Some important questions:
Who were the Greeks?
Why does Greek history matter?
How do we know about Greek history?
What do we know about Ancient Greece?
How are we to approach the study of ancient Greece?
The Greeks were a people who spoke a variety of forms of the Greek language who lived not just in what is today mainland Greece but also around the rim of the Mediterranean Sea and the Black sea, usually close to the sea.
They had been in Greece before 1000 BC, at many places including Mycenae as part of a Bronze Age civilisation that encompassed the Eastern Mediterranean.

This civilisation collapsed around 1200 to 1150 BC. Cities were sacked, literacy was lost and the ‘Greek Dark Ages’ began.
Our study of the Greeks begins some 500 years later when the Greeks entered into an age of literacy, developed a form of political and social organisation based on cities known as the polis and had colonised well beyond Greece.
Our primary focus will be on the classical period of Greek History between late 5th century BC and the 4th century.
Josiah Ober claims that during this period there was an efflorescence in Greek life, both in terms of material well-being and cultural achievement and that this was related to the sort of decentralised social and political structure that the Greeks developed. Ober is largely an historian of Athens.
Was this a time of efflorescence?
If so, what is the cost of achieving ‘great things’?
Greek history matters for a number of reasons:
The Greeks defeated the super power of their day, the Persian Empire, and then, at a later stage, under Alexander the Great, conquered Persia leading to the spread of Hellenistic culture from the Mediterranean coast to India.
The Greeks evolved distinctive political systems, especially in Athens and Sparta, which have had an enormous influence on our own culture.
Greek culture generally developed in ways that have been extremely important for what is often termed Western civilisation. Look at such things as Tragedy, Philosophy and, of course the writing of History. Look at the art and architecture.
When the Romans conquered Greece so Greek culture and civilisation conquered Rome. Much of the Greek inheritance comes to us through Rome. It is also worth pointing out that the Islamic world was also an heir of the Greeks. There was a translation movement under the Abassids, which translated many ancient Greek texts into Arabic, especially Aristotle.
There is a simply a great fascination in watching the development of the Greeks from an insignificant people to dominance and to examine the different paths taken by Athens and Sparta. Both of those paths still matter for us today.
There are two sets of primary materials that relate to Greek history:
The first is the archaeological evidence ranging from buildings to works of art to human remains. For example, using the graveyard at Pithekoussai and other places, Robin Osborne argues
Life in Ancient Greece tended to be short and full of a variety of diseases, including bladder stone, rickets, arthritis, malaria and anaemia.
Life expectancy was low, young people could easily have lost their parents in their teens, women started to have children quite young.
Consider how such circumstances would affect people. Consider what the age structure of Greek society would look like.
It is possible to use archaeological evidence plus logic to calculate certain things such as the size of the population that a certain geographical area supported.
Hence, the physical world of the Greeks also matters. Greece itself is mountainous with only 20% — 30% land arable. Mediterranean climate. Barley, wheat, olive trees, grape vines. Hard life for the producer. There is the sea and the islands.

This helps to explain why the Greeks spread out over the Mediterranean. It may also explain Greek militarism (hilly countries often produce an excess of soldiers). It explains the struggle for resources, in a relatively poor environment. It may well explain the sort of energy that Greeks, especially the Athenians, displayed.
We also have to appreciate that the Greek world was more than just what we today call ‘Greece’. There were Greeks from the Black Sea to North Africa to Italy to what is now France. But most of our focus is on the world that surrounds the Aegean Sea which is where most of the action took place.

The second is written evidence. The Greeks developed the alphabet so that it included vowels. Written evidence comes in two basic types.
The first are direct documents, usually inscribed on stone, such as tribute lists of the Athenian empire. The second are different forms of literature, ranging from poetry to tragedy to philosophy to history.
Only a fraction of what was written has survived. Some of our historical writing is close to the events they discuss, eg Thucydides and Xenophon.
Other material was written centuries later such as Plutarch and Diodorus Siculus. Even in the case of Herodotus he is describing events that took place up to one hundred years earlier. The first exercise on Pisistratus was
We need to use what evidence we have carefully and critically. Consider the following issues:
How did historians such as Thucydides and Herodotus collect their information? How accurate are their accounts?
We have to consider the interpretative frameworks of these writers.
Many of our written sources focus on Athens and Sparta. This means that we do not know a lot about the rest of the Greek world. Spartans did not write down very much. But, as Athens and Sparta were the most significant players in the Greek world, at least in the fifth century, this is not so much of a problem.
What we know about the Greek world, at least in terms of written sources, is best for the fifth century when History as a genre of literature appears. As Herodotus is concerned with 6th century in explaining the origins of the Persian Wars that century does receive some coverage. Before that we have to rely on archaeological evidence or later accounts or poetry.
Poetry appears before prose in written documents. Poetry is the mode of expression par excellence of an oral society. Hence bards could remember large slabs of poetry. This is true of many societies and it may be the case that oral remembering actually enhances cognitive functions:
There is a significant amount of early poetry ranging from Homer to Hesiod to a number of other poets, including Pindar and Sappho
Even philosophy was written originally in poetry.
Coinage dates from the about the 8th or 7th centuries BCE
Of course, we also have lots of lovely pictorial representations in such things as vases:

How do we approach the study of Ancient Greece?
Paul Cartledge: Greeks were both like us and strangers to us.
We are limited by our sources. They can only tell us so much.
In terms of period we follow the period from the 6th century to the early fourth century. We have two wonderful histories (and one inferior one) that cover this period.
This is the period that saw the war against Persia followed by the struggle between Athens and Sparta to see who would be the dominant power in the Greek world. This was both a political struggle and an ideological one because these two powers had such different political and social orders.
Although we should always keep in our minds the material realities, in the end it is people who make history in their struggle against the circumstances that they confront.
People matter but so also do ideas and the great cultural achievements of a civilisation.
Great achievements also can go hand in hand with great cruelty and oppression. That is the reality of human history. The Greeks invented philosophy, created wonderful architecture and produced sublime works of literature. But, they were also militaristic, kept slaves and had some odd views about women.

The growth and development of Athens and Sparta and their ultimate conflict in the Peloponnesian War.
The relationship of Greece with the ‘superpower’ of the day, ie Persia
The nature of Greek life and culture and its ‘efflorescence’ or otherwise.
Good news is that a lot of Greek texts are readily available in translation on the internet: particularly the Perseus Project.

Also there is the Ancient History Internet Sourcebook.
There are also a number of Translations of Greek works available on the internet.
It is important that you make as much use of the primary material as possible, both because of its richness (Thucydides is a great read) and because of the need to understand the ‘bricks and mortar’ out of which historians of the ancient world build their histories.
Conclusion: Study of ancient Greece is exhilarating. These were a people who remain important for us because we still claim their inheritance in terms of their politics and culture.
It is important not to create them in our own image or to idealise them and their achievements or to demonise them. WE need to understand them as human beings.


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