History Affairs

Archaic Greece (700-500 BC)

Archaic Greece: 700-500 BC, birth of city-states, democracy, significant cultural, social changes, foundations of classical Greek civilization.

archaic greece and homer

During the seventh and sixth centuries, Greece underwent rapid changes, building on the transformative momentum of the eighth century. This era saw a significant population increase, prompting Greeks to establish additional colonies. These new settlements spanned the Mediterranean and Black Seas, marking a notable expansion. This colonization, coupled with enhanced trade, propelled Greek products far beyond their previous reach, surpassing the trade networks of the Bronze Age.

The concept of a unified Greek identity gained strength during this time, thanks in part to the growing number and influence of Panhellenic shrines, festivals, and oracles. The Archaic period was also a hotbed for new forms of literary, artistic, and intellectual expression, showcasing the dynamic cultural landscape of ancient Greece.

However, this period wasn’t without its challenges. Conflicts between Greek states became more frequent and increasingly deadly. Internally, political struggles and social strife were common. Leaders often clashed over power-sharing, while less affluent citizens fought for economic relief and civic rights. Amidst these shifts, both positive and negative, a new socio-political structure emerged: the city-state. By 700 BC, this system had largely replaced the older chieftain model in many Greek regions, marking a significant evolution in Greek society and governance.

The Formation of the City-State (Polis)

The concept of a “city-state,” while termed in modern language, has ancient roots. Dating back to the Early Bronze Age in Mesopotamia, city-states were foundational political structures. A city-state consists of a core city and its surrounding lands, forming a unified, self-governing entity. The Greeks referred to this as a polis, which is the root of words like “political,” “politics,” and “policy.”

As mentioned in the post discussing the Dark Age of Ancient Greece, the fundamental components of Greek city-states were established during the later Dark Age. The key cities of these emerging city-states were not new; they had been significant regional centers during the Mycenaean period. The demos, meaning both “the land” and “the people,” is a concept vividly depicted in the Homeric epics. This period also saw the development of the primary governing bodies of the Greek city-state: the assembly, comprised of men eligible for combat, and the council of “elders.”

The transformation from the demos-communities of 800 BC to the polis-states of 700 BC involved several critical steps. These included the formal political unification of the demos and the establishment of centralized governance. These developments marked a significant evolution in the political landscape of ancient Greece, setting the stage for the city-states that played a crucial role in Greek history.

Political Unification (Synoecism)

City-states, from ancient Mesopotamia to Renaissance Europe, centralized around a capital city which often held higher civic or social status than surrounding areas. However, in Greek city-states, all members of the demos (the community) were considered equal members of the polis (city-state), regardless of whether they lived in the urban center or the countryside. For instance, residents in the outskirts of Megara, despite living outside the main town, identified themselves as “the Megarians.”

The process of forming a unified demos into a polis is known as “synoecism,” derived from the Greek for “uniting the homes.” Most Greek city-states were small, consisting of a main town and its adjacent areas, including a few outlying villages. In such cases, political unification was straightforward, as the state and town were almost identical. The close proximity and familial ties among the residents facilitated this unification, turning existing social bonds into formal political relationships.

However, unifying larger regions with multiple significant towns and villages was more complex. This process likely started in the late ninth century BC and solidified around 750-700 BC. Generally, this unification seemed voluntary and peaceful, but there were exceptions. For example, in Laconia, the villages that formed Sparta forcibly integrated Amyclae into their polis. In other areas like Argos, synoecism was incomplete, with some villages maintaining autonomy.

By the early seventh century, many independent city-states had emerged across the Mediterranean. Yet, not all Greeks lived in such city-states. Some regions, particularly in the Peloponnesus and central and northern Greece, adopted a different structure known as the ethnos. This form of organization involved a community (demos) without a central capital city or government. The towns and villages within an ethnos remained independent but shared a strong collective identity and united for religious practices and defense against external threats. This illustrates the diversity in political organization among the ancient Greeks, reflecting their adaptability and regional variations.

Government in the Early City-States

The formation of a political union in ancient city-states required the consent of local basileis (leaders) of the districts, towns, and villages. These leaders, forming a new landowning aristocracy, were instrumental in designing the centralized government structures of these emerging city-states. A pivotal decision was to either abolish the role of the paramount basileus (chief) or significantly reduce its power. This was relatively straightforward since the paramount chief originally had limited authority over other chiefs.

The early city-state governments generally followed a similar structure:

  1. The paramount basileus role was either eliminated or its power was significantly reduced.
  2. The various leadership functions previously held by the basileus were divided among multiple officials from the elite class.
  3. The council of aristocratic “elders” gained more influence, while the assembly of the people became less important.

This evolution didn’t happen overnight but likely spanned a few generations. Once the process began, determining the boundaries and governance of a polis probably took two or three generations.

These new governance structures arose in response to changing conditions, such as population growth, increased trade and productivity, and more complex relationships with neighboring states. A critical need was to efficiently mobilize manpower and resources for warfare, as conflicts over land became more intense compared to the less serious raids of the Dark Age. While these systems benefitted the city-state as a whole, they particularly favored the large landowners who dominated the government and were keen to maintain their economic and political power.

The role of the basileus did not vanish entirely. In some city-states, a modified version of the traditional hereditary chiefdom persisted through the Archaic period. Notably, Sparta maintained a unique dual kingship system with two lifelong, hereditary basileis sharing equal power, primarily in the military realm. Their authority was checked by five annually elected ephoroi (overseers).

In most city-states, however, the title “basileus” became a designation for one of several officials in the collective leadership. Authority was divided into various spheres – administrative, military, religious, judicial – and distributed among different magistracies and boards. This form of governance, known as oligarchy or “rule by the few,” featured non-heritable, short-term positions to prevent the concentration of power and ensure the distribution of honors among the aristocracy. Each city-state tailored its system of magistracies to its own needs.

The real power in these early city-states lay with the council of elders, or boule, which had even more authority than in Homeric society. This council made policies, drafted laws, and generally comprised former high magistrates. Membership was often long-term or for life. While the council’s power increased, the old assembly of adult male citizens saw its influence wane, with some states imposing property qualifications or limiting the frequency and scope of meetings.

Over time, the oligarchic system would evolve, and the power of the assembly to decide policy would gradually increase, marking a shift in the balance of political power within the Greek city-states.

The Colozing Movement

From the mid-eighth century until around 500 BC, a significant wave of Greek emigration reshaped the ancient world. This movement extended the Greek realm from Spain to Colchis in the east, driven by the desire for trade and the need for fertile land for new settlements. Establishing a colony was a deliberate and communal effort. The metropolis, or “mother” city, selected a location, sought divine approval, planned the settlement, and appointed an esteemed oikistes (founder).

The oikist played a crucial role, leading the colonists, establishing the city’s defenses, sanctuaries, and allocating land. Successful oikists were revered as guardian heroes after death. Colonies remained culturally and emotionally tied to their metropolises, symbolized by the transferring of fire from the metropolis’ hearth. These colonies, known as apoikia, or “homes away from home,” were independent political entities, with colonists relinquishing their citizenship in their original polis.

Greek colonization had two main phases. The first, starting in the mid-eighth century, focused on Italy and the western Mediterranean. Euboeans pioneered this movement, founding prosperous colonies like Pithecusae and Cumae. Greek colonization in Sicily followed, with significant settlements like Syracuse emerging. The Spartans, too, established a colony in Taras (southern Italy), but uniquely for exiled dissidents.

The westward movement continued into the seventh century, marked by new settlements and expanding trade, like Phocaeans founding Massilia (modern Marseilles). However, as opportunities dwindled in the West and competition with Phoenicians increased, Greek attention turned elsewhere.

Notably, Cyrene in Libya and numerous settlements around the Hellespont and Black Sea became focal points for Greek expansion. These areas, rich in resources and trading potential, saw prolific colony establishment, such as Miletus founding around ninety colonies. This expansion was unchallenged, unlike in the Mediterranean. These colonies thrived, with Byzantium eventually becoming Constantinople, the Roman Empire’s capital. They retained strong Greek cultural identities, contributing to Panhellenic institutions and staying connected to Aegean cultural developments.

The relationship between Greek colonists and indigenous peoples was multifaceted. Colonies served as cultural gateways, introducing Greek products and culture to local populations. Examples include the Etruscans adopting the Greek alphabet and art. However, conflicts were not uncommon. Despite this, there was considerable cultural exchange and integration, with intermarriage and shared territories, and non-Greek cultural elements like certain cults also influencing Greek culture. This period of colonization highlights the dynamic, expansive nature of ancient Greek civilization and its complex interactions with neighboring cultures.

Economic and Social Divisions in the Archaic Poleis

The Greek colonizing movement, while significant, was only a partial solution to the growing disparity in land ownership. As populations continued to rise, accessing land became increasingly challenging, especially for newer generations. This situation exacerbated the economic and social divide between a small, affluent group (about 20% of families) and the rest of the population.

The aristocracy’s wealth was primarily rooted in their inherited land holdings, giving them control over a disproportionate amount of agricultural land, including the most fertile areas. They enhanced their wealth by focusing on lucrative cash crops like wine and olive oil. The poorest farmers, constituting perhaps a third of the demos, were often forced into unfavorable arrangements such as mortgaging their land or becoming sharecroppers on the estates of the rich. Many ended up as thetes, essentially hired laborers working for subsistence. However, a significant portion of the population (40-50%) managed to maintain economic self-sufficiency, not dependent on the wealthy. Aristotle, in his “Politics,” referred to this group as “the middle,” positioned between the very rich and the very poor.

Within these socio-economic divisions, there were further gradations. The upper class was not monolithic; it was dominated by an even smaller group of families distinguished by their noble lineage and greater wealth. This hierarchy, however, was fluid, with families occasionally moving up or down the social ladder. The aristocracy maintained their status through exclusive intermarriage and a cultivated sense of superiority, distinguishing themselves as “the good” (hoi agathoi) and dismissing others as “the bad” (hoi kakoi) or “the many” (hoi polloi).

The middle class exhibited more diversity in economic and social status. Some prospered in the growing economy, while others struggled to stay out of debt. This economic disparity hindered the formation of a unified class consciousness among them, unlike the rich landowners. Marrying into nobility was possible for wealthy commoners, as lamented by the poet Theognis, who criticized the erosion of noble lineage by wealth. Conversely, downward mobility was more common, with economic hardships potentially leading to insurmountable debt and a fall into the lowest social strata.

The poorest group, the thetes, faced not only economic challenges but also the stigma of working for others, equated with a loss of freedom in Greek society. Various derogatory terms were used to describe people of lower status in different poleis. Additionally, some areas had a category of laborers in a semi-slavery state, such as the Spartan “helots,” who were serfs working on their conquered lands.

At the bottom of the social ladder were slaves, who had no freedom or rights and were considered property. The influx of slaves into the poleis increased in the sixth century, possibly linked to political reforms abolishing debt bondage, which led the rich to turn to slave labor as a more profitable alternative. This complex social structure, with its varied and shifting layers, reflects the intricate dynamics of ancient Greek society and the challenges it faced due to economic and demographic changes.


In the ancient Greek city-states, citizenship status (politai) was not synonymous with equality in rights and privileges. While all free-born individuals were citizens, the distribution of citizen rights was heavily influenced by gender, age, economic status, and social class.

Women, despite being citizens, were largely excluded from public affairs. Their roles were primarily confined to religious activities within the community. Public life and governance were dominated by adult male citizens, typically those over the age of 18. However, even among these men, there was a significant disparity in the distribution of civic responsibilities and rights.

In the early city-states, the full spectrum of citizen privileges was primarily reserved for the wealthy and well-born. These privileges included the right to vote and speak in the assembly, hold public office, serve as judges, and fight in the army. Citizens of moderate means, who were not part of the noble class, were often barred from holding office. In many instances, the poorest citizens did not even have the right to vote in the assembly.

The journey towards broader participation in governance was gradual and varied across different city-states. It wasn’t until the end of the Archaic period, and primarily in democratic states, that all citizens began to gain fuller participation in their polis’ governance. Even then, this inclusivity had its limits. In oligarchic states, the poorest members continued to be treated as second-class citizens. Moreover, in even the most democratic of these city-states, certain groups, such as ex-slaves and resident aliens, were denied citizenship altogether.

This stratification within the citizenship of the Greek poleis reflects the complex interplay of social, economic, and political factors that characterized ancient Greek society. The gradual shift towards more inclusive governance in some states marked a significant evolution in the conception of citizenship and democracy in the ancient world.

Resentment from Below and the Beginnings of Social Change

In the seventh century, there was significant popular discontent towards the agathoi, the wealthy and powerful elite of the Greek city-states. This resentment stemmed from the stark economic and social inequalities and the perceived arrogance of the ruling class.

The rallying cry among the less privileged, particularly the exploited lower class, was for the redistribution of land. This demand highlighted the deep-seated frustrations over land ownership disparities. The middling oikoi, or independent farmers who could sustain themselves but had limited means for prosperity, also harbored grievances. These farmers were constrained in their ability to acquire fertile land, as the aristocrats held most of it. Their options were limited: either emigrate in search of better opportunities or settle for less productive land far from their homes, which brought diminishing returns and increased hardships.

Apart from land issues, the middle class was also frustrated with the oligarchy’s grip on political power. They were particularly irked by the exclusion from significant decision-making bodies like the council, where key political strategies were formulated. Despite their relative economic stability, these well-off farmers faced injustices in the legal system and felt their voices were marginalized in the assembly, where the influence of the wealthy was dominant.

However, the oligarchs’ control was not unassailable. By the early sixth century, their hold began to wane, paving the way for more inclusive governmental structures. These emerging systems started to extend political power to broader segments of society, including the poorer classes.

The protest against aristocratic dominance was led primarily by the middle group of independent farmers, who were less susceptible to the control of the oligarchs. An important early voice for this group was Hesiod, who articulated the perspectives and grievances of this segment of society. His writings provide valuable insights into the socio-political climate of the time and the undercurrents that eventually led to significant political reforms in the Greek city-states.

Hesiod: A View from Below

Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” composed around 700 BC, stands in stark contrast to the epic tales of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” which focus on the grandeur and tribulations of the Trojan War heroes. Hesiod’s poem is grounded in the everyday life of a rural village, Ascra in Boeotia, part of the polis of Thespiae. This work is a pragmatic and moralistic lecture addressed to his brother, Perses, but it transcends this personal context to offer broader societal advice.

The backdrop of the poem involves a familial dispute where Perses allegedly cheated Hesiod out of his rightful inheritance by bribing the basileis (judges). Hesiod’s address to these judges is notably stern and direct. He openly criticizes them as “gift-swallowing basileis,” accusing them of corruption and unjust rulings. He emphasizes that such acts of injustice, particularly by those in power, do not escape the notice of Zeus, who protects his daughter Dike, the personification of Justice.

Throughout the poem, Hesiod articulates a series of moral guidelines, reflective of the values of a peasant society. These advices center around the theme of reciprocity and fair dealings. Hesiod advises that when borrowing from a neighbor, one should return the favor equitably, and if possible, with more generosity. This principle of fair exchange is seen as foundational for maintaining trust and support within the community.

“Works and Days” thus serves as a moral compass, emphasizing virtues like justice, fairness, and community harmony. It reflects the societal concerns and everyday struggles of ordinary people, contrasting the heroic and mythical focus of Homeric epics. Hesiod’s work offers a window into the values and challenges of rural life in ancient Greece, highlighting issues like corruption and social justice that were pertinent to his audience.

At the core of Hesiod’s moral program is the virtue of arduous manual labor:

By toil, men gain wealth and herds in plenty,
And through their labor, earn divine affinity.
Toil brings honor; disgrace lies in idleness.
With diligence, soon the idle shall your fortune confess,
For wealth amassed brings both fame and success.

(Works and Days 308-313)

In “Works and Days,” Hesiod presents a vision of success and achievement that starkly contrasts with the grandiose and heroic ideals of the Homeric epics. He suggests that for the ordinary farmer, real accomplishments are attained through “work upon work.” This ethos reflects a more humble and practical perspective on what constitutes wealth, divine favor, and glory.

In Hesiod’s view, wealth isn’t about possessing luxurious items like golden goblets. Instead, it’s about having enough to sustain oneself and one’s family – a barn full of crops at harvest time and the financial independence not to need loans. Renown, in this context, is about gaining the respect and admiration of one’s local community, not the widespread fame of Homeric heroes.

“Works and Days” also offers insight into the differing social attitudes toward institutions like marriage across various classes. In the upper classes, marriage was often a strategic tool for forming political alliances and boosting family prestige, with partners frequently sought beyond the local polis for advantageous connections. In contrast, Hesiod, representing the perspective of a village farmer, views marriage through a pragmatic and local lens. His concern is not political gain but finding a local wife who will contribute positively to his reputation and household, emphasizing virtues like modesty, diligence, and fidelity.

This work serves as a valuable social document, highlighting the distinct class differences in ancient Greek society. It underscores how values and aspirations varied significantly between the elite and the rural populace, reflecting the diverse experiences and priorities within these communities. Hesiod’s “Works and Days” is not just a guide for practical living but also a commentary on the social realities of his time, offering a window into the everyday lives and concerns of ordinary Greeks.

Choose a maiden for wedlock, so you may guide her ways,
Preferably one nearby, in familiar byways;
Survey your surroundings, ensuring your union’s repute,
For a man’s greatest joy is a wife astute,
And nothing more grievous than one who’s unsuitable and mute.

(Works and Days 699-703)

Hesiod’s works reflect common themes in Greek literature about women, portraying them as both weak and dangerous. This viewpoint is notably encapsulated in the myth of Pandora, which Hesiod recounts in both “Theogony” and “Works and Days.” Pandora, described as the “beautiful evil,” was created as divine retribution for Prometheus’ act of stealing fire from the gods to give to humanity. She is infamous for opening a jar that unleashed all the world’s plagues and diseases. Consequently, Hesiod attributes to all women Pandora’s traits: a “shameless mind,” “deceitful nature,” and a tendency to manipulate through “lies and coaxing words.”

Hesiod’s portrayal of women is starkly negative. He compares them to parasitic drones among bees, suggesting they exploit men for their resources. In “Works and Days,” he explicitly warns men against trusting women, likening them to thieves who are after a man’s resources.

Despite Hesiod’s critique of the wealthy and powerful, he himself was not necessarily an advocate for the downtrodden. His perspective is that of the middling farmer class, which, like the wealthy, also relied on the exploitation of labor. Hesiod assumes that his audience, the farmers, would have at least one slave or hired hand. He advises practical and frugal management of labor, recommending the hiring of childless workers and carefully rationing the food for hired hands.

Hesiod’s stance is not one of a revolutionary or a social reformer. Instead, he represents the voice of the middle class, emphasizing the virtues of piety, hard work, and justice. He believes that Zeus will ultimately reward those who embody these traits and punish those who do not. This reflects a worldview that upholds the status quo and the existing social hierarchies, rather than advocating for radical change or the upliftment of the oppressed. Hesiod’s works, therefore, offer valuable insight into the complex social dynamics and prevailing attitudes of his time, especially regarding gender and class.

The Hoplite Army

The nature of warfare in the early Greek city-states underwent significant changes due to developments in military equipment and organization. By 650 BC, battles were fought primarily by the common men of the polis – average farmers and craftsmen like Hesiod and his peers. This shift in military organization reflects the deeply ingrained ideology of the polis, where the citizen was considered as serving the collective good.

Central to this new style of warfare was the hoplite, a heavily armored foot soldier. The hoplites were organized into a formation known as the phalanx, a tightly packed unit that evolved from the looser formations depicted in the “Iliad.” In the phalanx, soldiers stood almost shoulder-to-shoulder, with each rank nearly stepping on the heels of the one in front. This formation presented a formidable front to the enemy, almost like a solid wall.

The hoplites were equipped with a long, heavy spear for thrusting and jabbing, and a short sword for close combat. Their protective gear included a helmet, breastplate, and greaves, all made of bronze to cover as much of the body as possible. However, the most crucial piece of equipment was the hoplon, a large, round shield that differed significantly from the shields used by Homeric warriors. Made of wood and covered with bronze, the hoplon was about three feet in diameter and was maneuverable, offering significant protection. Its design allowed hoplites to fight in close proximity, with each man’s shield partly protecting the soldier to his left.

Hoplite battles were intense and brutal. The primary tactic involved opposing phalanxes charging and colliding head-on. The ranks behind exerted pressure on the front lines in a maneuver known as “the pushing,” aiming to break the enemy’s formation. Such battles demanded immense courage and discipline. As described by the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, standing firm amidst the chaos of battle was a matter of personal pride and a demonstration of one’s duty as a citizen.

This evolution in Greek military strategy signifies not only advancements in combat techniques but also highlights the societal expectations placed on citizens. Participation in warfare became a key aspect of civic duty, encapsulating the values of courage, loyalty, and commitment to the common good that were central to the identity of a citizen in the Greek city-states.

It serves the common interest, both for the city and its entire people, when a man resolutely holds his ground in the foremost lines, banishing the thought of ignominious retreat entirely from his thoughts.

(Tyrtaeus fr. 9.15-17 Diehl)

Hoplite warfare, despite its ferocity, was characterized by relatively brief and less lethal encounters compared to other forms of ancient combat. Battles typically lasted no longer than an hour, and the casualty rates for both the losing and winning sides were usually below 15 percent. Once the enemy ranks broke and retreated, pursuit was minimal, making massacres uncommon. The brevity of these battles and the campaigns in which they occurred was partly due to the fact that the soldiers were primarily farmer-warriors who couldn’t afford to be away from their fields and livestock for extended periods.

However, not every citizen participated in the phalanx. Since hoplites were required to provide their own arms and armor, which could be quite costly, the poorest citizens were often unable to afford this equipment and were thus excluded from these ranks. These men typically served as light-armed troops instead. The percentage of non-hoplite citizens (oikoi) varied from polis to polis, possibly ranging from 20 to 30 percent of all citizen families.

Despite the divisions in wealth and social status that separated the heavily armed hoplites from the light-armed troops, within the phalanx itself, a unique dynamic of equality prevailed. In the ranks of the phalanx, nobles and middle-class men fought shoulder to shoulder, observing strict equality. This egalitarianism in military service began to challenge the traditional power structures. It became increasingly difficult for the aristocracy to justify their exclusive grip on political power when men of various social standings demonstrated equal bravery and competence on the battlefield.

This shift in military organization and the egalitarian nature of the phalanx played a significant role in the evolving political landscape of the Greek city-states. The shared experiences and sacrifices of battle across social classes contributed to a growing sense of unity and equality among citizens, laying the groundwork for more inclusive governance and challenging the notion that only the elite were fit to rule.

The Archaic Age Tyrants

The initial challenge to oligarchic rule in ancient Greek city-states came from within the elite itself, manifesting in the form of tyranny (tyrannis), a term the Greeks borrowed likely from the Lydians of Anatolia. The “age of tyrants,” spanning from about 670-500 BC, saw numerous Greek states experiencing this form of rule. Contrary to later connotations of tyranny as despotic and evil, the early Greek tyrants were more akin to what we’d now call dictators or strongmen. Lacking the traditional legitimacy of a paramount basileus (chief ruler), these tyrants were often seen more favorably by the non-aristocratic populace.

Most tyrants emerged from the elite but not always from the highest-ranking families. For example, Cypselus of Corinth, though from an elite clan, was marginalized due to his mother’s marriage outside the clan. These individuals were typically distinguished by personal achievements, such as military prowess or athletic success, which contributed to their rise to power. Despite their ambitions, few tyrannical dynasties lasted beyond three generations, with most collapsing after one or two.

The rise of tyrants was partly facilitated by ongoing feuds among aristocratic factions. These factions, associated with leading lineages, often engaged in violent power struggles, disrupting political stability. The intervention of a strongman who could curb this aristocratic violence was sometimes welcomed by the broader populace.

A would-be tyrant needed armed support, which could come from various sources: disenfranchised aristocrats within the polis, mercenaries, or even assistance from other tyrants. For instance, Cylon of Athens received military support from his father-in-law Theagenes, the tyrant of Megara, for his unsuccessful coup. Peisistratus of Athens, a notable example, utilized a range of resources, including local bodyguards, mercenaries, and outside forces, in his bids for power.

However, the success of a tyrant in overthrowing the oligarchy also depended on the tacit support of the citizenry, especially the farmer-hoplites. These soldiers, heavily armed and influential, didn’t necessarily have to actively support the tyrant; their passive refusal to defend the nobility was often enough. Those lower in the social hierarchy, who suffered under the exploitative oligarchic system, naturally favored any disruption to this status quo.

This period marked a significant shift in Greek political dynamics, as the traditional oligarchic system faced challenges not just from external threats or lower classes but from within its own ranks. The rise of tyrants reflected the complex interplay of personal ambition, social unrest, and the evolving nature of power and governance in the Greek city-states.

A tyrant often emerges from the ranks of the populace and the masses, positioned as a counterforce to the elites, ostensibly to protect the people from any injustices they might inflict. Historical evidence supports this pattern. Most tyrants have risen to power by positioning themselves as champions of the people, or demagogues, winning over public trust through the vilification of the upper classes.

(Politics 1310b 12-17; Rackham 1977, adapted)

The reign of the tyrants in ancient Greek city-states often marked a shift in favor of the poorer classes, contrasting with the previously dominant aristocratic rule. Generally, tyrants implemented policies and undertook projects that benefited the less wealthy citizens, sometimes at the expense of the rich.

Key actions by tyrants included the redistribution of land, often confiscating it from the wealthy and reallocating it to the poor. They also enacted laws aimed at curtailing aristocratic privileges. In addition to these socio-economic reforms, tyrants were known for initiating public works projects that not only improved the infrastructure of the polis but also provided employment opportunities for the poor. These projects encompassed the construction of temples, harbors, fortifications, and enhancements to water supply and drainage systems.

Furthermore, tyrants were instrumental in fostering trade and commerce, which also benefited the broader population. A notable example is Periander, the son of Cypselus, who constructed a stone trackway across the Isthmus of Corinth, facilitating the movement of ships and cargo between gulfs. This kind of infrastructure development was instrumental in boosting economic activity.

Culturally, the era of the tyrants was a period of flourishing activities. New religious cults and festivals were established, and tyrants made concerted efforts to attract leading artists, architects, poets, and thinkers to their city-states, enriching the cultural fabric of their societies.

However, the sustainability of tyrannical rule was often in question. Founding tyrants gained support through personal charisma and achievements, but their successors, who inherited a position that lacked formal legitimacy, faced significant challenges. Many resorted to oppressive measures to maintain control, which eventually led to heightened resentment and opposition. As a result, second or third-generation tyrants were frequently overthrown, with exiled aristocrats returning to reestablish oligarchic rule.

Yet, the impact of tyranny on Greek city-states was lasting. Post-tyranny, the dynamics within these societies had fundamentally changed. The farmer-hoplites, having experienced a different form of governance, were no longer willing to unconditionally support leaders who lacked accountability. Additionally, the aristocrats found it challenging to reverse the benefits that the tyrants had granted to the poorer citizens. This period, therefore, represented a significant transformation in the political and social landscape of the Greek city-states, laying the groundwork for future shifts towards more inclusive and accountable forms of governance.

The Arts and Sciences

During the Archaic Age and beyond, the Greek city-states (poleis) were in a constant competition for supremacy in art, architecture, poetry, philosophy, and science. This rivalry provided a platform for even the smaller poleis to achieve distinction. The collective contributions from across the Greek world propelled the arts and sciences to unprecedented levels of excellence during the seventh and sixth centuries.

Art and Architecture

During the Archaic period, Greek city-states, each with its unique artistic flair, particularly excelled in pottery. Corinth, under the rule of the tyrant Cypselus, became Greece’s leading commercial hub. Corinthian potters, known for their mastery in the “orientalizing” style, were especially famed for their finely painted pottery. A significant export item was their tiny perfume flasks, intricately decorated and filled with scented olive oil. Another notable Corinthian innovation was the “black-figure” technique, allowing for detailed artwork on pottery. This involved painting silhouettes on clay that turned black upon firing, with details incised and sometimes highlighted with red or white paint. However, the popularity and mass production of Corinthian black-figure pottery eventually led to a decline in its quality.

By 550 BC, Athenian black-figure pottery, distinct in shape and size, began to overshadow Corinthian vases in the export market. The Athenians introduced the “red-figure” technique around 530 BC, which reversed the black-figure method. This technique involved outlining figures and painting the background with a clay slip that turned black upon firing, leaving the figures in the natural clay color. This allowed for more nuanced and detailed depictions. Athenian pottery featured a variety of themes, ranging from daily life and mythology to athletics and social scenes. Erotic representations were also common, with clear distinctions in the portrayal of citizens, slaves, and foreigners.

Large-scale paintings that once adorned temples and public buildings have largely been lost, although these works were renowned and mentioned by later generations. In contrast, some Archaic Greek statues, both in stone and bronze, have survived. Influenced by Egyptian techniques, these statues initially depicted stylized, static figures, evolving gradually towards more naturalistic representations of the human body, exemplified by the “kouros” (young male) and “korẽ” (young maiden) forms.

Architectural advancements in this period were primarily religious, with a focus on temple construction. A significant development was the transition from mud brick and wood to limestone and marble, a change influenced by Egyptian engineering skills. By the early sixth century, Greek temples had begun to acquire their classic appearance. As city planning advanced, the agora, or public gathering space, became the heart of Greek city life. It served as a marketplace, political hub, and social center, with market stalls in shaded colonnades called stoas and surrounded by various official buildings, sanctuaries, and public monuments. This transformation turned the capital poleis into true urban centers, except for Sparta, which remained distinct in its urban development.

Lyric Poetry

During the Archaic period, while heroic epics were still being created, many talented poets gravitated towards other genres, collectively known as “lyric poetry.” This era, encompassing the seventh and sixth centuries BC, is often referred to as the “lyric age” of Greece. Despite the fact that only a small portion of the poetry from this period survives, often in fragments, these remnants offer a significant glimpse into the thoughts and concerns of the Archaic Greeks.

Lyric poetry’s origins trace back to oral folk songs crafted for special occasions like harvests, weddings, funerals, and religious festivities. The introduction of writing allowed these songs to be preserved and disseminated. Some lyric poems were accompanied by a lyre (lyra), giving the genre its name, while others were performed with a flute-like instrument (aulos). Lyric poetry was mainly divided into two forms: solo songs performed by an individual and choral poetry sung and danced by a group of young men or women, often accompanied by the aulos or a stringed instrument. Solo poetry varied in presentation, ranging from large public recitals to intimate gatherings at aristocratic drinking parties (symposia). Choral odes were typically lengthy, while solo poems were usually shorter, sometimes just a few lines.

Choral poetry often served a civic and integrative function, retelling local myths, honoring gods, and expressing patriotic sentiments. In contrast, solo poetry was more personal, addressing themes like friendship, love, aging, death, politics, war, and morality. The tone of these poems varied widely, from serious and contemplative to lighthearted and even obscene. Much of the solo lyric poetry functioned as social commentary. Notably, most lyric poets belonged to the upper class, yet their work frequently critiqued the elitist ideology of the aristocracy.

While there are fragments from approximately two dozen lyric poets from this period, only a few can be mentioned here. Other notable Archaic poets like Alcman of Sparta, Solon of Athens, and Simonides of Ceos will be discussed in other posts.

Some Lyric Poets

Archilochus of Paros (early seventh century), represents himself as both a soldier of fortune and an inspired poet. He writes of drinking bouts, his sex life, his comrades and enemies, battles and shipwrecks. He delights in skewering pretentiousness.

I have no fondness for a general grand in stature and pompous in gait,
Nor for one who takes pride in curls, his moustache cleanly abate.
Instead, favor me with a man of modest height, legs curved and strong,
His feet steadfastly planted, his heart valiant and lifelong.

The Spartans found these next couplets—which mock the ideal of heroic self-sacrifice—so outrageous that they forbade the recitation of Archilochus’ poetry at Sparta.

Some Thracian now claims the shield I abandoned—
Reluctantly left by a bush, it was well-crafted, splendid.
Yet, I preserved my life. What’s a shield to me?
Let it go; I’ll find another, just as fine, you’ll see.

Some Archaic Greek lyric poets used their work to critique the extravagant lifestyles and ostentatious displays of the aristocracy. Xenophanes, a philosopher-poet active around 550 BC, notably criticized the elites of Colophon for their flamboyant appearance, mocking their purple cloaks and perfumed, well-groomed hair. This critique highlighted the vanity and superficiality often associated with the aristocratic class.

Hipponax of Ephesus, active in the late sixth century, took a different approach in his poetry. He adopted the persona of an urban hustler, always short of money and involved in drunken brawls and city escapades. Hipponax embraced the rough aspects of city life and even humorously acknowledged his poverty. His works often included jibes at the god of wealth, Ploutos, for overlooking him, using this as a vehicle to comment on the disparities between the rich and the poor.

Others, like Phocylides of Miletus, echoed the sensibilities of Hesiod, advocating for the virtues and values cherished by the common citizens of moderate means. Phocylides’ poetry, known for its collection of homespun maxims, emphasized the virtues of moderation and the middle path in life, highlighting the limitations of noble birth without personal virtues.

However, much of the surviving lyric poetry from this era was tailored to an audience of wealth and leisure, often intended for recitation at symposia or drinking parties. These poems frequently delved into themes of partisan politics, the pleasures of wine and love (including both heterosexual and homosexual relationships), and the melancholy of aging and the inevitable fading of youthful joys.

This diversity in themes and perspectives in Archaic Greek lyric poetry reflects the complex social fabric of the time, with poets addressing issues ranging from political critique and social commentary to the celebration of life’s pleasures and the acceptance of its transient nature. This poem by the seventh-century Ionian poet Mimnermus is typical:

What is life without the golden charm of Aphrodite?
Where lies joy, if not in love’s secret delights?
May my end come when passion’s flame dims,
When tender gifts and the enchanting bed lose their allure,
The bloom of youth’s seduction fading for both genders.

For when loathsome age arrives, rendering one feeble and uncomely,
It brings endless anxieties that fray the mind,
Stealing the pleasure found in the sun’s warm gaze.
Youth spurns him, and women view him with scorn.
Such is the woeful state the gods have woven into old age.

young writer Olivia on Greco-civilization
Olivia Reyes
Dr. Olivia Reyes specializes in Medieval European Literature. She holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Oxford. Formerly a high school teacher, she now works as a freelance writer and editor. In her free time, Sophie enjoys playing the violin and composing music.

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