Skip to content

Ancient Greece

Martin Joseph Kerney writes a great outline of history in A Compendium of Ancient and Modern History. The quotes below all come from that book. If you'd like to read the rest, I have made a newly typeset excerpt here.

AMONG the various nations of antiquity, Greece deservedly holds the most distinguished rank, both for the patriotism, genius, and learning of its inhabitants, as well as the high state of perfection to which they carried the arts and sciences.

It formerly comprised various small independent states, differing from each other in forms of government and in the character of the people, but still united in a confederacy for mutual defence, by the counsel of Amphic'tyons, and by their common language, religion, and public games.

2. The name Greece was never used by the ancient inhabitants of that country. They called their land Hellas, and themselves Hellenes. It is from the Romans that we have derived the word Greece ; but why they gave it a different appellation from that used by the natives cannot be determined. The original inhabitants, who were generally considered as the descendants of Ja'van, the son of Japhet, lived in the lowest condition of barbarism, dwelling in huts, feeding on acorns and berries, and clothing themselves in the skins of wild beasts, when Ce'crops with a colony from Egypt, and Cadmus with a body of Phoeni'cians, landed in Greece, and planted on its shores the first rudiments of civilization.

The early form of government in Greece was a limited monarchy, which was finally abolished, and a republican form generally prevailed.

The first date to remember is 1200 BC, the approximate date for the Trojan War.

Map of Greek Sanctuaries
"Map greek sanctuaries-en" by Marsyas - Own work using Adobe Illustrator (data based on M. Kaplan et alii, Le Monde grec, Bréal, Paris, 1995).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Troy is in modern-day Turkey, not far from Gallipoli in the Dardanelles.

You may have heard of Helen - the face that launched a thousand ships.

According to Homer, Hellen, the daughter of Tyn'darus, king of Sparta, was reputed the most beautiful woman of her age, and her hand was solicited by the most illustrious princes of Greece. Her father bound all her suitors by a solemn oath, that they would abide by the choice that Hellen should make of one among them ; and that, should she be taken from the arms of her husband, they would assist, to the utmost of their power, to recover her.

Hellen gave her hand to Menelaus, and after her nuptials, Tyndarus, her father, resigned the crown to his son-in-law. Paris, the son of Pri'am, king of Troy, a powerful city founded by Dar'danus, having adjudged the prize of superior beauty to Venus, in preference to Juno and Minerva, was promised by her the most beautiful woman of the age for his wife. Shortly after this event, Paris visited Sparta, where he was kindly received by Menelaus ; but in return for the kind hospitality tendered to him, he persuaded Hellen to elope with him to Troy, and carried off with her a considerable amount of treasure.

5. This act of treachery and ingratitude produced the Trojan war. A confederacy was immediately formed by the princes of Greece, in accordance with their engagement, to avenge the outrage. An army of one hundred thousand men was conveyed in a fleet of twelve hundred vessels to the Trojan coast. Agamem'non, king of Argos, brother of Menelaus, was selected as commander-in-chief. Some of the other princes most distinguished in this war, were Achilles, the bravest of the Greeks ; also Ajax, Menelaus, Ulys'ses, Nes'tor, and Diome'des.

6. The Trojans were commanded by Hec'tor, the son of Priam, assisted by Paris, Deiph'ohus, AE'neas, and Sarpe'don. After a siege of ten years, the city was taken by stratagem, plundered of its wealth, and burnt to the ground. The venerable Priam, king of Troy, was slain, and all his family carried into captivity.

Homer sang two famous poems based on the events. I say sang rather than wrote as he was blind and sang these poems from memory for his livelihood. Homer lived around 750 BC - that's the second date for you to remember.

The Iliad - about the close of the war. Achilles vs Hector. The name Iliad comes from Ilium which is another name for Troy.

The Odyssey - about Odysseus' long-awaited return to his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. Odysseus is also known as Ulysses.


Sparta had been ruled by the descendents of the Mycenean King Hercules for centuries. There were two kings which brought conflict and anarchy.

Lycurgus Giving Law to the People, Jacopo Palma or Bonifazio de' Pitati
Lycurgus Giving Law to the People, Jacopo Palma or Bonifazio de' Pitati

Lycur’gus, the brother of one of the kings of Sparta, a man distinguished alike for his great abilities and stern integrity, was invested, by the united voice of the sovereigns and the people, with the important duty of framing a new constitution for his country. The arduous task being at length completed, produced not only an entire change in the form of government, but also in the manners of the people. He instituted an elective senate, consisting of twenty-eight members, whose office was to preserve a just balance between the power of the kings and that of the people. Nothing could come before the assembly of the people which had not received the previous consent of the senate ; and, on the other hand, no action of the senate was effectual without the sanction of the people. The kings were continued, but were nothing more than hereditary presidents of the senate and generals of the army.

3. Lycurgus divided the territory of the republic into thirty-nine thousand equal portions among the free citizens. For the purpose of banishing luxury, commerce was abolished. Gold and silver coin was prohibited, and iron money was substituted as a medium of exchange. A uniformity of dress was established, and all the citizens, not excepting the kings, were required to take their principal meals at the public tables, from which all luxury and excess were excluded, and a kind of black broth was the chief article of food. Among some of the admirable ceremonies which prevailed at these public meals, the following is interesting and instructive. When the assembly was seated, the oldest man present, pointing to the door, said, “No word spoken here goes out there.” This wise regulation produced mutual confidence, and rendered the people unrestrained in conversation.

4. The institutions of Lycurgus, though in many respects admirable, had still a number of grave defects. Infants, shortly after birth, underwent an examination, and those that were well formed were delivered to public nurses ; but all who were deformed or sickly were inhumanly exposed to perish. At the age of seven, children were sent to the public schools. The young were taught to pay the greatest respect to the aged and cherish an ardent love for their country, and the profession of arms was looked upon as the great business of life. Letters were only taught in so far as they were useful ; hence the Spartans, while they were distinguished for many heroic virtues, were never eminent for learning. No production from the pen of a native of Sparta has come down to modern times. These hardy people were accustomed to express themselves in short, pithy sentences, so that even at the present time this style of speaking is called after them laconic Laconia being one of the names of their country.

5. The youth were early inured to hardship ; and were accustomed to sleep on rushes, trained to the athletic exercises, and only supplied with plain and scanty food. They were even taught to steal whatever they could, provided they could accomplish the theft without being detected. Plutarch relates the fact of a boy who had stolen a fox and concealed it under his garments, and who actually suffered the animal to tear out his bowels, rather than discover the theft. The women of Lacedaemon were destitute of the milder virtues that most adorn the female character, and their manners were highly indelicate. Their education was intended to give them a masculine energy, and to fill them with admiration of military glory. Mothers rather rejoiced than wept when their sons fell nobly in battle. “Return with your shield or on your shield,” was the injunction of a Spartan mother to her son, when he was going to meet the enemy. She meant that he should conquer or die.

The founding of Athens


Athens, which afterwards bore such a distinguished part in the history of Greece, was founded by Cecrops, with a colony from Egypt. He was an eminent legislator, and instituted the court of Areop'agus. Thebes was founded by Cadmus, who is said to have introduced letters into Greece from Phoenicia ; the alphabet, however, only consisted of sixteen letters, and the mode of writing was alternately from right to left, and from left to right.

The republic of Athens

ATH’ENS, the capital of At’tica, was distinguished for its commerce, wealth, and magnificence, and as the seat of learning and the arts. The last king of Athens was Co’drus, who sacrificed himself, for the good of his country, in a war with the Heraclidae. After his death, no one being deemed worthy to succeed him, the regal government was abolished, and the state was governed by magistrates, styled archons. At first the office was for life, but it was afterwards reduced to a period of ten years ; and finally the archons, nine in number, were annually elected, and were possessed of equal authority.

2. As these changes produced convulsions in the state, and rendered the condition of the people miserable, the Athenians appointed Dra’co, a man of stern and rigid principles, to prepare a code of written laws. His laws were characterized by extreme severity. Every crime was punished with death. Draco being asked why he was so severe in his punishment, replied that the smallest offence deserved death, and that he had no higher penalty for the greatest crime. The severity of these laws prevented them from being fully executed, and at length caused them to be entirely abolished, after a period of one hundred and fifty years.

Solon as drawn in the Nurnberg Chronicles
3. So’lon, one of the seven wise men of Greece, being raised to the archonship, was intrusted with the care of framing a new system of laws for his country. His disposition was mild and condescending ; and, without attempting to change the manners of his countrymen, he endeavored to accommodate his system to their prevailing customs, to moderate their dissensions, to restrain their passions, and to open a field for the growth of virtue. Of his laws he said, “If they are not the best possible, they are the best the Atheniaus are capable of receiving.”

4. Solon’s system divided the people into four classes, according to their wealth. To the first three, composed of the richest citizens, he intrusted all the offices of the commonwealth. The fourth class, which was more numerous than the other three, had an equal right of suffrage in the public assembly, where all laws were framed and measures of state decreed; and by this regulation the balance of power was thrown in favor of the people. He instituted a senate composed of four hundred, and afterwards increased it to five hundred persons. He restored the court of the Areop’agus, which had greatly fallen into disrepute, and committed to it the supreme administration of justice. Commerce and agriculture were encouraged. Industry and economy were enforced. And the father who had taught his son no trade could not claim a support from him in his old age.

5. The manners of the Athe’nians formed a striking contrast with those of the Lacedaemonians. At Athens the arts were highly esteemed ; at Sparta they were despised and neglected. At Athens peace was the natural state of the republic, and the refined enjoyments of life the aim of its citizens ; Sparta was entirely a military establishment ; her people made war the great business of life. Luxury characterized the Athenian, frugality the Spartan. They were both, however, equally jealous of their liberty and equally brave in war.

6. Before the death of Solon, Pisistratus, a man of great wealth and eloquence, by courting the popular favor, raised himself to the sovereign power, which he and his sons retained for fifty years. He governed with great ability, encouraged the arts and sciences, and is said to have founded the first public library known in the world, and first collected the poems of Homer into one volume, which, before that time, were repeated in detached portions.

Pisistratus transmitted his power to his sons, Hip’pias and Hippar’chus. They governed for some time with wisdom and moderation, but having, at length, abused their power, a conspiracy was formed against them, and their government was overthrown by Harmo’dius and Aristogit’on. Hipparchus was slain. Hippias fled to Darius, king of Persia, who was then meditating the invasion of Greece. He was subsequently killed in the battle of Marathon, fighting against his countrymen.

So you can see how government swung between monarchy and democracy with different arrangements for governing the city. The fact that most people farmed made it easier, as they were a lot closer to the source of their necessities like food and shelter.

You need to be registered and logged in to take this quiz. Log in