Cities of Ancient Greece

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This is a list of the major city-states of Classical Greece – the time between the First Persian Invasion (490 BC) and the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC), when western civilization was born.

Unlike most ancient civilizations, the Greek world was not a single empire or kingdom, but a collection of independent city-states. They shared a common language and religion but varied in their social organization. Some, like Sparta and Thebes, were militaristic and conservative; others, like Athens and Corinth, were mercantile and cultured. The following seven cities are ranked by power.

Honourable Mentions: Miletus, Ephesus, Rhodes, Delphi, Olympia

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Argos

  • Region: Argolid, Peloponnese
  • Patron Deity: Hera
  • Mythological Founder: Phoroneus
  • Dialect: Doric Greek
  • Government: democracy
  • Famous buildings: Pyramids of Argolis, Sanctuary of Aphrodite
  • Famous citizens: Pheidon

This Bronze Age stronghold was the alleged home of Hercules and the dominant power in southern Greece before the rise of Sparta. Shunned for their neutrality in the Persian Wars, the Argives fought with Athens in the Peloponnesian War, and were their main ally on land. The Spartans defeated them in 418 BC and Argos ceased to be a major power.

The Socially Gendered Body: Richard B. Hays | Pursuing VeritasCorinth

  • Region: Isthmus of Corinth
  • Patron Deity: Poseidon
  • Mythological Founder: Corinthos, Ephyra, Sisyphus
  • Dialect: Doric Greek
  • Government: oligarchy
  • Assets: navy, trade
  • Famous buildings: Temple of Apollo, Temple of Aphrodite, Peirine Fountain
  • Famous Citizens: Cypselus, Periander

Built on a strategic isthmus halfway between Athens and Sparta, the port city of Corinth was among the wealthiest cities in Greece. Corinth was famous for her black-figure pottery, iconic helmets and prostitutes. Though Poseidon was the patron god, the Corinthians also built elaborate temples to Apollo and Aphrodite. The Corinthians fought the Persians and provided their navy to fight Athens in the Peloponnesian War.

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Thebes

  • Region: Boetia, central Greece
  • Patron Deity: Dionysus
  • Mythological Founder: Cadmus
  • Dialect: Aeolic Greek
  • Government: oligarchy
  • Assets: army
  • Famous buildings: Cadmeia
  • Famous citizens: Epaminondas, Pelopidas, Nichomachus, Pindar

Thebes was the home of the mythical Oedipus, a powerful inland city and a rival of Athens. The Sacred Band, Thebes’s elite fighting unit, consisted of 150 homosexual couples, who would rather die than shame themselves before their lovers.

The Thebans notably supported the Persian invasion and fought with Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. When Sparta rescinded on wartime promises, however, the Thebans turned on them. Epaminondas destroyed the Spartan army at the battle of Leuctra in 371 but died before he could capitalise on his gains. Alexander the Great destroyed the city in 335 BC.

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Athens

  • Region: Attica, eastern Greece
  • Patron Deity: Athena
  • Mythological Founder: Cecrops, Theseus
  • Government: democracy
  • Dialect: Attic Greek
  • Assets: navy, trade, culture
  • Famous buildings: The Parthenon, Theatre of Dionysus
  • Famous Citizens: Solon, Cleisthenes, Themistocles, Pericles, Alcibiades, Aristophanes, Aesychlus, Sophocles, Euripedes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes

Athens was the cultural powerhouse of Greece. The most famous playwrights, poets, philosophers and orators of the Classical Era called this city their home. Athens was run by its citizens, that is the 30% who were freeborn and male. All matters of state were decided through referendum and public discourse. Though egalitarian and progressive, her democracy was susceptible to fickleness and demagoguery.

Athenian schools, temples and political institutions were funded by a network of subservient cities. In exchange for security against Persia, each city paid tribute in gold or ships. The Athenian navy was the best in all Greece – and instrumental in thwarting the Persian invasion.  Even the poorest citizen could find steady employment as a rower.

Sparta

  • Region: Laconia, Peloponnese
  • Patron Deity: Athena
  • Mythological Founder: Lacaedemon
  • Dialect: Doric Greek
  • Government: diarchy (two kings), oligarchy
  • Assets: army
  • Famous buildings: none
  • Famous Citizens: Lycurgus, Leonidas, Cleomenes III, Lysander

In the 700s BC Spartan armies invaded neighbouring Messenia and enslaved its people. To keep the conquered under their heel, the Spartans built a society that put military prowess before all else. While other Greek cities used part-time militias to fight their wars, the Spartans trained their boys as warriors from the moment they could walk.  At their peak, Spartan soldiers were the most effective in the world.

Sparta assembled the Peloponnesian League to fight Athens in the 5th century. Although they were victorious on the ground, Sparta could not match the Athenian navy. Eventually, Lysander built a fleet with Persian gold and forced Athenian surrender. With her reserve of fighting men vastly depleted however, Sparta could not keep the peace and her dominance was brief.

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Syracuse

  • Region: Sicily, Greater Greece
  • Patron Deity: Athena
  • Mythological Founder: Archius
  • Dialect: Doric Greek
  • Government: tyranny, democracy
  • Assets: army, trade, science
  • Famous buildings: Temple of Apollo, Latomia del Paradiso, Greek Theatre of Syarcuse
  • Famous Citizens: Gelo, Hiero, Dionysus the Elder, Archimedes

The Theban poet Pindar called Syracuse ‘the fairest Greek city’. Centuries later Cicero, a Roman called it ‘the greatest and most beautiful’. Founded by colonists from Corinth around 734 BC, Syracuse grew to be the largest Greek city.

For most of its history, Classical Syracuse waged war with the North African city of Carthage for control of Sicily. In the Peloponnesian War, Syracuse not only survived an Athenian invasion but destroyed her fleet. The tyrant Dionysus I (367-362) and his mercenaries forged an empire stretching across Sicily and southern Italy. Inventor and physicist Archimedes (287-212), of Archimedes Principle fame, was Syracuse’s most famous citizen. He died when Roman armies took the city.

Top Power in mainland Greece:

  • 490 – 431 BC: Athens (Athenian Golden Age)
  • 430 – 404 BC: Athens/Sparta (Peloponnesian War)
  • 404 – 371 BC: Sparta (Spartan Hegemony)
  • 371 – 362 BC: Thebes (Theban Hegemony)
  • 362 – 360 BC: Athens/Sparta/Thebes (power vacuum)
  • 359 – 323 BC: Macedon (conquests of Philip and Alexander)

Sources: Ancient History.org, Ian Morris – The Greeks: History, Culture and Society, Livius.org, The Times Encyclopedia of History

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