Who were the ancient Greeks?
About 2,500 years ago, Greece was one of the most important places in the ancient world. The Greeks were great thinkers, warriors, writers, actors, athletes, artists, architects and politicians.
The Greeks called themselves Hellenes and their land was Hellas. The name ‘Greeks’ was given to the people of Greece later by the Romans. They lived in mainland Greece and the Greek islands, but also in colonies scattered around the Mediterranean Sea. There were Greeks in Italy, Sicily, Turkey, North Africa, and as far west as France.
They sailed the sea to trade and find new lands. The Greeks took their ideas with them and they started a way of life that’s similar to the one we have today.
The early history of ancient Greece
People have been living in Greece for over 40,000 years. The earliest settlers mostly lived a simple hunter-gatherer or farming lifestyle.
The Minoans were the first great Greek civilisation. They didn’t live on mainland Greece but on the nearby island of Crete, between 2200BC and 1450BC. They were known as the Minoans after their legendary king, Minos.
After the Minoans came the Mycenaean civilisation, from mainland Greece. They were fine builders and traders, but they were also great soldiers. They famously fought in the battle of Troy. Homer, an important Greek writer, told stories of the Mycenaean age in his books The Iliad and The Odyssey.
After the Mycenaean age ended in about 1100BC, Greece entered a Dark Age. It is known as a dark age because nobody knows much about what happened – all written language and art disappeared.
The ancient Greeks at war
In ancient times, Greece wasn’t a single country like it is today. It was made up of lots of smaller states. These states were always squabbling and often went to war. Sparta and Athens fought a long war, called the Peloponnesian War, from 431 to 404BC.
Only the threat of invasion by a foreign enemy made the Greeks forget their quarrels and fight on the same side. Their biggest enemy were the Persians, who came from an area around modern day Iran.
The Persian kings tried to conquer Greece a few times between 490 to 449BC, but the Greeks managed to fight them off. In the end, it was the Greeks who conquered Persia, when Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire in the 330s.
The backbone of the Greek army was the ‘hoplite’. He was a foot soldier, who fought with a long spear and used a large round shield for protection.
In battle, hoplites fought as a team. They lined up in ranks and locked their shields together with just their spears pointing over the top. This formation was known as a ‘phalanx’.
Enemy soldiers saw only a wall of spears and shields moving towards them. It was tough to break through once a phalanx started marching forward.
The Greeks had archers and cavalry too, but it was the phalanx that won many famous battles.
The Spartan soldier state
Fighting wars was what the Spartans did best. Greeks said that in battle one Spartan was worth several other men.
The Spartans believed that strict discipline and a tough upbringing was the secret to making the best soldiers. Boys left their families at seven to begin their 23-year-long training to become a soldier. Only those who went through this gruelling training system were considered true Spartan citizens.
It was a hard life. A boy was only allowed one tunic and had to walk everywhere barefoot, even in cold weather. They weren’t given much food either, so often had to steal.
Girls were expected to be physically fit too. They weren’t allowed to be soldiers, but they did compete against the boys at sport. Spartan women also had more freedom than other Greek women. A wife ran the family farm and gave orders to the enslaved people (known as ‘helots’).
Spartan mothers told their sons before they left for battle, “Come back with your shield, or on it.” Dead Spartans were carried home on their shields – only a coward would drop his shield and run away.
After the Dark Age
In 800BC, almost 300 years after the Dark Age began, Greek civilisation slowly emerged again.
The Greeks started trading more with the outside world, they held the first Olympic Games and they fought off the invading Persian army. This period is known by historians as the Archaic period of Greek history. During this time many of the cities in Greece were ruled by a king-like figure.
Around 480BC Greece entered a golden age which lasted for 200 years. The people built fantastic temples, made scientific discoveries, wrote plays and founded the first proper democracy. Historians call this Classical Greece.
The final period of Greek history is known as the Hellenistic period. This lasted from 323BC to 30BC, when the Romans took control of Greece. The Romans didn’t destroy Greek life, though. They respected the Greeks and copied many things about their culture, including their buildings, beliefs and clothes.
How was Greece ruled?
There was never one country called ‘ancient Greece’. Instead, Greece was divided up into small city-states, like Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Olympia.
Each city-state ruled itself. They had their own governments, laws and army. So, ancient Greeks living in Sparta considered themselves Spartan first, and Greek second.
Famously, the city-states didn’t get on very well and often fought each another. However, sometimes they joined together to fight against a bigger enemy, like the Persian Empire.
Only a very powerful ruler could control all Greece. One man did in the 300s BC. He was Alexander the Great, from Macedonia. Alexander led his army to conquer an empire that stretched as far as Afghanistan and India.
The war at sea
Greek warships had oars as well as sails. The largest warships had three banks of oars and were called ‘triremes’.
A trireme needed 170 men to row it – one man to each oar. It was steered by long oars at the stern or back of the ship. Fixed to the front of the trireme was a sharp metal ram. In battle, the triremes tried to get close to the enemy ships, and if possible crash into them.
When the trireme struck the side of an enemy ship, the ram smashed a hole in the wooden planks. Water flooded in and the damaged ship either sank or had to be beached on the nearest shore. The trireme’s soldiers sometimes jumped onto a damaged ship to capture it.
Who were the ancient Greek gods and heroes?
The Greeks believed that gods and goddesses watched over them.
These gods were a bit like humans, but they lived forever and were much more powerful. They felt human emotions, like love, anger and jealousy, and they did not always behave themselves.
The Greeks thought the gods lived high above Mount Olympus, in a palace in the clouds. From here, they kept an eye on life below. From time to time, they would interfere in what was going on. They could send storms if they were angry and decide who was victorious in wars. Sometimes they even played tricks on humans too.
What were Greek temples like?
The Greeks built temples to their gods and goddesses. Some temples were small, while others were very grand and beautiful with amazing decorations.
Every city in Greece had a ‘patron’ god or goddess. People believed patron gods protected them from harm.
When people needed help from the gods, they went to the temple to pray. They might go if they were feeling sick, going on a journey or worried about the harvest on the farm.
To please the gods, people brought gifts of money, flowers, food and drink. They offered these gifts as sacrifices. Animals, like cattle, were sometimes killed as sacrifices. Then people feasted on the roasted meat.
What do we know about ancient Greek culture?
The Greeks had style! Their trademark red and black pottery was very fashionable, and it was bought and sold all over the Mediterranean and even parts of Asia.
They were great builders too. The Greeks built grand temples to their gods and superb sculptures of brave heroes. They pretty much invented the theatre as well. Thousands of people packed the hillside arena of ancient Athens to watch plays by famous writers like Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus.
The Greeks also celebrated the arts with big festivals. There was always music, dancing and feasting in honour of their gods.
Architecture and sculpture
The Greeks believed that the secret to making a great building was maths. They carefully designed and measured their buildings, making sure they got all their angles, shapes and sizes right.
Their temples were held up with stone columns and sometimes decorated with stone carvings of famous battles from Greek myths.
The Greeks were really good at making statues too. Master sculptors carved lifelike marble statues and decorated them with brightly-coloured paints.
To make them even more spectacular, they added some gold, bronze and ivory jewellery – this would glint and sparkle in the sunlight.
What Greek festivals were there?
The Greeks were always putting on big parties for their gods.
Athens was the place to go in ancient Greece for culture. Every four years, Athens held the Panathenaic Games. Thousands of people paraded through the city to worship the god Athena. There were competitions for athletics, poetry reading and music. The Games ended with an enormous all-night banquet.
Athens was the place to go for plays too. The city put on a drama festival called the Dionysia in honour of the god Dionysus. He was the god of the theatre and wine. The festival was a bit like a competition. Judges gave prizes for their favourite tragedy and comedy performances.
The Pythian Games were held in Delphi for the god Apollo. They were a bit like the Olympic Games, but there were competitions for music, painting, acting and dancing, as well as athletics.