Greece: The Golden Age of Literature and Philosophy


Go to Culture & Context for Book 2: Europe for subsequent historical developments.


Classical Greece
Classical Greece, c. 400 B.C.E.

Although they reached unprecedented cultural heights in art, drama, philosophy, and architecture, the Greeks failed to achieve political unity and harmony. Athens and Sparta, along with their respective allies, fought the bloody and costly Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.).


Overview of Ancient Greece

Arguably the most fundamental and lasting influence ancient Greek culture has had on subsequent civilizations and cultures in the West is the establishment of who can speak with authority and who cannot. The status of language was of utmost importance in the ancient Greek city-states. Each one had its own dialect, though they were mutually intelligible on the whole, and there was a generally acceptable variant known as koine that was used by many. Those who did not speak Greek in any form were thought to be saying "barbar" all the time, hence the term barbarian. A further distinction linked the import of one's speech to how one spoke. This disparity became the poles of mythos (myth) and logos (reason; from legein, meaning "to speak"). The dispute is played out in Plato's critique of the poets. As readers of his Republic know, Plato banished poets from his ideal state because they tell lies-that is, they use the language of mythos (mytheomai), while Plato and the other philosophers use the language of logos. Yet in the earliest texts, such as those of Homer and Hesiod, this dichotomy is reversed. For them, mythos denotes the powerful, truthful speech, while logos is always associated with lies, crooked speech, and deception. In the end, Plato and the users of instrumental reason won in their play for power.

The center of Greek life was the agora, or civic center. The term allegory, that is, to speak figuratively, refers to its difference from the speech of the agora-allegory means, literally, "speech other than at the civic center." The speech of the agora is both a valorization of political, economic, and philosophical speech, the speech of men in power about their business or at war, and a devaluation of the speech of a highly artistic, creative, and perceptive people trying to come to terms with a harsh, violent, and oppressive environment.

Hegemony: The Athenian League and Beyond

The Representation of the Human Form

Ancient Olympics: citius, altius, fortius

Women in Ancient Greece