The term Ancient, or Archaic, Greece refers to the time three centuries before the classical age, between 800 B.C. and 500 B.C.—a relatively sophisticated period in world history. Archaic Greece saw advances in art, poetry and technology, but most of all it was the age in which the polis, or city-state, was invented. The polis became the defining feature of Greek political life for hundreds of years.
The Birth of the City-State
During the so-called “Greek Dark Ages” before the Archaic period, people lived scattered throughout Greece in small farming villages. As they grew larger, these villages began to evolve. Some built walls. Most built a marketplace (an agora) and a community meeting place. They developed governments and organized their citizens according to some sort of constitution or set of laws. They raised armies and collected taxes. And every one of these city-states (known as poleis) was said to be protected by a particular god or goddess, to whom the citizens of the polis owed a great deal of reverence, respect and sacrifice. (Athens’s deity was Athena, for example; so was Sparta’s.)
Though their citizens had in common what Herodotus called “the same stock and the same speech, our shared temples of the gods and religious rituals, our similar customs,” every Greek city-state was different. The largest, Sparta, controlled about 300 square miles of territory; the smallest had just a few hundred people. However, by the dawn of the Archaic period in the seventh century B.C., the city-states had developed a number of common characteristics. They all had economies that were based on agriculture, not trade: For this reason, land was every city-state’s most valuable resource. Also, most had overthrown their hereditary kings, or basileus, and were ruled by a small number of wealthy aristocrats.
These people monopolized political power. (For example, they refused to let ordinary people serve on councils or assemblies.) They also monopolized the best farmland, and some even claimed to be descended from the gods. Because “the poor with their wives and children were enslaved to the rich and had no political rights,” Aristotle said, “there was conflict between the nobles and the people for a long time.”
Emigration was one way to relieve some of this tension. Land was the most important source of wealth in the city-states; it was also, obviously, in finite supply. The pressure of population growth pushed many men away from their home poleis and into sparsely populated areas around Greece and the Aegean. Between 750 B.C. and 600 B.C., Greek colonies sprang up from the Mediterranean to Asia Minor, from North Africa to the coast of the Black Sea. By the end of the seventh century B.C., there were more than 1,500 colonial poleis.
Each of these poleis was an independent city-state. In this way, the colonies of the Archaic period were different from other colonies we are familiar with: The people who lived there were not ruled by or bound to the city-states from which they came. The new poleis were self-governing and self-sufficient.
The Rise of the Tyrants
As time passed and their populations grew, many of these agricultural city-states began to produce consumer goods such as pottery, cloth, wine and metalwork. Trade in these goods made some people—usually not members of the old aristocracy—very wealthy. These people resented the unchecked power of the oligarchs and banded together, sometimes with the aid of heavily-armed soldiers called hoplites, to put new leaders in charge.
These leaders were known as tyrants. Some tyrants turned out to be just as autocratic as the oligarchs they replaced, while others proved to be enlightened leaders. (Pheidon of Argos established an orderly system of weights and measures, for instance, while Theagenes of Megara brought running water to his city.) However, their rule did not last: The classical period brought with it a series of political reforms that created the system known as demokratia, or “rule by the people.”
The colonial migrations of the Archaic period had an important effect on its art and literature: They spread Greek styles far and wide and encouraged people from all over to participate in the era’s creative revolutions. The epic poet Homer, from Ionia, produced his Iliad and Odyssey during the Archaic period. Sculptors created kouroi and korai, carefully proportioned human figures that served as memorials to the dead. Scientists and mathematicians made progress too: Anaximandros devised a theory of gravity; Xenophanes wrote about his discovery of fossils; and Pythagoras of Kroton discovered his famous theorem.
The economic, political, technological and artistic developments of the Archaic period readied the Greek city-states for the monumental changes of the next few centuries.