Ancient Greece: A brief guide to the history, culture and daily life

Ancient Greek civilization gave us democracy, theatre, the Olympics, philosophy... But let’s look past their legacy at the people themselves. What were they like?

Ancient Greece: A brief guide to the history, culture and daily life

The dawn of Ancient Greece

Firstly, “Ancient Greece” does not denote a single nation-state called “Greece,” with Athens as the capital city. Instead, we use it to describe an extended period with different cultures, cities, rulers, and tribes. 

We will concentrate on mainland Greece, which includes the southern part of the Balkans with the peninsulas of Peloponnese, Attica, and Chalkidiki projecting from it. The area of Ancient Greece also contains hundreds of big and small rocky islands in the Aegean Sea, as well as the western coastline of modern Turkey (then called Ionia). 

In general, scholars agree that we can speak of the first culture and civilization that was specifically Greek at around 1600 BCE. It was a mysterious and prosperous Mycenaean civilization that started on the island of Crete. The first Greek civilization emerged when the pyramids in Egypt were more than 500 years old.

Archaeological findings and written texts give us a glimpse at the lives of only rich Mycenaeans. They spent time at lavish palaces with swimming pools and exotic gardens, spending their leisure time in poetry, music, sports, and watching bullfights. We can assume their servants and the poor lived otherwise. However, the serenity and prosperity of the rich were in stark contrast to the “uncivilized” tribes of mainland Greece.

The Mycenaeans invented the first writing system we can attest to the ancient Greek culture—Linear B. It was an update for Linear A, the still undeciphered script used by their predecessors, the Minoan civilization. The scholars have learned to make sense of these ancient plaster slips: they mostly tell how much food, drinks, or cattle different people had.

Greek mythology usually described the past as better times and the future as worse. The Golden times mentioned in the classical Greek myths were the happiest periods of the past—they very much remind the lazy leisure of Mycenaean palaces. Most myths happen around these times. For example, Theseus, king of Athens, travels to the island of Crete to slay Minotaur, a half-man half-bull creature who devoured the brightest young people from the whole of Greece. Minotaur lived in a complex labyrinth where one could easily get lost and die.

Mycenaeans settled the mainland Greece, the coast of Ionia, and the many small islands. They effectively shaped the borders around the Aegean Sea that would later become the nexus of ancient Greek civilization.

In the mainland, unlike Crete, there was a danger of invasion from other tribes and states. The “open space” palaces had to be turned into fortresses with thick stone walls.

Even a thousand years since Mycenaean civilization died out, their Greek descendants still wondered who could have built such grandiose walls and cities. The ancient Greeks wouldn’t believe their grand-grandparents, the Mycenaeans, did this—they thought it was gigantic titans and cyclopes. As the Mycenaeans were waging wars against the surrounding tribes, they also went to war with powerful adversaries overseas. One of their enemies was the city of Troy near the Strait of Bosphorus. Looks like Homer didn’t just make up the tales and legends of his epics Iliad and Odyssey. In the late 19th century, Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist, excavated what is believed to be the ancient city sites of Mycenae and Troy.

Around 1100 BCE, the Mycenaean civilization fell into decline. It soon disappeared: most probably, conquered and destroyed by the tribes from the north of the peninsula. Their writing, arts, big cities, and seafaring techniques were lost. It was an era of dark ages around the entire Mediterranean, known as the Bronze Age Collapse; we don’t know much about what was happening for the next four or five centuries. The population decreased drastically, and the archaeological relics of that time show that people forgot how to paint even the most primitive ornaments.

Ancient Greeks strike back

About 750 BCE, life got back to usual: the Greeks re-learned seafaring, agriculture, and crafts. In addition, their cutlery and weapons of the time had started to get decorated with abstract ornaments again.

At this time, the Phoenicians were the dominant traders of the Mediterranean. The Greeks interacted with them often, buying grain and building materials. In the hustle and bustle of trading, they exchanged not only material goods: the Greeks adopted their alphabet and transformed it into a new system of writing. Thus the written Greek language was born.

A citizen of, say, Miletus may have had different pronunciation and vocabulary from a citizen of Athens—yet they spoke essentially the same language. In the birth of a single language lies evidence of the Greek culture emerging.

These people populated the entire Greek mainland, the hundreds of islands, and the Ionian coast. They didn’t have a single king or pharaoh ruling over them all. Every independent city-state, called polis, had its own government and laws. So, again, a citizen of Miletus wouldn’t have the same rights when visiting Athens, compared to what he enjoyed back home.

Athens and Sparta were the most renowned polises of entire ancient history. 

For the first couple of centuries, Athens was ruled by kings and aristocracy. The wealthy aristocrats reveled at banquets and sports games, while poor peasants and slaves worked hard. Over time, the aristocrats had to give in to some demands, yet social tensions persisted. 

After some reforms and revolts, a clan of cunning aristocrats under Peisistratos managed to seize absolute power. Peisistratos and his ancestors were known as tyrants—the Greek word τύραννος means “usurper.” The tyranny didn’t change much of the social structure: people’s dismay was soothed in sports games and public celebrations. 

In 514 BCE, two lovers Harmodius and Aristogeiton managed to kill one of the tyrants, heroically dying themselves. After that, Cleisthenes drafted a bunch of laws to transform Athens into a democracy.

Harmodius and Aristogeiton

How did their kind of democracy function? People didn’t choose someone to represent their opinion, as we mostly do today. Every male citizen 20 or more years old came to a high hill downtown and had a right to suggest a law or veto one. And yet: women, slaves, and migrants didn’t have any political rights or representation whatsoever. 

It could come as a surprise, but an ancient Athenian would say that our modern democracy is an oligarchy—the rule of the few. Today we, the citizens, confer our powers onto politicians. In an ancient democracy, every free male citizen could become a city leader or a military commander, write laws, or object to them.

Pnyx, a meeting place for Athenian citizens

Sparta had a totally different political evolution. The Spartans were the descendants of those northern tribes that conquered the Mycenaean civilization. They settled down in a mountainous region of the Peloponnesian peninsula and brought other tribes under their control. 

Spartans lived in a sort of giant military camp: males lived in barracks together. Women tended their sons only until the age of 7. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, they killed any child who was born weak and unhealthy.

Other city-states had their own political systems: monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, tyrannies, etc. But Sparta and Athens would dominate the entire history of ancient Greece—so we look at their lives a bit closer than at others.

Greece is covered with forests and mountains. Ancient Greeks grew olives and wine; they made milk and cheese. But there wasn’t much fertile soil and fields to grow crops. As we’ve told before, they traded with other nations overseas. 

Gradually they considered colonizing the lands where they needed to gain food from. Over several centuries, ancient Greeks colonized the entire Mediterranean and the Black Sea, from modern Spain to Ukraine and Russia. The ancient philosopher Plato later would joke that “Greeks sit in the Mediterranean like frogs in the moor.”

The Greeks became the dominant power of the Mediterranean region when the Assyrian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Lydian civilizations fell in decay. Merchants, politicians, and tutors from the coast of modern France to Cyprus spoke Greek. At the same time, Greeks took up inventions and achievements of other cultures. For example, they adopted the technology to mint coins from Lydians, boosting the trade and economy.

Coins of Lycia c. 5th century BCE

The period between 750–480 BCE, known as the Archaic period of the ancient Greek civilization, saw its rise to domination over the whole region. The Greeks settled hundreds of colonies, traveled hundreds of trade routes, and established a plethora of city-states. In this period, Athens and Sparta solidified their own political systems and garnered power. 

Meanwhile, the Achaemenid Persian Empire had been looming in the East. By the start of the 5th century BCE, they approached the prosperous Greek cities in Ionia.

The classical period of Ancient Greece

The Classical period started about 500–480 BCE when the Persian empire aspired to conquer the Greek polises. First, they invaded and ruined the most prosperous Ionian cities: Ephesus and Miletus. They extorted Athens and its allies, forcing them to surrender and pay vast sums of money. But the combined force of Greek polises defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus claims that Greeks had only 192 casualties, whereas the Persians lost most of the fleet and 6400 dead. Over centuries, another historian Plutarch made a legend that Greeks had lost one more man on that day. An athlete named Pheidippides went as a messenger to run 42,5 km to Athens and tell that the Greeks won over Persians. The legend has it that he ran all up the way and died of exhaustion as soon as he told the news. A 42-km run has been called a marathon ever since.

The Soldier of Marathon by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869

The Persian emperor Xerxes decided to take revenge in 480 BC. A massive army of thousands of warriors stepped into Greece from the north and went south to reach Athens, Sparta, and their allies. 

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