Peloponnese Timeline

  • 6000 BCE - 5000 BCE

    First inhabitation of the Nemean valley.

  • c. 5000 BCE

    Earliest Neolithic finds in the Corinth area.

  • 3000 BCE - 2000 BCE

    First inhabitation of Mycenae area.

  • c. 3000 BCE

    First settlement at Tiryns.

  • c. 2100 BCE

    First evidence of building structures at Mycenae.

  • 2000 BCE

    Early Greeks settle the Peloponnese.

  • c. 1600 BCE

    First construction stages of the Tiryns citadel.

  • c. 1550 BCE

    Gold death masks (including that of 'Agamemnon') made at Mycenae.

  • c. 1500 BCE - c. 1400 BCE

    First palace structure and Treasury of Atreus tomb built at Mycenae.

  • c. 1500 BCE - 1200 BCE

    Mycenae at its peak of influence.

  • c. 1450 BCE

    Mycenaen influence extended to Knossos, Crete.

  • c. 1450 BCE

    Development of the Linear B script.

  • 1400 BCE - 1300 BCE

  • 1400 BCE - 1300 BCE

    Mycenaean fortifications, palaces and tombs constructed at Argos.

  • 1400 BCE - 1100 BCE

    Culture in the Cyclades is increasingly influenced by the Mycenaean civilization of mainland Greece.

  • c. 1300 BCE

    First palace destroyed at Mycenae and repaired, Lion Gate added and fortifications extended.

  • 1300 BCE - 1200 BCE

    Mycenaean Tiryns is at the height of its importance.

  • c. 1200 BCE

    Second palace destroyed at Mycenae, city begins to decline.

  • c. 1200 BCE

    Earthquake severely damages Tiryns.

  • 1200 BCE - 1100 BCE

    Argos takes over from Mycenae as most important regional power in the Argolid.

  • c. 900 BCE

    Sparta is founded.

  • 700 BCE - 600 BCE

    King Phiedon leads Argos to its greatest expansion.

  • c. 700 BCE

    Corinthians adopt the trireme from the Phoenicians.

  • c. 700 BCE

    Sparta, Argos and Paros hold the first documented musical competitions in Greece.

  • c. 657 BCE - 585 BCE

    The Kypselidai are tyrants of Corinth.

  • c. 650 BCE

    Sparta crushes Messenian revolt.

  • c. 627 BCE - c. 587 BCE

    Periander is tyrant at Corinth.

  • c. 625 BCE

    Black-figure pottery created in Corinth.

  • c. 600 BCE - 700 BCE

    Tiryns becomes a cult centre for the worship of Hera, Athena, and Herakles.

  • 585 BCE

    An oligarchy of 80 takes power at Corinth.

  • 580 BCE

    First athletic games at Isthmia.

  • c. 580 BCE

    The kouroi of Argos, thought to represent Cleobis & Biton, are sculpted.

  • 573 BCE

    First athletic games at Nemea in honour of Zeus.

  • c. 550 BCE

    The temple of Apollo is constructed at Corinth.

  • c. 550 BCE - c. 366 BCE

    Peloponnesian League alliance between Sparta, Corinth, Elis and Tegea which establishes Spartan hegemony over the Peloponnese.

  • c. 545 BCE

    Sparta takes control of Thyrea from Argos.

  • 494 BCE - 493 BCE

    Spartan forces under Cleomenes I attack the city of Argos.

  • 494 BCE - 493 BCE

    Telesilla of Argos defends her city against the Spartan forces with an army of women.

  • c. 490 BCE

    Leonidas beomes one of Sparta's two kings.

  • 478 BCE

    Sparta withdraws from alliance against Persia.

  • c. 468 BCE

    Tiryns is destroyed by the Argeians.

  • 468 BCE

    Argeians destroy citadel of Mycenae.

  • 460 BCE - 445 BCE

  • 451 BCE

    Sparta and Argos sign a peace treaty which endures for the next 30 years.

  • 432 BCE

    Sparta declares that Athens has broken the Thirty Year Peace and prepares for war.

  • 431 BCE - 404 BCE

  • 431 BCE - 404 BCE

    Thebes sides with Sparta against Athens in the Peloponnesian War.

  • 429 BCE

    Peloponnesian forces led by Sparta begin the siege of Plataea.

  • 425 BCE

    Pylos campaign, under Cleon and Demosthenes' command Athens defeats Sparta at Pylos.

  • 424 BCE

    Spartan general Brasidas takes Amphipolis, Thucydides failed to prevent this and is exiled.

  • 424 BCE

    A force of Athenian peltasts defeat Spartan hoplites on Sphaktria in the Peloponnese.

  • 418 BCE

    Sparta, led by Agis II, defeats Argos and her allies at the battle of Mantinaea.

  • 415 BCE - 330 BCE

    Nemean Games relocated to Argos.

  • 412 BCE

    Sparta allies with Persia.

  • 410 BCE

    Alcibiades leads the Athenian fleet to victory over Sparta at Cyzicus.

  • 404 BCE

    End of the Peloponnesian war, Athens defeated By Sparta at Aigospotamoi, Rule of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens.

  • 395 BCE - 386 BCE

    The Corinthian Wars between Sparta and an alliance of Athens, Corinth, Argos, Boeotia and Thebes.

  • 390 BCE

    Athenian leader Iphikrates employs peltasts to defeat Spartan hoplites at Lechaion near Corinth.

  • 382 BCE - 379 BCE

    Sparta establishes a garrison at Thebes.

  • 375 BCE

    Thebes defeats Sparta at the Battle of Tegyra.

  • 371 BCE

    Thebes, led by Epaminondas, defeats Sparta in the Battle of Leuctra.

  • 362 BCE

    Indecisive Battle of Matinea where Thebes fought against Sparta and Athens. Theban general Epaminondas is killed.

  • 338 BCE

    Philip of Macedonia defeats the Greek allied forces of Athens, Thebes and Corinth in the Battle of Chaironeia.

  • 330 BCE

    Athletic Games return from Argos to Nemea.

  • c. 330 BCE

    Temple of Zeus built at Nemea.

  • c. 330 BCE - c. 300 BCE

    Extensive building programme at Nemea funded by the Macedonians.

  • c. 280 BCE

  • 269 BCE

    Nemean Games definitively moved to Argos.

  • 243 BCE

    Corinth joins the Archaean League.

  • 235 BCE

    Megelopolis joins the Achaean League.

  • 225 BCE

    Macedonians bring an army across the Isthmus to face another Achaian force trying to take Corinth.

  • 222 BCE

    The Achaean League and Antigonos III of Macedon defeat Sparta at Sellasia.

  • c. 191 BCE

    The Achaean League signs a treaty of alliance with Rome.

  • 146 BCE

    Rome sacks Corinth and dissolves the Achaean league. Greece is ruled by Rome.

  • 146 BCE

    Open war breaks out between Rome and the Achaean League.

  • 44 BCE

    Julius Caesar founds the Roman colony of Corinth.

  • 67 CE

    Under Nero excavation of the Corinth Canal begins but is abandoned after three months.

  • 267 CE

  • 393 CE

    Roman Emperor Theodosius definitively ends all pagan Games in Greece.

  • c. 396 CE

    Corinth burned by the Visigoths under Alaric.

Peloponnesian War, Athens vs Sparta

The Peloponnesian War was a war fought between Sparta and Athens. It lasted 27 years. Sparta and Athens were always in disagreement. They did not get along. But 27 years! It was a terrible war.

When war broke out, everyone who lived in the countryside around Athens fled to the city to escape the Spartan attacks. The city was not ready for that many people to move in. They did not have enough food or water or shelter, or a way to handle that much waste and garbage. By the third year of fighting, more than half the population of Athens had died of illness. More died in battle. It was a horrible time. The war dragged on. Other city-states got involved. Finally, Athens surrendered.

Sparta was generous in victory. Corinth wanted Athens leveled. They never wanted to put up with this bickering and warring again. But Sparta said no. The Spartan's admired bravery and Athens had shown true bravery. Instead, for the next ten years, Athens was an outpost of Sparta, under Spartan rule. After ten years, Sparta gave Athens her independence.

Athens began to regain her former glory. But Athens was never again the shining star of the ancient Greek world. If Athens had had more time, perhaps, the city might have fully recovered. But time was running out for all the Greek city-states.

Macedonia, a kingdom to the north of Greece, had eyed Greece's splendor for some time. The king of Macedonia knew the Greek city-states were weakened by the Peloponnesian War, the war between Athens and Sparta. Macedonia would soon move to conquer all the Greek city-states by diplomacy and by violence.


Published archaeological, palaeoenvironmental, and palaeoclimatic data from the Peloponnese in Greece are compiled, discussed and evaluated in order to analyse the interactions between humans and the environment over the last 9000 years. Our study indicates that the number of human settlements found scattered over the peninsula have quadrupled from the prehistoric to historical periods and that this evolution occurred over periods of climate change and seismo–tectonic activity. We show that societal development occurs both during periods of harsh as well as favourable climatic conditions. At some times, some settlements develop while others decline. Well-known climate events such as the 4.2 ka and 3.2 ka events are recognizable in some of the palaeoclimatic records and a regional decline in the number and sizes of settlements occurs roughly at the same time, but their precise chronological fit with the archaeological record remains uncertain. Local socio-political processes were probably always the key drivers behind the diverse strategies that human societies took in times of changing climate. The study thus reveals considerable chronological parallels between societal development and palaeoenvironmental records, but also demonstrates the ambiguities in these correspondences and, in doing so, highlights some of the challenges that will face future interdisciplinary projects. We suggest that there can be no general association made between societal expansion phases and periods of advantageous climate. We also propose that the relevance of climatic and environmental regionality, as well as any potential impacts of seismo-tectonics on societal development, need to be part of the interpretative frameworks.

Agriculture reached the Aegean region from the Middle East between 6500 and 5500 BC. By 3500 BC small farming settlements were scattered throughout the Aegean coasts and islands. The largest, though still only with populations several hundred strong, were beginning to look like little towns.

These communities were active in the trade routes that spread north into the Balkans and south-east Europe, and westward along the Mediterranean coast, their sailors probably travelling as far as Spain in their little boats.

Such places as Troy, in present-day north-west Turkey, were already showing signs of urbanization in the third millennium BC. By this period, these trade networks were feeding the Mesopotamian city-states with the tin and copper with which to make bronze weapons and decorations. From Mesopotamia came knowledge of bronze-making techniques and other skills with which the peoples of the Aegean enhanced their material culture. By the end of the third millennium, one of the most advanced societies of the time was emerging on the large island of Crete. This would become the brilliant Minoan civilization.

At Knossos and other locations in Crete, large palaces appeared around 2000 BC, surrounded by communities that can properly be called towns, with houses packed tightly along narrow streets. Shortly, roads were being built right across the island, suggesting that it was spanned by a single political system – the evidence suggests a confederation of principalities rather than one kingdom, as large palaces that look like royal residences are found in several places, famous for their lively wall frescoes of bull-vaulting games and bare-breasted (but otherwise well-clad) women.

Writing had been introduced, firstly a hieroglyphic system perhaps based on the Egyptian one, but later adapted to the Minoans’ own needs to become the Linear A script. Archaeological evidence shows that the Minoans had, by the early second millennium BC, and probably well before, strong trading links with Egypt, Asia Minor and the Levant. Twice during the centuries between 2000 and 1400 BC the greatest of these palaces, at Knossos, was destroyed by earthquakes, and then rebuilt, each time bigger and better than before and around it grew a city, large by the standards of the day and a rival to most in the ancient Near East. By 1600 BC at the latest Minoan trade dominated the eastern Mediterranean, and, although there is no direct evidence, it is likely that she was able to deploy a powerful fleet which kept the seas free from pirates.

The Spread of Civilization

By that time, the Minoans were trading actively with the peoples of mainland Greece. These were comparative newcomers to the region, being at the vanguard of that expansion of Indo-European speaking peoples who came down from central Europe in the third millennium BC, bringing with them a warlike culture focussed around powerful chiefs and their retinues.

The rise of trade with the Minoans turned the chiefs of south-eastern Greece into middlemen in the metal routes to the west and central Europe, their fortified settlements evolving into stone- and timber-built palace-fortresses, crammed with a wealth of beautiful objects, some imported from Egypt, Syria and further a-field, others home made by increasingly skilful craftsmen. Much of this wealth was buried with their kings, to be dug up and gawped at by amazed archaeologists millennia later.

The Triumph and Fall of Knossos

On Crete, the later centuries of Minoan history saw the palace of Knossos outshine all the others, suggesting that it was now the seat of a king of the whole island. The palace was a setting for refined luxury, famous today for its elaborate drainage system and running water supply.

By this time the Linear A script had been replaced by the Linear B system, more flexible and of more use to a busy bureaucracy (all tablets found, as with the earliest Sumerian writing of a millennium previously, are concerned with administrative matters and economic transactions).

In around 1400 BC, the palace of Knossos was burnt, and this time not rebuilt – in fact it was thoroughly looted of all its gold and silver. So, too were the neighbouring coastal settlements, clear signs of widespread raiding, possibly even an invasion.

Image of the restored front end of Knossus.

Eventually civilized life did resume at Knossos, but at a lower cultural level. The evidence suggests that Crete was now in the hands of foreigners, Greeks from the mainland.

With the passing of the commercial power of Knossos, the mainland Greek principalities came into their own, under the loose leadership of Mycenae. Their societies were already literate – they received the Linear B script from the Minoans – and they were expanionist. They planted colonies on Cyprus, and probably on Sicily and southern Italy.

On the mainland their palaces increased in size and wealth, with storerooms, servants’ quarters, chariot sheds and other buildings spreading out from the central hall. Mycenae was the largest of these Greek centres, the palace-citadel surrounded by huge walls and gates, and the royal tombs of great splendour. Other places on the mainland and around the Aegean, such as Argos, Pylos and Troy (all these and others figure in Homer’s account of the Trojan Wars) also boasted fine, thick-walled palaces, and were all points in the international maritime trade networks of the period.

And then quite suddenly, this glittering Bronze Age world comes to an end, and a simpler, more primitive one takes its place, part of a larger shock to the ancient civilizations of the late second millennium Near East. The Hittite empire vanished, Assyria and Babylon shrank, the Canaanite city-states fell and even Egypt had to fend off invasions from “Sea Peoples” from the north.

Exactly what processes were at work can only be conjectured. Many scholars see the roots of these troubles in migrations originating in central Europe. There may have been other factors, however: with the eclipse of Knossos and the rise of the Mycenaean Greeks, a unified sea-power would in all likelihood have been replaced by a more fragmented situation, in which individual states had their own trading and fighting ships. While Mycenae was able to exert its control things went well, but the temptation for the individual princes to trade, and raid, on their own account must have been great. Raiding may have escalated, wounding the peaceful co-existence needed for maritime trade to flourish, and so the mainstay of civilization in this region would have been undermined.

Large-scale raids, reinforced by displaced peoples from fallen cities, may have grown in frequency and ferocity (the tale of the siege of Troy may be an elaborated account of such, and this period, later glorified as the “Heroic Age”, seems to have been one of brutal warfare). The weakened Aegean states probably also had to deal with pressure from less civilized tribes coming down from the north,and the combination of events overwhelmed them.

Siege of Troy the Burning of Troy (1759/62), oil painting by Johann Georg

In any event, from around 1200 BC, the palaces and towns disappeared, along with the literate scribes and merchants who inhabited them. Large-scale migrations took place, as people crossed from mainland Greece to set up a host of small Greek-speaking settlements on the islands of the Aegean and the west coast of Asia Minor. The Greek mainland itself seems to have experienced not only a dramatic economic and material decline, but also a startling loss of population.

Greece is a country of small fertile plains divided from one another by steep hills and high mountains. The populations of those plains fronting the sea had boat-borne access to the wider world otherwise travellers had to traverse difficult upland paths to reach neighbouring communities.

With the old centres of civilization gone, the people of Greece and the Aegean lived in simple farming villages scattered across these plains. In the place of princes in their dazzling palaces were tough tribal leaders ruling one of these small plain, or a portion of one of the more extensive plains such as Attica, or Boiotia, or Thessaly. The loyalties of the people were restricted to their small territories, where their fierce local patriotism found a focus in the wooden temple. This was located at the (perhaps metaphorical) centre of their valley, often on a mountain spur, frequently on the defensible site of the old palace.

These were unsettled times, with the possibility of a raid from the neighbouring plain never far away. The people therefore built their huts clustered around the temple for defence, walking out daily to farm their lands. The population nucleus and the surrounding territory which it controlled were called a “Polis”. Today we use the term “city-state”, which is a useful one so long as we realize that they were often tiny. Even later, in “Classical” times, a city-state of 5,000 inhabitants was by no means uncommon, and one of 20,000 was large.

Well over one hundred of these city-states were scattered over the mainland of Greece, the islands of the Aegean and the west coast of Asia Minor.

The Rise of Classical Greek civilization c. 800-500 BC

The traditional date for the beginning of Greek civilization is 776 BC, the year of the first pan-Hellenic Olympic Games. (Actually, this date was worked out centuries later, and is almost certainly wrong.) Of course, an entire civilization does not suddenly spring into being in a single year, but this date does provide a convenient marker.

From about 800 BC the Greek population began to expand. The causes of this are not known, but the effect was to create a shortage of good farmland. At the same time Phoenician merchants were developing their trade links with the Greeks. The inhabitants of several coastal Greek states responded by developing overseas trading connections of their own. Given the Phoenician dominance of the eastern Mediterranean, this meant looking to the west.

The Ionians (that is, those Greeks who had migrated to the coast of Asia Minor after 1200 BC) were the first to take up this challenge, and the city-state of Kyme despatched a colony to the west coast of Italy in around 750 BC. The aim was probably to establish a trading station in the west, but very soon the potential for solving the land shortage was recognized. Other states followed Kyme’s example, and soon a string of Greek colonies had been founded along the coast of southern Italy and Sicily.

These new city-states, frequently situated on broad, fertile plains, flourished. In due course some of them, above all Syracuse in Sicily, grew to be amongst the wealthiest and most influential states in the Greek world, and almost immediately they were exporting corn to their mother cities. This stimulated commercial and industrial development in Greece and the Aegean, to produce the luxury goods to pay for the corn. (These Greek cities in southern Italy and Sicily also had a profound impact on the history of Italy, by carrying Greek cultural influence there. Soon the rise of the Etruscans, and then Rome, would reshape the history of the ancient world.)

Greek craftsmanship and artistry reached new heights, maritime trade expanded enormously, and the wealth of the Greek cities rose. They were soon planting colonies in the east as well, notably on the shores of the Dardanelles, the Black Sea the North African coast, west of the Nile Delta (Kyrenaica).

This process was accompanied by the rebirth of literacy amongst the Greeks. At first the new sea-going Greeks used the alphabet which the Phoenicians had perfected to aid them in their commercial transactions. However, by 700 BC at the latest they had adapted it to suit their own language better. As with most early scripts, this would first have been used for everyday business purposes, but within another hundred years the long, brilliant tradition of Greek literature had begun.

Population growth and the inflow of new wealth caused many cities to grow into true urban communities, with many thousands of inhabitants. Many people benefited from the economic expansion, but others suffered. The introduction of metal money from Lydia, sometime during the seventh century BC, streamlined business transactions, quickened economic activity and gave a large boost to the market economy but it also led to more and more people falling into debt.

Differences in wealth were becoming far more apparent than before. Many poorer people lost their farms, and some even had to sell themselves and their families into slavery. In the cities, numbers of landless proletariats grew. So too did a new class of able, ambitious, often widely travelled merchants whose wealth challenged that of the old landed aristocracy.

One of the most momentous changes – THE most momentous, when set against the broad backdrop of world history – happened in the political sphere, but is of course rooted in the wider social transformation taking place. In most of the city-states the Greeks began to get rid of their kings.

It was the Greeks who invented republics, at least in Europe. How exactly this came about is not known. A speculative answer might go something like this: As greater wealth and higher material culture began to flow into the city-states in Greece and the Aegean, their kings began to enlarge their ambitions – it would have been natural to transform themselves into palace-based rulers, just like their Bronze-Age predecessors had done.

However, this was not the Bronze-Age. Iron, unlike bronze, was plentiful and cheap, and weapons were no longer expensive. This meant that every nobleman (who was at this time the head of a clan) could arm his followers. So, alarmed by the growing ambitions of the king, the nobles ganged up on him and drastically reduced his power or, in most cases, ousted him altogether.

The result was the first republics. These had begun to appear by about 750 BC. These were originally oligarchies, ruled by small groups of aristocrats. However, iron weapons were not just affordable by aristocrats, and the ceaseless wars between the states meant that it was not long before they were arming ordinary farmers and forming them into armies – the extremely effective armies of Greek “hoplites”, or heavy-armed infantry.

This gave the common people a potential power they had never had before.

The aristocrats, being human, governed in their own narrow interests, frequently at the expense of other groups within the state. For example, they used their control of the law courts to deal harshly with those in debt to them. They were able to extend their own estates at the expense of their poorer neighbours, and even to force them and their families into slavery.

The simmering resentment that this sort of rule had created was easily tapped by a bold and ambitious noble, and in city after city, backed by the common people – now armed – tyrants seized power.

The word “tyrant” did not then have the pejorative meaning it has today. It simply meant “boss”. Indeed, the Greek tyrants usually did a great deal of good for their states – at least in the first generation. They ensured that the larger landowners could not take ordinary farmers’ land, and many tyrants carried out some measure of land distribution in favour of the poorer sections of the community. Many of them also beautified the cities they ruled it was above all these rulers who gave their cities their new temples, market places, city walls and so on. This was not only to glorify themselves, but also to give employment to the poor, especially in times of famine. Also, they encouraged trade, and favoured the merchant classes at the expense of the old landed aristocracy.

Things often started to go wrong for the tyrants in the second generation, when a capable ruler was followed by his less capable sons. Too often these were quite unfit for their jobs, and in some cases fiendishly cruel to their opponents. All sections of society grew sick of them. So, another revolution would oust the tyrant and bring to power another group.

Sometimes this was a faction of the old group of aristocrats, in other cases it was members of the new merchant elite. In either case, intelligent leaders knew that power in the state had to take account of the common people, and so they set about creating a more broad-based constitution, moving the state down the road towards democracy. By no means all states followed this trajectory. Some, especially in the more backward areas, never got rid of their monarchies others oscillated between tyranny and oligarchy. But many in the course of time developed a fully democratic form of government.

While these political developments were transforming the political landscape, the artistic, material and philosophical culture of the Greeks was going through revolutionary change. Hand in hand with the social and political transformation of the Greek world came a cultural revolution which was to have the most profound implications for the future of western civilization.

Meanwhile, Greek literature had started with the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor. It was here that the poet Homer composed his epics, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”, which were committed to writing not long after 700 BC. These works set an extraordinarily high standard, some scholars even today regarding them as the finest works of European literature ever produced.

Bust of Homer

The works of the poet Hesiod are not regarded in quite so exalted a light, but his “Works and Days”, composed before 700 BC, though possibly written down later, sheds light on the everyday working life of contemporary early Greece rather than on a glorious but mythical past.

Within a century, two other poets of note had enriched Greek literature: Archilocus of Paros and the lady Sappho of Lesbos. These poets developed a new “lyric” style. Perhaps tellingly, both travelled widely across the sea, between the “Old” Greek world of Greece and the Aegean, and the “New” in Italy and Sicily.

Another product of the contacts the Greeks now had with the wider world was in art and architecture.

The already ancient civilization of Egypt made an immense impression on the Greeks who travelled there. Egyptian statuary profoundly influenced Greek styles. The elegant but traditional Geometric styles in pottery decoration and statuary gave way to the “Oriental” style, influenced by the formal styles in Egyptian art: the link between the huge statues in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and Greek statues of the Archaic period is clear to see.

Egyptian temple design was also hugely influential. It formed the basis for the first major style of Greek architecture, the “Ionic”.

Stone temples in this style began to appear in the Greek city-states in the decades before 600 BC, although the truly magnificent structures of Classical Greece did not appear for another hundred years or more.

The Revolution in Thought

Most significant of all, the thought-world of ancient Greece was being transformed out of all recognition. Indeed, it was laying the foundations to the future development of all Western philosophy.

Again, these developments took place initially in Ionia. Here is not the place to deal with this subject in any detail, but after 600 BC a series of Ionian philosophers, including Thales of Miletus, Anaximandros, Anaximenes, Xenophanes, Pythagoras (who actually spent the most productive part of his career in Sicily and Italy), Parmenides and Herakleitos, moved the frontiers of scientific thought, mathematical theory and religious speculation outwards as never before in world history.

Their ideas and approaches differed widely, and the conclusions they reached often seem to us absurd. But the root of all was a refusal to receive knowledge from earlier generations, and to think things through to one’s own’s answers.

Why did this development occur, here and now, amongst the ancient Greeks?

One part of the answer must be to do with the great changes transforming Greek society during this period – they must have made it easier to break free from traditional modes of thought. The overseas experience of many Greeks must also have been something of an eye-opener. They were discovering that different peoples had different customs, and what was good and proper in one society was unacceptable in another. This caused people to ask, are there things that are intrinsically good?

But other ancient peoples experienced change, and others had expanded their horizons into different regions of the world. What was it that made the ancient Greeks break through into new modes of thought when others did not?

The fundamental answer has already been alluded to: these people were living in the first republics known to history. For all the factionalism, stupidity and indeed violence of these republics, they allowed a certain freedom of thought. Moreover, when things got too hot for a “free thinker” in one state, he could (and sometimes did) move to another. Finally, these city-states were comparatively tiny. Not all were outward looking, mercantile and maritime but in those that were, the merchant classes and others who had travelled overseas must have had a far greater influence on the climate of thought than would have been the case in a large kingdom.

New horizons and change must have been “in the air”, and that air was a great deal freer than in most other places in the past.

By 500 BC, two states stood head and shoulders above the other Greek city-states in their prestige and influence. These were Athens and Sparta. It was these, therefore – quite different from each other in their cultural and political outlooks – which took the lead in meeting the great challenge that was about to be posed to the Greek world by its mighty eastern neighbour, Persia.

Spartan helmet on display at the British Museum. The helmet has been damaged and the top has sustained a blow, presumably from a battle.

Like other Greek city-states, Sparta suffered from land shortage. However, she was an inland state, so overseas colonizing was not a straightforward solution for her. She solved her problem by conquering her neighbour, Messenia.

This put her in a dominating position in her corner of Greece, called Laconia, and made her one of the richer states, and a leading centre of Greek civilization. But in 669 BC, the Spartans were defeated by their near neighbour, Argos. Shortly after, the Messenians rose in revolt, with help from outside. Eventually the revolt was crushed, but for a time the very existence of Sparta lay in the balance.

The Spartans, frightened, but determined to hang on to their subject territories, knew that, if they did so, they would always be faced with the possibility of revolt. They therefore undertook a thoroughgoing overhaul of their constitution and their very way of life.

They turned their back on luxury, and transformed their state into an armed camp. Their citizens became full-time soldiers, under the most severe discipline, whilst their subject populations became serfs.

The Spartans soon gained a reputation for invincibility on the battle field, widely feared by the rest of Greece.

To her neighbours, the Spartans adopted a far-seeing policy. They negotiated defensive alliances with each of them, thus forging an enduring alliance system which came to be called the Peloponnesian League.

Attica is a broad plain on the eastern coast of Greece just north of the Peloponnese, dominated by its chief city, Athens. Athens was far larger than most other Greek city-states, with a population numbering well over one hundred thousand. Perhaps because of this her political evolution had been slow – in 600 BC she was still ruled by a narrow oligarchy of aristocrats.

By that date, however, she was experiencing all the problems which other Greek states had faced, particularly land shortage and tensions between classes. An attempt to reduce tensions had been made when the politician Draco had been asked to draft a law code, so that court rulings could be made more transparent. In the event he had made things worse, as he simply took it as his brief to codify already existing customs – and so many misdemeanours resulted in the death penalty that it only increased the disaffection of the poor. Ever since then “Draconian” measures have become a by-word for heartless severity.

Shortly after 600 BC a second attempt at a law code was attempted, this time the work of Solon. His code embodied moderation – there would be no redistribution of land, but existing debts were cancelled and enslavement for debt would cease. He also gave more power to the people by re-organizing their assembly and giving it teeth.

We look back at Solon’s work and are impressed. At the time it pleased no one, and the tensions continued. Half a century later, in 546 BC, a nobleman, Peistratos, siezed power (after a couple of failed attempts) and established a tyranny. Under his rule, and that of his sons, the economy of Athens was greatly strengthened. The government encouraged the export of olives and olive oil to pay for the import of corn. Other industries were also promoted, Athens becoming the leading industrial and commercial city of Greece. The fine Attic pottery soon dominated the Mediterranean markets. At the same time the tyrants beautified the city with temples, and constructed conduits to bring fresh water to its inhabitants.

The tyranny lasted until 510 BC, when, after a short period of turmoil, the statesman Kleisthenes came to power, and carried out further reforms of the constitution.

These greatly strengthened the people’s power, gave them a real measure of executive power, and unified the Athenian citizenry by taking power away from locally- based or clan-based tribes and setting up artificial, pan-Athenian tribes in their stead. The Athenian form of government can henceforth in truth be called a democracy.

The Classical Age of Greece

In the years leading up to 500 BC, storm clouds had been gathering which threatened the entire Greek world, and had by then already engulfed the Ionian states. The huge Persian empire was on the move. The Greek city-states, under the leadership of Athens and Sparta, stoutly defended themselves in one of the truly decisive wars in history.

In 546 BC Lydia had fallen to the armies of a new eastern power, Persia, and in short order the Ionian cities were subdued too.

Persian rule was at first light, and so long as the cities paid their tribute they were left more or less to get on with their own affairs. However, the Persians’ demand for taxes and men for their expeditions steadily increased, and the Persians progressively installed pro-Persian tyrants in all these cities.

In 513 BC the Persian king, Darius, led an expedition across the Dardanelles into Macedonia and Thrace, which achieved little but served notice on Greece that Persian ambitions in this region were by no means satisfied.

In 499 BC, the Ionian cities of Asia Minor rose in revolt against their Persian masters. They sought aid from Sparta and Athens. Sparta refused but Athens agreed. The revolt was slowly put down by the Persians, and, after some severe reprisals, they imposed a more lenient settlement than before on the Greek cities: tribute was eased and the citizens were left to organize their own affairs with less interference from the imperial authorities – even democracies were permitted.

However, the mainland Greeks, and Athens in particular, were now in the Persians’ direct line of fire, a fact about which they had no doubts. As in most states faced with this kind of threat, the Athenians were divided into those who felt it best to come to terms with the enemy, and those who stood for no surrender.

The First Persian Invasion of Greece

Gradually the Athenians came round to the “no surrender” view, and put their faith in Themistocles, one of the most brilliant statesmen Athens ever produced.

By 490 BC the Persians had completed the re-conquest of Ionia, and in that year launched a large sea-borne invasion across the Aegean, landing at Marathon, near Athens. Here their army was trounced by the much smaller Athenian army, and the Persian fleet sailed away leaving many dead.

The Second Persian Invasion of Greece

The Persians tried again ten years later, this time under the personal command of their king, Xerxes, and with a huge force.

Having thrown a bridge of boats lashed together across the Bospherus, the narrow sea between Europe and Asia and having dug a canal through an isthmus at Mt Athos to avoid the particularly dangerous coast there the Persians marched along the Aegean coast, their fleet and army keeping in close touch and moving in tandem, and approached Greece from the north.

Meanwhile, under Themistocles’ prodding, Athens had taken more steps to strengthen its democracy by placing the important magistracies into the hands of the people, and by greatly expanding its navy. In Athens, naval power and democracy went together. The men who rowed the galleys were the poorest citizens, who could not afford their own armour. So, they had a vested interest in increasing the amount of galley-work, for which they were paid a generous daily rate. They were also the section of the community who wished to see the most radical democracy, as it was this form of government that gave them the most power. On this occasion, this vested interest turned out to be in the interests of all Greece. Themistocles had successfully called for the revenue from Athens’ expanded silver mines at Laurion to pay for the fleet.

The preparations of the Persians, especially the digging of the canal at Mt Athos, gave due notice to the Greeks of hostile intentions, and the Greek city-states held a conference to plan their defence. An army under Spartan command was positioned at the pass of Thermopylai, and a mainly Athenian fleet was positioned close by, at Artemision.

The Persians broke through this barrier, but only after hard fighting and the withdrawal of most of the Greek army intact, covered by the magnificent courage of a small Spartan force at Thermopylai.

With the Greek army in a strong defensive line across the Peloponnesian Isthmus blocking the Persian advance, Xerxes decided to turn the Greek lines by sea. The Athenian navy stood in his way, and at the resulting battle of Salamis, crippled the Persian fleet.

Xerxes withdrew his army from Athens (which the Athenians had evacuated and he had burnt), and himself left for Asia. The Persian forces left in Greece were, early in the following year (479 BC), heavily defeated at the battle of Plataia by a combined Greek army under Spartan command. The Persians evacuated Greece as best they could.

Athens emerged from the Persian War of 480-79 with her prestige immensely enhanced. Moreover, her naval power made her the natural leader in the continuing struggle to drive the Persians from the Aegean. Athenian political leadership was soon accompanied by an astonishing cultural pre-eminence.

The League against Persia

With the withdrawal of the Persian army from Greek soil in 479 BC, the Greek city-states turned again to their own affairs. The Ionian cities, however, again revolted, and Athens took the lead in protecting them from Persian revenge. She organized a league of all the liberated Aegean states. As its treasury was at Delos, and its congress met on that island, this was known as the Delian League.

Within a few years the league had eradicated Persian bases in or near the Aegean, and achieved complete naval dominance in that sea. Athens, however, refused to call a halt to the hostilities, though opposition to the war grew amongst her allies. The important city of Naxos seceded from the League. The Athenians decided that secession could not be tolerated, and forced Naxos back into the League as a non-combatant but tribute-paying member.

In 466 BC, the League navy destroyed the rebuilt Persian fleet at the river Eurymedon, in the Levant. This did not stop other League members from seceding, for by now the Athenians were no longer the popular liberators they had originally been. Their strict control of the League, together with increasing interference in the internal affairs of member states, had aroused widespread resentment.

Athenian dominance was strengthened by the allies’ preference to pay tribute rather than contribute men and ships to the League war effort. As a result, Athens’ navy grew larger whilst that of her “allies” shrank. Several revolts were put down, and after each one a democratic government was installed.

Athens also started projecting her power further afield, winning victories and gaining allies in Boiotia at the expense of Thebes and in the Peloponnese at the expense of Corinth and even Sparta. The Athenians, however, suffered a huge disaster in Egypt, attempting to support a revolt against the Persians, and lost a large fleet there (454 BC), which led, after some more inconclusive fighting, to the treaty (449 BC) ending the war between Athens and Persia. Further reverses at the hands of her Greek rivals led to Athens withdrawing from Boeotia and the Peloponnese and the signing the 30 Years Peace with Sparta (445 BC).

By now, one statesman had dominated Athenian politics for more then fifteen years. His name was Pericles.

Pericles was a great orator, trusted by the Athenian assembly, and usually managed to persuade them to follow a particular course of action. He now persuaded the people to start building the great temple that would become known as the Parthenon.

During the next ten years this temple, as well as other magnificent buildings such as the Propylaia of the Acropolis, rose above the city. This building programme was not only done to beautify the city, but also to provide work for the Athenian poor, no longer needed to row Athens’ galley fleets against the Persians.

Not that the Delian League, whose raison d’etre had been to fight the Persians, had been allowed to lapse. Far from it. Athens indeed tightened its grip over its “allies” (now, in reality, subject states), and it was the League tribute (with its treasury now transferred from Delos to Athens itself) that was used to finance the building.

To Athens came the finest artists from all over Greece to contribute to this programme. Other branches of high culture flourished too. Anaxagoras continued the speculations of the Ionian philosophers, and sophist teachers such as Protagoras began the formal training in rhetoric and logic.

Most enduring of all, and exercising a profound influence on future Western literature, the Athenians themselves produced a series of great dramatists, first Aeschylus, then Sophocles, next Euripides and finally Aristophanes. The last two were to produce their greatest works as Athens went down to defeat in the Peloponnesian wars.

The tensions between Athens and Sparta dragged the whole of Greece into a long, brutal war. It ended in disaster for Athens, and left few areas of the Greek world untouched.

A Time of Troubles

Sparta had had mixed fortunes since leading the Greek armies to victory at Plataia in 479. She had had to fight a war with her old enemies Argos and Arcadia in the 470s, and at the same time face a revolt of her serfs in Messenia. The Spartans were heavily outnumbered, and had to give up some territory to Argos in order to be able to defeat her other foes.

A destructive earthquake in 465 caused great loss of life. Immediately the helots – Sparta’s serfs – rose in a more serious revolt than for many years. The Messenians holed themselves up in a strong mountain fortress, and could only be reduced after a long siege.

Then Sparta suffered reverses and loss of influence in a short war with Athens in the 450s, though she turned the table by invading Attica and giving the Athenians a fright in 446, which led to the favourable 30 Years Peace in 445.

Sparta stood for traditional aristocratic values, and was seen by many throughout Greece as the champion against new-fangled and dangerous democracy. Just as the Athenians sponsored democratic governments amongst their allies, the Spartans supported oligarchies amongst theirs.

The two leading Greek states represented opposing causes, and could not for long live together. This was all the more so because many groups amongst Sparta’s allies looked to Athens to help them establish democracies within their states, whilst other groups amongst Athens’ allies looked to Sparta to help them stamp out democracy within theirs!

The clash came with a dispute between Corinth and her neighbour Kerkyra in 431, with Corinth looking to support from Sparta and the Peloponnesian League and Kerkyra looking to Athens and the Delian League. The resulting general warfare was desultory and complicated, but the outstanding features and events are easily described.

The first years of the war were characterized by Spartan invasions of Attica, causing much damage to the countryside surrounding Athens but with no real damage done to the Athenian people or their ability to wage war. They crowded inside the Long Walls that encircled the city and her port, and were provisioned by her fleet.

The Walls Surrounding Athens

A serious plague struck the crowded city in 429-27, and a quarter of her inhabitants died, including Pericles. Even this did not seriously affect the Athenian ability to wage war while they dominated the sea.

At the core of the next phase of the war was an audacious Spartan campaign (424) to seize Amphipoklis, an Athenian ally on the north coast of Greece which controlled access to a rich gold- and timber-bearing region.

This was a serious blow to Athens, but her attempts to recapture the city failed. In the same year a march into Boiotia was soundly defeated, and in 421 both sides were happy to make peace.

War resumed in 417 when Sparta invaded and defeated Argos, an Athenian ally. The outstanding episode of this phase of the war was a huge Athenian invasion of Sicily (415-413) which ended in horrific disaster.

The final phase opened with Sparta’s occupation of Deceleia, very near Athens and (more importantly) causing Athens to lose control of the silver mines at Laurion, on which a great deal of her ability to fund the war depended.

The next few years involved a naval war for control of the Aegean and the Bosphorus (through which much of Athens’ grain passed). The Peloponnesian fleet was now funded by the Persians, who took the opportunity to re-occupy some Ionian cities. Athens won some resounding successes, but when her grain supply was cut off by the Spartan victory at Aigospotami (405), which was followed by a general revolt of her allies, it was only a question of time before her surrender (404).

Many other events took place in the war, and all Greeks were affected in some way or other. Away from the front lines, bloody class war engulfed many cities, with revolutions and counter-revolutions featuring vindictive atrocities.

In the front line, whole cities were destroyed, the men killed, the women and children sold into slavery. Thucydides, the Athenian historian who chronicled the war in what is regarded as the first “modern” (i.e. analytical) work of history, comments on the decline in morality that a long war brings.

Despite all this, men continued to produce great works of art and literature – even in beleaguered Athens, even as her fall approached. These were the years when Hippocrates, the founder of Western medicine, worked, as did the philosopher Demokritas. The playwrights Euripides and Aristophanes moved the boundaries of drama forward and above all, Socrates, the great questioner of all things, was busy irritating people by asking them to think through their received beliefs and attitudes.

Towards the end of the Peloponnesian wars, a brief revolution (411) had brought an oligarchy to power in Athens – the rule of the 400. It lasted two years before internal divisions and mutiny in the fleet restored the democracy.

Now, after the war, Sparta imposed another oligarchic government. She also dismantled the Long Walls which encircled the city and her port, reduced her fleet to twelve galleys, for local patrol work, and bound Athens to her with an alliance that effectively turned her into a Spartan subject. This was in fact a great deal better than some of Sparta’s allies had been urging her to do, which was to wipe Athens off the face of the map and sell her people into slavery.

The rule of the oligarchs, or “Thirty Tyrants” as they were called, soon degenerated into a reign of terror. This provoked the inevitable revolution to restore democracy (403), which, surprisingly, the Spartans allowed.

Gradually economic conditions improved, and a degree of normality returned to life for Athenians. A blot on the record of this restored democracy was the trial and (reluctant and somewhat accidental) execution of Socrates, but otherwise the Athenians conducted their public life with a businesslike moderation.

The most exciting adventures for an Athenian in fact happened hundreds of miles away where the soldier Xenophon found himself and 10,000 mercenary companions stranded in the middle of the huge Persian empire on the wrong side of a civil war. He later wrote up the story of how this force fought its way through enemy-held territory and even more hostile terrain to reach the sea and freedom a tale that was an immediate best-seller and has been widely read in the West ever since.

In the wider world, Sparta, the victor in the Peloponnesian war, was soon more unpopular than Athens had ever been. She had set up oligarchies (“Boards of Ten”) to govern Athens’ former allies, and these quickly provoked their populations into revolt, just as at Athens.

This, and the jealousy of other leading Greek states (duly inflamed by Persian diplomacy and gold), led her to find herself at war as early as 395 with a coalition which included Argos (her traditional enemy in the Peloponnese), Corinth, Thebes and Athens.

The High Point of Spartan Power

This war checked her power for a time, and enabled Athens to rebuild her Long Walls as well as to start re-building her fleet. The Persian king Artaxerxes II, preoccupied as he was by troubles closer to home, had come to the conclusion that his empire’s interests could best be served by peace on its western border. He therefore brought the war to an end by proposing to all the leading Greek states that, in exchange for the Ionian cities being confirmed as under Persian rule, she would leave the mainland states in peace, and that they in turn should respect the independence of each other.

For their own different reasons the leading states agreed to this, and the King’s Peace, as it was called, came into being in 387 BC.

Sparta was in fact the chief beneficiary of this Peace. She set about bringing her own allies under stricter control, and, posing as the champion of the “independence” clauses of the Peace, marched north, sacked the city of Olynthos and dissolved its growing League (382). In the course of this adventure a Theban oligarchic faction opened the city to a Spartan garrison, who then remained there to guaranty the rule of the new pro-Spartan regime. These events marked the high point of Spartan power.

The Rising Power of Thebes

In 379 the Thebans expelled the Spartan garrison and re-imposed their rule in Boiotia. Sparta could not stand by and let this happen, and invaded Boiotia on an annual basis for several years.

The Spartans were keen to avoid the heavy losses even a victorious battle might bring (the number of full Spartan citizens, the core of her army, had been declining for more than a century), so they achieved very little besides actually strengthening the control Thebes had over her neighbours.

Eventually the Spartans did confront the Thebans in a set battle, at Leuktra (371), Due to the inspired generalship of the Theban commander, Epaminondas, the Spartans lost heavily hundreds of their precious Spartiates were killed, and the myth of Spartan invincibility was gone.

This shows the flank attack that Rüstow and Köchly proposed. Delbrück rejected such an interpretation.

The following year, on the invitation of the Arcadians, Sparta’s hereditary enemies, Epaminondas marched into the Peloponnese and liberated Messenia and fortified their fortress of Ithome. He failed to take Sparta itself, and many of Sparta’s allies, and even her helots, stood by her.

Over the next few years the power of Thebes was felt throughout Greece, provoking Athens, Sparta and some smaller cities to ally against her. Finally, in 362, at the battle of Leuctra, her leader Epaminondas was killed and her forces fought to a draw. This effectively checked her expansion.

Meanwhile, the power of Athens had been on the increase again, and fear of Spartan and a renascent Persian naval power had caused her to form, and her former allies to join, a new League. At one point it included seventy states. However, the Athenians’ uncontrollable imperialistic tendencies caused leading states to secede from it in 357/355.

Athens was thereafter never able to recover anything like her former greatness. Her cultural life continued unabated, however this was the age of Plato, and his foundation of the Academy, which was to remain the most revered institute of higher education throughout the rest of ancient history the age too of Praxiteles, for some art historians the greatest of Greek sculptors.

By now, however, events were taking place in the north that would dim for ever the independent life of the city-states of ancient Greece. Macedonia, under its shrewd king Philip II, was expanding, and increasingly involving itself with the affairs of its southern neighbours.

Macedon was a kingdom to the north of Greece. Indeed, the Macedonians themselves claimed to be Greeks, but Athenians and others regarded them as at least semi-barbaric.

Perhaps due to its location far from the main currents of Greek life, she had retained more primitive political institutions than her southern neighbours: she was still ruled by powerful kings, served by an old-style landed nobility.

Macedonia lay wide open to attack from Thracians and Illyrians to the north and west, and the early fourth century saw the Macedonians fighting on all fronts against Thracians, Illyrians and also Greeks. When the capable young king Philip II came to power in 359 BC he had to spend several years securing the frontiers, by a mix of war and diplomacy.

In the course of these wars he re-organized his army and turned it into the finest military force in Greece. By the 340s he was able to go over to the offensive. He expanded his frontiers in all directions, including subduing the Greek cities on the coast. He then interfered in the quarrels of the northern Greek states and by 340 Macedonia was the strongest power in Thessaly.

At this the southern Greek cities grew alarmed, and Athens forged an alliance against Philip which was joined by most of the leading states including Thebes, Corinth and Megara.

The two sides met at the battle of Chaironea in 338 BC. Philip was victorious – thanks in great part to a dashing cavalry charge led by his son, Alexander. This battle effectively ended the independence of the Greek city-states. At a congress the following year Philip formed a League of all the states of Greece, with himself as Captain-General. He was about to lead it on a campaign against Persia when he was assassinated, to be succeeded by his young son, Alexander.

Peloponnese Timeline - History

The Peloponnesian War is the name given to the long series of conflicts between Athens and Sparta that lasted from 431 until 404 BC.

The reasons for this war are sometimes traced back as far as the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes, which Sparta always opposed. However, the more immediate reason for the war was Athenian control of the Delian League, the vast naval alliance that allowed it to dominate the Mediterranean Sea.

By 454 BC, when the League's treasury was transferred to Athens, the alliance had become an empire in all but name. Over the next two decades it began treating its fellow members as ruled subjects rather than partners, and fought several short wars to force members who wanted to leave the League to rejoin it.

In 433 BC, when Athens signed a treaty of mutual protection with Corcyra (modern-day Corfu) - one of the few other city-states with a major navy of its own - Sparta and its allies interpreted the move as an act of provocation. A year later Sparta cancelled its peace treaty with Athens.

Then in 431 BC a contingent of soldiers from Thebes, Sparta's ally, tried to seize control of a town called Potidea. Caught and imprisoned, the townspeople put all 200 members of the advanced party to death. When a messenger from Athens arrived the next day to persuade the town against such a rash act, it was too late. The war had begun.

Fighting Begins:

Strangely, the event that many mark as the beginning of open hostility between Athens and Sparta is an earthquake. During the Thasian rebellian, where the city-state of Thasos attempted to leave the Delian League over a dispute, this earthquake struck the Laconia mainland, killing many of the Spartan warrior citizens and cracking their sphere of influence.

The helots, perpetual slaves of Sparta, used this opportunity to revolt. And they could not be subdued easily.

Sparta sent out word for help from their allies to break the rebellion, and Athens sent an army of 4,000 men under the leadership of Cimon. For reasons that can only be guessed at, Sparta rebuked the offer of help and sent Cimon home in embarrassment.

In response to the insult, since they were the only ally the Sparta refused help from, Athens began forming alliances at strategic and contestable points, including one with Argos, Sparta's long-time enemy. Others included Megara and Thessaly.

These alliances, coupled with helping settle exiled helots somewhere, eventually resulted in war with northern members of the Peloponnesian League, such as Corinth, beginning in 460 BC. Sparta is noticeably absent during the early years, probably because they were still weakened from the earthquake and preoccupied with the subsequent slave revolt.

At one point, Athens actually controlled most of Central Greece.

Ancient Greece—Athenian Empire

In the years following the Persian War , Athens was rebuilt and the Greek navy expanded its domination of the Aegean Sea. Further naval victories over Persia resulted in the freeing of several Ionian Greek colonies from the Persian yoke and the increased prestige of Greece as a sea power. Athenian control of the Greek navy was made possible the by creation of the Delian league, a group of Greek colonies located in the Aegean Sea united for defense. Although this league was nominally a confederation, it was dominated by Athens, and eventually became the foundation of the Athenian Empire. Athens became very wealthy due both to its domination of trade in the region and also to the inflow of tribute that had to be paid to Athens in return for protection from Persia.

The most important statesmen in Athens in the years immediately after the Persian War, were Cimon , son of Miltiades, and Aristides . Both were involved in the organization of the Delian league and the rebuilding of Athens, including the construction of a fortified wall around the city to protect it from future invasions. Sparta opposed the building of walled cities, lest they fall into enemy hands, but the Athenians insisted and eventually a great wall was built from Athens to the sea, wide enough to drive two Chariots abreast. During the same period, great temples and state houses were built, funded mostly from the Delian league tributes, on a scale never before seen on the continent of Europe.

In 461 BC one of the greatest statesmen in Greek history came into power in Athens. Pericles , more than any other person, determined the character of classical Athens. He was a patron of the arts and architecture, and he extended the democratic franchise to virtually all Athenian citizens. Greek theatre thrived under his leadership, and all four of the great Greek playwrights, Aeschylus , Sophocles , Euripides , and Aristophanes , lived during his thirty year reign. He made Athens the cultural center of the Mediterranean and paid pensions to philosophers, artists, sculptures, and poets, to encourage their contributions. The Parthenon and many other great public buildings were built under his leadership, and the famous Greek Historians, Herodotus , and Thucydides were both contemporaries.

Sparta, although shunning luxury and empire, looked upon Athens with distrust and jealousy. As Athens became more arrogant and contemptuous of the rights of its colonies, the dispute between the cities grew, and eventually Sparta and its allies declared war on Athens, and thus began the Peloponnesian War . It was a futile and drawn out affair, lasting almost 30 years, with many horrendous atrocities, and its only long term effect was to critically weaken and depopulate all of mainland Greece. Athens for the most part, avoided meeting Sparta in battle on land and instead trusted to its fortified walls and control of the seas to provide for its people during the long years of siege. The first ten years of warfare resulted in almost no change in the state of affairs and eventually a ceasefire was arranged.

The Peace of Nicias lasted several years, until Athens, under the influence of Alcibiades , undertook an ill-fated expedition to conquer the island of Sicily. This disastrous campaign was the turning point of the war. It destroyed Athens naval supremacy and greatly weakened it in its continuing struggle against Sparta. For ten more years the conflict raged on, until Sparta defeated the last remnant of the Athenian navy at the battle of Agos Potami, and starved the walled city into submission.

Even during the Peloponnesian war, Athens produces some of its greatest geniuses. Socrates , Aristophanes, Euripides and Thucydides all lived during this period, and their writings are among the most cherished in Western Civilization. Undeniably, however, the Peloponnesian war was a disaster from which Greece and Athens never fully recovered. Athens eventually regained its reputation as a center of culture and education, but was never again dominant over the other unruly city states.


The Peloponnese (Greek Πελοπόννησος, Peloponnesos "Island of Pelops" Latinized as Peloponnesus) is a large peninsula in Greece, forming the part of the country south of the Isthmus of Corinth.

Its name derives from the Ancient Greek mythological hero, 'Pelops', who supposedly conquered the entire region. Of the name, Peloponnesos, 'Pelops' refers to this hero and 'nesos' refers to island, therefore the name means the Island of Pelops. However, Peloponnesos only became a true island with the creation of the Corinth Canal in 1893. In 2004 the Peloponnese gained a second connection to the mainland, with the completion of the Rio-Antirio bridge.

"The Peloponnese" is sometimes used as shorthand for the Peloponnesian League.

In medieval times it was called the Morea. According to folk etymology, this is because the Crusaders found it densely planted with mulberry trees (Greek: moreai) used by the flourishing Byzantine silk industry.

The prefectures of Achaea and Ilia are also part of the peninsula, but are part of the West Greece periphery. A small part of the peninsula belongs to the periphery of Attica.

Major Causes of Water Conflict

brass sculpture / creative commons

Only 0.4% of the world's drinkable water is accessible to humans. With a growing population of 7 billion people, disputes over potable water sources common especially in regions where water is scarce. Whenever a water source such as a lake, a river, or an underground aquifer crosses national borders, rightful ownership is often contested.

The Nile River in North Africa flows upstream and it is arguable that Egypt has historically benefitted the most – both economically and culturally – from the resources the river has provided. With several countries downstream including Ethiopia, motioning to build a dam for their own purposes, Egypt is facing the reality of losing access to their most precious resource (Kreamer, 2013).

Bangladesh and India both rely on the Ganges River as a major source of water for their people. With India posturing to build a dam for energy and efficiency purposes, Bangladesh would be in a more critical condition than they already are (Kreamer, 2013).

Because of the decreasing amount of potable water, it is not uncommon for nations or people groups to have conflict over a shared body of water, as we'll read further.

My favourite place: the Peloponnese, Greece

It was not the classical sites that first lured me to the Peloponnese. Instead, it was Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, an account of his late 1950s hike through Mani’s arid landscape of mountains and sea. Leigh Fermor slept on the rooftops of crumbling tower houses, the evocative remnants of centuries of blood feuds, and was thrilled to his romantic core.

Even in the 1950s, however, this beautiful peninsula in southern Greece wasn’t quite as remote as Leigh Fermor presented it. When he wrote about the village of Kardamyli, his future home, he edited out the factory chimney of the old olive-oil works. By the time I got to Stoupa, just south of Kardamyli, in the 1990s, it was a package-holiday destination, with village rooms rather than grand hotels the order of the day.

If Leigh Fermor’s descriptions of a still-medieval corner of Europe brought me to the Peloponnese, it was a day trip to Mystras – a long, winding bus ride from Stoupa – that would bring me back in the future. I recommend wandering through the streets of this Byzantine town in the foothills of the Taïyetos mountains: you will stumble upon crumbling churches and discover fading frescoes. (Mystras is near Sparta, so it is also deeply evocative of another history, that ancient city-state’s struggle with Athens.)

Mystras was a revelation – and led me to another Byzantine wonder, the unique fortress town of Monemvasia, linked to the mainland only by a causeway. Founded in AD 583 by refugees from the Slavic and Avaric invasions of Greece, the city flourished between the 10th and 15th centuries before being almost entirely abandoned, then (partially) brought back to life in the late 20th century.

To arrive in Monemvasia is a traveller’s dream. From the mainland, all you can see is the causeway and bare rockface. Get closer, and you catch sight of a gateway. Pass through, and you enter a car-less, crumbling, cat-filled city.

I would recommend staying overnight to experience Monemvasia’s full magic. In season, boatloads of tourists arrive for the day from Nafplio, which is the most well-known city in the region, and definitely worth visiting too. Elegantly situated on a beautiful bay, the old town offers an evocative, if somewhat manicured, insight into Greece’s recent history. Controlled by the Franks, Venetians, Turks, Venetians (again), then Turks (again) – all of whom have left their mark on the city – Nafplio was the first capital of the modern Greek state, liberated from Ottoman control in April 1822.

The really special thing about the Peloponnese is that a fairly short bus journey can transport you back 2,000 years. And, after all, it would be foolish to miss the region’s spectacular classical sites. First stop, from Nafplio, might be the remarkably intact theatre at Epidaurus, with its superb acoustics Olympia – a longer car ride this time – is a perfect destination if travelling with young children, who can sprint up and down the running track, living the Olympic dream and don’t miss the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, another stunning combination of architecture and landscape.

However, my heart belongs to some less well-known historical sites. You’ll need a head for heights because the roads are narrow and precipitous, but Arcadia (and who would not wish to spend time in Arcadia?) offers fascinating villages such as Dimitsana and Stemnitsa. The former has the Open-Air Water Power Museum, an intriguing insight into the workings of pre-industrial society, while the latter boasts a Folklore Museum, allied to a School of Silversmithery and Goldsmithery, which works to sustain the region’s tradition of jewellery making. Both villages have spectacular settings, with superb hiking possibilities, a network of ancient paths leading through impressive gorges or to remote monasteries.

Another hidden gem (and not just for train geeks, although I admit to being just that) is the 1890s-built rack and pinion railway which begins at Diakopto on the north coast of the Peloponnese. In addition to marvelling at the impressive engineering, and the obligatory monastery en route, the train’s destination, Kalavrita, is a powerful reminder of Europe’s more recent history. The village clock is forever stopped at 14:34 to commemorate a massacre of the inhabitants by the Nazi occupiers in reprisal for the Greeks’ killing of captured German prisoners.

Whether it’s the Nazi occupation or the war between Athens and Sparta, the past is always tangible in the Peloponnese. And, if all that history is just too much, there are always the stunning beaches.

Anna Beer is visiting fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford. Her books include Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh (Oneworld, 2018).

Advice for travellers

What to pack

Comfortable shoes for scrambling around the sites, and – for any time other than summer – warm clothes for chilly evenings in the mountains.

If you have the time, it is wonderful to arrive in Patras by boat from Venice, then pick up a hire car. There are direct flights to Kalamata from the UK in season, or year-round to Athens.

Best time to go

My favourite times are spring and autumn, when you may have wonderful places to yourself, although at Easter the crowds become part of the experience. The downside is that fewer places are open, it can be cold and wet, and only the hardy will want to swim in the sea!

What to bring back

Food and drink, definitely. Olive oil and honey are obvious good choices, but also try the new generation of Greek wines. For more lasting mementoes, perhaps jewellery from Stemnitsa.

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