Archaic Greece: An Overview

Beginnings. Archaic Greece began to form around 800 BCE, evolving into Classical Greece with the Greek-Persian Wars (490-479).  The territorial boundaries changed over the years, but in general, we are looking at the Greek peninsula between the Ionian and Aegean seas, Macedonia, and various islands in the Aegean Sea.  The roots of what became Greece lay in the “continued existence of small communities that preserved the legacy of the earlier achievements of Crete and Mycenae” and combined this tradition with Indo European culture that carried, among other things, a “vivid polytheistic religion.” (Stearns, 127) During the Archaic period, the Greeks also developed what become the predominant political form – the city-state. 

The Mountains and the Sea: Geography. Geography played an essential role in Greek history.  Fertile basins divided by mountainous terrain dominated the Greek landscape. A moderate climate allowed Greeks to establish a steady crop production of staples such as grapes and olives. However, the disjointed landscape did not allow for farming at the scale of the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  This topography also fostered independent political enclaves while discouraged the growth of centralized polities on the scale of the Persian Empire or the Chinese Dynasties.  The seas and various islands encouraged adept seafaring, exploration, and expansion and offered foreign invasion opportunities.    

Trade, Commerce and Innovation. With little arable land to yield diverse and large-scale crops, trade became the essential means of gaining necessary items.  Fortunately, access to the Aegean and Ionian seas, various shores and inlets, facilitated the transport and exchange of goods.  Greeks exported grains, fish, and specialized like olives and wine in exchange for items such as wheat.   By 600 BCE, coined money came into encouraging even greater trade, enabling a growing population, more wealth, and an increasingly influential merchant class.  A growing population, coupled with scarcer land, encouraged Greeks to extend trade and political influence.  Travels also encouraged innovation inspired by foreign places.  Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and found inspiration in grand Egyptian architecture. 

Politics “Greece” is a convenient term to identify a people who spoke a similar language but did not constitute a unified polity.  Geography, again, discouraged unity while facilitating political enclaves of various forms.  Monarchies ruled much of Greece in the earliest times.  Later, as trade flourished, tyrants (often merchants) controlled multiple parts of the area.  By 800 BCE, however, the city-state became the dominant political entity.  By 600 BCE, “nearly 300 independent cities in Greece.” (128 Stearns). City-states varied in size and influence, most being relatively small, with citizens populations in the hundreds and territories of less than 40 sq miles. (Woolf p.314)  Athens and Sparta stood as the most prominent in size and influence.  Scarce land and a growing population encouraged Greeks to look beyond the peninsula for resources and political power.  Access to water, notably the Aegean Sea, facilitated these ambitions. 

Social Structure. Greece, like other, ancient civilizations observed demarcated social roles and positions. Even Athens, the “cradle of democracy”, identified a hierarch around the concept of citizenship.  Male citizens participated in public political discussions and voted on civic matters. City-states excluded female citizens from politics, relegating them to child-rearing and domestic duties.  Next, down the hierarchy, non-citizens enjoyed basic protections but did not vote.  Slaves held the lowest position.

Language, Art and Religion. Geography discouraged centralization and unification. Language and religion offered standard bases for at least a rudimentary shared identity.  People dwelling on the peninsula did not identify as “Greek.” They would be more inclined to identify as Athenians, Spartans, for instance.  If they did think of their broader identity, it would be as “Hellenes,”  The Greek language offered a basis for a common identity.  Greeks described foreign speakers as “barbarians” who babbled non-sensical “bar-bar” sounds.  (Roberts 178).  The Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, a straightforward system that facilitated literacy and artistic expression as seen in the likes of Homer (the Odyssey and the Illiad) and Hesiod (c 7000 BCE), and various lyrical poets.   Homer’s provided the Greeks with a rich history and promoted the prevalent polytheistic religion. Residing at Mount Olympus, Greece’s highest peak, Greek Gods like Zeus, Hera, and Aphrodite, possessed superhuman abilities but were not divine (as the Hebrew God Yahweh). Instead, they displayed more human traits like jealousy, ambition, and pettiness.  City-states chose a particular God as their protector.  Athens, for instance, identified Athena as their protector and, like other polities, offer animal sacrifices to their delegate god. 

Conclusion. Archaic Greece saw seminal developments in politics, culture, economics and the arts.  The Greek peninsula never united politically, but the evolution and spread of a common language and religion helped forge a shared identity.   By the end of the Archaic age, they would face a formidable foreign enemy – the Persian Empire – as they entered the Classical Period. 

Selected Bibliography

Cahill, Thomas.   Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter. New York: Anchor, 2004.

Davies, Norman.  Europe: A History. London: Random House, 1997. 

Martin, Thomas R.   Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013

Parker, Philip. World History: From the Ancient World to the Information Age.  New York: Penguin Random House, 2017.

Roberts, J.M. The Penguin History of the World. London: Penguin Books, 1988

Stearns et al.  World Civilizations: The World Experiences. New York: Longman, 2001.

Woolf, Greg ed,.  Ancient Civilizations. London: Duncan Baird Publishers, 2005.