Archaic Greece (c. 750 – c. 500 BC)
The Archaic period is named after a word associated with Greek art history: archaikos (Greek: αρχαικοσ), meaning ‘early’ or ‘primitive’. As a historical period, it is the era wherein the Greek world emerged as a recognisable culture which would lay the foundations for many things flourishing in subsequent centuries. The legacy of the old Mycenaean culture (c. 1600 – c. 1100 BC) and the even older cultures of the Bronze Age and Neolithic Era in Greece; the traditions of early Greek tribes like the Dorians, Aeolians and Ionians; the renewed contacts with the Middle East; all these elements would prove instrumental to the fledgling Greek culture, which capitalised on them and ultimately emerged as a unique culture which would in turn influence much of Europe and the Middle East.
The Archaic period saw the rise of the polis (Greek: πόλις) as the typical Greek form of government, which eventually allowed for the birth and development of the first forms of democracy (most prominently but not exclusively in Athens). The polis emerged during the eighth and seventh centuries BC and lasted well beyond the Archaic period in one way or another. Originally, a polis consisted of a small territory (a valley, a coastal plain, an island or very often only a portion of such territories) of which the inhabitants considered themselves independent and conducted politics from one power centre, where the demos (the ‘people’ – that is, all free men considered citizens of the community) gathered and where the aristocratic lords lived and decided upon the affairs of the community. Many of these communities would develop into cities, thereby identifying the polis as a city-state. It is worth noting this occurred almost exclusively in the south and east of the Greek culture sphere whereas in the north and west, vast portions of land remained without any poleis (Greek: pl. πόλεις) for a long time.
Politics in the poleis were the affair of the aristocracy during the Archaic period. Most of the poleis stepped away from the kingships of the Dark Age, instead governing through magistrates holding many different titles. The aristocracy owed its dominant position to its prestige and relative wealth, embodied most of all in the ownership of horses and since around 700 BC, the new bronze armour and weapons. Due to the expensive nature of bronze arms, the aristocracy managed to maintain its dominant position and military tactics were built upon the principle of the phalanx (Greek: φάλαγξ), a tight formation of a group of soldiers fighting on foot. Yet in the course of the sixth century BC, the massed hoplite-phalanxes emerged, incorporating the non-aristocratic citizens as hoplitai (Greek: pl. ὁπλίται) and weakening aristocratic power.
Many poleis, once consolidated, felt the need to expand their power and territory at the expense of others. During the Archaic period, a number of poleis thus emerged as more powerful than others: Sparta, Argos and Corinth on the Peloponnese: Athens in Attika, Thebes in Boiotia and Samos, Miletos and Ephesos in Asia Minor.
Economic life during the Archaic period saw the appearance of currency, after the example of the Lydian kingdom of Croesus in Asia Minor which held dominion over the Greek cities there for some fifty years. By 600 BC, Ephesos and Miletos were already issuing their own coins and the city-states of mainland Greece started to copy this practice during the sixth century BC. Issuing bronze coins for daily use (unlike the coins of Lydia, which were exclusively silver and gold) further stimulated trading activities, although the barter economy remained a very important factor.
Greece increased its riches significantly throughout the Archaic period. Material culture developed from the eighth century BC onwards as poleis commenced the construction of great temple complexes and statues to honour the gods; pictorial art appeared, both on walls and on pottery; religious festivals saw the birth of music and poetry; several religious domains developed into so-called oracles, most importantly at Delphoi, attracting visitors from far and wide; games and sports competitions were held at various poleis, most famously at Olympia. All this helped to intensify relations between the Greek city-states and awaken a pan-Hellenic sentiment, which would be vital in organising some kind of united Greek resistance by the end of the Archaic period (c. 500 BC), when the armies of the Achaemenid Persian Empire in the east moved to subdue the Greek world…
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