of the Greeks were important. One of them is psychological. The Greeks, especially those of the polis that had fought the Persians from the very beginning, were proud of their victory over the powerful Achaemenid power, convinced that freedom had given them victory, and the Persians were defeated because they were all slaves of the “great” king. The previously formed idea of the superiority of the Greeks over the rest of the peoples in the course of this war grew into a belief.

The Greco-Persian wars had a significant impact on the socio-economic development of Hellas. Especially important was the second stage of the war, when the Greeks won victories and turned numerous prisoners of war into slaves. The price of slaves was falling, allowing middle-class people to purchase them. Thus, the Greco-Persian wars contributed to the widespread spread of slavery in Greece.

The Rise of Athens

The consequences of the Greco-Persian wars were most pronounced in Athens. The subsequent period is the time of the predominance of Athens, its great influence on the fate of the entire Mediterranean world. The development of Athens should be viewed from the point of view of evolution in three closely interrelated areas:

  1. foreign policy (the creation of the Athenian sea power),
  2. economic (the transformation of Athens into the largest economic center of Hellas), domestic
  3. political (the strengthening of the Athenian slave-owning democracy).

During the war with Persia, an alliance of equal polis with the center on the island of Delos — the so-called Delos Sea Union-emerged to fight it, which gradually fell under the control of Athens. The union was dominated by coastal and island states. Their economy was closely linked to the sea and maritime trade, so the Athenians ‘ dominance of the sea made them dependent on Athens. Over time, the Athenians began to manage the allied treasury themselves, setting the size of the allies ‘ contributions alone. Athenian colonists — cleruhi-were brought to the lands of the allied polis. The Delos Maritime Union gradually developed into the Athenian Maritime power; at its height, it numbered about 250 polis. Relying on the resources of the union, Athens pursued a great-power policy, but they repeatedly had to overcome the resistance of the allies, dissatisfied with their subordinate position.

Economic growth

Zeus carrying Ganymede. Around 470 BC.

Zeus carrying Ganymede. Around 470 BC.

After the expulsion of the Persians from Greece, the economy boomed. In agriculture, slave labor became widely used, and almost every farm now has slaves. However, large slave farms were an exception, the main producer was the average peasant. The economy itself is now becoming commercial in nature, grain crops have decreased, and the area occupied by grapes and olives has expanded. A significant part of the projection was sold on the domestic market, and a part was exported. Handicraft production is undergoing even greater changes, which was facilitated by the special position of Athens as the largest center, which united many cities of Hellas around it. Due to the fact that the basis of the power of Athens was the fleet, shipbuilding and related crafts are rapidly developing. The leaders of the Athenian democracy sought to make their city the most beautiful in Hellas, a grandiose construction program was carried out, which caused the rise of the construction business — from work in quarries to processing ivory and gilding statues. An important branch of the economy of Athens was mining – in the territory of Attica there were Lavrion mines, where silver was extracted. In Athens, workshops with two or three workers predominated; in some industries, the specifics of production and the degree of division of labor achieved required more manufacturers. According to the calculations of modern researchers, for the normal functioning of the workshop for processing the ore extracted in Lavrion, an average of 33 workers were needed. Slave labor in handicraft production was used much more widely than in agriculture. In the workshops, as a rule, the master himself worked-a free man with one or two slaves. The slaves were inexpensive, and after two or three years of work, the costs paid off. They paid dearly only for trained slaves who had some specialty. The large workshops were almost exclusively occupied by slaves. Almost purely slave labor was in the mines and workshops for processing ore — the most labor-intensive sectors of the economy. The development of handicrafts and the increase in the marketability of agriculture contributed to the development of exchange. With admiration, the comedian Hermippus tells about the goods that were brought from all over the then world to the Athenian port of Piraeus:

Cyrene sends the hilts and skins of oxen for swords, Mackerel and corned beef are brought from the Hellespont, and from Italy — cattle and cereals made of crushed wheat; From Syracuse — Sicilian pigs and cheese are brought to us, Ship’s rigging, canvas and papyrus are brought from Egypt, And incense is brought from Syria… From Crete the beautiful send a cypress tree for the gods of the many-honored. Livia sends us ivory for handicrafts, Rhodes-raisins and figs, plunging us into a drunken slumber. Sweet chestnuts and almonds, sparkling with emeralds, are imported from Paphlagonia; dates and flour are sent by the Phoenicians, and Carthage supplies carpets and colored pillows.

On the basis of this passage, we can also judge about a certain specialization of production in certain areas of the then world.

Athenian Democracy

Athena Promachos (reconstruction)

Athena Promachos (reconstruction)

The further development of the Athenian democracy is also connected with the foreign policy success of Athens and its growing role as the largest economic center. In the middle of the V century BC, a number of political reforms were carried out, as a result of which the democratic system was finally formed in Athens. Ancient Greek, particularly Athenian, democracy was an outstanding phenomenon in the history of mankind, because not only the very concept of “democracy” (narodopravstvo) appeared for the first time, but also this system itself was consistently implemented. At the same time, it was a democracy for a minority, since it extended only to citizens. Political rights were not enjoyed by women, the Meteks were foreigners who lived permanently in Athens and made up a significant percentage of the population. Neither did the slaves have any political rights. Moreover, democracy was a kind of reaction to the development of slavery, ultimately representing a form of organization of slaveholders. The heyday of Athens is associated with the name of one of the greatest figures of antiquity, the universally recognized leader of Athenian democracy — Pericles. A talented, well-educated man, a brilliant orator, he was able to convince his listeners of his rightness by the power of eloquence. Pericles sought not only to consolidate democracy and strengthen the military and political power of Athens, but also to turn his city into the center of the enlightenment of Hellas. Famous cultural figures of the time gathered in his house, Pericles was friends with the historian Herodotus, the tragedian Sophocles, and the sculptor Phidias. Honest and loyal to his native polis and its democratic system, Pericles enjoyed the great popularity of demos.

The internal political crisis of Hellas and the Peloponnesian War of 431-404 BC.

The strengthening of the Athenian Maritime Union, the growing strength of Athens, caused concern in many polis, increasing internal tensions in Greece. The most important opponent of Athens was Sparta and the Peloponnesian Alliance led by it. This alliance was quite diverse: it included Sparta with its agrarian economy, and such advanced economic policies as Corinth and Megara, and small poor policies of Achaia and Arcadia. The main goal of the union, as modern researchers note, was to preserve the stability of the political and social situation. The Spartans were afraid that any change in internal and external conditions could lead to a weakening of their position and cause the rise of the Helot struggle. These sentiments were strengthened after Athens supported the Helot rebels, and then helped the remnants of the rebels to settle in the city of Naupakta. The strengthening of Athens was perceived by Sparta as a challenge. Corinth also feared him. Already in the archaic era, there was a peculiar division of “zones of influence” between these centers: Athens oriented its interests to the east and north, Corinth-to the west. However, in the V century BC. Athens gradually penetrates to the west, mastering the routes leading to Sicily and Southern Italy. All these contradictions matured gradually, repeatedly leading to conflicts, and finally, in 431 BC, a war broke out between the Peloponnesian and Athenian naval alliances, which engulfed all of Greece and was called the Peloponnesian War.

Both unions set themselves resolute goals, and the war continued with a short period of truce for as long as 27 years, characterized by extreme bitterness. In the end, the defeat of Athens was predetermined by the actions of Spartan diplomacy, which was able to receive significant monetary subsidies from Persia. It was on the Persian gold that the Spartans created the fleet that destroyed the naval forces of Athens. However, for this help, Sparta promised to give the Greek cities of Asia Minor to Persia. Spartan troops under the command of the talented general and diplomat Lysander besieged Athens, and in 404 BC. Finally, having lost all hope of success, the Athenians were forced to surrender. This led to a change in the political system. The oligarchs were in power, who subjected their opponents to brutal persecution. The defeat of Athens radically changed the situation in Greece. The Athenian Maritime Union ceased to exist. The democratic regimes established in most of the Greek polis were replaced by oligarchic ones based on Spartan garrisons. The hegemony in the Greek world passed to Sparta. The Peloponnesian War was the most important frontier in the history of classical Greece, and it marked the beginning of the polis crisis.

Culture of the Classical period

The girl's head. Roman copy. 5th century BC

The girl’s head. Roman copy. 5th century BC

Urban planning

The time of the highest rise of Greek culture is considered to be the V century BC. The formed polis with its clear tendencies towards democracy and at the same time the vitality of aristocratic ethical ideas created the ideological ground on which the Greek culture of the classical era flourished. New trends are clearly visible in urban planning. Most Greek cities retained the traditional chaotic system of development with narrow, crooked streets and a lack of amenities. However, the regular planning system, born in the era of Greek colonization, is beginning to influence urban planning theory and practice. Apparently, in the V century BC, the creator of the theory of the regular layout of the city of Hippodamus lived. Under the influence of his ideas, Olynthus and Miletus, restored after the Persian defeat, were planned. Hippodamus ‘ theory was not limited to dividing the city into a grid of rectangular blocks separated by intersecting streets at right angles. It also included the idea of dividing the city territory into several districts that differed in their functions: the public center, the residential part, the port, commercial and industrial zones. The main type of public building was still the temple. In the first half of the fifth century BC, the most significant works of Dorian architecture were created: the majestic temples in Poseidonia in Southern Italy and the temple of Zeus in Olympia. The latter was considered the most remarkable of all the Hellenic sanctuaries. It contained a colossal statue of Zeus sitting on a throne, made of gold and ivory by the Athenian sculptor Phidias.

The Acropolis of Athens

The head of Athena. Roman copy. 5th century BC

The head of Athena. Roman copy. 5th century BC

A special place in the history of ancient Greek architecture is occupied by the complex of buildings on the Acropolis of Athens. Destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC, it was rebuilt throughout the V century BC. The ensemble of the Acropolis is considered the pinnacle of ancient Greek architecture, a symbol of the era of the highest prosperity and power of Athens. It included a number of structures: the main gate-Propylaea, the temple of Niki Apteros (Wingless Victory). The Erechtheion and the main temple of Athens, the Parthenon, also stood here. The construction of the Acropolis ensemble was carried out according to the program. In its creation, the leading role belonged to Pericles and the largest sculptor Phidias. The leaders of Athens sought to create a complex of sanctuaries that would not only glorify Athens, but also act as the religious center of the entire Athenian Maritime Union. The main structure of the Acropolis is the Parthenon. The ancient Greeks believed that the building of the temple represents the house of the deity, and this required a closed room with the main cult statue in the center. The Parthenon is the temple of the Virgin Athena (Parthenos), and therefore in the center of it was the Chrysoelephantine (ie. made of ivory and gold plates on a wooden base) statue of the goddess, made by Phidias. Unlike the Christian temples, the ancient Greek ones were not intended for performing prayers inside them. The people remained outside the temple during the religious activities, which caused the temple to be turned outside. The special purpose of the Parthenon was that it was built both as a monument designed to perpetuate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians, Greek culture over the barbarians, and as a symbol of the glory and greatness of the Athenian state — the head of the maritime union.

Olympic Zeus (reconstruction)

Olympic Zeus (reconstruction)

Placed on the top of the Acropolis rock, at an altitude of about 150 m above sea level, the Parthenon was visible not only from anywhere in the city, but also from the numerous ships that sailed to Athens. Built by the architects Ictinus and Kallikrates, the temple was a Doric peripterum surrounded by a colonnade of 46 columns. The temple had a rich sculptural design: 92 metopes and an Ionic relief frieze passing behind the colonnade around the perimeter of the building. Of course, such a grandiose work was beyond the power of one person, and a whole team of artists worked on the creation of sculptures and reliefs, but their true creator is rightly considered to be Phidias. He owns the overall composition and development of the entire sculptural decoration, part of which he performed himself. The Parthenon is one of the greatest works of world art. All of its sculptural design is designed to glorify the goddess Athena and her city — Athens. The theme of the eastern pediment is the birth of the beloved daughter of Zeus. On the western pediment, the master depicted the scene of the dispute between Athena and Poseidon for the domination of Attica. According to the myth, the dispute was won by Athena, who gave the inhabitants of this country an olive tree. It was a symbolic plot: at that time, the goddess Athena was perceived as the patroness of democracy, and Poseidon — as the patron of the aristocracy. The images on the metopes are associated with myths (the struggle of the gods with the Titans, the Athenian heroes with the Amazons, the battle of the Lapiths with the centaurs, the destruction of Troy by the Greeks), but the sculptors reinterpreted them. A single ideological basis unites all the plots: the struggle of light, good and civilization with the forces of darkness, savagery and backwardness. The gods, Lapiths, and Greeks are placed in a single semantic row, while the giants, centaurs, and Trojans are placed in another. All these myths contained the allegory of the struggle and victory of the Greeks over the Persians, which was well understood by contemporaries. The sculptural decoration of the Parthenon is completed by a frieze, which represents the solemn procession during the feast of the great Panathenaea, which was to be attended by both citizens of Athens, as well as Athenian Meteks and allied delegations. The Parthenon frieze is considered one of the pinnacles of classical art. With all its compositional unity, it impresses with its diversity, of more than five hundred figures of young men, elders, girls, on foot and on horseback, none repeats the other. With amazing skill, the movements of people and animals, full of dynamism, are transmitted. In addition to the statue of Athena for the Parthenon, Phidias made another one-a bronze figure, the first monument after the destruction of the Acropolis by the Persians, placed among its ruins in 465-455 BC. e. Phidias created a different image of the goddess – Athena Promachos( Athena-warrior), a formidable and stern defender of his city; She leans on her spear with her right hand, holds a shield in her left, and wears a helmet on her head. The figure of Athena seemed to reign over the city, and all who came up from the sea could see the top of the spear and the crest of the statue’s helmet glittering in the sun.


The statue of peplophora. Roman copy. 5th century BC

The statue of peplophora. Roman copy. 5th century BC

After the death of Phidias, a temple was erected near the Parthenon, dedicated simultaneously to Athena, Poseidon and the legendary king Erechtheus (hence its name — Erechtheon). It is built on the place where, according to legend, the dispute between Athena and Poseidon took place. In the floor of the temple there was a hole through which the trace on the rock, allegedly left by the trident of Poseidon, was shown, and near the temple there was a sacred olive tree. Erechtheion stands out for its unusual layout: it is asymmetrical, and its individual parts are located on different levels. Three different porticos abut its main part, of which the caryatid portico is particularly famous, where the roof-bearing columns are replaced by figures of girls slowly moving towards the Parthenon. Thus was created the magnificent ensemble of the Acropolis-buildings “grand in size and inimitable in beauty”, as the biographer of Pericles Plutarch wrote. Even in his time (and he lived in the first century A.D., that is, five centuries later), these works were admired, as if, in the words of Plutarch, they were ” imbued with the breath of eternal youth, have an ageless soul.” Sculpture and painting of Greece V century BC. they developed the traditions of the previous time. The main images were the gods and heroes-the patrons of the polis and the “ideal” citizens. However, art has made a step towards realism, which is associated with the spread of the idea of “mimesis” – similarity-as the main aesthetic category. The numbness of the figures and the schematicism inherent in archaic sculpture are overcome, and the statues become more realistic. The development of sculpture is associated in the V century BC with the names of three famous masters-Myron, Polycletus and Phidias. The most famous of the sculptures of Miron is considered to be “Discobolus” – an athlete at the time of discus throwing. The perfect body of an athlete at the moment of the highest tension is Myron’s favorite theme. In another famous work — the group of Athena and Marcia-the sculptor refers to a well-known myth to every Greek: Athena invented the flute, but when she saw how her face was disfigured during the game, she threw it in anger, cursing everyone who would play it. Myron pictured Athena hearing a noise as she left and half-turning—the forest deity Silenus Marsyas, who had crept up to the flute, recoiled, startled by Athena’s curse. The sculptor showed the struggle of two principles: Athens-the embodiment of reason and clarity – and Marcia-spontaneity. The figure of the goddess is slender, the lines of her body are smooth, while the movements of Marcia are impetuous. The images of animals created by Miron also aroused the admiration of contemporaries. There are, for example, more than thirty epigrams on the famous bronze statue of a heifer from Athens. Here is one of them:

Then graze your flock, shepherd, so that you can’t steal Myron’s heifer as if it were alive with other cattle.

In the work of Polycletus, the leading theme is the image of athletes, who were perceived as the embodiment of the best features of a citizen. The most famous are “Dorifor” and “Diadumen”. Dorifor is a mighty warrior with a spear, the embodiment of calm dignity, Diadumen is a slender young man who crowns himself with the armband of the winner in competitions. Grandeur, detachment, unearthly beauty-the characteristic features of the works of Phidias. We have already mentioned the sculptural works created by Phidias in Athens. The Greeks themselves considered the greatest creation of Phidias to be the statue of Olympian Zeus, placed in his temple in Olympia. It was made in the same technique as the statue of Athena on the Acropolis: the bare-chested figure, made of wood, was covered with ivory plates, the clothes — gold sheets. Sitting on the throne, Zeus held the figure of the goddess of victory Niki in his right hand, and the symbol of power — the rod — in his left. Phidias ‘ statue of Zeus was considered by the ancients to be one of the wonders of the world.

Did God descend to earth and reveal his image to you, Phidias, or did you ascend to heaven to see God yourself?

– wrote the poet Philip of Thessalonica, who lived five centuries later, conquered by her perfection. The tendency to realistic depiction of a person is also visible in the painting of the V century BC. Her most important achievements are associated with the name of Polygnotus and Apollodorus of Athens. Polygnot created multi-figure compositions, trying to convey the depth of space, the volume of the figures. Apollodorus discovered the effect of chiaroscuro, marking the beginning of painting in the modern sense of the word.

Vase painting

The so-called Erot Soranzo. Roman copy 5th century BC

The so-called Erot Soranzo. Roman copy 5th century BC

In the Greek vase painting of the V century BC, the red-figure style prevails. The outlines of the figures were outlined with black varnish, after which the entire background was painted over with varnish, and the figures retained the natural color of the clay. Unlike black-figure vases, which usually had a rather rich polychromy, the colorful range of red-figure vases is mainly two-color. In the painting of red-figure vases, the old system of belts is finally overcome, and most often the painting now represents a single composition of several figures, a mythological or everyday scene. New philosophical and moral ideas, searches that were embodied in various interpretations of well-known myths, in the works of famous tragedians, influenced art, including vase painting. The interpretation of mythological subjects deepens, and if earlier painting primarily obeyed the shape of the vessel, now it becomes self-sufficient. Images of everyday scenes have become more frequent. These are touching scenes of farewell to the loved ones of soldiers going on a campaign, and a variety of pictures of peaceful life: numerous images of young athletes, scenes of a feast, girls busy with the toilet. With all the variety of subjects, man dominates everywhere as the main theme of the artist. One of the largest Attic vase painters was Euphronius, in whose work genre scenes occupied a large place. As if he wanted to breathe life into his characters, he wrote the words he spoke next to each of them. A remarkable example of this kind of painting is kept in the Hermitage. Looking up at the flying swallow and pointing at it with his hand, the young man says: “Look: a swallow!” The man sitting next to him, turning to see the bird, confirms: “True, by Hercules!” And the boy, raising his hand, exclaims:” Here it is! “And the man ends the conversation:”It’s spring.” Some vase painters of that time were influenced by Polygnot, and their paintings allow us to judge the style of this famous artist.


Greek literature is also flourishing. The last and most outstanding singer of the Greek aristocracy, Pindar, composed solemn odes in honor of the winners of all-Hellenic sports competitions — Olympic, Pythian (in Delphi) , etc. Pindar does not describe the contests themselves; victory interests him as an opportunity to glorify valor in the person of the victor. Valor is not a personal quality of the winner, it is inherited in noble families by virtue of their divine origin. His epinikias become, as it were, a confession of an aristocratic worldview. V century BC. – the heyday of dramatic art. The most important dramatic genres were tragedy, whose subjects were myths about gods and heroes, and comedy, most often political. Every tragedy is a struggle, and the people who lead it are courageous, asserting the boundless ability of a person to withstand adversity in the name of other people, and above all their own people. The tragic hero struggles with various obstacles that hinder the free development of the individual, he rises up against injustice, stands for the triumph of good, for the world to become a better place, to awaken courage in people, to help them live. The hero’s struggle is hard and tragic, and the obstacles that he has to overcome are erected in his path by fate — a force against which he is helpless. But he enters into this struggle and leads it. The tragic hero is most often doomed to death, but his death does not cause despair, not horror, but admiration and faith in the strength of man, in the greatness of his spirit. This is the enduring value of ancient Greek tragedy.

The so-called Apollo of Piombino. Bronze. Around 475 BC.

The so-called Apollo of Piombino. Bronze. Around 475 BC.

The development of ancient Greek tragedy is associated with the names of three major playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.


Although in tragedies, the actors were usually gods and heroes, their problems are usually acutely modern, the mythological plot serves only as a form for expressing the struggle of ideas. So, in the trilogy “Oresteia” Aeschylus describes the events that took place in Mycenae after the end of the Trojan War, but for the Athenian viewer, the political ideas that the author wanted to express are important. He, for example, glorified the Areopagus, which in the conditions of the political struggle of that time meant the anti-democratic position of the playwright. Aeschylus was the founder of the civil tragedy in its ideological sound, a contemporary and participant in the Greco-Persian wars, a poet of the time of the formation of democracy in Athens. The main motive of his work is the glorification of civic courage and patriotism. One of the most remarkable heroes of the tragedies of Aeschylus — the irreconcilable god-fighter Prometheus-the personification of the creative forces of the Athenians. This is the image of an indomitable fighter for high ideals, for the happiness of people, the embodiment of reason, overcoming the power of nature, a symbol of the struggle for the liberation of humanity from tyranny, embodied in the image of a cruel and vindictive Zeus, to whose servile service Prometheus preferred torment:

Know well that I would not exchange My sorrows for servile service.


The tragedies of Sophocles express the artistic ideal that was developed by democratic Athens and found its plastic embodiment in the sculptures of Phidias. His images are deeply human, and the inner life of his characters is much richer than that of Aeschylus. Complicating the action of the tragedy by changing situations, Sophocles diversifies the experiences of his characters. His heroes are the bearers of high spiritual qualities, greatness and nobility. But Sophocles is inferior to Aeschylus in depth of thought and sharpness of problems. The merit of Sophocles before the world literature consists in the artistic images created by him. The images of Oedipus, Antigone, and Electra are incomparable in their monumentality and naturalness; artistically reinterpreted, they were repeatedly used in European literature — in the tragedies of Racine, Corneille, Voltaire, and others. Aeschylus and Sophocles are the creators of ancient tragedy in its classical form. Their works depicted mainly clashes on issues of ethics and morality. The conflict between the state and the race, freedom and despotism, unwritten and written law, suffering in the name of duty, the relationship between the subjective intentions of a person and the objective meaning of his actions — this is the range of topics in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles.


The head of the charioteer. Around 470 BC.

head of the charioteer. Around 470 BC.

The tragedies of Euripides reflect the crisis of the traditional polis ideology and the search for new foundations of the worldview. He was sensitive to the burning issues of political and social life, and his theater was a kind of encyclopedia of the intellectual movement of Greece in the second half of the fifth century BC. e. In the works of Euripides, a variety of social problems were raised, new ideas were presented and discussed. Ancient critics called Euripides “a philosopher on the stage.” The poet was not, however, a supporter of a certain philosophical doctrine, and his views were not consistent. His attitude towards Athenian democracy was ambivalent. He glorified it as a system of freedom and equality, but at the same time he was afraid of the poor “crowd” of citizens who decided issues in the people’s assemblies under the influence of demagogues. Through the work of Euripides passes another moment, characteristic of the period of the crisis of polis ideology — the interest in the individual with its subjective aspirations. It depicts people with their drives and impulses, joys and sufferings. Euripides is alien to the monumental images of Sophocles, raised high above the ordinary level. This distinction was pointed out by Sophocles himself, who defined his heroes as people “as they should be”, and the heroes of Euripides as people “as they really were”. The images created by him, especially female ones (Medea, Phaedra, Electra), differ in the depth of psychological characteristics. Euripides made the audience think about their place in society, about their attitude to life.


The most poignant genre in political terms was the attic comedy, which by origin and social sympathies was closest to the peasantry. The greatest representative of this comedy is Aristophanes, whose heyday falls on the years of the Peloponnesian War. The comedies of Aristophanes give a vivid idea of the journalistic orientation of the work of their creator. The leading theme of his comedies of those years is peace. Aristophanes is an opponent of war, who gave all the strength of his brilliant talent to the struggle for peace. The hero of one of his comedies — “The Acharnians” – Dikeopolis (a Just Citizen) makes peace with the neighboring polis and is blissful, while the boastful warrior Lamachus suffers from the hardships of war. War appears to the poet as an uninvited guest:

To those who are happy and contented, she suddenly bursts in And does dashing things, and brawls, and smashes, And fights. And try to say in a good way: “Lie down, take a zazdravny cup, drink sweet wine”, So it burns our fences even more fiercely, And even more relentlessly tramples, crushes the grapes.

In the comedy “Peace”, another peasant, Tregeus (the Vintner), procures peace for all of Greece. At his call, the farmers of Greece gather with picks and shovels on Olympus and free the goddess of peace, who was hidden by Polemos (War). Aristophanes perfectly conveys the hopes of ordinary peasants, anticipating the joy of peaceful labor:

Zeus sees, the hoe glitters with a sharpened blade And the pitchfork glitters in the sun with three teeth! How wonderfully, how elegantly, their ranks were lined up! How I long to get back to the fields!

The change in the political situation in Athens after its defeat in the Peloponnesian War was reflected in the character of Aristophanes ‘ comedies: political satire, its topicality and concreteness are weakening. But Aristophanes does not refuse to pose political and social problems in the form of a carnival plot typical of early comedy. In the comedy “Plutos”, the poor man Chremil captures the blind Plutos (Wealth), cures him from blindness, and everything in the world turns upside down: honest people begin to live in prosperity, poverty and injustice leave the city.

Vase in the form of a sphinx from Phanagoria. The turn of the V-IV centuries BC.

Vase in the form of a sphinx from Phanagoria. The turn of the V-IV centuries BC.

Aristophanes gives a bold satire on the political and cultural state of Athens at a time when democracy is beginning to experience a crisis. His comedies represent different strata of society: statesmen and generals, poets and philosophers, peasants and warriors, city dwellers and slaves. Aristophanes achieves sharp comic effects, combining the real and the fantastic and bringing the ridiculed idea to the point of absurdity. Aristophanes has a flexible and lively language, sometimes approaching the ordinary, sometimes very rude and primitive, sometimes parodically upbeat and rich in unexpected comedic word formations.


A feature of all ancient dramas was the choir, which accompanied the whole action with singing and dancing. Aeschylus introduced two actors instead of one, reducing the chorus parts and focusing on the dialogue, took the decisive step to transform the tragedy from mimic choral lyrics into a genuine drama. The play of the two actors made it possible to increase the tension of the action. The appearance of the third actor is an innovation of Sophocles, which made it possible to outline different lines of behavior in the same conflict. The female roles were played by men. The heroes of the tragedies performed in magnificent clothes, in thick-soled shoes (coturnas), which increased their height; their faces were covered with masks, the expression of which corresponded to the character of the character. The comic actors were dressed in deliberately ugly buffoonish outfits. Unlike modern theater in Greece, there were no permanent troupes, and professional actors did not appear immediately. Initially, the citizens themselves played, sang and danced, and costumes, masks and very simple decorations were prepared for each production. The financing and organization of theatrical performances was one of the duties (liturgies) of the wealthiest citizens (the so-called choregia): the theater was a state institution.

Red- figured pelica. IV century BC.

figured pelica. IV century BC.

The theatrical performances, which usually lasted for three days during national public holidays and lasted from sunrise to sunset, were of the nature of competitions. Three tragic poets and three comic poets were allowed to compete, and each tragedian had to present three tragedies and one so-called satire drama. Every morning, taking food and a seat cushion with them, everyone gathered in the theater to inspire the performers and empathize with them, while the winners were determined by special judges. In Pericles ‘ Athens, the old tragedies and comedies were not usually repeated — everyone gathered for the performance. This explains the huge number of works created by tragedians. According to the calculations of contemporaries Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, each of them accounted for more than 90 works. The ancient Greek theater, especially the Athenian theater, was closely connected with the life of the polis, being essentially the second popular assembly, where the most burning issues were discussed. The resemblance to the people’s assembly was enhanced by the fact that theatrical performances were given on holidays.

Historical knowledge

Red-figure lekif. Beginning of the IV century BC.

lekif. Beginning of the IV century BC.


In the V century BC, two of the greatest Greek historians — Herodotus and Thucydides-created their works. The work of Herodotus was prepared by the activity of logographers. He is rightly called the “father of history”, although it would be no less fair to call him the “father of geography”. His main task, he saw, was to tell about the greatest event of his time — the wars of the Greeks with the Persians. But the Persian state then included many lands and many peoples of the Near East-from the Aegean Sea to Western India. Therefore, Herodotus turns to these peoples, he wants to learn and tell everything about them. This prompted Herodotus to preface the actual history of the Greco-Persian wars with research on all the peoples who attacked Greece, about which the Greeks, his fellow citizens, knew little. Herodotus was interested not only in history itself, but also in what we call geography and ethnography. Herodotus was attracted to everything: customs, beliefs, entertainment, monuments of the past, nature-rivers, climate, plants, animals, but above all and most of all — people, their activities and life. In the words of a contemporary researcher, “in his desire to portray people of all countries, of all peoples, Herodotus is one of the most attractive figures of ancient humanism.” Herodotus is inquisitive, trusting, but in relation to what he observed himself, he was rarely wrong. Traveling a lot, he not only saw a lot, but also asked a lot about it, and he told everything he heard without any critical analysis, and he was especially attracted to the wonderful, incredible. Herodotus ‘ work is therefore a bizarre mixture of scientific honesty and credulity. Although in the foreground of his explanation of the causes of historical events is the activity of individual personalities, Herodotus is quite clearly aware of some of the underlying causes of events.


The development of historiography in this period is characterized by the strengthening of the rationalist principle, the desire to identify the real causes of what happened. This is especially evident in Thucydides. Thucydides ‘ work is a contemporary history of the Peloponnesian War, only at the very beginning of his work he gives a very brief outline of the history of Greece from ancient times. Thucydides ‘ sources are extensive. A participant in the war himself, he cites the original texts of the treaties, inscriptions, and his personal life has developed in such a way that he was able to get acquainted with the materials originating from both fighting camps. He collected information from the participants of the events described and from people who were close to them. Thucydides can be considered the ancestor of historical criticism.

Red-figure calpid. IV century BC.

calpid. IV century BC.

As the historian himself wrote, “as for the events that took place during the war, I did not consider it my task to write down what I learned from the first person I met, or what I could assume, but I wrote down the events that I witnessed myself, and what I heard from others, after as accurate as possible research on each fact individually taken.” Thucydides seeks to create a true history of the Peloponnesian War, to identify the struggling political forces and to make the reader understand the course of events. He tries to explain everything that happened by the nature of man, transfers the natural-scientific method to the sphere of political history; distinguishes between the objective causes of war, which he puts in connection with this nature, and the immediate causes. According to human nature, collectives of people also act, so behind all political events, as Thucydides believes, one can see the rational, logical. He does not deny the role of blind forces, natural events, and chance. The interaction of the rational and the irrational forms, according to Thucydides, a real historical process. The political views of Thucydides, a true Athenian of the age of Pericles, affected his interpretation of a number of events, but for all his love for his fellow citizens, Thucydides also pays tribute to their opponents. Objectivity is one of the valuable and attractive aspects of his work.



A complex evolution takes place in the philosophical thought of Ancient Greece. At the turn of the archaic and classical eras, Heraclitus of Ephesus created, in whose works the search for natural philosophers of the previous time was completed. The main thing in the concept of Heraclitus is the statement that the supreme law of nature is the eternal process of movement and change. Heraclitus was the first to come up with the idea of the dialectical development of the material world as an inherent regularity of matter.

The head of a fist fighter from Olympia. Bronze. 330 BC.

head of a fist fighter from Olympia. Bronze. 330 BC.

The development of spontaneous materialism, born in Ionian natural philosophy, can be traced in the works of Empedocles and Anaxagoras. The materialistic understanding of the world in ancient Greek philosophy reached its peak in Leucippus and especially in Democritus. The main feature of Democritus ‘ teaching is the combination of sequential atomism with the idea of dialectical development.


A peculiar reaction to the primacy of natural philosophical problems turned out to be the sophistic movement, which began in the middle of the V century BC. Sophists were primarily interested in epistemological problems: the nature of human knowledge, the criteria for its truth or falsity. The sophists have taken a further step in the development of philosophy, for natural philosophy has not yet raised these problems. At the same time, sophistry was born of the practical needs of the polis: since the power in it ultimately belonged to the people’s assembly, in so far as every political figure had to be able to refute the arguments of his opponent by showing their falsity, to justify his position by proving its truth. Thus the development of philosophy, combined with the demands of political practice, gave rise to a sophistic movement, the development of which is primarily associated with the names of Protagoras and Gorgias. “Man is the measure of all things,” Protagoras, one of the greatest sophists, the ideologist of democracy, taught. But this thesis, regardless of Protagoras ‘ subjective political sympathies, contrasted the individual with the collective, and introduced skepticism and relativism into ethics. In the political theories of the sophists and in their rhetorical sophistication, the mass of Athenian citizens saw, not without reason, an instrument for undermining democracy, a means of deceiving the people.


Meanwhile, the idealistic philosophy of Socrates emerged from the struggle with the sophistic movement. Having created the “Socratic” method of disputing, he argued that truth is born only in a dispute, in which the wise man, using a series of leading questions, forces his opponents to recognize first the wrongness of their own positions, and then the justice of their opponent’s views. The wise man, according to Socrates, comes to the truth by self-knowledge, and then by the knowledge of the objectively existing spirit, the objectively existing truth.

A woman fighting a centaur. The pediment of the temple of Zeus in Olympia. Around 460 BC.

A woman fighting a centaur. The pediment of the temple of Zeus in Olympia. Around 460 BC.

The most important thing in Socrates ‘ general political views was the idea of professional knowledge, from which it was concluded that a person who does not engage in political activity professionally has no right to judge about it. This was a challenge to the basic principles of Athenian democracy.

Other sciences and materialism

The most important feature of the development of science was the separation of separate sciences from natural philosophy that took place in the V century BC. The progress in medicine, primarily related to the activities of Hippocrates, is indicative. Hippocratic medicine is characterized by strict rationalism. According to Hippocrates, all diseases are caused by natural causes. He demanded from the doctor an individual approach to the patient, taking into account the characteristics of both the patient himself and his natural habitat.

Mathematics developed primarily under the influence of Pythagorean scientists. In the V century BC, it became an independent scientific discipline, ceasing to be the prerogative of the Pythagoreans alone, becoming the subject of professional activity of scientists who did not adhere to any philosophical direction. The progress of mathematical knowledge is especially noticeable in arithmetic, geometry, and stereometry. Significant advances in astronomy also date back to the fifth century BC.

Holidays and celebrations in Ancient Greece

The picture of the cultural life of the Greek city will be incomplete, if not to say about the holidays. So, in Athens, about 60 holidays were celebrated, some of them lasted for several days. The most important are the Dionysiae, the Lenaeus, and the Great Panathenaea. It was in the holidays that the national character of Greek culture, its democracy and the spirit of competition inherent in the life of the ancient Greeks, the desire to surpass others and thereby achieve the highest perfection, were clearly manifested. The festivities included all kinds of competitions, mass dances, costumed processions, and dramatic performances. Especially brilliant were the Great Panathenaea, celebrated every four years. On these days, there was a parade of horsemen, competitions of athletes — running, running with torches in the dark, wrestling, fist fighting, recitations of rhapsodies, especially excerpts from the “Iliad” and “Odyssey”. The most important and final part of the festival is the solemn procession to the Acropolis to put on the ancient wooden statue of Athena, standing in the Erechtheion, the sacred gold-woven clothes, each time made by Athenian girls.

Olympic Games

Among the Greek holidays, the most famous were the Olympic Games, which were held every four years in the south of Greece, in Olympia. Judges were appointed in advance, who carefully studied their rules. Special messengers were sent from Olympia, going from city to city, inviting them to participate in the competitions and proclaiming a sacred truce, since since the announcement of the holy month of the games, all hostile actions among the Greeks had ceased. Only free Greeks were allowed to participate in them, who were never convicted in court and were not convicted of dishonorable acts. Women were not allowed to show themselves in Olympia during the Games on pain of death. The rules forbade killing your opponent, resorting to illegal techniques, arguing with the judges. Participants of the competitions arrived in Olympia in advance and passed training here.

Panathenaic amphora. Around 500 BC.

Panathenaic amphora. Around 500 BC.

Olympia itself was not a city, but a sacred district. There were numerous temples, altars, houses of priests, palaestra, gymnasium, hippodrome, i.e. buildings for training and competitions. Usually deserted, Olympia was transformed during the holidays. Crowds of people flocked here from all over the Greek world — friends, relatives, fans of athletes and just everyone who wanted to take part in this joyful and bright action. Merchants also arrived: after all, the Olympic Games were always accompanied by a fair. There was activity everywhere. There was a lot to see in Olympia: the best architects and sculptors worked on its decoration. You could admire temples, altars, statues of gods and athletes, listen to famous speakers and philosophers, and see the sacrifices. Delegations from the cities in festive clothes carried various gifts, led sacrificial animals decorated with ribbons and wreaths. But the focus was on the competitions that took up three of the five days allotted for the festival, and included chariot races, pentathlon (running, jumping, discus throwing, javelin throwing, and wrestling), boys ‘ competition, fistfight, pankratii (representing a combination of boxing and wrestling), and running in full armor.

The most ancient form of competition — chariots drawn by four horses-has always remained the most popular with the audience and the most dangerous test. The winners of the games (Olympionics) were awarded with wreaths made of the leaves of a wild olive tree that grew near the temple of Zeus. On the last day of the festival, a solemn procession was held in honor of the winners, and the return of Olympionik to his native polis turned into a real triumph. The whole city came out to meet him, the city authorities held a feast at which all the citizens were present, one statue of him was placed in the city square, another in the Olympia. Throughout his life, Olympian enjoyed special respect — he had a place of honor in the theater, he was asked for advice, etc.

Brief conclusion

The highest rise of Greek culture in the V century BC was mainly associated with the heyday of the classical polis. The strengthening of democracy, the participation in the political life of the majority of free citizens, and at the same time the fierce political and social conflicts that require the self — determination of each individual, the progress of positive science, the expansion of geographical horizons, the awareness of the superiority of one’s way of life over others-all this gave rise to the peculiar features of the culture of classical Greece.

The crisis of the classical policy

The tombstone of Philostrata. V century BC.

The tombstone of Philostrata. V century BC.

In modern antiquity, the IV century BC is defined as the time of the crisis of the ancient Greek polis. The crisis affected Athens most strongly, and it took place in the context of an economic recovery. The crisis phenomena were manifested primarily in the fact that contradictions developed between the traditional socio-economic structure of the polis and the nature of its economic development. The polis, which emerged as a community of agricultural citizens, became a brake on the development of commodity-money relations. The policy principles prevented a large part of the wealthy residents of Athens, who were not citizens, from engaging in business activities, since they could not receive land as collateral — the main form of ownership of citizens. The possibility of exploiting the land plots in Lavrion was also closed to them. All this was all the more important because craft, trade, and credit are the main areas of activity of the Meteks. The contradictions noted were the result of economic progress and changes in the nature of property due to this:

  • The polis had previously been dominated by its ancient form, but
  • now a new form was increasingly taking shape, approaching full private ownership.

Changes were also taking place in the political sphere. The old division of citizenship into supporters of the oligarchy and supporters of democracy has been replaced by a new one. Now the society was breaking up into more fragmented groups with their own special interests. Each of the groups sought to direct the policy of the Athenian polis in a way that was beneficial to it. If in Athens the struggle among the citizens resulted in fierce debates in the people’s assembly, in lawsuits, and the expulsion of political opponents, in other polis it often came to civil wars. In each state, “there are two states hostile to each other: one — the poor, the other — the rich” — this is how Plato characterized the situation.

Mercenary activities

In the fourth century BC, a tyranny was revived in Greece, which, in contrast to the earlier one, is usually called the younger tyranny. In the system of the tyrannical regime, a large role was played by mercenaries, for the maintenance of which considerable funds were spent. It was not only the tyrants who experienced constant financial difficulties. The same situation was in other policies, becoming especially difficult during wars: citizens did not want and could not fight, in the armed forces of a number of policies, a large role was played by mercenaries who had to be paid. This is how the principle arises: war must feed itself. Mercenary activity was one of the most striking manifestations of the crisis. The most astute ideologists of the polis of that time, such as the Athenian orator Isocrates, saw in the mercenaries “the plague of all Hellas”. Traditional polis morality is beginning to give way to individualism. Money becomes a measure of all the values that determine a person’s place in society. In one of the comedies of the Athenian comedian of the second half of the IV century BC Menander says very eloquently:

But for me, the only gods that are useful to Us are silver and gold. As soon as you bring them into the house — whatever you pray for, you will have everything you want: Land, houses, maids, jewelry. Friends, witnesses, and judges-just pay! The gods will also come to serve you.

A series of civil wars in Hellas

  • Peloponnesian War 431-404 BC,
  • Boeotian War 378-362 BC,
  • Allied War 357-355 BC

The crisis began with the Peloponnesian War and had a decisive impact on all aspects of the country’s life. The victory of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War meant a dramatic change in the whole situation. It seemed that the Spartan rule reigned over Hellas for a long time, but internal Spartan conflicts, contradictions within the ruling elite of Sparta led to the fact that the Athenians managed to restore the democratic system. It also mattered that Sparta, which had promised to hand over the Greek states of Asia Minor to Persia in the midst of the struggle with Athens, was in no hurry to fulfill the obligation after its victory, which led to an open conflict.

Poseidon from Cape Artemisionus. Bronze. Around 450 BC.

Poseidon from Cape Artemisionus. Bronze. Around 450 BC.

Although the fighting was sluggish, Persia was able to deal a blow to Sparta, using the already proven weapon-financial assistance. The money sent by the Persians helped arm the opponents of the Spartan hegemony — the Boeotian Alliance under the leadership of Thebes and Athens. A long struggle began, which ended in 387 BC. e. The excessive weakening of Sparta was not part of the plans of Persia: its interests were best served by a divided and warring Greece. Therefore, it changed its orientation, supported the Spartans, and under the pressure of these forces, a peace treaty was concluded. As a payment for support, Sparta ceded power over the Asia Minor polis to Persia. Soon Sparta again tried to restore its dominance in Hellas. The Spartans succeeded in seizing Thebes and replacing democracy with oligarchy. However, this was the last success of the Spartans. With the support of Athens, the Thebans restored democracy. At the same time, the union of the Boeotian polis under the command of Thebes is revived. Taking advantage of the difficult situation of Sparta, Athens was able to recreate a maritime alliance. True, the second Athenian Naval Alliance was much smaller than the first, and was built on slightly different principles: the allies remembered the experience of the past and in the treaty provided guarantees against the resumption of Athens ‘ great-power policy.

A young man from Antikythera. Bronze. Around 340 BC.

A young man from Antikythera. Bronze. Around 340 BC.

The re-establishment of the alliance allowed the Athenians to defeat the Spartans, but the final blow to the Spartan hegemony was dealt by the Thebans. The war between Thebes and Sparta, which had been going on for a number of years, finally entered a decisive phase. In 371 BC, at the Battle of Leuctra, the Thebans completely defeated the Spartan army. The consequences of the defeat were disastrous for Sparta:

  • The Peloponnesian Union collapsed,
  • Sparta was now forced to think not about hegemony, but about its own defense,
  • Messenia declared its independence, and the city of Messena was revived on the slopes of Mount Itoma,
  • In the end, Sparta’s possessions were limited to the borders of Laconia, and its influence on Peloponnesian affairs was reduced to a minimum.

However, the Thebans did not become the hegemon of Greece after their victory: yesterday’s allies turned against them as soon as the prospect of establishing the hegemony of Thebes in Hellas began to loom. Later, Athens also suffered a significant blow. Taking advantage of the weakening of Sparta and Thebes, they tried to resurrect their great-power policy, and this caused a backlash — the revolts of the allies. During the Allied War (357-355 BC), Athens was defeated, and the alliance ceased to exist. Thus, by the middle of the IV century BC. Greece, as a result of internal wars, was weakened, its leading alliances collapsed, and none of the states could claim hegemony. This process took place against the background of the crisis of the polis system, which showed that the classical polis with its leading principles — autonomy and autarky — had already outlived its usefulness.

Ancient Greece The Gegeso Stele. Around 400 BC.

Ancient Greece
The Gegeso Stele. Around 400 BC.

The Rise of Macedonia

Meanwhile, in the north of the country, a new force was gradually maturing, which was destined to carry out to a certain extent the plans that were born in the minds of the intellectuals of Hellas, but not in the way they wanted. The Macedonian Kingdom appeared in the arena. During the fourth century BC, it became increasingly powerful and increasingly interfered in the affairs of Greece. Under King Philip II (359-336 BC), Macedonia achieved unprecedented power. It was an agricultural country, relatively late in the development of class society and statehood. In the IV century BC. The bulk of the Macedonian population was made up of free peasants who served in the infantry. Philip reformed the army, making it the most powerful force on the Balkan Peninsula. The army of Philip was seasoned in countless campaigns, and many talented military leaders appeared among the companions of the king. Having seized the Pangaean mines, Philip began to mint gold coins and, unlike most polis, had no difficulty in financing his military and political activities. A sober politician, well-versed in the foreign policy situation, Philip began to skillfully interfere in Greek affairs.

Ancient Greece Bust of a young man. Around 340 BC.

Ancient Greece
Bust of a young man. Around 340 BC.

The strengthening of the Macedonian position and the increasing interference of Philip in Greek affairs caused a polarization of forces in Athens and other polis. The enormous resources at the disposal of the king of Macedonia allowed him to bribe a number of political figures, but there were also many disinterested supporters of Macedonia, who hoped that the establishment of its hegemony would give Greece political and social stability, and in the future allow it to start a war with Persia.

The struggle against Philip was led by Athens, its inspiration and organizer was the outstanding orator Demosthenes, who in his impassioned speeches called on the Greeks to leave mutual strife and unite in the struggle for freedom and independence. Demosthenes managed to create a fairly strong alliance, which included Athens, Corinth, Argos, Thebes, and a number of other polis. A decisive encounter with the Macedonian army took place in 338 BC at Chaeronea (in Boeotia). The Greeks, despite their heroic resistance, suffered a defeat that marked the end of their freedom.

The following year, Philip called a congress in Corinth, attended by representatives of all the polis, with the exception of Sparta. On it, the all-Greek alliance was created under the hegemony of the king of Macedonia. They proclaimed “universal peace”, prohibited inter-polis wars, interference of polis in each other’s internal affairs and changes in the state system. In the interests of the propertied strata, the redistribution of land and the cassation of debts were also prohibited. It was forbidden to free slaves for use in political coups. Finally, in the name of Greece and Macedonia, war was declared against Persia, and Philip was appointed commander-in-chief of the allied forces.

Culture of the IV century BC.

The crisis of the polis did not mean the decline of culture, on the contrary, this period was marked by many important achievements in literature, science, philosophy, art, and is associated with the work of such outstanding thinkers of antiquity as Plato and Aristotle. The crisis of the polis has led to changes in the public consciousness, the growth of individualism and the decline of traditional polis, collectivist morality are becoming more and more noticeable. This phenomenon also gave rise to deep theoretical studies that examined the nature of the policy, the reasons for its formation, development and decline, its typology and the possibility of creating a stable “ideal” policy.


The idealistic development of this problem was the work of the disciples of Socrates, especially Plato. Belonging to the noble Athenian family of Codrides, who received an excellent education, possessed great knowledge, Plato was the largest representative of the idealistic trend in ancient Greek philosophy. He created an Academy-a philosophical school in which his students united. The basis of Plato’s teaching was the idea of ideas-eternal and unchangeable prototypes of things, weak representations of which are objects of the real world.

The head of the goddess Hygeia. About the middle of the IV century BC.

The head of the goddess Hygeia. About the middle of the IV century BC.

Based on this concept, Plato created his own theory of the polis. In the higher world, the world of ideas, there is also the idea of a policy, and the task of the legislator is to build on earth a policy that is as close as possible to the “ideal” one. Plato developed a detailed project, the essence of which was to divide the entire population into three groups:

  • farmers, artisans, and merchants engaged in production and exchange and without any rights;
  • guards engaged only in military service, deprived of property and family, and dedicated to the protection of the policy;
  • sages-philosophers who have taken over the management of the polis and live the same harsh life as the guardians.

Looking back into the distant past, idealizing the Spartan system of the time of Lycurgus, Plato’s project, of course, could not find implementation. The philosopher’s attempts to implement it in Sicily with the help of the tyrants of Syracuse almost cost him his life.


Among the disciples of Plato there was one whose many-sided influence transcended the boundaries not only of his time and country, but of all antiquity. This man was Aristotle, the greatest mind of antiquity. Aristotle was an encyclopedist in the true sense of the word, dealing with philosophy and history, mathematics and zoology, physics, botany and medicine, ethics, the theory of art, literature and theater, and rhetoric. Having started his career as a student of Plato, he then breaks with the teacher and creates his own school-Lyceum. The natural philosophy of Aristotle is close to the materialistic one. According to his views, matter and form are inseparable from each other, and these are not abstract concepts, but two sides of a single life process. The strongest aspect of Aristotle’s natural-philosophical system is the doctrine of motion, without which there is no time, no space, no matter. This system was supplemented by his teaching on the methods of thinking, or logic.

Statue of a boy. Bronze. Around 330 BC.

Statue of a boy. Bronze. Around 330 BC.

Aristotle created a comprehensive scientific and philosophical system, it was a synthesis of all the achievements of Greek science of the classical period. Physics, ethics and politics, natural sciences and humanities were brought together by Aristotle in a kind of unity. The natural-scientific views of Aristotle are inseparable from his general philosophical principles. He developed mathematical problems, created a general theory of qualitative changes and transformations of bodies.

A significant place in the scientific work of Aristotle is occupied by works on living nature. He described 485 species of animals, and was the first in the history of science to propose a classification of the animal world. Aristotle’s work was continued by his students, of whom Theophrastus was the most famous. Aristotle also created his own teaching about the state, writing “Politics” – a treatise based on 158 studies, each of which is devoted to the state system and the history of a separate polis and was carried out by Aristotle and his students. Aristotle gave an unsurpassed analysis of the character of the Greek polis (its essence, types, evolution, causes of decline, etc.) and proposed a project of the ideal state, which, unlike Plato’s project, was more vital. The philosopher proceeded from the idea of creating Greek polis on the lands conquered from the barbarians, whose citizens would live at the expense of the exploitation of the local population.

The widespread development of slavery led to the emergence of the so-called slave question in public thought. Aristotle, expressing the very essence of the slave-owning system, created and developed the idea of “slavery by nature”, according to which all Negroes are prepared by nature to be slaves of the Greeks. Aristotle’s economic ideas were profound. He noted that the polis system of life is compatible only with a certain level of economic development, and the development of commodity-money relations beyond a certain limit leads to the decomposition of the polis. Equally important are his observations on the dependence of politics on the economic interests of different groups of citizens.

The influence of Aristotle on the subsequent development of the culture of antiquity and the early Middle Ages was enormous. Translated into Arabic, his works became the property of Muslim science, and then in the originals and in various translations entered the golden fund of European and world civilizations.

Oratory (Isocrates, Demosthenes)

In the second half of the V-IV centuries BC, oratory reached its peak, primarily judicial eloquence. A huge number of trials required not only knowledge of the law, but also the art of convincing speech, which led to the emergence of “logographers” — people who specialize in drafting court speeches (litigants in the Athenian court had to personally accuse and defend themselves). The classic of the logographic art should be considered Lysias, who perfectly mastered this art. His style is simple, his argument sober and convincing.

Greece Red-figured pelica. IV century BC.

Red-figured pelica. IV century BC.

The unsurpassed master of solemn eloquence was rightly considered Isocrates, the most famous teacher of rhetoric at that time. In the history of ancient Greek culture, Isocrates entered as a political orator, a publicist, whose entire activity was inspired by one idea — to achieve an alliance of all the Greeks for the war against the barbarians. Only in a united campaign will Greece find salvation from the troubles that torment it — civil wars and wars of the polis with each other, mercenaries and exiles, poverty and misery. The wars now engulfing Greece should be transferred to Asia, and the riches of Asia to Europe. This pan-Hellenic idea will run through all the speeches of Isocrates, and only the possible organizers of the campaign will change. Disappointed in his native Athens, Isocrates will turn his attention to the powerful rulers-the tyrant of Syracuse Dionysius, and then to the Macedonian king Philip, in whose person he will look for the desired leader who can pacify the Greeks and lead the campaign to the East.

Above all the Greek orators stands the majestic and tragic figure of Demosthenes — one of the greatest orators of all time. Among his speeches, judicial ones occupied a large place, but political speeches brought him fame. Both for his contemporaries and for his descendants, Demosthenes is primarily a politician, a fighter, and a patriot. He early realized the danger that Philip posed to the independence of Greece, and began to fight against him. The speeches of Demosthenes against Philip (the so-called Philippics), in defense of the freedom of Athens, elevated him to the rank of a leading statesman. Demosthenes tirelessly called his fellow citizens to vigorous activity, tried to create a coalition of polis against the Macedonian danger. In his speeches, oratory was combined with the pathos of a fighter, passionate conviction and the power of argumentation captured the audience. He was the last outstanding master of public eloquence of the era of independent Greece.


The development of art in the fourth century BC also reflects new phenomena in the life of Greek society. Greek sculpture of the IV century BC knows many outstanding masters (Scopas, Leochar, Timothy, Briaxis, Praxiteles, Lysippus). All of these sculptors are characterized by a departure from the simple and strict principles of the era of “high classics”. The desire to convey the individual traits of a person, his feelings, and the inner world is becoming increasingly important. Scopas usually created sculptures of a mythological nature, but his images are full of violent emotional experiences (a Maenad seized with a bacchanalian frenzy, the suffering faces of wounded soldiers from the pediment of the temple of Athena in Tegea).

Hedonism is inherent in the work of Praxiteles, who loved to portray Aphrodite, Dionysus and his companions. He was especially famous for his sculpture of Aphrodite of Cnidus. The same features are inherent in the painting of the IV century BC, the largest representatives of which are Pausanias from Sycyon and Apelles from Colophon. Pausanias invented the technique of encaustic-painting with wax paints. He sought to solve complex technical problems. Among the paintings of Apelles, the “Aphrodite of Anadyomene”, painted for the temple of Asclepius on Kos, was particularly famous. The artist depicted the goddess emerging from the sea, her body shining through the clear water.

The science

The development of Greek science in the fourth century BC was determined to the greatest extent by the activities of professional scientists (mathematicians, astronomers, natural scientists) and to a lesser extent by the activities of philosophers. The greatest among the scientists of the IV century BC — Eudoxus of Cnidus, who discovered the general theory of proportions in mathematics, which was really evaluated only in the second half of the XIX century. He played a major role in the development of ancient astronomy, becoming in essence the creator of theoretical astronomy. Eudoxus calculated the orbits of the planets, compiled a catalog of the starry sky, and created the first astronomical observatory. The construction of a model of the cosmos based on the idea of concentric spheres rotating uniformly around the Earth contributed to the development of spherical geometry and the kinematics of moving points, circles and spheres. Developing and refining the ideas of Eudoxus, his students worked: mathematicians Menechmus and Dinostratus, astronomer Polemarchus, who in turn became the teacher of the outstanding astronomer Callippus.

Black-figured Cilician. The first quarter of the IV century BC.

Cilician. The first quarter of the IV century BC.

The significance of Ancient Greek culture

Ancient Greek culture occupies a special place in the heritage on which human civilization as a whole, especially the culture of the peoples of Europe, is based in its subsequent historical development. In the sphere of aesthetic and artistic creativity, the heritage of the Greeks is not only a source of modern knowledge, but also a living, charming spiritual force. Not only do the roots of European culture lie in antiquity, but ancient culture is also an integral part of modern culture. It is significant that the turning point in the history of Western European art begins with the Renaissance, that is, with the Renaissance. the renaissance of ancient art. As F. wrote. Engels, “in the manuscripts saved at the fall of Byzantium, in the ancient statues dug out of the ruins of Rome, a new world appeared before the astonished West-Greek antiquity; before its bright images, the ghosts of the Middle Ages disappeared.” The images of ancient mythology received numerous embodiments and interpretations in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Watteau, Fragonard, A. Ivanov, Bruni, in the sculptures of Vitali, Kozlovsky, Demut-Malinovsky, etc. Her subjects were widely used by many great writers and musicians of all times and peoples: Dante, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Haydn, Gluck. Offenbach, Stravinsky, etc., can hardly be found in an area where the influence of Greek culture is not felt. And this is its enduring significance.

Alexander the Great’s Campaigns

Pacifying the recalcitrant

A peculiar transition from the classical to the Hellenistic era is the time of Alexander the Great. This short historical period (from 336-323 BC) contained, however, events that determined the course of history for several centuries to come.

Already under Alexander’s father, the war with the Persians begins, but the murder of Philip in 336 BC postponed for some time the implementation of the grandiose plans of the Eastern Campaign. Upon assuming the throne, Alexander brutally dealt with the murderers of his father and possible pretenders to the throne. But the greatest danger threatened the young king from outside:

  • from the north — the invasion of the Fraco-Illyrian tribes,
  • from the south-the uprising of the Greeks.

In this situation, Alexander acted quickly and decisively. At the head of an army, he invaded Central Greece and encamped near Thebes. The terrified Greeks recognized Alexander as having all the rights that his father had. Just as swiftly, the Macedonian army moved north and defeated the Thracians and Illyrians in a series of battles. Meanwhile, a false rumor about the death of the Macedonian king provoked the Greeks to revolt. Realizing the seriousness of what was happening, Alexander returned unexpectedly quickly for the Greeks and, having captured Thebes — the main center of the uprising, destroyed the city to the ground, enslaving its inhabitants.

The beginning of a trip to Asia

Having subdued the rebellious, Alexander turned to his main task — a campaign against the Persians, and in the spring of 334 BC. e. the Macedonian army and allied Greek detachments are transported to Asia Minor. Alexander’s army was far inferior in numbers to the Persian army, but it was superbly trained, disciplined, and armed. The first meeting with the troops of the satraps of Asia Minor took place on the Granik River, and in a heavy battle the Persian army was defeated. The victory opened the way for Alexander to conquer Asia Minor.

Officially, the war against the Persians was declared in revenge for the desecration of the Greek sanctuaries during the Greco-Persian War, and Alexander skillfully used Pan-Hellenic slogans. In the Greek cities, he drove out the oligarchs and established a democratic system, declaring the cities free. All this provided him with the support of the Greek population of Asia Minor.

A fragment of the mosaic "The Battle of Issus of Alexander with Darius". 4th century BC

Fragment of the mosaic “The Battle of Issus of Alexander with Darius” from the house of the faun in Pompeii. A Roman copy of a painting by Philoxenus. End of the IV century BC.

The Conquest of Egypt

Having completed the conquest of Asia Minor, Alexander, passing through Cilicia, entered Northern Syria. Here he had to meet again with the Persian forces — this time at the head of them was the king Darius III. The battle of Issus, which took place in the autumn of 333 BC, was difficult for both opponents, and the Macedonians managed to achieve victory with great difficulty. In Damascus, the campaign treasury of the Persian king was captured, which eased the financial situation of Alexander, who had previously been very difficult. Apparently, it was after the victory at Issus that he had the idea of conquering the entire Persian power. Next, Alexander captures the Syro-Phoenician coast, where the most stubborn resistance was provided by Tyre, but in 332 the city was stormed and severely punished. The capture of Gaza opened the way to Egypt, whose satrap, not having sufficient forces to resist, surrendered. The Egyptians received Alexander kindly, seeing in him a liberator from the Persian power. During his stay in Egypt, Alexander founded a city in the Nile Delta, giving it his name. He made a pilgrimage to the oracle of Amun in the desert, whose priests declared Alexander the son of Amun, thus recognizing his divine origin. Thus, his power over Egypt received a divine justification.

Capture of all Persia and march to India

In the spring of 331 BC, Alexander moved north. After crossing the Euphrates and the Tigris, he came to the town of Gavgamela, and here on October 1, 331 BC, a decisive battle took place. Although the Persian army was stronger than at Issus, the Macedonians managed to defeat it again. Alexander now faced the defenseless central regions of the Persian state. Without a fight, they were taken-ancient Babylon, then Susa, where the treasury of the Achaemenid empire was located. The vast wealth accumulated by the Persian kings passed into the hands of the new conquerors. Alexander subjected Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Achaemenids, to the most severe defeat.

The conquest of the eastern satrapies, mainly the southern regions of Central Asia, proved to be the most difficult part of Alexander’s campaign. In contrast to the situation in the West, where the masses showed complete indifference to the change of power, a real people’s war against the conquerors began in Central Asia, which lasted for three years. With great difficulty, Alexander managed to cope with the Bactrians and Sogdians; he had to reorganize the army, adapting it to the new conditions of war. At the same time, the Macedonian king sought to attract the local nobility to his side. Alexander now dreamed of world domination, and the realization of this dream seemed real on the condition of the conquest of India. Although Alexander was able to conquer vast areas along the Indus River, he still failed to complete the Indian campaign. The army, exhausted by the march, refused to go any further.

Alexander’s internal reforms

By the beginning of 324 BC, Alexander returned with the remnants of his army to Babylon. On his return, Alexander had to face a number of difficult problems. Many of the abandoned satraps, hoping that he would not return from the Indian campaign, created their own armies, behaving like independent rulers. Alexander decisively suppressed these separatist movements. The policy of the tsar at this time is aimed at uniting his huge state. He seeks to reconcile the Macedonians with the Persians, arranging, in particular, a grand wedding in Susa (324 BC): in one day about 10 thousand people. his soldiers married local girls. Alexander includes in his army 30 thousand young Persians. Actively intervening in Greek affairs, he issues a decree on the return of the exiles and the restoration of their property rights. A broad campaign is underway to establish new cities in the conquered territories (Alexander considered them as strongholds of his power). He is also preparing for new campaigns. However, in the midst of these preparations, in 323 BC, Alexander dies of a fever at the age of 33.

The significance of Alexander’s campaigns for the East and West

Alexander’s campaigns, which opened up new lands to the Greeks, and the scale of his conquests made a great impression on his contemporaries. The debate about it continues in modern literature. Earlier, historiography was dominated by the idealization of the Macedonian king, who was seen as a genius who brought the light of high Hellenic civilization to the East and fulfilled a great historical mission. The rampant idealization was then replaced by a more sober approach. The assessment of the activities of Alexander, a major statesman and a great commander, can not be unambiguous. His campaigns destroyed the already obsolete Achaemenid empire, but the Greco-Macedonian army brought devastation, slavery and death: cities and villages were destroyed, people died, entire tribes were wiped out from the face of the earth. In his power, which was larger than the Persian state, Alexander united the most diverse countries and peoples by force of arms. It, however, did not have a single economic base and was a purely military association. The Macedonian conquests were reduced mainly to the capture of large cities, strategically important strongholds. The state that emerged from the ruins of the Persian empire resembled it in many ways. Alexander was content with the recognition of his power and the payment of taxes, but there were no fundamental changes in the conditions of life, especially in regions remote from the centers.

At the same time, both during the campaigns and after them, a flood of Greeks and Macedonians poured into the East, who settled here, bringing new forms of social relations and their own culture. Some of the cities founded by Alexander, having undergone changes in their character, become centers of political and economic life. As a result of the campaigns, the geographical boundaries of the Greek world were expanded, new communication routes were laid, shipping expanded-all this contributed to the development of the economy and trade relations. The hikes brought new knowledge to geography, biology, ethnography, and other sciences. They marked the beginning of a new period in the history of the Eastern Mediterranean, which was characterized by complex and contradictory processes of interaction between Greek-Macedonian and local principles — the period of Hellenism.

The world power of Alexander did not stand the test of time, since there were no economic or political prerequisites for it. But with Alexander begins a new period in the history of antiquity. His work influenced the fate of many peoples, not only in Europe, but also in the Middle East. In the era of Hellenism, ethnic, polis and religious isolation began to break down, new forms of statehood emerged, exchange and trade expanded, and the foundations of new beliefs were laid. At the same time, the process of social polarization continued, and the class struggle of the poor and slaves against the slave owners intensified. It was as a result of Alexander’s campaigns that a genuine meeting of East and West took place, which affected many aspects of life, and mutual cultural enrichment began. Regardless of the assessment of Alexander’s personality and the nature of his activities, it should be recognized that his campaigns played a significant role in bringing European and Eastern civilizations closer together.

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