CLA237 WEEK 3 READING NOTES
The Greeks (150-157)
Chapter 8, “Archaic Greece, 800-480 B.C.: Economy, Society, Politics”
•In this chapter, we examine how the poleis developed between the upheavals of the 8th century B.C. and the great wars of
480 B.C., a period historians call Archaic Greece
•In this era, living standards rose, equal male citizenship became the core principle of social organization, beliefs were
systemized, and an intellectual revolution began
•These were years of intense and sometimes violent conflict, both between poleis, for control of larger regions, and within
poleis, where individuals and factions among the rich struggled for power, while the poor struggled against them
Government by Oligarchy
•The Bronze Age Greeks had great kings, the wanakes. Weaker kings, basileis, replaced wanakes in the Dark Age
•The basileus often seems to be merely the leading man among a group of feuding chiefs
•In the polis of the 7th century B.C., the basileis lost their power to oligarchies, meaning “rule of the few”
•An oligarchy could be a handful of men or a council of hundreds
•Rule by oligarchy sets Archaic poleis apart from Greece’s neighbours in western Asia, where typical states were
monarchies (“rule by one man”)
• Rich men in Greek poleis liked to call themselves agathoi, meaning “the good people,” and to call the poor kakoi, “the
bad people,” but despite the divisive language, Greek oligarchs were in fact not greatly elevated above ordinary citizens
•The balance of power between agathoi and kakoi varied through time and between one polis and another, but in general,
poor, lowborn Greeks were more assertive than poor, lowborn Egyptians or Syrians, where state institutions and class
divisions were very old and highly developed
•Across the 7th and 6th centuries B.C., more and more power came into the poorer citizen’s hands. Even around 700 B.C.,
at the beginning of the Archaic Period, the rich could face stern criticism
•When basileis violated traditional morality, only ruin could follow (Hesiod)
-“Often the whole city suffers because of one evil man, who sins and meditates arrogant acts…Zeus sends pain
from heaven, starvation and disease, death, women don’t bear children, armies destroyed, ships sunk …”
•As the Archaic Period wore on, ordinary citizens increasingly challenged the right of any man, no matter how rich or
talented, to make decisions for the entire community
•By 525 B.C., we hear about the dêmos, “the people”, as a whole making important decisions in several poleis
•The 3 main reasons why the archaic Greek agathoi had relatively little power in the face of the kakoi were economic,
military, and ideological
•Land and labour were the bases of wealth within Greece
•If a man had plenty of land and enough workers, he could produce more agricultural goods than his family needed, then
exchange the surplus for goods that the family desired but could not or would not provide themselves
•Such exchanges might be over short distances, giving food to blacksmiths or carpenters in return for specialized products,
or might involve shipping produce across the Mediterranean in search of profitable outlets
•Opportunities for amassing wealth varied according to local conditions. For example, the island of Thasos was suited for
growing wine grapes. Families that planted more vines than they needed for domestic consumption could ship their
surplus to places less favored for viticulture or could sell their grapes to specialist traders.
•By 600 B.C., large pots called amphoras (“two-handled vessels”) used to ship wine and olive oil turn up far from their
centers of manufacture
•Most poleis had iron ore in their territory, but many lacked good timber or building stone. Only a lucky few, like Athens and
Thasos, had silver.
•The need to move goods and materials offered opportunities to those who could sail ships and stomach the risks that
came with trade across the high seas
•Archaic aristocrats were very rich – at the end of the Archaic Period, in 480 B.C., an Athenian named Kleinias equipped a
warship at his own expense. This meant paying to build the ship, fit out the rigging, and support 180-200 men for a
campaign of 3-6 months. In Athenian money, this cost between 5 and 8 silver talents, a very large sum (enough to feed a
village of 250-400 people for a year).
•Kleinias was not the richest man in Archaic Greece, and probably dozens of Greeks in Sicily could have outspent him
•Sicily has more rainfall than Athens and more arable land. The ruling class in Sicily grew rich from selling olive oil and
wine to Carthage, the great Phoenician trading colony on the north coast of Africa in what is now Tunisia. Between 550
and 450 B.C., they built the most spectacular series of temples ever raised by Greeks.
•Yet the richest Sicilian Greeks remained poor by comparison, for example, with even minor nobility in the Persian Empire
•In Greece there were no great mansions or imposing tombs. By 600 B.C., most new houses had 3 or 4 rooms around a
small courtyard. Most tombs were individual burials without elaborate markers and with just a few pots as grave goods.
•The only real wealth found in archaeological investigations comes from sanctuaries
•However, some Greek temples were awe-inspiring, and offerings to the gods included small amounts of gold and silver
jewelry and larger amounts of bronze armor, vessels, and ornaments
•Most poleis had 1 or 2 grand sanctuaries with stone temples that received the finest offerings and dozens of smaller
shrines where local people dedicated pottery
•The relatively narrow gap between the rich and the poor in Archaic Greece is an important reason why Greek aristocrats
were weaker than in the developed societies of the East
•The 2nd reason why Archaic Greek aristocrats were relatively weak was military
•The Greeks developed a peculiar way to fight, devastatingly effective in the right conditions but leaving little scope for
aristocrats as heroic leaders
•Tyrtaeus, a 7th century B.C. poet from Sparta, described Greek tactics (excerpt, p. 154)
•The mainstay of Archaic Greek armies was the heavy infantryman, or hoplite (from hoplon, “shield”). He normally wore
50-70 pounds of bronze armor – greaves on his shin, a solid breastplate, an enclosed helmet with horsehair crest, and a
wooden shield faced with metal – and carried a spear 6-8 feet long
•Infantrymen in most countries surrounding Greece, by contrast, carried small shields made of wicker or leather: Holding a
single handle in the middle of such a shield, soldiers could manipulate it to parry blows but could not stop strong spear
•The hoplite’s very different round shield, about 3 feet across, was made of hardwood covered in bronze and could block
all but the fiercest blows. It weighed about 16 pounds, and short, poorly nourished ancient Greeks could not have held it
up by a single, central handle for long. It therefore had 2 handles: one on the rim, gripped by the hand, and the second a
broad strap in the center through which the forearm passed.
•Holding the shield this way created a new problem; it only covered the left side of the fighter’s body. Hoplites therefore
massed shoulder-to-shoulder is a phalanx, a dense formation 6 or 8 ranks deep, so that each hoplite shielded the right
(unprotected) side of the man standing to his left. Only the man on the far right of each line remained exposed, a position
of great military honour.
•So long as the hoplite phalanx maintained formation, it presented the enemy with an unbroken wall of bronze shields
many ranks deep and a forest of deadly spear tips, an overwhelming and catastrophic force, as the Persians were to learn
•To maintain formation, a phalanx had to move slowly and deliberately and tended to creep crablike to the right as each
man sought to stay well protected by the shield of his neighbour
•Unlike Egyptian or Persian infantry, fighters trained together regularly, but even so, the phalanx could lose order on
broken ground, leaving the hoplites vulnerable to lightly armed but more maneuverable troops who would skirt their flanks
•Hoplites almost never stormed fortifications or fought in hills but met on carefully selected flat ground, as if war were a
sporting event (which to some extent it was)
•The 2 phalanxes advanced deliberately to within 200 yards of each other, raised a chant, and then waited to see if the
enemy lost his nerve. If neither phalanx lost its nerve, they advanced again, now running, but still trying to keep order.
They charged the last few yards, smashing head-on, the front ranks shoved forward by the mas of men behind, lunging
with their spears just before the bloody collision.
•Most spears would skid off the protective bronze, but some hit home over or under the wall of shields, finding exposed
throats and groins
•A hoplite battle was a gigantic, deadly scrimmage
•When their spears fell useless in the crush of bodies, the men at the front drew short swords and hacked away, kicking,
choking, and punching
•The fighters could not see or hear much inside their closed helmets. Their bodies ran with sweat as they fought for their
lives, dependent on the men on either side, in front and behind, their blood rising in an orgy of killing.
•There was no way to direct this kind of fighting. Only discipline, strength, and courage counted.
•The initial spear-thrust before the actual collision opened gaps in both front lines into which the leading hoplites pushed. If
they kept their heads and their order, they could widen these breaches, pushing over fallen bodies, deeper into the
opposing mass. After a few moments or many minutes, one side would start to give way.
•The men in the front ranks, packed together, could not run away. Decisive panics would begin in the rear as men in the 5th
or 6th ranks suddenly confronted a murderous, raging enemy. In an instant, the phalanx could dissolve into a hysterical
mob as men broke from the back and fled.
•Any who stood their ground were bowled over by the weight of the surging and now victorious enemy. The battle was over
and the slaughter began, as the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus explains (excerpt, p. 157)
•In this final phase, the rear ranks of the victorious phalanx leaped past their exhausted colleagues, stabbing at exposed
backs as their shattered foes threw away their heavy shields and ran for their lives
•The new warfare tactics depended on rising standards of living, because each hoplite bought his own expensive armour.
By about 600 B.C., probably a quarter or a third of the citizens of a typical polis could afford their own armor.
•In the 8th century B.C., the few wealthy men with bronze armor had significant advantages over the poorer fighters, but in
the 7th and 6th centuries, they lost these advantages. In the phalanx, aristocrats and better-off smallholders fought and
died side by side as a team.
•Archaic Greek aristocrats could not define themselves against the mass of citizens in either economic or military terms
•The most important reason for the relative weakness of Archaic Greek aristocrats, however, was ideological
•No ruling class, no matter how rich or how necessary in war, can maintain power by coercion alone
-The costs of forcing everyone to do what they are told, all the time, are just too high
•In the Bronze Age Near Eastern rulers justified their power by claiming special ties to the gods, but in Archaic Greece
such claims were not persuasive
•Some poets claimed to be equals to deities and the great kings of the East; others rejected such pretensions, claiming
that Eastern luxury and divine honors were both unattainable and undesirable
•In the Near East and Egypt, normally only a few religious specialists, drawn from powerful families, could perform
sacrifices. In Greece, by contrast, anyone could do so.
•Economics, war, and ideology reinforced each other. Had Greek aristocrats been as rich as the rulers of Babylon, they
might have convinced ordinary citizens of their close relationship with divinity, through displays of pomp and glory.
•If an elite controlled access to the gods, they might have been able to establish claims to more resources, and perhaps
few would have dared to stand against them in battle
•Although the richest men did dominate politics during the Archaic Period, their grip was weak. Some did claim the right to
rule because they were godlike, but most agathoi claimed merely to have superior moral qualities, moderation, and
wisdom. They claimed to deserve privilege, including control of political decisions, because their talents exemplified a
middle way in life.
•By 500 B.B., ordinary citizens in several poleis had rolled back even this limited elite domination of politics and moved
toward male democracy, although aristocrats tried to maintain cultural forms that set them apart from the masses
The Greeks (157-165)
Archaic Greece (800-480 B.C.): Economy, Society, Politics