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Lesson 18. Classical Greece (480 – 323 BC)

Since studying the life of Homer and the beginning of the Classical World, we have focused on the history of Israel, the middle-eastern kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon and Persia and then on the development of Rome in the west. In this lesson, we will continue our study of the history of Greece, beginning with Homer and continuing through Classical Greece.

Ancient Greece
In Lesson 04, we studied the origins of the nations of the world as the sons of Noah spread through the earth. If you do not remember the lesson, take some time and review it before moving on. We learned that one of Noah’s descendants, Javan, was said to be the father of the islands of the Gentiles and if you look around Israel, you’ll only find one area of islands nearby and that is Greece. In some Bibles you will find the name Javan and in others it is translated Greece. We learned of the Trojan War, which took place around 1200 BC. We learned that the Greeks tricked the Trojans and destroyed the city. After the city was destroyed, the Trojan Aeneas and the Greek Odysseus both made their famous voyages.

We must remember, though, that our knowledge of the travels of Aeneas and Odysseus was written long after the events took place. The travels of Odysseus were written by Homer over 400 years later BC and the travels of Aeneas by Virgil almost 1100 years later! From the time of the Trojan War to the time of Homer, Greece is silent in history. There is no literature produced, no important men, no notable events. This period of ancient Greek history is called “the Dark Age” of Greece, lasting from 1175-750 BC. It is believed that this period of time, after the Trojan War, was a time of great disasters on the earth in many places and a time when the Greeks devoted their energies to surviving and rebuilding culture. It is possible that diseases moved through the area and killed many, as population decreased and whole cities disappeared. This was a mysterious and dark period of human history, which produced many of the Greek myths we know today.

Archaic Greece
In the writing of Homer, along with another famous Greek poet Hesiod (700 BC), we find a new light shining among the Greek lands. Literature and art come alive again–a sign that culture is being restored and life is becoming more stable. We can see that this was a time when men were working through some great questions because the writings were focused heavily on religious beliefs and basic questions about the purpose of life and the origin of the world. In Archaic Greece, the Greek philosophical tradition began.

It is important to note that when we speak of “Greece” we really are not referring to a nation or empire like Egypt, Israel, Babylon or Persia. The Greeks were a loosely organized set of city-states who ruled themselves independently and normally sought their own interests. The map on the right shows the most important regions and cities of Archaic Greece. Of these, Sparta, Argos, Corinth and Athens were the most powerful. Take a moment and find the following places: Crete, Sparta, Attica, Lydia, Rhodes; and cities: Athens, Argos, Corinth, Miletus. You can see that when we refer to “Greece” we do not mean a single nation, but all of the cities and states around the Aegean Sea.

In 700 BC, Hesiod wrote the most famous of the Greek creation stories in his poem titled Theogony. After Hesiod, a group of philosophers rose up in Greece who were known as the “Seven Sages of Greece”: Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Solon, Cleobulus, Myson, Chilon. While many modern people are ignorant of these men, the ancient world certainly wasn’t!

The most famous, though, of the Archaic Greek writers was Aesop, who wrote his famous fables sometime after 600 BC. Aesop’s fables were studied by most of history’s greatest writers including Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and almost all classical Christian students.

Despite the famous philosophers and writers the Archaic Greek age enjoyed, its greatest achievements were in politics (government) and there were several forms. Most cities were ruled by kings as were the cities of the ancient world. In Sparta, however, two kings ruled at the same time to balance their power. In Athens, a new form of government was developed, called democracy. In a democracy, the people of the city rule themselves by voting on what actions the city should take or avoid. Philosophy taught the Greeks much about human rights and the importance of freedom in man’s pursuit of happiness.

The Persian Wars
While Greek civilization developed in the west, the Persian Empire was expanding in the east. We learned of the rise of the Persian Empire while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon during the 500s BC. If you don’t remember the history, you should take some time to review Lesson 12.

The Persian Empire grew rapidly from the time they conquered Babylon in 539 BC. Persian power grew from east of Mesopotamia all the way to the Aegean Sea in the west and through all of Egypt in the south. In the map on the right, you can see that the Persian Empire (gray area) filled the world. You can see that by 500 BC, the Persian Empire pressed up against and into the ends of the Greek world.

The Persian Empire was ruled by very powerful kings who received great honor from their subjects. Persian kings lived in luxurious palaces, surrounded by servants and riches and ruled their kingdom by satraps, or governors, who ruled over regions of the empire for the king. The king, however, possessed total authority over all of his kingdom and every man, woman and child in it.

Now, as Persian power pressed westward, the Greeks saw the Persians as a threat not so much to their physical lives–for the Persians often let their tax-paying subjects alone–but to their philosophical and political idea of freedom. This was a war of worldviews that the Greeks could not accept, and that meant war.

We might think that the Greeks, with their loosely organized band of city-states were foolish to arm themselves against the massive Persian empire. However, the Greeks were famous for their skill in battle and they had the benefit of fighting on their home land. The Spartan army was among the most deadly in the world and the Athenians were strong on land and at sea. Around 495 BC, the cities on the east coast of the Aegean (see Miletus, Sardis, Ephesus above) chose to rebel against the Persians and were supported by the Athenians. After several years of resistance they were finally crushed by the Persians. After his victory, the Persian king Darius–the same Darius who supported the Jews in rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem–vowed to punish the Athenians for their support of the Greek cities that rebelled against him.

Around 490 BC, Darius fulfilled his promise and invaded Greece. The series of battles that lasted for the next ten years are known collectively as the Greco-Persian Wars, or more simply the Persian Wars. In 486 Darius died and his son Xerxes took command of the Persian forces. The Greek city-states banded together to fight off the Persian invasions and successfully defended themselves, driving the Persians back out of Greece, across the Aegean and further away from the Aegean coast. It was an incredible war, with many famous heroes and battles worth studying. Most importantly, it saved Greek philosophy and political ideas from being snuffed out by Persian power.

Note: The underlined sentence above highlights the connection between Greek, Persian and Biblical history. Take care to learn these points carefully, for they will prove very helpful in keeping all of your Chronology studies together.

Classical Greece
It was the Athenian navy that ultimately saved the Greek islands and the eastern Greek cities from Persian control. Athens required that all of the smaller city-states in and around the Aegean Sea join a league that paid taxes to Athens in return for protection at sea. The Spartans returned home after the danger of invasion had ended, leaving the Athenians alone as the greatest city in Greece. The age of wealth and peace that Athens enjoyed after the Persian Wars–is what we call “Classical” or “Golden Age” Greece. This period began at then end of the Persian Wars.

Wherever we find wealth, peace and philosophy together, we find extraordinary culture. This is most true in Classical Greece. Artists can only survive where they can find patrons who will pay for their works and, seeing the wealth that poured into Athens at this time, the artists poured in as well. It was during this period that most of the famous Greek philosophers, writers, artists and builders lived. While we cannot study all of the famous men who lived in Greece at this time, we can take a look at the greatest of them.

The Philosophers
Greece is known, most of all, for its philosophers. The three great philosophers were Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Socrates is, by far, the most popular philosopher in the history of the world because he changed the way in which men seek the truth.

It all started for Socrates when, at the religious center of Greece, the priestess of the god Apollo revealed that Socrates was the wisest man in the world. The reason for this was not that Socrates wrote great books (he wrote none) or that he was a great leader (he never had any power). His greatness was in his humility. Socrates was famous for telling men that he knew nothing, but was seeking the truth no matter where it led him. In what is called the Socratic Method, Socrates attacked men who claimed to know something with carefully designed questions that forced them to explain their words exactly so that he might be able to reason clearly and accurately on any topic. In nearly all of his discussions, Socrates proved his answerer to know nothing at all about the topics they claimed to and in doing this made many enemies. He rejected many of the most popular Greek beliefs because they were unreasonable–and this got him into trouble. He was ultimately accused of leading the young men of Athens into error and was accused of not believing in the Greek gods. He was forced to commit suicide in 399 BC.

Socrates had many great students, but the most famous was Plato. Plato’s teachings about the world and man were so near to the truth that many early Christians later believed that one could be a follower of Christ and of Plato at the same time! This should not surprise us, because many early Christians believed that Plato borrowed some of his basic ideas from the books of Moses in the Bible. In Athens, Plato created and taught at the Academy, where many of Greece’s finest students studied Philosophy. Most of Plato’s writings are philosophical discussions involving Socrates. Using the method he learned from Socrates, Plato works to answer questions like, “What is happiness?”, “Where do words come from?”, “What happens to man after he dies?” and so on–fascinating questions we must all answer. While Plato’s ideas are too complicated to discuss in this course, we will study them in the Philosophy courses in the CLAA.

Like Socrates, Plato had a famous student in Aristotle, who brought Greek philosophy to its highest point. Aristotle grew to disagree with his teacher on a number of issues and believed that the most important task of any philosopher was making sure that when men spoke they used words in the same way. This, he argued, was the source of most false teachings and confusion among men. Aristotle wrote brilliantly on many topics including grammar, logic, rhetoric, the weather, the heavens, animals, poetry, politics, dreams, good behavior and much more. Like Plato, he ran a school in Athens called the Lyceum, which could mean the place of the “wolf-killer” or the place “of light”. This is worth noting because the light is obviously a symbol of truth and the wolf is usually a symbol of false teaching and deceit. Thus, his school might have been thought of as the school of truth. Strangely, the most famous family to enjoy Aristotle’s teaching was the family that would eventually conquer Greece and put an end to the Classical Greek age! It was the family of young Alexander of Macedon, who would grow up to be known as Alexander the Great. We will learn about him soon enough.

These three philosophers are still studied throughout the world today–over 2,000 years after their death. The early Christians were great admirers of Plato and the Church of the medieval world became strong supporters of the teaching of Aristotle. The most famous teacher of Aristotle’s ideas in the Catholic Church was St. Thomas Aquinas, who is considered the brightest teacher the Church has ever had. That’s just how wise Aristotle was.

The Playwrights
Outside of her philosophers, Athens was also famous for her playwrights. You know that the Olympic games are played every four years, but you may not know that this tradition started in ancient Greece in the city Olympia around 776 BC! There were different festivals held in honor of different gods–Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus and more. They became very famous during the classical age, but they were not mere athletic contests. They were, first of all, religious festivals, where the Greeks honored their gods with contests and games. The athletic contests included wrestling, archery, running, boxing, chariot racing and much more. However, more famous in history were the drama contests! The games included a drama contest where a number of playwrights composed different types of plays that were performed by professional actors and then voted on by judges. Tragedies were plays that spoke of bad things happening to normal or good people, making people sad. Comedies were plays that spoke of bad things that happened to foolish people, making people laugh.

The first great playwright was Aeschylus. He wrote a tragedy telling of the sad return home of Agamemnon after the Trojan War. When Agamemnon returned home, he found that his wife had fallen in love with another man and rather than welcoming him home with loving arms, put him to death!

The second great playwright–and best of all–was Sophocles. Sophocles was a very wise man who wrote the most famous of all Greek plays, the tragedy Oedipus the King. After being born, it was prophesied that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. To save themselves, his parents order a servant to take the boy out and have him killed. Instead of killing him, the servant gives the baby to a shepherd, who brings the baby to the royal family in Corinth. The king and queen there raise him with the greatest love and tell him nothing of his real parents. However, Oedipus learns of the prophecy of his birth and runs away to make it impossible for him to kill his parents (whom he thinks are in Corinth). You’ll have to read the play yourself to learn the rest–I don’t want to spoil it for you!

While there were other great tragedies, comedies were also popular, though usually immoral and crude. The most famous of the comedians was Aristophanes. One of his most famous plays was called the Clouds, in which he made fun of wise Socrates–while Socrates sat in the audience! He made Socrates (and all philosophers) appear to be a bunch of crazy men with their heads up in “the clouds”. Unfortunately, many of his plays have too much bad language and sinful elements for Christians to study.

The Greek festivals continued through the classical age until Christianity took control of the Roman Empire, sometime close to 400 AD. Theodosius I established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and that meant an end to what were considered purely pagan activities–including the Olympic games.

The Historians
Athens also produced two extraordinary historians. We must understand that history is a form of writing that makes use of narrative (prose) as opposed to the verse of poetry. In Lesson 09, you practiced with historical narrative and learned of the virtues of historical writing: it is clear, concise, credible and smooth. This art was developed and mastered by the Greeks.

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote the history of the Persian Wars just after they ended. Herodotus is called the father of history because of his early example of how it should be written. His narration of the Persian Wars is fascinating as it brings us into the lives of not only Greeks, but the surrounding nations as well–including Egypt and Persia! Many of the stories you have heard of Greek history were likely taken from Herodotus. You should plan to study his history of the Persian Wars at some point in your school years.

The Greek historian Thucydides, wrote of a second war of which we have not yet spoken–the Peloponnesian War. This war was fought between Athens and Sparta, with other Greek city-states on each side from 431-404 BC. Thucydides narrated the events of the war as they took place down to 411 BC. Modern historians praise Thucydides because he gives much less attention to spiritual powers than Herodotus does, but we would argue that this was the fault of his work–and of modern historians! There is no true history that does not take into account the influences of the spiritual world–angels, demons, saints, gods, goddesses and God Himself!

The Peloponnesian War
Our Lord warned that “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”, and despite all of the achievements of the Greeks, they had one fatal flaw: the inability to form a unified nation. Eventually, other Greek cities including Sparta and Corinth, decided to put an end to the power exercised by the Athenians and the Greeks fought against themselves. By 404, Athens was defeated by Sparta and the power and wealth Athens previously enjoyed came to an end.

Shortly after Athens fell, Sparta quickly rose in power, which led Corinth and Thebes to join Athens and wage another war on Sparta! After Sparta fell, the Thebans gained power, which led to Athens and Sparta teaming up to set down Thebes! While this endless fighting continued in Greece, a new and mighty power was rising in the north. The kingdom of Macedonia was gaining strength and by the mid-300s was organized under its powerful king, Philip II. In 339 BC, Philip and the Macedonian army swept in and the Greeks’ opportunity to unite and rule in the west was lost. This same Philip hired Aristotle to serve as his son’s private tutor. In 336 BC, Alexander took his father’s place and began history’s second most incredible conquest as he traveled through and took control of the entire world by 323 BC. At that time a new era of world history–the Hellenistic Age–began and the Golden Age of Greece closed in shame.

In this lesson, we have learned of the amazing rise and fall of the Greeks. After a dark age in which no light of culture was seen, the greatness of Greek culture sprouted and took firm root. The Greeks resisted the power of the Persians and enjoyed a period of peace and cultural progress that hardly any nation has ever approached. However, envy and discontent doomed this happy opportunity and within 160 years it fell to pieces.

In our next lesson, we will continue this story and study the life and conquests of Alexander the Great. We have now seen the beginnings of human history, the beginnings of Israel, the rise and fall of Greece and the beginnings of Rome. Can you tell the story thus far?

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