Ancient Greece Article: Greek City-States

        In the very short time we have studied ancient Greece; we have already discovered that Greece is very different than the other civilizations we have studied so far in this wonderful school year. The previous civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India have all depended on a river for their existence. The Stone Age is not considered a “civilization” because the people were, well, uncivilized. The Stone Age people spent all their time running around chasing Irish elk off of cliffs so they could use sharp stone tools to rip the meat from the bones and gobble it down like they’ve never seen food before. But let’s not digress; let’s stay on topic shall we. Unlike the previous four civilizations, Greece does not depend on a major river. Greece has rivers but not major ones that provide essential elements for the civilization. Greece depends on the sea. Plain and simple. Because of its location, which you should be somewhat familiar with because we labeled a map, seas surround Greece on basically all sides. Therefore, the sea is obviously very important for Greece. With the sea, the Greeks would sail, trade, and farm along the coastline. So, that is what we have briefly discussed so far in this unit. Now let us move on to new things.

        As you will learn throughout the unit, a major part of ancient Greece deals with gods and goddesses. The Greeks placed a huge emphasis on this “mythology.” The focal point of this is Mount Olympus, so let us take a moment to lean a few things about the ever so important topic of gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus. It is true; the Greeks worshiped many gods and goddesses. The reason for this polytheistic view is it helped to explain mysteries of nature and life. For example, Poseidon is the god of the Sea. If a ship was experiencing rough water, no wind for the sail, or a major thunderstorm, all making travel on the sea difficult, that meant, according to the Greeks, that Poseidon was unhappy. If the sea was very calm with a nice wind pushing the ship to its destination, that meant, according to the Greeks, Poseidon was pleased. So the Greeks would constantly try to please the gods. All the gods lived on Mount Olympus. The gods who called Mount Olympus home were both like humans in a way and different from humans. They were like humans because they would love, fight, argue, and become jealous. On the flip side, they were very different than humans. Things such as the fact that the gods were immortal and possessing special powers made them quite different. Because such a huge emphasis was placed on the gods, the people of Greece felt very strongly that they needed to honor these gods with something special. So, they came up with something that is still being done today. Every four years, athletic contests were held to honor Zeus. These games were held in the city of Olympia, hence the common name used today of “Olympics.” In these first Olympics, a few of the common games were boxing, running, and wrestling. Today of course, many more games are done at the Olympics.  

        The next topic I would like to discuss with you is that of government in ancient Greece. We have a lot to thank Greece for in the government department because what they started has lasted through the years and was adopted by our founding fathers as the model to build our government with. This basic governmental principle, ladies and gentleman, is called Democracy and it began in Greece. Before democracy made its arrival on the world stage, city-states of Greece tried a couple other forms of government such as Monarchy, which is kings and queens, and Aristocracy, which is rule by a few people. The Greeks wanted something different, though, so they adopted Democracy, which is government by the people. The name itself actually comes from Latin roots: “demos” means common people and “kratos” means rule, so when combined, Democracy simply means “common people rule.” Under this system, people could act and think for themselves, a rare thought in the ancient days which were dominated by kings and emperors. The best example of this new form of government was found in the city-state of Athens. At first, Athens was governed by all citizens older than 18. This was called the Assembly. So whenever a decision had to be made, all the citizens 18 or older would have to gather around and vote on what to do. This works, but only with a small number of people. Soon, problems arose. The assembly grew too large to get anything done so changes had to be made. The people of Athens decided to select 500 citizens to serve on a council for one year. Now, when decisions had to be made, only the 500 people had to gather to vote on what to do, instead of everybody. This made it easier for assemblies to take place. Since these 500 people were selected by the citizens, they represented the people who selected them, much like the USA today. One important part of this is that only citizens could be part of the democracy in Athens. In Athens, people were not citizens if they were slaves, women, or born outside of Athens. These non-citizens could not vote, own property or testify in court. So basically, unlike America, democracy in Athens was only for 18 years of age or older white males. The citizens of Athens had some big responsibility. Their responsibilities were to defend the city, serve on juries, and debate politics. The greatest leader Athens had was a man named Pericles.

        Now that we have covered Athens, we need to discuss another very prominent city-state of ancient Greece, the city-state of Sparta. Sparta is the complete opposite of Athens. Sparta is strictly ruled by the military. Sparta was constantly looking to invade other city-states and add to their wealth. In Sparta, life centered on the army. Government officials examined newborn babies. Only the healthy boys were allowed to live. Can you believe that? The Government, yes, the government would only allow healthy male babies to live. They did this for a reason, though a very poor reason. The government of Sparta only wanted strong, healthy male babies so they could grow up to be fierce warriors. Sparta wanted the best warriors in the world. When the boys would turn 7 years old, they were sent to military camp for a lifetime in the military. They had no choice. Their parents could not stop them from going either. From this point on, they would be warriors for the Spartan Army. Sparta also differed from Athens in how the women were treated. The women in Sparta had more personal rights than women in other city-states of Greece. Women of Sparta could own property, express opinions and manage family money. Why do you think women of Sparta had to do all these things? Good guess and you are right. All the men in Sparta were off fighting in battles, so the women were left to take care of the other duties of the city-state. One similarity between Athens and Sparta was the women could not take part in governing the city.