The term Ancient, or Archaic, Greece refers to the period three centuries prior to the classical age, between 800 B.C and 500 B.C.
The Birth of the City-State
During the “Greek Dark Ages” before the Archaic period, people lived dispersed throughout Greece in small farming villages. As they grew bigger, these villages started to evolve. Most people built an agora (marketplace) as well as a community meeting place. They established governments and arranged their citizens according to some kind of constitution or set of laws. They collected taxes and they raised armies. Each one of these city-states (called poleis) was rumoured to be protected by a particular goddess or god, to whom citizens of the city-state owed a great deal of sacrifice, respect and reverence. For example, Athens’s deity was Athena, as well as Sparta’s.
Every Greek city-state was different. Sparta, the largest, controlled approximately 300 square miles of territory; the smallest having just a few hundred people. However, by the beginning of the Ancient (or Archaic) period in the seventh century B.C, the city-states had grown many common characteristics. Every one of them had economies based not on trade, but agriculture: Land was therefore every city-state’s most valuable resource. In addition, most had overthrown their hereditary monarchy and were ruled by a few wealthy aristocrats.
These aristocrats monopolized power and the best farmland, and some even claimed to be descendents to the gods. This resulted in conflict in Ancient Greece between the aristocrats and the people for a long time, according to Aristotle.
One way to relieve some of this tension was emigration. The pressure of the population increase pushed many people away from their home city-states and into sporadically populated areas surrounding Greece and the Aegean. Greek colonies emerged from North Africa to the coast of the Black Sea, from the Mediterranean to Asia Minor, between 750 B.C and 600 B.C. There were over 1,500 colonial poleis by the end of the seven century B.C.
Each of these poleis was independent. The citizens who lived there were not bound to or ruled by the poleis from which they came. The new city-states were self-sufficient and self-governing.
Rise of the Tyrants in Ancient Greece
As their populations grew and time passed, a lot of these agricultural poleis in Ancient Greece started to produce consumer goods such as metalwork, wine, cloth and pottery. Trade in these products made a few people very wealthy. These people hated the unchecked power of the oligarchs and grouped together, sometimes with the help of heavily-armed soldiers known as hoplites, to put new leaders in charge.
These leaders were called tyrants. Some of them ended up being just as autocratic as the oligarchs they had removed from power. Others, however, demonstrated that they were enlightened leaders. Their rule in Ancient Greece, however, didn’t last. The classical period brought with it a sequence of political reforms that resulted in the system known as demokratia (rule of the people).
The colonial migrations in Ancient Greece had a vital effect on its literature and art: They spread Ancient Greek styles far and wide and persuaded people from all over to take part in the period’s creative revolutions.
The artistic, technological, political and economic developments of Ancient Greece readied the Greek poleis for the massive changes of the next few centuries.