Ancient History/Greece/Classical Greece

Classical Greece 750 - 336 BCE

A bronze bust of a Cynic Philosopher from the Classical period.

The glory of Classical Greece reached its zenith in the Athens of Socrates and remained unabated until the self-imposed exile of Aristotle. Socrates was born an Athenian citizen and was sentenced to death in 399 BCE by an Athenian court for sedition specifically on the emotionally charged crime of corrupting the young and the often-used specious claim of religious impiety - both still powerful accusations today and the common currency of power politics in all constitutions though the latter has more force in a theocracy. Aristotle was born in Macedonia and left Athens after failing to secure the leadership of Plato's Academy in 348 BCE. These two philosophers bookend a remarkable period of experimentation and innovation in Greek culture which itself was the culmination of three centuries of investigative and analytical thought.

Herodotus, a Greek colonist from Halicarnassus, wrote the first objective history in European literature and Pericles, an Athenian statesman and General, initiated a building program in Athens unparalleled in beauty and scope. We can only use our imagination as we look upon the ruins of the Parthenon of Pericles' Athens. Shorn of its metopes and internal decorations and devoid of function it still preserves the majesty of focus and aims. During this period Attic drama became the dominant form of theater throughout the region and the Festival of Dionysus at Athens saw the first productions of plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. This cultural dominance by Athens was matched by Spartan military hegemony both a byproduct of the defeat of Xerxes and his Persian army at the Battle of Platea in 479 BCE by the combined Greek city states. The end of the Persian threat led to increasingly strained relationships between the city states of Athens and Sparta due in part to Athens now safe access to the Aegean where it could dominate trade with its navy and correspondingly increase its regional influence. To Sparta this was an unacceptable proposition and the friction would result in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta would emerge victorious but would not be able to retain its territorial gains since both sides were constrained by internal and external pressures. Sparta attempted to impose upon Athens the client rule of the Oligarchs to which Plato was extended an invitation which he declined. The death sentence of Socrates and his execution in 399 BCE was just one symptom amongst many of the increasing oppression and violence by the government of the Oligarchs. Plato recorded for prosperity the trial and execution of Socrates in the form of a philosophical dialectic called the Apologia. Plato's testament to the death of his teacher and friend was to idealize the philosophical integrity of Socrates. In the Apologia Socrates denies himself the right to flee the injustice for he is an Athenian citizen and subject to the laws of the state. However it must be noted that Plato was related to one of the Thirty Tyrants though declined an offer to be part of their rule. This does raise some doubt as to whether the Apologia can be read as a defense of Socrates since when faced with the same fate it would only be human to avoid the same charge. Twenty-four years earlier Aristophanes had lampooned Socrates in his play The Clouds presenting Socrates' entrance upon a deus ex machina and basket. The inference of impiety could not be discarded and the power of Socratic dialogue had been acknowledged. The Thirty Tyrants through a popular revolt were removed and Spartan influence failed as democracy was restored. Athens had stated its wish to return to self-determination.

The death of Socrates offers a glimpse of why any idealization of this period as glorious may fall far short of our modern expectations or to the sceptic further confirm that we have hardly progressed in our behaviour. The glory of Classical Greece was stained by slavery, the death penalty, exile and constant war. The advocation by Aristotle in his book Politics that slavery, though an unfortunate condition for those that are slaves, is the natural result of their own personality elicits a response. Aristotle's assertion that a slavish personality leads to enslavement strikes an uncomfortable note. The distance in time of thousands of years does not lessen the impact of such statements and the conflict that arises in response has drawn out of each generation the question of whether Aristotle is just stating a truth. If the material world we create is the result of our internal responses then Aristotle has quite rightly laid bare the human condition for further investigation. This is the true glory of Classical Greece. When we look upon the buildings of the Acropolis or admire the bronze bust of the Cynic philosopher it is prudent to remember Aristotle's assertion for such statements are intricately woven into the creation of the material and external world of Classical Greece.

The Ancient Greeks believed that justice arose out community and that laws naturally emanate from relationships. Whether we agree with Plato's statement in the Republic that democracy is like a ship without a Captain, always in danger of wrecking on the rocks of majority consensus, we must acknowledge that this is an essential question. For justice must govern relationships and laws must be applied to mediate relationships yet universal suffrage was considered to be impractical by the Greeks. Access to justice was automatic for native citizens born of free parents and arbitrary for metics engaged in international trade but for slaves it was denied. Slaves became Freedmen for many reasons but the highest distinction conferred was access to justice as a citizen of a polis. The patronage and status of the male citizen who had granted this right was, by legal requirement, acknowledged in the adoption of their family name. Exclusion is advocated by Plato in the Republic and despite Aristotle's claim that Politics is his objective view of the various constitutions some of his personal observations present a similar sentiment. However we can never level the charge that the issue of universal suffrage was not understood only that the Greek polis as the most perfect community offered limited scope for its application. Modern democracy extends over thousands of miles and all citizens are granted rights and access to justice. Classical Greece is the birthplace of democracy but the influence and extent of that democracy was limited and not equally applied if applied at all.

Ancient Greece: Introduction · 01 · 02 · 03 · 04 · 05