When we think of Ancient Greece, what we usually have in mind are the Classical or Hellenistic eras—the Archaic Period is murky and uncertain, the lines between myth and reality unhelpfully blurred. Classical Greece (and the more universal Hellenistic Period that followed) are fortunately well-documented, and for those who've studied Western history, by now quite familiar.
The entity we call Western Civilization began, by most accounts, in Greece. Dates are fluid, but we do know a few: the Persian Wars began in 490 BC and lasted till 449; the Peloponnesian Wars dragged from 431-404 BC; the philosopher Plato was born around 428 BC and lived about 80 years; his brightest pupil, Aristotle, was born in 384 BC, living to approximately 61 years.
And, of course, in 336 BC Alexander the Great became king of Macedon and invaded Asia Minor two years later. This initiated the Hellenistic Age in which Greek thought, culture, language, and warfare was distributed throughout the known world at an extremely rapid pace and with almost evangelistic fervor. The era isn't greatly distinguishable from the Classical Period that preceded it, except that the Classical ideals were more aggressively distributed throughout the rest of Europe and Western Asia.
So what were these ideals? and how were they responsible for shaping the Western world? In many ways we could boil it down to a single word: philosophy (though not in the restrictive sense we tend to use that word nowadays). The ancient Eastern and Near Eastern cultures involved a spiritual element oddly lacking in the salient elements of Greek culture, a religiosity foreign to the temporally-minded Balkans.
During the Archaic Period (roughly 800-400 BC), Greek culture began to develop in earnest after a protracted Dark Ages from which not much emerged but extensive warfare and the early stages of the city-state polis. In the four hundred years prior to the Classical Era, the city-state evolved into the dominant governmental form (largely due to geographical concerns), tragic theater formed, and the first philosophers began contemplating the world.
Philosophy to those of us in the post-Enlightenment refers to a highly academic pursuit involving truth-constructions, advanced logic, and the perception and analysis of facts to create interpretations of reality. It's all very abstruse, and for most 20th and 21st century philosophers (by their own admission) no more than an intellectual game.
In ancient Greece, philosophy was a search for Truth. It encompassed science, mathematics, music and art, literature, and the activity Aristotle believed was man's highest end: contemplation. The word comes from two Greek words—philos meaning love, and sophia meaning wisdom; thus, love of wisdom—and is the summation of the Greek cultural project.
What set the Greeks apart from their Eastern neighbors was their starting point. The Jews had philosophy of a sort (expressed best in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes), the races Alexander conquered in India had philosophy, the Egyptians to the south certainly had religiously-informed philosophy. But they all began with some kind of religious contruct and authority system; the Greeks began with man's ability to reason.
It wasn't that they didn't have religion or gods, either. But their gods were strangely human, even by ancient polytheistic standards, and served rather to celebrate man's mannishness (to borrow a phrase from Schaeffer) than any distinctly divine attributes. Man was the measure of all things for the Greeks, and they set out trying to understand everything from his perspective.
Some of the greatest accomplishments in the arts and thought were the result. Socrates was the father of philosophy; his acolyte, Plato, one of its greatest champions; and his successor, Aristotle, arguably the greatest philosopher who ever lived. The architecture and statuary of the period, the scientific advances, the literature (The Iliad and The Odyssey, the works of Aristophanes, Euripides, and Herodotus), the political science, all laid the foundation for what would come later in the West.
Without a relatively comprehensive understanding of ancient Greece and its culture, we have no real basis for understanding the subsequent 3000 years of Western history, or even our own time. The ideas of Medieval Scholasticism, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, modernism, and postmodernism are all based in ideas developed in the Classical period in a relatively out-of-the-way region of the second smallest continent. Because it's such an important era, we offer a wide range of materials for every age and reading level.
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