The Ancient Greeks

Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Wesleyan University

This is a survey of ancient Greek history from the Bronze Age to the death of Socrates in 399 BCE. Along with studying the most important events and personalities, we will consider broader issues such as political and cultural values and methods of historical interpretation.

This course is a survey of ancient Greek history, covering the roughly 13 centuries that extended from the Minoan / Mycenaean Bronze Age (ca. 1800-1200 BCE) down to the death of Socrates in 399 BCE.  Along with studying the most important events and personalities, we will consider broader issues such as political and cultural values and methods of historical interpretation.
Some of the topics we will cover include: relations between the Greeks and their neighbors to the East; Homer and the heroic ideal; the development of the type of community called the "polis"; the diffusion of Greek civilization from Southern Italy to the shores of the Black Sea; gods and mortals in myth, religion and ritual; the roles of women; Athenian drama; the treatment of slaves and foreigners; and the birth and evolution of democracy. We will strive to get as full an understanding as we can of this extraordinary, and extraordinarily influential, society.

Almost all the reading assignments are from ancient sources in translation. No previous knowledge of ancient history is assumed.


There follows a complete course outline, with a brief descriptive title for each of the lectures. The list also includes the reading assignments, which you  should try to complete before viewing the lecture. All the assignments can be accessed online.

WEEK 1: Prehistory to Homer
1.1 Introduction: the natural setting, geography and climate.
1.2 Minoan civilization (ca. 1800-1500 BCE)
1.3 Mycenaean civilization (ca. 1500-1150 BCE)
1.4 The Dark Ages (ca. 1150-800 BCE)
1.5 Homer 1 - Iliad
Assignment: Iliad, Books 1, 2, 6, 9, 18, 24. As you read these selections, pay close attention to how the characters interact with each other.
There are at least four excellent, widely available modern English translations of both epics, by (in chronological order) Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles, and Stanley Lombardo.
Available online is a fine contemporary translation by Ian Johnston –
1.6 Homer 2 - Odyssey
Assignment: Odyssey, Books 1, 5, 9-12, 21-24. As you read, think about how this poem is similar to, and different from, the Iliad.
Also available online are: a late-19th-century version by Samuel Butler –
and an early-20th-century version by A. T. Taylor –

WEEK 2: The Archaic Age (ca. 800-500 BCE)
2.1 The polis.
Assignment: read the following selection from Book 1 of Aristotle's Politics:
What are the main elements in Aristotle's definition of the polis?
Also read: these selections from Plutarch's Life of Theseus, and think about how the myth of Theseus serves as a kind of retrospective story about the foundation of the Athenian polis.
2.2 "The Greeks overseas": colonization.
Assignment: examine this interactive map [created at Wesleyan] for a vivid overview of the colonial enterprise; as you click the boxes along the bottom of the map, you will see how many Greek communities were established between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE. You can also click on the names of several of the colonies for links to additional information. 
Also read: a selection from Herodotus, Bk. 4  for the story of the foundation of Cyrene in North Africa (in modern Libya).
2.3 Literacy, lawgivers and law codes.
Assignment: read Plutarch's Life of Solon, chapters 1-16; also read some of Solon's poetry, in particular # 4, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 36.
2.4 The works of Ares – hoplite warfare.
Assignment: read the excellent short essay on hoplite warfare produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
2.5 New voices, the lyric poets.
Assignment: read some selections from
Theognis [there are 20 short sections; you have to click on "next poem" to get from one to another]
2.6 Hesiod: gods and farmers.
Assignment: read Hesiod's Theogony [This is a pdf file, for which you will need Adobe Reader; if you don't have Adobe, you can read an older but good version here.] Also read Hesiod's Works and Days, particularly lines 1-266. For each poem, don't even try to remember all the names and details, but pay attention to the main themes. For the Theogony, the principal concerns include the development of order in the universe and the ultimate triumph of Zeus; for Works and Days, think about human and divine justice, and the central role of agricultural labor.

WEEK 3 Two City-States: Sparta and Athens
3.1 Sparta 1 – conquest.
Assignment: read the poems of Tyrtaeus, Terpander and Alcman.
3.2 Sparta 2 – consolidation and the Spartan way of life.
Assignment: read the so-called "Constitution of Sparta," and skim Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus.
3.3 Tyrants and Sages.
3.4 Athens 1 – the social and economic situation through 600 BCE.
3.5 Athens 2 – Solon: poetry, politics and economics.
Assignment: re-read Plutarch's Life of Solon; also read the excerpt from Herodotus 1 about Solon and Croesus, the king of Lydia, and [Aristotle's] Constitution of Athens chapters 5-12(scroll down). You can also look back over Solon's poetry, as for Lecture 2.3 above. You can look here for a succinct but accurate account of Solon's reforms.
3.6 Athens 3 – Peisistratos: tyranny and civic identity.
Assignment: read Herodotus Book 1, chapters 59-64 [you'll have to scroll down; the "chapters" are each about one paragraph]; [Aristotle's] Constitution of Athens chapters 13-16.

WEEK 4 Democracy. The Persian Wars
4.1 The end of Athenian tyranny and the democratic revolution.
Assignment: read Herodotus Book 5, chapters 55-57 [you'll have to click the forward arrow], Thucydides Book 6, chapters 53-60, and [Aristotle's] Constitution of Athens chapters 17-18. Is there any agreement among the sources as to what happened?   
4.2 The reforms of Kleisthenes.
Assignment: look here for a map of Attica and a solid account of Kleisthenes' reforms. Read: [Aristotle's] Constitution of Athens chapters 19-22.
4.3 Herodotus and the creation of historical writing.
Assignment: read Herodotus Book 1, chapters 1-96 [you have already read some of this, but it's always good to re-read]. Things to consider: how does Herodotus define the purpose of his history; what are his sources of information; how does he present other cultures; can you get some idea of his intended audience?
4.4 Persian Wars 1 – from the Ionian Revolt (499-494 BCE) to the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE).
Look at this map of the Persian Empire.
Assignment: read Herodotus,  Book 6, chapters 102-140.
4.5 "Wooden Walls": Themistocles and the Athenian fleet.
Assignment: Read Herodotus, Book 7, chapters 138-144. Also read Plutarch's Life of Themistocles, chapters 1-4.
If you're interested in the practical aspects of ancient naval combat, you can look at this modern reconstruction of a trireme.
4.6 Persian Wars 2 – endgame - to the Battles of Thermopylae and Salamis (480 BCE), and Plataea (479 BCE).
Assignment: for Thermopylae, read Herodotus, Book 7, chapters 200-239; read the "Themistocles Decree"; for Salamis, read Herodotus Book 8, chapters 42-102.

WEEK 5 "The great 50 years" (ca. 480-431 BCE)
5.1 The aftermath of the Persian Wars; the Delian League.
Assignment: read Thucydides, Book 1, chapters 89-117; Book 3, chapters 9-11(scroll down a bit); Plutarch Life of Pericles chapters 12-17 (scroll down).
5.2 From Delian League to Athenian Empire.
Assignment: look at this map which shows the extent of the Athenian Empire. Think about the main factors that led to the change from a voluntary confederacy to an empire dominated by the Athenians.
5.3 Pericles: aristocrat, orator, and radical democrat.
Assignment: read Plutarch's Life of Pericles (again, you've already read some of this); Thucydides, Book 2, chapter 65.
5.4 Tragedy and Athenian civic life; Sophocles' Antigone (441 BCE).
Assignment: read the excellent online version of Antigone .
5.5 Women in Greek society.
Assignment: read Euripides' Medea.
5.6 The Periclean building program.

WEEK 6 The Peloponnesian War I.
6.1 "Thucydides the Athenian wrote the war."
Assignment: read Thucydides, Book 1, chapters 1-23. What do you see, at the outset, as the principal differences between Thucydides' approach to history and that of Herodotus?
6.2 The outbreak of the war (431 BCE) and Pericles' strategy.
Assignment: read Thucydides, Book 2, chapters 1-65.
6.3 Kleon, a "new politician." The Peace of Nicias (421 BCE).
Assignment: read Thucydides, Book 3, chapters 36-50.
6.4 Comedy and Athenian civic life.
Assignment: read Aristophanes' Acharnians (425 BCE).
6.5 War resumes; the conquest of Melos (416 BCE).
Assignment: read the "Melian Dialogue" = Thucydides, Book 5, chapters 84-116.
6.6 Alcibiades: aristocrat, general, and libertine.
Assignment: read Plutarch's Life of Alcibiades.

WEEK 7. The end of the War. The end of the century.
7.1 The Sicilian Expedition (416-413 BCE) and its aftermath.
Assignment: read Thucydides, Book 6, chapters 1-24 for the initial debate between Nicias and Alcibiades; Book 7, chapters 8-16 for Nicias's letter to the Athenians (scroll down); and Book 7, chapters 86-87 for Thucydides' summary of the event (at the very end; scroll way down).
7.2 Slaves and foreigners in Athenian life.
Assignment: read "The Old Oligarch" with special attention to 1.1-12.
7.3 The last years of the War; the battles of Arginusae (406 BCE) and Aegospotami (404 BCE). The Thirty Tyrants.
Assignment: read [Aristotle's] Constitution of Athens, chapters 34-41 [scroll down]. 
7.4 Socrates.
Not required but recommended: read Socrates' famous speech in his own defense, the Apology; to get a sense of "Socratic method," read the section in the Apology that contains Socrates' withering cross-examination of one of his accusers, Meletus: here and here.
7.5 The Fourth Century. Philip II and Alexander.
Assignment: to get a sense of the Athenian reaction to Philip, read Demosthenes' First Philippic 1-12, 38-51. If you want an ancient overview of the life of Alexander, you can read Plutarch's Alexander; it is a long text, and in the version cited here it is broken into 7 sections.
7.6 Conclusion.

Recommended Background

This course is suitable for advanced high school students, college and university undergraduates, and anyone who is interested in history. As noted above, you do not have to have prior knowledge of ancient history. To put it another way, all are welcome.

Suggested Readings

There is available online an excellent Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander by Prof. Thomas R. Martin. You can access it via the
Perseus website.
The same text has also been published in an updated and more extensive print version,  Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times (Yale University Press: 2000).

Course Format

This will be a 7-week course, with six new lecture videos every week; each lecture will be between 10 and 15 minutes in length, and each will have 2 integrated multiple-choice questions. In addition, there will be a quiz of 15 - 20 multiple-choice questions at the end of every week, covering that week's material.


* Will I get a certificate after completing this class?
Yes. Students who successfully complete the course will get a "statement of accomplishment" that they have done so.

* What resources will I need for this class?
As noted above, whenever possible the assignments will consist of original sources in translation, so that students must have a reading knowledge of English. All the readings are available online.
  • 1 September 2013, 7 weeks
  • 18 March 2013, 7 weeks
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  • Language: English Gb


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