Primary History

Ancient Greeks: The Greek world

  • Where Western civilisation began

    Ancient Greece is called 'the birthplace of Western civilisation'. About 2500 years ago, the Greeks created a way of life that other people admired and copied. The Romans copied Greek art and Greek gods, for example. The Ancient Greeks tried out democracy, started the Olympic Games and left new ideas in science, art and philosophy (thinking about life).

    The Ancient Greeks lived in mainland Greece and the Greek islands, but also in what is now Turkey, and in colonies scattered around the Mediterranean sea coast. There were Greeks in Italy, Sicily, North Africa and as far west as France. Sailing the sea to trade and find new land, Greeks took their way of life to many places.

    The timeline will show you some of the important events in the history of Ancient Greece.

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  • What was ancient Greece like?

    Ancient Greece had a warm, dry climate, as Greece does today. People lived by farming, fishing, and trade. Some were soldiers. Others were scholars, scientists or artists. Most Greeks lived in villages or in small cities. There were beautiful temples with stone columns and statues, and open-air theatres where people sat to watch plays.

    Many Greeks were poor. Life was hard because farmland, water and timber for building were all scarce. That's why many Greeks sailed off to find new lands to settle.

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  • How Greece was ruled

    There was not one country called "Ancient Greece." Instead, there were small 'city-states'. Each city-state had its own government. Sometimes the city-states fought one another, sometimes they joined together against a bigger enemy, the Persian Empire. Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Olympia were four of these city-states, and you can find out more about them on this site. Only a very powerful ruler could control all Greece. One man did in the 300s BC. He was Alexander the Great, from Macedonia. Alexander led his army to conquer not just Greece but an empire that reached as far as Afghanistan and India.

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  • When did Greek civilisation begin?

    About 3000 BC, there lived on the island of Crete a people now called Minoans. The name comes from their King Minos. Minos and other Minoan kings grew rich from trade, and built fine palaces. The Minoan civilization ended about 1450 BC.

    After the Minoans came the Myceneans. They were soldiers from mainland Greece, and were the Greeks who fought Troy in the 1200s BC. After the Mycenean age ended, about 1100 BC, Greece entered a "Dark Age". This lasted until the 800s BC when the Greeks set off by sea to explore and set up colonies.

    The Olympic Games begun in 776 BC. This was the start of "Archaic" Greek civilization.

    Around 480 BC the "golden age" of Greece began. This is what historians call "Classical" Greece.

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  • What was the Trojan War?

    The Trojans lived in the city of Troy, in what is now Turkey. The story of their war with the Greeks is told in the Iliad, a long poem dating from the 700s BC, and said to be by a storyteller named Homer. The Odyssey, also by Homer, is the tale of the adventures of a Greek soldier named Odysseus, after the war.

    The Trojan War began when Paris, Prince of Troy, ran away with Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. The Greeks sent a fleet of ships, with an army, to get her back. The war lasted for 10 years. In single combat, the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles, killed the Trojan leader Hector. In the end the Greeks won, by a clever trick using a wooden horse.

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  • The Wooden Horse

    The Wooden Horse was the trick the Greeks used to capture Troy. First they pretended to sail away, but left behind a giant wooden horse. Inside the horse, Greek soldiers were hiding. Rejoicing that the Greeks had gone, the Trojans dragged the horse into their city. They thought it was a gift.

    That night the Greek ships returned. While the Trojans were asleep, the hidden Greeks climbed out of the wooden horse. They opened the city gates, and let in the Greek army. Troy was destroyed. The Trojan War was over.

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Fun Facts
  • Only rich people in Greece went to war in armour and riding horses.

  • In Greece, there were two classes of people: free people and slaves.

  • A favourite Minoan sport was bull-leaping. People did gymnastic vaults over the backs of fierce bulls.

  • Legend says Crete was the home of the Minotaur, a man-eating monster half-human and half-bull.

  • A Greek hero called Theseus killed the Minotaur. He made sure he could find the way out of its underground lair by unwinding a ball of thread as he went.

  • A priest named Laocoon tried to stop the Trojans taking the wooden horse. He guessed it was a trick. But two giant snakes killed him. The Trojans thought this meant the gods were angry.

  • A Trojan princess called Cassandra also warned her people not to trust the wooden horse. But no-one believed her. No one ever did.

  • Our word alphabet comes from the first two letters in the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta.

  • The Greeks called themselves "Hellenes", and their land was "Hellas". The name "Greece" comes from the Romans.

  • The name 'Hellenes' came from a legendary hero named Hellen (a man, and not the same as Helen of Troy).

  • Some Greek philosophers did not mind shocking people or being laughed at. A wise Greek named Diogenes lived in a barrel, to show people he had no need of riches.

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

abacus
[AB-buh-KUS} Beads on a wire or wood frame used for counting and doing sums.
Acropolis
[a-CROP-olis] The Acropolis is a large hill in the centre of Athens. On top of it were many temples and other buildings, the remains of which can still be seen today
archaeologist
Expert in studying the past from remains left by people.
archer
Person who used a bow and arrow.
architect
A person who designs buildings.
Aristophanes
[aris-TOF-a-neez] Lived from about 450 to 385 BC. He wrote comedy plays comedies for the theatre in Athens.
Aristotle
[aris-TOT-ull] Lived from 384 to 322 BC. A scientist and philosopher.
artefact
Anything made by people. Artefacts found by archaeologists include broken pottery, bits of wood and metal, brick and stone.
Athena
The patron goddess of Athens, and goddess of wisdom. A huge statue of Athena stood inside the Parthenon in Athens.
Athens
The capital city of modern Greece. In ancient times Athens was a powerful city-state with its own government, laws, army and navy.
Attica
[A-tik-a] The region around Athens.
cavalry
Soldiers riding on horses.
centaur
Mythical creature with a horse's lower body and legs, but the chest, arms and head of a man. Centaurs were wild and unruly, but one named Chiron was wise and skilled in healing.
citizen
In Athens a citizen was a person with the right to take part in the assembly, serve on juries and take a turn as a member of the ruling council. Only male Athenians were allowed citizen rights.
city-state
Ancient Greek cities had their own governments, laws and armies. The city and the land it controlled around it made up the city-state.
colony (colonies)
An overseas settlement. The Greeks set up colonies around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
column
A tall cylinder-shaped support for the roof or doorway to a building. There were three styles of columns in Greek architecture: Doric, Ionic and Corinthian.
comedy (comedies)
A play written to make the audience laugh. In the Greek theatre comedies poked fun at the foolishness of people and especially politicians.
Corinth
[COH-rinth] A city-state in southern Greece, famous for its pottery and overland ship-track. Someone or something from Corinth is known as Corinthian.
crest
Raised decoration on a soldier's helmet, like a ridge. On Greek helmets, the crest was made of stiff horsehair.
death penalty
Punishment for a serious crime, such as murder. The person found guilty was executed (killed).
Delphi
[DEL-fee] A city to the west of Athens, withthe famous Oracle of Delphi. People went to consult the Oracle for advice from the gods.
democracy
A system of government in which citizens can vote to decide things. Athens had democracy from 510 BC.
discus
Flat dish-shaped object thrown by an athlete, a bit like a Frisbee only smaller and heavier.

E to G

ferryman
A boatman who takes people across a river or lake in a boat called a ferry.
diphtheria
Decoration around the top of a wall or building.
gorgon
Monsters with wings and hair made of snakes. The gorgon Medusa could turn people to stone.
factory
Building with machines for producing goods in large numbers.
factory commission
A group of men who travelled around Britain to investigate the working conditions of children in both factories and mines.
fire grate
The metal part of a fire and fireplace.
globe
A map of the world drawn on a sphere, useful in geography lessons.
governess
A woman who taught rich girls and young boys in their homes, as a paid, live-in servant.
grammar school
Boys' schools, started in the Middle Ages as an alternative to Church schools and giving free education to some boys.

H to L

Helot
A slave who worked for a Spartan master.
historian
Someone who writes about, and studies, the past, especially from writings left by earlier people.
hoplite
[HOP-light] A Greek foot soldier. Hoplites carried round shields and long spears and had bronze helmets and leg guards.
Homer
Said to be the author of the two long poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, but nothing is really known about him.
isthmus
Narrow strip of land with sea either side.
javelin
A long spear for throwing.
jury
In a law court, the people who listen to evidence and decide whether an accused person is guilty or not.
kiln
Oven heated by wood, charcoal or some other burning fuel for 'firing' (heating and hardening) clay pots.

M to O

Macedonia
State in the north of Greece, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
Marathon
Battle between the Greeks and Persians.
mosaic
Picture-decoration made from small coloured tiles.
Olympic Games
A religious festival held in honour of Zeus, attended by people from all over Greece.
oracle
A religious custom where people asked the Oracle questions or sought advice. The Oracle was supposed to give the answers of the gods.

P to S

pankration
[pan-KRAT-ion] A type of wrestling with almost no rules; one of the Olympic events.
Parthenon
[PARTH-en-on] A huge temple on top of the Acropolis hill in Athens.
Pericles
[PER-i-kleez] A popular leader of Athens from 458 - 429 BC. Pericles was famous for his stirring public speeches.
Persia
An empire to the east of Greece, ruled by kings. Persia tried to invade Greece. Ancient Persia is modern Iran.
phalanx
Greek fighting formation, made up of ranks of foot soldiers.
philosopher
A person who thinks and writes about the meaning of life and how people live.
pirate
Sea robber. There were many pirate ships in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas at the time of the Ancient Greeks.
Plato
Lived from about 428 to 348, he was a philosopher and teacher in Athens.
politician
Person active in politics - the business of governing a city or country.
pottery
Useful containers such as bowls, dishes, plates and mugs made from soft clay that is baked hard in an oven called a kiln.
ram
In warfare, a pointed weapon for battering holes in walls or ships. Greek warships had rams fixed to their front ends or prows.
Roman
Roman means "of Rome" or a person from Rome. The Ancient Romans conquered Greece around 146 BC, but admired and copied Greek civilization.
sacrifice
A gift made to the gods. For example, pieces of meat could be burned on an altar as a sacrifice.
scholar
Someone who studies - and often writes books too.
sculptor
Artist who makes statues and other works of art from stone, wood or metal.
Scythia
Ancient kingdom, north of the Black Sea in a region now inside Ukraine and Russia.
slave
A person with no freedom, owned by someone else.
shield
Large piece of wood, leather and metal held in front of a soldier's body to protect him in battle. Most Greek shields were round.
Socrates
[SOK-rat-TEES] Lived from about 470 to 399. A philosopher and friend of Plato, he was famous for asking questions, but was forced to kill himself because Athens' rulers feared his teachings.
Sophocles
[SOF-o-kleez] A writer of plays who died in 406 BC. He was also a general, in the army of Pericles. Sophocles wrote tragedies.
Sparta
[SPAR-ta] A city-state in southern Greece. The Spartans were famous for their strict military training and powerful army.

T to Z

temple
A building used for religious worship and ceremonies. The Greeks put statues of gods and goddesses inside their temples.
tomb
The burial place for a dead person. Ancient people often put food, pottery, weapons and other possessions in a person's tomb.
tragedy
In theatre, a play with a sad or serious ending, and a moral lesson or teaching.
trireme
[TRY-reem] A Greek warship with three banks or rows of oars.
Troy
City in what is now Turkey, in which people called Trojans lived. They fought a 10-year war with the Greeks.
tunic
Typical clothing of Greek men and boys, a loose-fitting garment like a long shirt with short sleeves.
Xerxes
[Zerksees] King of Persia. Son of Darius. Led the Persian army at the Battle of Salamis.
Zeus
[zz YOOS] The king of the gods. Zeus was the most powerful of the ancient Greek gods.