Greek City States Athens and Sparta (1500 - 500 BC)

Greek City-State Video:

Athens Overview

The city of Athens was a city-state in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on the Greek Peninsula founded in about 3000 BCE by Theseus, the king who united the mountainous villages that became Athens. One of the most famous accomplishments of Athens was their development of Democracy for the first time in ancient history. Their governmental system forms the backbone of modern day Democracies. In order to defend their Democracy, Athens needed a military; they chose to develop a naval army. Thus, another of Athens’ accomplishments was the invention of the trireme ship. This ship design helped them to defeat Persia and defend themselves, until succumbing to plague, from Sparta.


Athens Wars and Alliances
The area where Athens now stands was dotted with small tribes beginning just after 5000 BCE; until, in 3000 BCE, it was united, mostly diplomatically, by a Mycenaean named Theseus. He brought the people together under one rule and they named their new city Athens after Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom and strategy. Athens started out as an aristocracy lead by a few of the richest land owners. However, the aristocrats’ rule began to fail in 7th Century BCE, and they appointed Draco to draft a strict new law code to keep the lower classes in line. This didn’t keep the people of Athens at peace for long, so the aristocrats appointed Solon in 594 BCE to reform the system. Solon gave power to the lower class by allowing them to vote for which aristocrat would make the laws and rule over them. Next came several leaders and reformers who were overthrown for their attempts to hurt the lower class’s ability to vote, until 510 BCE, when Cleisthenes took power and established democracy in Athens, freeing all slaves; giving everyone citizenship, the right to vote, and the ability to run for office. Between 490 and 479 BCE, Athens allied with Sparta in order to defeat the Persians. After the Persian Wars, Athens formed a trade league with many other city-states in Greece, excluding Sparta and some of the smaller city-states, called the Delian League. During this time, Athens went through a golden age of art and philosophy. Pericles funded the building of several national wonders including the Parthenon; Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates developed philosophical ideas; Hippocrates developed medicines and doctoring; and Thucydides wrote history. Unfortunately, Sparta, and the other city-states not in the Delian League, despised Athens and formed the Anti-Athens League; they declared war on Athens in 431 BCE. Athens was able to annihilate Sparta for a short time because of their mastery of the sea, but shortly after, they were struck with a devastating plague that wiped out more than one-third of the Athenian population. Sparta easily defeated Athens after this, and Athens laid in rubble until 338 BCE, when Phillip II of Macedon conquered it for his growing empire.


Athenian Democracy
Athens was the first civilization in history to develop a democracy. It took the people of Athens several thousand years and many rulers to get it right, but they eventually did in 510 BCE when Cleithenes took power and put it in place. This is important because all other democratic countries in the world today have based their government at least partially on the democracy developed in Athens. Democracy also helped the people of Athens by giving them the right to vote, and more over, think without being persecuted. This gave rise to the golden age in Athens and the development of many modern sciences and philosophies, such as medicine and the scientific method. This also, sadly, made a lot of the other city-states around Athens want to take it over. However, this innovation did make Athens all around a better place to live for everyone in it. The rich/poor gap shrank because everyone was able to take part in the democracy; this also meant that there were no slaves in Athens during its Golden Age.


The Trireme
The invention of the Trireme allowed Athens to gain a head up opposed to most cultures around it. A trireme was 120 feet long, 18 feet wide, and it would have three rows of oars stacked on top of each other on both sides of the ship. There were 170 rowers on a single trireme, therefore the trireme could move very quickly throughout the seas around Athens, and they were very strong with a large projection coming out of the front of the ship. Because of the many rowers, triremes could move easily throughout any naval battlefield; also, because of their nose projection, triremes could be used to ram other ships. The trireme gave Athens power over all sea trade around her. The faster, better moving ship allowed Athens to trade with more civilizations around it, not to mention taxing them to trade, and that brought in more money; they used this money to finance the construction of more triremes, of which they had a growing fleet of 300. Also, because Athens is located in a mountainous area, it needed supplies and food from others areas such as Asia Minor; they were able to control and trade with their colonies there who cultivated crops for them in exchange for olives and other luxury resources. Also, the trireme allows Athens to dominate other cultures around it. Athens controls not only sea trade, but the sea in general because of their ships. They defeat Persia because of them on several occasions; one such occasion being the Battle of Salamis in which a colossal fleet of Persian warships are defeated by a few Athenian triremes. The trireme also allows Athens to blockade Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, effectively cutting them off from supplies.  Athens was not only a place of great philosophical minds, but of great military minds as well.



Greek City States  (1500 - 500 BC)

Greek City States

Uniting Factors and Separating Factors for Greek City States

  • Common Language, Religion, and festivals
  • Common enemy (Persia)
  • Co-operative supervision of certain temples
  • Common Belief that the Greeks were descended from the same mythological god-like ancestors
  • Olympics connected Greeks

Separating Factors

  • Rugged Mountains
  • Rivalries for trade, power and influence
  • separate legal systems
  • independent calendars, money, weights and measures
  • Fierce spirit of independence

Brief Timeline

  • 2500BCE--Beginnings of Minoan culture in Crete
  • 1500 - 1150—Mycenae
  • 1250 Traditional date of the Trojan War
  • 1050-550-- colonization of Asia Minor
  • 1050--Iron Age in Greece
  • 776--First Olympic Games
  • 750-700--Invention and diffusion of Greek Alphabet taken from the Phoenicians
  • c. 750 Homer's tales written down in Illiad and Odessey
  • 490--Battle of Marathon
  • 480—Persians invade via land and sea at the Battles of Artemisium, Thermopylae, Salamis and Himera
  • 461-404--Peloponnesian Wars between Sparta and Athens
  • 447 Construction of Parthenon and Hephaisteion begun
  • 399 Death of Socrates
  • c.386 Plato founds the Academy
  • 335 Aristotle founds the Lyceum
  • 336--Alexander the Great united Greek city states
  • 194--Rome conquers Greece


  • polis  (city state)
  • Can tax
  • Provide safety for locals from attack
  • Set laws for region
  • Greek Government systems
  • Tyranny - (Tyrant) – common at first
  • Monarchy – hereditary rule (Macedonia)
  • Aristocracy – 1 person rule (many city states)       
  • Oligarchy – rule by group (some in Sparta and Athens)
  • Theocracy – Alexander the Great claimed to be a god
  • Democratic Republic – people elect representatives to make decisions
  • Democracy – all citizens vote on important decisions
  • Most Greeks believed in equality before law


  • Largely agricultural
  • FISHING is most important
  • Grapes, olives and wheat
  • Sheep and goats
  • Economic Exchange
  • Sea and land trade between cities
  • Exported wine and pottery for
  • Ivory and gems from Egypt
  • Cotton and salt from India
  • Silk from China
  • Grain from Ukraine


  • Polytheistic; human like gods that each have powers over nature
  • Gods can physically interact with people and sometimes trick them
  • only public position open to Greek women was priestess of a religious cult
  • Social Life
  • Male family heads ruled their households
  • women could not own land except in Sparta
  • Theatre and gymnasiums common for daily life
  • Agora popular for debate and shopping
  • Intellectual Developments


  • Pericles —Ruler of Greece during its Golden Age; built Acropolis and Parthenon
  • Socrates— question everything, know thyself
  • Plato —philosopher, metaphysics is the answer to understanding truth
  • Aristotle —observation and scientific method reveal truth; wrote textbooks; built library at Alexandria
  • Greek motto:
  • “Nothing in excess, everything in moderation”
  • Archimedes (287-212 B.C)þ
  • mathematician and engineer
  • “Give me a lever and I can move the world” (lever and fulcrum)þ
  • Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.)þ
  • “Father of Western Medicine”
  • Based ideas on study of the human body rather than mystical explanations
  • Hippocratic Oath


  • Greek columns,
  • inverted V roof,
  • stone construction
  • “power” architechure
  • All  basis for Western architecture today
  • History
  • Herodotus (484-420 B.C.)þ
  • The “Father of Western History”
  • First to investigate places and events for himself rather than rely on sources
  • The Histories chronicles Greece’s war with Persia

Greek Tragic Drama

  • Theaters
  • Tragic hero concept created
  • Sophocles, Euripides great Greek writers
  • Olympic Games
  • Gathering of many Greek city states (only men could watch and compete)þ
  • In 776 B.C.E. - c. 250 CE every four years
  • Running, boxing, equestrian, and other events
  • Peace in Greece during Olympics


  • Symmetrical
  • Idealized form
  • Basis for modern W. beauty
  • (Discuss Thrower at the NY Met)
  • Nike
    of Samothrace at the Louvre museum
    aka Winged Victory
  • SPARTA – militaristic polis
  • “Come back with your shield - or on it”
  • Modern Sparta


  • Military state
  • art, literature, philosophy, and science supported the military
  • strength, courage, endurance, loyalty and cleverness most important 
  • Individual freedoms were sacrificed for good of the state
  • Spartans citizens theoretically equal
  • Lived simply
  • freedoms of the individual sacrificed for state,
  • Helots - servants used as workers and warriors; useful but constant threat of rebellion


  • 7 year old males sent to military school
  • ALL men serve in military
  • Girls encouraged to go to school
  • Spartan Women:
    most rights in Ancient world
  • well schooled and strong with important responsibilities
  • owned more than a third of the land.
  • married later and have much more control over their lives since men are often gone to war
  • But, children taken at seven in Sparta


  • government based on democratic principles
  • Citizenship given to adult males
  • access to courts
  • no enslavement
  • religious and cultural participation
  • citizen duties - taxes, military service
  • Athenian social classes
  • Nobility
  • Merchants, Artisans
  • Peasant
  • Slaves – often freed eventually
  • Metics – foreigners allowed to live in Athens but could not become citizens
  • Interaction with other Empires
  • Traded with the Middle East, Africa, Northern Europe,
  • Persian wars drive Greeks to move to Rome and teach the Romans what they know


  • Greece absorbed into the Roman Empire and the Greeks teach the Romans all they know
  • Set ideals for western culture in philosophy, history, drama, architecture, literature, science, art, and government
  • Great art and philosophy that are still admired today