Teaching the Ancient Greeks: an introduction

Reference guide

Published: 25th January 2011

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Please note: this guide was written before the new National Curriculum in 2014, but much of the content and advice is still relevant. For post-2014 guidance and resources see our Ancient Greece scheme of work (2020) and our article Teaching the Ancient Greeks (2015).

Why study Ancient Greece?

The Ancient Greeks' legacy to us is enormous, ranging from philosophy to architecture, from word roots to drama, from education to history, and from science to democracy.

The Ancient Greeks were great thinkers and inquirers and fortunately wrote down their theories, poems, plays, investigations, experiments and histories: they have left us many and varied texts as well as a rich architectural and archaeological heritage.

Their debates among themselves about the best form of government, their ideas about citizenship and their philosophical discussions (e.g. What is the best way to live? What is virtue?) provide us with opportunities for our own debates about these matters in PSCHE. See Ancient Greek Government lesson

Their myths and legends can stimulate imagination and creativity as well as giving us the opportunity to examine the link between traditional stories and historical events. See Greek myths lesson; Theseus and the Minotaur

Who were the Ancient Greeks?

The Ancient Greeks were never part of one united country, though collectively they called their land Hellas, and themselves Hellenes. They also shared a common language, religion, culture and history. Ancient Greece included the Greek mainland and islands, and also part of modern Turkey before the Persians conquered this area.

Why was Greece important in ancient times?

Greece's position in the eastern Mediterranean meant that throughout its history people, armies, trade goods and ideas flowed both to and from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. So we find Egyptian influences in the art of Minoan Crete and Greek kraters (mixing bowls for wine) in Celtic Europe.

Greece's rocky and mountainous interior and its many islands also ensured that the Ancient Greeks were a seafaring people. No wonder that their best-known legends involve voyages (such as Jason and the Argonauts, the Odyssey).

Ancient Greece: a short history

The timeline of Ancient Greek civilisation is a long and complex one. From this long history there are at least four periods worth choosing to study:

1. The Bronze Age, approximately 2000-1100 BC

Also known as the age of heroes, the Bronze Age offers possibilities for the interplay of archaeology and traditional legends and myths. The Bronze Age includes the following:

1a Minoan Crete - King Minos' palace at Knossos; the legends of Theseus and the Minotaur and of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun; the volcanic eruption of Thera (now Santorini). See Sir Arthur Evans' excavations at Knossos at the beginning of the 20th century.

1b The Trojan War, immortalised in Homer's Iliad - Helen, whose beauty caused the war (‘the face that launched a thousand ships'); the adventures of heroes such as Achilles, Hector, Menelaus, Odysseus and Ajax; the interventions of the gods; the Trojan horse that ended the 10-year siege of Troy. See Iliad lesson

Schliemann's discovery of the site of Troy and his excavations there in the 1870s make an exciting historical story in themselves.

1c The Odyssey, also attributed to Homer - the story of Odysseus' 10-year journey back from Troy to his wife Penelope and his home on the island of Ithaca. Every place Odysseus and his men visited on their epic voyage has its own compelling story, e.g. the sirens who lured men to their doom, or the one-eyed Cyclops who imprisoned Odysseus and his men in his cave.

At the end of this period, Dorian invasions plunged the Greek world into turmoil for several centuries.

2. The Archaic Age, approximately 850-600 BC

During this period Ancient Greece slowly emerged from its dark ages, and several significant features of Ancient Greek civilisation appeared.

2a City states (poleis) were established. Each had its capital and surrounding territory. The city states were spread throughout the Greek world, and spent much time and energy quarrelling and competing with one another.

2b Individual city states established colonies on the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts, spreading Greek culture and people, and increasing trade.

2c The Olympic games, according to tradition, began in 776 BC. They involved male athletes from the whole Hellenic world competing at Olympia. See Olympic Games lesson

2d Homer (if he existed) wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. They were old traditional Greek stories of the heroic past, but now they were written down for the first time.

2e The Greek alphabet was created from a Phoenician source.

2 f Greek scientific thinking appeared; e.g. in 585 BC Thales predicted an eclipse of the sun. See Ancient Greek Science lesson

3. The Classical Golden Age, approximately 500-400 BC.

This century marked the height of Ancient Greek civilisation and power, particularly in Athens, though many of its achievements began in the previous century and continued into the next. The two most powerful Greek city states, Athens and Sparta, dominated the period. Key themes and events included the following.

3a Two invasions of the Greek mainland by the Persian Empire. The first was in 490 BC under Darius, when the Athenians defeated a far larger Persian army at the Battle of Marathon (here tradition has it that Pheidippides ran the first marathon, when he brought news of the victory to Athens).

The second Persian invasion, by Xerxes, was marked by two iconic events. There was the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans defended a pass against Xerxes' vast armies until betrayed by a traitor. They fought to the death and delayed the progress of the invasion. Then there was the sea Battle of Salamis, where the Athenians tricked the Persian fleet and crushed them.

3b Having repelled the Persians, the Greek states resumed power struggles among themselves. Athens and Sparta emerged as the two rivals for supremacy. Each was backed by a league of allies - though in Athens' case these ‘allies' were in reality subject states in an Athenian empire.

3c The development of democratic government in Athens. Athenian democracy excluded women and slaves, but it was the first in history to establish the principle of government by citizens of a state.

However, Sparta remained a monarchy, ruled by two kings. It was a harsh militaristic state where men lived in barracks and malformed or surplus babies were exposed on mountaintops to die. The Spartans promoted military virtues, toughness and self-discipline. Sparta ruled over and repressed a huge slave (helot) population.

3d The Peloponnesian War: in 431 BC open war between Athens and Sparta finally broke out. It lasted off and on until 404 BC, when Athens surrendered, her power broken.

Overall, the century 500-400 BC saw the flowering of Greek (mainly Athenian) culture, when the Greeks built glorious temples and theatres; when they made beautiful sculpture and pottery; when Athenian playwrights wrote great tragedies and comedies and developed theatrical forms that we still follow today; when poets sang lyric poetry; and when Herodotus and Thucydides developed the art of writing history.

Philosophical and scientific thinking also flourished, both before, during and after the 5th century BC. Scientific thinkers included Hippocrates (author of the doctors' Hippocratic Oath), Anaximander, Archimedes (the Eureka man), Eratosthenes (who calculated the circumference of the Earth, Pythagoras the mathematician. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are still giants of philosophy today.

4. Conquests by Alexander the Great, who lived 356-323 BC

Alexander was King of Macedon, just north of Greece. His father, Philip II, had conquered most of the Greek city states by 338 BC. Alexander was an even greater general than his father, using the Macedonian fighting phalanx to defeat all who stood in his way. During his short life Alexander conquered not only the Greek world, but also the Persian Empire (which included modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and more), much of modern Pakistan and Egypt. Around 331 BC he proclaimed himself King of Asia, and also the direct son of Zeus, king of the gods. He ruthlessly crushed all opposition and ruled with a rod of iron over his vast empire. Greek (Hellenic) architecture and civilisation were spread throughout the regions he conquered.

After Alexander's death at the age of 33, his empire was broken up by his successors. Around 200 years later the new Mediterranean power, the Romans, had taken over most of Alexander's empire.