It is difficult to imagine what a great gap divides the modern world and the society of ancient Greece. Though united by language and a feeling of superiority over all those who did not speak Greek—the “barbarians”—the ancient Greeks were not united amongst themselves. Each valley could and often did support its own independent political community; even an island often had more than one self-ruled city-state (Greek polis).With so much fragmentation, it is unsurprising that the Greek communities fought each other. This, and the greedy designs of neighboring kingdoms, made war a part of the culture of ancient Greece.
Yet within the polis, citizens met together and mutually decided how their community would deal with the problems it faced. The small size was beneficial insofar as it allowed the kind of direct contact necessary for its inhabitants to rule themselves. The existence of citizen rule among the Greeks contrasted strongly with the absolute monarchies other Mediterranean peoples endured, further solidifying the sense of Greek identity (Finley, 1964).
Some unity finally emerged among the eastern city-states in response to Persia’s attempt to invade mainland Greece after successfully bringing those in Asia Minor under its control. Athens was primarily responsible for defeating the Persians in 490 B.C., and the Athenians followed their victory in 480 at the head of a small coalition of city-states. Anticipating a third attack, Athens formed a confederation out of the frightened Greek states, which made contributions to Athens for mutual defense.
After the Persian fleet was eliminated, the members of the “Delian League” wished to resume their autonomy, but Athens forcibly chose to maintain and even expand the alliance, changing it from a confederation into an empire. Enriched by the continuing tribute, Athens came to be seen as a threat by Sparta, leader of the Peloponnesian League. This eventually led to the quarter-century series of battles known as the Peloponnesian War, which ended in 404 B.C. with Athens’ defeat and the...
(The entire section is 856 words.)