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Ancient Greece, extending from the kingdom of Macedonia in the north down to the city -- state of Sparta in the south, was a large peninsula or archipelago jutting out into the Aegean Sea. Much of its land was taken up by forests, mountains, and deep valleys -- a topography that made unification of the Greek city -- states difficult.
Up the coast from Sparta lay the rich and artistic city -- state of Athens -- distinguished by its Parthenon, navy, democracy, and opinionated orators -- with the bustling port of Piraeus some ten miles to the southwest. Thebes and Corinth were other city -- states, lying halfway between Macedonia and the well -- disciplined but bellicose Sparta.
The two principal forms of Greek culture stemmed from two periods of Greek history. The first, which could be called the Heroic Age (about 1300 to 800 BC), was an era in which kings like Agamemnon and Menelaus ruled, and their successes and failures were recounted in a grand oral tradition of heroic poetry. These rulers held on to a so -- called shame culture in which honor and dignity were exalted and in which the worst thing was to be disgraced, to be without honor.
Reflecting this societal norm, the ten -- year Trojan War allegedly occurred because a Trojan prince stole Helen, Menelaus's wife, and honor decreed that the king had to go to war to retrieve her. At the end of this period, around 800, in two epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer set down the oral traditions of the war, thus providing the written material for Alexander's obsession with Achilles. Homer's writings were a kind of light at the end of the tunnel of the Greek Dark Age. During this period there had been much jockeying for power among various peoples: the Dorians, the Ionians, and the Mycenaeans.
The years from about 800 to 500 BC are known as the Archaic Age. This was the period during which the city -- state, or polis, was formed and the cities of the peninsula split into separate governmental bodies. This was also a time of great colonization, of Sicily and southern Italy. In art the human form underwent a transformation from an earlier style, in which it had looked almost like a stick figure, to the realistic portrayal of the human form in all its beauty that characterizes Greek art of the Classical Age.
From 500 to 320 BC, Greek -- or at least the Athenian -- culture underwent a radical transformation. In the words of Edgar Allan Poe, this was the period that gave the world "the glory that was Greece." It saw the rise of Athens and the building of the Parthenon as well as the democratic ideals and government of Pericles; the drama of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides; and the philosophical schools of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This period also witnessed the development of the conflict between Persia and the Greek cities that finally ended with the rise of Alexander the Great.
For many years the city -- states had fought one another over territory and commercial privileges in miserable, bloody wars. No one person had ever come along who was strong and ruthless enough to unite these natural enemies; thus there were only two exceptions to these dreadful -- and futile -- internecine conflicts. One was the period in the later fifth century BC when Athens and Sparta united during the Peloponnesian War against the menace of the Persian Empire coming over from Asia Minor. The alliance of Athens and Sparta defeated the Persians in the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. After the war had dragged on for almost ten years, the Greeks forced the battle by advancing full force toward the Persian army and surrounding it. The Persians had no alternative except to retreat to their ships, heading south toward Athens to launch a surprise attack on the defenseless city. As they retreated, however, it occurred to the Athenian general that the city of Athens itself was defenseless, its citizens unprepared for an attack. He ordered a soldier named Phidippides to run to Athens and bring them the news of the impending attack. Phidippides ran the distance of twenty -- six miles in three hours (this was the birth of the marathon), delivered the message to the waiting city, and then promptly died from overexertion. In some versions of the story, Phidippides had already fought in the battle as well as having run to Sparta and back (about 280 miles in all) in the previous days -- all his efforts culminating in his death from overexertion.
The only regular occasion on which the city -- states were united was during the period of the Olympic games. At the games they discussed important political issues, celebrated common military victories, and even formed political and military alliances. Between about 700 BC and AD 400, every four years heralds were sent out from a small town near Mount Olympus declaring an Olympic truce, which lasted for the duration of the games and protected the athletes, visitors, spectators, and embassies from danger during the actual period of the competition. Most competitors were men and boys, but separate track events were held for unmarried girls (married women were strictly barred from the games). The men competed naked, their skin covered with olive oil. It was a highly competitive, heroic, largely masculine world. At the conclusion of the games, the city -- states went back to fighting among themselves as usual for the next four years.
What was singular about Athens was its ribbons of colonies extending from the Black Sea to Asia Minor, to Sicily and the south coast of France. Settlers had gone out from Athens, settled these far -- distant places, and sent tax money back to Athens. In return they were governed by officials sent by the Athenian government. Though the Athenians' treatment of these colonies was harshly exploitative, the obvious power and strength of their navy kept most rebellion at a minimum.
Excerpted from Alexander the Great by Norman F. Cantor Copyright © 2005 by Norman F. Cantor. Excerpted by permission.
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