Ancient Greece




ParthenonTemple to Athena, city god of Athens, on the Acropolis, the highest hill.
Peloponnesian WarWar chiefly between Athens and Sparta, caused by growing distrust and jealousy between the two large city-states. In the aftermath of the Persian Wars, Athens reigned supreme with its fleet and its dominance of the Delian League, made up of colonies across the Aegean Sea in Asia Minor. The use of Delian League funds to build temples and other buildings in Athens created mistrust of Athens within the League and within the Greek world as a whole. And when Athens interfered in colonial revolts far to the west, Sparta and its League (the Spartan League) took action. The Spartan fleet was no match for the Athenian fleet, but the Spartan army was more than a match for the Athenian army. A plague in Athens in the middle of the war didn't help matters, either. Sparta even captured Athens itself. Sparta, however, had achieved its aim and left Athens standing. The war lasted from to 431 to 404. By that time, both sides were exhausted. It was clear that Athens had lost. However, Sparta was by this time so weak that the true strong city-state after this war was Thebes, which had been an ally of Sparta.
PeloponnesusPeninsula in the central Greek world, separated from the mainland by the Isthmus of Corinth, and containing several large city-states, including Sparta, Argos, Olympia, and Corinth. During the Peloponnesian War, Sparta dominated the Peloponnesus. Many battles were fought there.
PericlesLeader of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. He was also a very good speaker, able to hold his audience's attention for long periods of time. Actually, his desire for an Athenian empire did much to cause the war. He died of the plague during the war.
PersiaCity-state that saw its share of cultural achievements and wars. It was situated between Athens and Sparta and so saw the brunt of action between those two. Corinthian troops fought in both the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian Wars. In the latter, they fought against Athens. Corinth also gave its name to the third and most ornate style of column, the Corinthian column. Colonists from Corinth also founded the city-state of Syracuse, far to the west on the island of Sicily.
Persian WarsSeries of wars fought between Persia and Greece. The conflict began when Persia occupied some Greek colonies in Asia Minor. Greece responded by defending the colonies; and Persia, commanded by Emperor Xerxes himself, responded by attacking Greece. The battles were fought on land and at sea. The battles of Marathon and Thermopylae are famous for the Greeks' heroism against overwhelming odds. The naval battle of Salamis almost wiped out the Persian fleet. The battle of Plataea was the final defeat. The Greek victories kept in check the growing Persian Empire. After the wars, Persia continued to meddle in Greek affairs. The answer came in the form of a reverse invasion, planned by Philip of Macedonia and carried out by his son, Alexander.
PhalanxBattlefield formation designed by Philip and executed by Alexander to provide maximum protection for an army while inflicting maximum damage on an enemy. Soldiers would bunch together, shields overlapping, while holding their spears or javelins in between the shields. An enemy trying to get close enough to cut through the shield would meet the spear point. An attacking phalanx could also jab its enemy long before its soldiers were themselves in danger. The phalanx was also a good defense against aerial attacks (such as thrown spears) because the shields were man-height and able to repel such attacks. In short, the phalanx was a revolutionary development in warfare, one that had remarkable success on the battlefields of Persia and India.
PhilipMacedonian king who was held hostage in Greece, spent several years there, then returned to conquer it all. He was making ready to invade Persia when he was assassinated. His son, Alexander, finished the job and went a little bit further.
PlataeaLand battle that ended the Persian invasions of Greece. In this battle, the Greeks, led jointly by Athens and Sparta, actually had more men than the Persians, mainly because the Persians had left many dead on the Greek fields of battle. The Greek general Pausanias surprised the Persian army and routed it, sending the Persians back home.
PlatoGreek philosopher whose famous teacher was Socrates. Plato's Dialogues preserve for us the philosophy of both Socrates and Plato, as it is sometimes difficult to tell the two apart. Plato wrote many great works, including the Republic, a blueprint for the ideal form of government. He began the famous Academy in Athens, together with his famous disciple, Aristotle.
PoseidonGod of the sea and earthquakes. His sea kingdom is unlike any other. Creatures of his own making swim freely all around the world.
PythagorasGreek mathematician who, among other things, came up with the famous theorem for figuring the angles and sides of a triangle. He was also a philosopher. Little is known of his work because he didn't write much down.
SalamisNaval battle that ended in a decisive defeat for Persia. Greek ships were outnumbered but still won. The great naval war hero Alcibiades tricked the Persians into rushing into Salamis Bay, where their large ships proved no match for the smaller, more maneuverable Greek ships. While the Persian emperor Xerxes watched from an overlooking cliff, his fleet was virtually destroyed.
SocratesGreek philosopher whose method of asking questions to prove his points made him famous. This "Socratic Method" also served to make his opponents understand how little they knew. He was convicted of corrupting the minds of the youth and sentenced to die. He drank hemlock, a poison, and died. His philosophy is preserved for us in the pages of the Dialogues of Plato, his most faithful student. The Apology is the story of Socrates's trial. He also fought in a battle that led to the Peloponnesian War, saving the life of Alcibiades, a future hero of that war.
Socratic MethodMethod of teaching pioneered by Socrates, the great Greek philosopher. The Method was a series of questions, by which Socrates made the people who answered the questions understand not only the point he was trying to make but also that they didn't know as much as they thought they did.
SolonFamous law-giver who brought laws, a constitution, and the beginnings of democracy to Athens. Among the things his laws did: cancel all debts, allowed poor people to serve on trial juries, and required every citizen to teach children to read and write.
SophoclesSecond great Greek playwright. Wrote 120 plays, of which only seven survive. He introduced the Third Actor. Before, only two characters had been onstage at the same time. The introduction of the Third Actor meant that interaction between more than two characters take place. This might not seem like much today, but it was a huge development back then. Among his famous plays are Oedipus Rex and Antigone. Sophocles won 24 First Prizes at the City Dionysia, the annual drama Festival in Athens.
SpartaMost militaristic of all ancient Greek city-states. Focus was constantly on war as an outgrowth of the city-state. Boys were expected to be trained as soldiers; girls were expected to grow up and bear children who grew up to be soldiers. To make sure that the army got as many Spartan soldiers as it needed, Sparta depended on slaves and helots (people from a nearby settlement who were forced to work) to do manual labor. Of course, helots populated the army as well.
SyracuseWestern Greek city-state founded by settlers from Corinth on the island of Sicily, which is southwest of Italy. A revolt in Syracuse and the Athenians' response to that revolt helped cause the Peloponnesian War.
ThalesGreek thinker from Miletus who was the first philosopher and who was also the first to categorize things scientifically. He also correctly predicted a solar eclipse.
ThebesAncient Greek city-state that was once one of the most prominent. A series of bad choices doomed it, though. During the Persian Wars, it sided with the Persians; after the Greek victory, Thebes was punished severely. During the Peloponnesian Wars, Thebes sided first with the Spartans and then against them. After the war, Thebes was punished again but gained the upper hand eventually because of Sparta's weakening. Finally, Thebes defied Philip of Macedonia; his son, Alexander, later invaded and destroyed the city. It was later rebuilt but never the same.
ThemistoclesAthenian archon who was leader of the Athenian navy during the Persian Wars. He persuaded the Athenians to build up their navy after the victory at Marathon, and the result was the Greek victory at Salamis. His efforts also coincided with a prediction by the Oracle of Delphi that Athens would be saved by "walls of wood." This turned out to be the wooden ships Themistocles had urged his fellow Athenians to build.
ThermopylaeLand battle that was a heroic stand by Spartans that fought off an overwhelming Persian advance, enabling the remaining Greeks to mobilize their forces and minimize their losses. The Persians chose to pursue the Greeks through a narrow mountain pass, where only a handful of Spartans were needed to defend. The Spartans fought on long after they were doomed to die, and they all fell in battle, partly because a traitor showed the Persians a back passage through the mountains.
ThucydidesHistorian who chronicled the Peloponnesian War. A large amount of what he wrote has come down to us. This is why we know so much about the Greek civil war.
TragedyGreek dramatic form invented by Aeschylus and improved on by such famous playwrights as Sophocles and Euripides. The theme of a tragedy was the downfall of an important and heroic character, either through his own doings or through the doings of the gods or goddesses.
TyrantPerson who took over the government. The practice of ostracism was invented to deal with tyrants. Many Greek city-states, including Athens, had their share of tyrants. Pesistratus and Cleisthenes were two Athenian tyrants who used their powers to further democratic government.
TyreIsland fortress that Alexander besieged in anger and frustration, finally storming it after he had built a bridge out to it. It was originally a Phoenician city, one of the most important cities of that civilization.
XerxesPersian emperor who was a successor to Cyrus the Great and Darius. Consumed with desire to conquer Greece. Commanded huge army during the Persian Wars. Even though he outnumbered the Greek heavily, he still managed to lose several battles, including the famous naval battle of Salamis, which he witnessed personally.
ZeusRuler of Mount Olympus. King of the gods. God of the weather. Husband of Hera. Father of Hermes and Athena. The statue of him at Olympia was one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.
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David White