You Gotta Know These Ancient Greek Places
- Argos, a city-state or polis, was a major rival of Sparta. Both were on a large peninsula known as the Peloponnese. Argos came to prominence in the 7th century BC under King Pheidon, who is sometimes credited with developing the use of citizen-soldiers known as hoplites in rectangular phalanx formations.
- Athens is on the peninsula of Attica, across the Saronic Gulf from Corinth. Athens is often called the birthplace of democracy. Its political institutions included the ecclesia, an assembly open to all male citizens, which elected officials and enacted legislation; and the boule, a group of male citizens chosen by lot who served for a year at a time. The boule oversaw day-to-day operations of the government, and set the agenda for the ecclesia. The size of the boule and the functions of both assemblies changed due to constitutional reforms enacted by Solon, Cleisthenes, Ephialtes, and Pericles. The ecclesia could banish a citizen for ten years, a practice known as ostracism. The rise to power of Athens during the Persian Wars sparked the Peloponnesian War, which Athens lost.
- Corinth’s location—on the land route to the Peloponnese, and with a placement at the Isthmus of Corinth that allowed it to have harbors on the Saronic and Corinthian Gulfs—made it a major trade center. The tyrant Periander is credited with building the Diolkos, a four- to five-mile long paved track across the Isthmus that allowed transport of ships and heavy goods much faster than could be achieved by sailing all the way around the Peloponnese.
- Delphi was a sacred site on the Greek mainland, which the Greeks thought was the center of the world. A major temple to Apollo at Delphi housed the Oracle of Delphi, a priestess known as the Pythia (a title that commemorates Apollo’s slaying of the snake Python at Delphi). Every four years, Delphi hosted the Panhellenic Pythian Games, which were second only to the Olympic Games in importance.
- Knossos is an archaeological site on the island of Crete that contains remains from the Neolithic to the late Bronze Age. Knossos became the center of the Minoan civilization. In 1900 British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans began excavating its large palace complex, which yielded a large trove of tablets inscribed in Linear A (still undeciphered) and Linear B (shown to represent an ancient form of Greek, but written long before the development of the Greek alphabet).
- Olympia is on the Peloponnese. Like Delphi, Olympia was a major Panhellenic sacred site. The cult statue in its Temple of Zeus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The site also had athletic facilities for the Olympic Games held every four years.
- Sparta was for many years the predominant polis of the Peloponnese. Sparta was led by two kings, one each from the Agiad and Eurypontid families. The constitution of Lycurgus established the Gerousia, a council of elected elders plus the kings, which functioned as a high court and decided which matters to forward to the popular assembly, or apella (the analogue of the ecclesia of other city-states). The two kings were also joined by five annually elected ephors, who had broad executive powers. Sparta beat its rival Athens in the Peloponnesian War in the late 5th century BC, but lost its position as the leading military power in all of Greece to Thebes in 371 BC.
- Syracuse was a major Greek colony on Sicily, founded by colonists from Corinth and Tenea. Its forces crushed the Sicilian Expedition of Athens, which proved to be the decisive turning point of the Peloponnesian War. Some 200 years later, the great scientist Archimedes died during the Roman takeover of Syracuse.
- Thebes was the main city of Boeotia, a region of the southern Greek mainland just west of Attica. Thebes allied with Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, but the two cities quickly became enemies following the war. Thebes established the Sacred Band, an elite force of 300 soldiers consisting of pairs of male lovers, and broke the hegemony of Sparta at the 371 BC Battle of Leuctra. However, Thebes fell from power quickly, fighting on the losing side at the 338 BC Battle of Chaeronea against the Macedonians led by Philip II, and the city was destroyed three years later by Alexander the Great following an unsuccessful revolt.
This article was contributed by NAQT member Seth Teitler.