Why did ancient Greece decline?

Few civilizations have had as much of an impact on the modern world as ancient Greece. Once a collection of city-states, Greece was a haven for art, intellectualism, and education. But like so many other mighty civilizations of the time, Greece’s meteoric rise could only be ended by an equally intense fall.

The decline of ancient Greece isn’t characterized by a single moment, but instead occurs through a series of events that ultimately culminate with Greece under the power of the Roman Empire for centuries.  

From the heights of Greek culture during the Golden Age to the first stirrings of downfall during the Hellenistic period, parts of ancient Greece can still be seen in our world today.

For a civilization that was this impactful, how could it have possibly failed? Let’s explore the decline of Greece, and what led to the fall of one of the most enduring pieces of ancient history. 

Understanding Ancient Greece: The City States 

Unlike Rome, we don’t call ancient Greece an empire. That’s because instead of existing as a whole, Greece was made up of over 1,000 city-states.

Modern-day researchers believe that Greece existed this way because the rocky landscape and numerous islands separated by the ocean made it difficult to unify the population centers. Instead, each population center governed itself, and these cities became known as the Greek city-states. 

All of the city-states were organized in similar ways. Most had a city center with the countryside on the outskirts of the city. Within the center, there were often temples and official government buildings, usually built on top of a hill called an acropolis. 

Although there were over 1,000 city-states, there were six that were both larger and more influential on Greece as a whole. 

The main six city-states of ancient Greece were:

  • Athens- Athens was the capital of the Attica district in ancient Greece and was a thriving city-state that was known both for its political prominence as well as its contributions to philosophy and the arts. It was in Athens that prominent philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle found their homes.
  • Sparta- Known for their formidable warriors, the Spartans, Sparta was located in the Laconia region of ancient Greece. Of all the city-states, Sparta was the one most known for its military prowess and its soldiers who were trained in the Spartan way of life from a young age. 
  • Corinth- Located on a small stretch of land known as the Isthmus of Corinth, the city-state of Corinth was best known for being a thriving maritime hub. There were many advantages to its position, including the ability to control trade routes. This control allowed Corinth to become very wealthy, and this wealth produced amazing architectural achievements.
  • Thebes- Situated in Boeotia, Thebes was another military power similar to Sparta. In fact, Thebes battled Sparta during the Battle of Leuctra and pulled off a victory, something that was almost unheard of for those who faced the mighty Spartans. 
  • Miletus- A city-state that contributed greatly to the culture of ancient Greece, Miletus was located in Asia Minor, which is now modern-day Turkey. Miletus was full of famous philosophers and scholars, including Thales, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. Many early mathematical and scientific theories came from the scholars of Miletus, solidifying Miletus’s place in history as a hub of learning. 
  • Rhodes- An island in the Aegean Sea, Rhodes was a city-state that was also a maritime success similar to Corinth. It was another major port of trade, connecting the eastern and western Mediterranean. Also like Corinth, this bustling maritime trade brought great wealth to Rhodes, culminating in the creation of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 

All of these city-states held power in their own right, and their independence made them unique from one another.

Having all its power placed into these city-states definitely contributed to all the amazing creations, artists, scholars, and philosophers coming out of Greece, but it also meant that it was difficult to unite the city-states when trouble arose.

But the biggest problem the city-states wrought on ancient Greece was the conflicts between them. One conflict between Athens and Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, was the first hint that the decline of Greece was coming. 

The Peloponnesian War 

Before the Peloponnesian War, the Greek city-states were somewhat united. While they weren’t a connected empire, the city-states shared a culture and an understanding among themselves. 

All of this was shattered by the Peloponnesian War, which lasted from 431 to 404 BCE. Athens and Sparta were the two most powerful city-states in ancient Greece, and the discord that it caused between all the city-states was devastating. 

Athens and its powerful navy clashed with the militaristic state of Sparta, draining resources for both city-states. This war lasted for nearly three decades, and by the time it was over, the two powerful states were left weakened and susceptible to influence and conflicts from outside sources. 

In the end, Athens was considered to have lost the Peloponnesian War, but Sparta did not destroy the city as was expected. This allowed Athens to remain a center for education, literature, and drama, despite now being beneath the thumb of Sparta. 

The Rise of Macedonia 

After the war between Sparta and Athens, a power to the north began to emerge–the Kingdom of Macedonia.

Located along the Aegean Sea on the Northeastern part of the Greek Peninsula, Macedonia was not considered much of a power for most of ancient Greek history. With all the infighting between the city-states, no one was paying much attention to Macedonia, or its king, King Phillip the II. Under the rule of King Phillip, Macedonia underwent an extreme transformation, shaping itself into a force to be reckoned with. 

Phillip was a brilliant strategist, and once he took the throne, he implemented a series of military reforms that were unlike anything else that had been seen in ancient Greece at that point. His biggest innovation was known as the Macedonian phalanx, which was based on the already-formidable Greek phalanx. 

For the Macedonian phalanx, Phillip had his soldiers implement sarissa pikes, a 6-meter pike, into the formation. The sarissa pike was longer and stronger than the previous dory spears favored by the Greeks. These phalanx formations were used to hold the enemy at bay while cavalry and heavy infantry broke through enemy ranks, and they were nearly impenetrable. 

King Phillip II was also a skilled diplomat, and he was able to form alliances with Greek city-states before his conquests began, giving him a unique advantage. From there, he fanned the flames of the internal divisions that already existed between the city-states, further weakening Greece as a whole.

It seemed that under the skilled rule of King Phillip, Macedonia was going to be a true threat…but then, in 336 BCE, King Phillip II was assassinated. In his place, his son took the throne. At the time, no one knew that Phillip’s son would be even more formidable than his father–so much so that he might have been the biggest variable in the entire decline of Greece.

That’s because the son of King Phillip II was Alexander the Great. 

The Conquests of Alexander the Great 

Where his father was a brilliant military tactician, Alexander was a genius. Under the rule of Alexander II, Macedonia would conquer not just parts of Greece, but Egypt, India, and Persia too. 

Alexander’s first major blow against Greece was his attack on Thebes in 335 BCE. He placed the city-state under siege, breaching the walls around Thebes and invading the city center with brutal efficiency. He killed 6,000 Thebians and took another 30,000 as prisoners of war before burning down Thebes for good measure. This conquest served as a warning to the rest of Greece-don’t mess with Alexander and Macedonia. All of the Greek city-states capitulated and agreed to never challenge Alexander…all of them except for Sparta. 

Later, Spartan King Agis III kept his word and led a rebellion against Macedonia. He was quickly defeated not even by Alexander, but by Alexander’s regent, the Macedonian general Antipater. 

Alexander’s conquests helped to spread Greek culture throughout the different places that he conquered, and the combination of Greek culture and Eastern traditions led to a new period in Greek history known as the Hellenistic period. 

The peace and cultural sharing didn’t last long. With Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BCE, the borders of the kingdoms that had been taken over by Macedonia were not yet solid. This led to more infighting between the rulers that took over in Alexander’s stead. Under Alexander, Greece had expanded far into the east. Greece was larger than it had ever been, but it may have been stretched too thin without the iron grip of Alexander the Great to keep it all under control. 

For over 150 years, Hellenistic Greece settled into a decently stable empire, and the combination of all the new cultures led to a short period of emigration of Greeks into the East. 

The Roman Conquest of Greece 

Greece’s perceived weakness attracted the attention of the Roman Empire. Rome had been expanding into the Italian peninsula and Sicily, but they wanted more. 

Rome’s interest in Greece first took the form of the Macedonian Wars, a series of smaller conflicts. In 146 BCE, the Romans attacked the city-state of Corinth, and this battle, known as the Battle of Corinth, would end up being the climax of the Macedonian Wars. 

At the time, Corinth was one of Greece’s largest and most prosperous cities, but they were no match for the power of the Roman Empire. Under the command of Lucius Mummius, the city of Corinth was ravaged, and the rest of the Greek city-states took notice. 

None of them had any desire to be taken by force by the Romans, so one by one the city-states gave their allegiance to Rome, and in turn, were protected. This left Rome as rulers of the majority of the Mediterranean, and with Greece subdued, there were few other enemies that could actually stand against them.

With Greece being absorbed by Rome, the decline of Greece was complete. But Rome didn’t destroy Greek culture. Instead, they incorporated Greek culture into their own. This included ancient Greek religions and philosophies, and even the Greek pantheon of gods. There were some name changes–for example, Zeus became Jupiter–but most of the characteristics of the gods remained the same. 

This new Greco-Roman culture would influence scholars and philosophers for centuries to come. While there were revolts in Athens and other cities throughout the Roman occupation, Greece was never able to take its independence back. But since Rome assimilated with Greece so completely, the Greek culture was not destroyed. Instead, the Romans brought the new Greco-Roman culture with them as they claimed parts of Europe for their own. 

Rome viewed themselves as benevolent rulers, and as long as the Greek city-states pledged their allegiance to Rome, not much about their daily lives had to change. 

Ottoman Rule and The Greek War of Independence 

Although historians consider the Roman conquest of Greece to be the culmination of the decline of ancient Greece, the troubles weren’t over for the Greek people.

In 1453, the legendary Fall of Constantinople occurred when the mighty city fell to the Ottoman Turks. From there, the Ottoman Empire would rule in Greece for nearly four hundred years. Like always, Greek identity and culture were able to endure, but the conditions were oppressive and even harsh at times. 

Finally, in the 19th century, stirrings of the desire for Greek independence could be heard. After a series of revolts and uprisings throughout Greece, the Greek War of Independence commenced. It lasted for eight years, (1821-1829), but with the help of European allies, Greece was finally able to achieve true independence in 1830. 

So, while Greece declined and ultimately fell to Rome, it eventually rose, like a phoenix, to gain independence once more. All the while, Greek culture persisted, and has made an undeniable mark on the world today. 

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