It’s All Greek to Us
Golden Age of Greece – 500 BC > 300 BC
Greece might have been late to the civilization-starting party, but it quickly made up for lost time. After squandering for centuries as independent city-states basically caring about nothing more than their survival, Greece emerged from its 480 BC war against the Persian Empire with a confidence, a unity and a wealth that allowed it in the next century to develop achievements that would become the hallmarks of the Western world.
However nothing about early Greek civilization would make an outsider believe the world would ever take note of these warring peoples. Spread across the peninsula of Hellas and the dozens of surrounding islands, the mountainous terrain and Mediterranean Sea prevented the Greeks from creating a united empire.
Much of what we know of these early Greeks comes from Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, which chronicle the greatest battle of the Mycenaean Age – the Trojan War. Though for some the name Homer conjures cartoon images of a bumbling, unhygienic nuclear power plant operator with questionable parenting skills, this Greek Homer actually lived about 3000 years ago and is seen by many as the father of Western literature. In his classic ancient tale, a prince of Troy kidnaps the beautiful Helen, only to have her jealous husband and brother-in-law, the warrior-king Agamemnon, dispatch an entire fleet across the Aegean Sea to recover the lost Greek love. Helen became the “face that launched a thousand ships” and the Trojan War became the stuff of legends. For the next three millenniums, Western warriors would attempt to match the heroic exploits of the immortality-seeking Achilles and the glory and duty championed by all that gave their lives to the siege of Troy.
After Agamemnon’s forces eventually subdued the Trojans with a bit of horse-trickery, the Mycenaeans remained on the Greek peninsula until 1100 BC when their civilization vanished from the history books and Greece entered a dark age void of historical records. Whether it was a cataclysmic natural event (a la the Harappan disappearance on the Indus River) or the invasion of the barbaric Dorians from the north, the Greek city-states floundered for four hundred years until they again appeared on history’s stage. And in this new and improved Greek version, the city-states were even more fiercely independent. Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Marathon, Thebes, Delphi, Argos, Olympia were just a few of the over 1500 separate societies that ranged in size from a mere few hundred residents on a secluded island weeks away from any neighbor, to the bustling city of Athens which at its peak housed over 300,000 inhabitants.
The Greek city-states chose from a few forms of government. Some were ruled by an oligarchy – a few elite men who would meet and decide the fate of the city. Most chose a monarchy, where one leader would rule until his death, and at that point his eldest male offspring would take the reigns. Still others might see a tyrant sweep in and militarily overthrow the established government and rule by whim.
Over in Athens, the city leaders decided to go in an entirely different direction, experimenting with a form of government that would lay dormant in the western world for over two thousand years until thirteen colonies on the east coast of America decided to again give it a try. And this form of government was called democracy - power by the people. Though the United States might lay claim to Athenian roots, what the Athenians practiced looked far different than the confounding show the elephants and donkeys today perform in Washington D.C. In Athens, the assembly of 6000 would be chosen by lot (think “lottery”) from the 30,000 eligible citizens (women and non-citizens couldn’t vote). Basically every citizen had to be ready to serve Athens. Other city-states adopted this form of government, but none was as successful as the mother of them all.
Agreeing on little more than the belief in the pantheon of gods that lived on Mount Olympus, these city-states would gather every four years to challenge each other, not on the battlefield, but in athletic competition. According to legend, Hercules built the Olympic Stadium as a present to his father Zeus, and in the year 776 BC, the first games were held. These sporting clashes brought the peoples of Greece together and the winners of the first events would be awarded an olive leaf crown and their names would be immortalized for generations. Initially the first event was the stadion – a 190-meter running race (spaced out by the footsteps of Hercules), but the games eventually tested the combat skills of boxing, wrestling, chariot racing, long jumping, javelin throwing and discus chucking. In 720 BC the Spartans suggested these events should be conducted in the nude, so, yes, these men tossed discs, sprinted around tracks and even wrestled in nothing more than their birthday suits. The Greek word for naked was gymos, so the next time you’re in a gymnasium, you’ve returned to a true house of nudity. For the Greeks though, nudity didn’t incite the adolescent boy giggles it does today, but instead the ultimate athlete was the one who showcased his talents in the buff, all slicked up in some expertly-applied olive oil.
Aside from these intermittent naked feats of fitness, the city-states would have probably existed independent indefinitely if not for the threat from the Persian Empire. In 499 BC, the Greek colony of Ionia (on the western coast of Turkey) wanted to break away from Persian control and Athens said they would support Ionia in such a move. The Persian king...