Often considered as the cradle of the Western civilization, the legacy of the ancient Greeks doesn’t pertain to their conquests and imperialism, but rather their cultural and social achievements in the form of political institutions, philosophical pursuits, and even certain religious systems. However, the very term ‘ancient Greece’ is a rather vague one, with the vast scope encompassing the Greek Archaic Age (after the enigmatic ‘Dark Ages’) – that gave rise to the urban poleis, the Classical Age – the golden epoch of Athens and Sparta, the Hellenistic period – brought on by the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Latinized Roman interlude, and finally the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire of late antiquity that once again reverted to its Greek language.
And it is this vast and variegated ambit that has been represented in the time-lapse video below concocted by none other than the YouTuber extraordinaire Ollie Bye. In the content creator’s own words – “the Greeks have one of the humanity’s longest histories. See how their influence has changed over time from the ancient Greek city-states to modern times.”
A Bit About The Mycenaeans
While the video quickly covers the Bronze Age Mycenean period, ‘Mycenaean’ as a term was probably as much mysterious to ancient authors as the civilization is puzzling to modern scholars. In fact, Classical authors were not even aware of any singular Mycenaean faction – and given their Greek traditions, such writers often attributed the specific geographically-limited tribes as their ancestors, like the Achaeans and the Argives.
And oddly enough, while the Mycenaeans themselves can be considered as ‘Greeks’, as judged by their decipherable Linear B script, the early phase of the civilization in itself (mostly based in mainland Greece) was markedly inspired by the distant Minoans hailing from the island of Crete. To that end, the earlier Mycenaean artworks, architectural patterns, and military arms, circa 1600–1450 BC, were very much similar to the contemporary Minoan styles – so much so that many early historians presumed the southern part of ancient Greece to be a colony of Bronze Age Crete.
But that was not true. In this regard, a recent DNA analysis revealed that the ancient Myceneans (from mainland Greece) and the Minoans (from Crete) were genetically quite similar. Assessed from the remains of 19 different ancient individuals (from areas comprising what is now Greece, Crete and Turkey), the incredible genome-wide DNA sequence data also points to an interesting scenario where both the Bronze Age groups – Minoans and Mycenaeans, migrated from Anatolia, millennia before the advent of Bronze Age in the Mediterranean region. The pre-Bronze Age population comprised Neolithic farmers, and as such some of them also settled in southwestern Anatolia – thus alluding to a scope where genetically similar people resided in Greece, Crete, and parts of Asia Minor. Furthermore, the study also hypothesizes, perhaps unsurprisingly, that both the modern and ancient Greeks, in turn, retained/retain a fair share of the genetic similarities of their Mycenaean predecessors.
The Origins of Athens
It should be noted that Athens as a settlement was probably inhabited by humans since at least circa 5000 BC, complemented by earlier evidence of Neolithic habitations found in surrounding Attica. In fact, the elevated flat-topped nature of the famed Acropolis of Athens was well suited to defense, with its substantial height of 490 ft and expansive surface area of around 3 hectares (7.4 acres). However, the real impetus to the growth of Athens was not borne by rich agricultural lands (since there were few of them), but rather fueled by sea trade. And over time, Athens was inducted as one of the Mycenean strongholds, by circa 1550 – 1100 BC.
To that end, the first massive structure atop the Acropolis possibly pertained to a Mycenaean megaron(palace complex) built in the Bronze Age, circa 1200 BC. Soon this massive complex was guarded by an imposing wall structure that was around 760 m (or 2,500 ft) long, 10 m (33 ft) high and had an average thickness of 4-6 m (about 16 ft). From the structural perspective, this gargantuan defensive work boasted two parapets constructed from large stone blocks that were merged and bonded together by an earth mortar known as emplekton.
Anyhow, after the sudden Bronze Age collapse of the Mycenaean Greeks and the mysterious ‘Dark Age’ interlude, Athens proverbially emerged from its ashes in circa 8th century BC, with the city now wielding its political power over the proximate areas of Attica. Much of this influence was held by the rich aristocrats, thus resulting in a precarious hierarchy of power where lesser land-owners were unfairly dependent on the whims of the few-numbered political elite. In early 7th century BC, statesman Draco tried to resolve the conflicting issues by introducing his set of written laws, but they proved to be too severe to serve practical purposes (hence the term Draconian). And it was then that the great lawgiver Solon was called upon to modify and amend them. And so Solon, who was an aristocrat himself, created a series of laws which sought to equalize the political power of the citizenry, which in turn momentously laid the groundwork for democracy in Athens in 594 BC.
The Origins of Sparta
While Greek mythology establishes Lacedaemon, a son of Zeus, as the founder of the city of Sparta, historical evidence suggests that much like the habitation pattern of their Attic brethren, the areas of Laconia (especially the fertile Eurotas valley) were settled since the Neolithic times. However, interestingly enough, as opposed to the Neolithic legacy of Athens itself, the city of Sparta was probably a ‘new’ settlement that was founded by the Greeks in circa 10th century BC.
In any case, the militaristic ways of the ancient Spartans soon fetched them dominion over the populace of Messenia, and as such Sparta boasted some 8,500 sq km of territory – which made their polis (city-state) the largest in the 8th century BC timeframe of Greece. Their local conquests also brought forth a rigid system of social hierarchy, with the native Spartan citizens or homoioi being at the apex of the ‘pecking order’. They were followed by the perioikoi, the secondary class of free but non-citizen inhabitants of Sparta who had no political rights but had the military obligation to support the core Spartan army (and also lived in their own autonomous settlements). And finally, the third strata pertained to the helots or heílotes, who were basically semi-enslaved agricultural laborers living inside farming estates.
Quite intriguingly, while not documented in details, it is highly probable that mirroring the political upheaval in Athens in circa 8th and 7th centuries BC, the Greeks of Sparta too faced their own ‘version’ of civil strifes and lawlessness – as mentioned by both Herodotus and Thucydides. Consequently, the disruptions resulted in a set of law-based reforms covering both the social and political aspects of the ancient Spartan state. These series of laws was often ascribed to the semi-legendary lawgiver Lycurgus. As such, he was credited with a myriad of initiated amendments that applied to a vast range of society-based actions from marriage, distribution of wealth, constructing houses and even sex. But the most famous of his reforms was arguably the agoge – the rigorous military training program for Spartan boys.