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Ancient Civilizations

Classical Greece
An overview

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
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The Greek civilization had its roots in three groups of people: the Minoans, the Mycenaeans and the Dorians.

Already by 3000 BC a distinctive cultural zone was being formed in Greece, influenced through trade with Mesopotamia and Egypt. Trading cities such as Troy were beginning to flourish and on the island of Crete the Minoan peoples reached a high level of civilization between 2000 and 1400 BC.

Around the year 2000 BC a migrant group (some suggest Indo-Europeans) established themselves in Mycenae, thriving on piracy and commerce, and reached the height of their power between 1400 and 1200 BC.

They invaded invading Crete in the process, although it is not clear whether the Minoan civilization had already collapsed, possibly through volcanic eruptions in the neighbourhood.

In about 1200 BC the Mycenaean kingdoms themselves were over-run by another migrant group from the north, the Dorians, initiating the Greek Dark Age.


As was the case with Mesopotamia, Greek civilization was characterised by the existence of city-states which formed during the Greek Dark Ages. These were independent communities which were responsible for their own defence.

Indeed, they were often at war with one another (e.g. Sparta vs Athens) but tended to unite when confronted by a common enemy (e.g. against Persia at the battle of Hellespont).

Political control of the city-states differed. Sparta, for instance, followed the Dorian tradition of being a military institution while Athens took in many Mycenaean refugees and thereby preserved the essentials of the earlier civilization, with its political system based on democracy (essentially an oligarchy rather than a true democracy).


Although the Greeks clearly mastered scientific principles, as is revealed in their magnificent buildings, they were nevertheless not noted for their scientific ability, unlike the later Romans. But then again, one can argue that the Roman civilization was merely an extension of the Greek, the two forming one Greco-Roman civilization.


The Greeks were steeped in religion which was a mixture of mythology and cults inherited from the Mycenaean past but they were nevertheless the first civilization to break free from religious superstition and develop rational thought.


Athens was the first city-state to draw up a written code of law in 621 BC, and this was periodically updated as the city grew to greatness.

Greek law, as it developed in the 7th century BC, differed remarkably from the law which evolved in the other civilizations in that it aimed at improving the lot of the common people and was always based on some form of common consent.


Although Sparta developed a militaristic form of education with little place for art, Athens and its affiliated colonies developed the Mycenaean tradition which blossomed into great literary works, such as those of Homer.

The Greek civilization was to grow into what is arguably the greatest of the classical civilizations and which would have the profoundest effect on the others.


The essential element of the Greek civilization, which had allowed it to stand head and shoulders above all other comparable civilizations, was its development of philosophy. From the early cosmologists, such as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes and Parmenides.

Athenian thought blossomed into the philosophical giants of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, whose literary works would alter the course of international philosophy right to the present day. The Greeks also became famous for their drama, fine buildings and complex sculptures.


During the 4th century Greece rose rapidly into an Empire under Alexander the Great, who conquered Palestine, much of Asia Minor and Egypt. Although the Empire was to be short-lived and fell to pieces shortly after Alexander's death, it nevertheless had a remarkable and long-lasting effect on the conquered nations.

Although these peoples quickly threw off the Greek yoke, most nevertheless adopted the Greek ideals and civilization. At the same time, Greek colonies spread along the Mediterranean sea-board, especially in Italy. As a result, Greek culture, institutions and thought became universal.

Traders and diplomats of the time all learnt to speak Greek, with the result that Greek became the primary language of the civilized world.

Indeed, it can be argued that the culture, traditions and religion of the Roman Empire, which eventually conquered Greece, was entirely based on and was a continuation of the classical Greek civilization.

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