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Greek Classical Period: Definition & Developments

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Plenty of people talk about the Classical Greeks, but who were they really? Sure, this period saw the birth of democracy and philosophy, but did you know that it could just as easily be defined by warfare? This lesson explains how.

When was the Classical Period?

If you've ever taken a world history class, then chances are you've heard someone talk about Classical Greece. More often than not, they speak of this period as if it was the launching point for western civilization. Classical Greece, as we know it, only lasted from about the time of the establishment of Athenian democracy until the rise of Alexander the Great. That's the years 510 BC until 334 BC - a period of less than 200 years. However, what happened during those 200 years forever changed the face of Western culture.

What made it Classical?

While many of us may associate the Classical Period of Greece with hoplite armies of well-armored foot soldiers smashing into each other, the reason it is so fondly remembered has little to do with the military. We call it Classical Greece because this is when scholars believe the Greek culture reached its height. Indeed, this is the period that provided Classical knowledge; from which the Renaissance would draw much of its inspiration. For starters, this was a period of democratization for some Greek cities. Before this period, only rich men could have a say in government. As the Classical Age began, more men were allowed to vote. However, you still had to be recognized as a citizen of the place in question, so foreigners were out of luck. Also, women still had no right to participate in government.

Greek Classical Events

While great cultural works thrived during the Greek Classical Period, it was always against a backdrop of hostility. The period itself began with an invasion of Athens by Sparta in 510 BC, and a revolt of the people saved Athens and ensured its democracy. Within only a few years, the whole of Greece was at war with Persia, the superpower of the day. Persia invaded Greece both in 490 BC and in 480 BC and was repulsed first at Marathon and then, ten years, and a tragic defeat at Thermopylae later, at Salamis and Plataea. These events are known as the Persian Wars.

With external threats silenced, attention soon turned to the growing competition between the two great cities of the Greek world - Athens and Sparta. Eventually, such rivalry resulted in the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC. While Athens had the upper hand at first due to its strong navy, it would eventually lose much of that fleet at the Battle of Syracuse in 413 BC. Finally, by 404 BC Sparta had won the war.

Athenian Empire at the time of war with Sparta
Athenian Empire at the time of the war with Sparta

Sparta's culture was a warrior one, not one of the occupier. Sparta had no idea what to do with or how to administer to such a region. Ultimately, while Athens would regain its freedom, both it and Sparta were too weak to oppose any threats. A new city-state, Thebes, would attempt to regain control. However, they were ultimately conquered, along with the rest of Greece, by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.

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