HIST 101 Lecture Outline (Spring 2023 – Week 5)

HIST 101

Week 5: The Classical and Hellenistic Age, 479-30 BCE



Michael Wood: Art of the Western World – The Classical Ideal (1989, 55:38 min.; start at 3:34):

British Museum Curator’s Corner: Egyptian Blue on the Parthenon Sculptures (5:39 min.):

British Museum blog: “historical travel guide” to Classical Athens:


Cultures, pp. 119-145 (Athens; the polis; women, children, and slaves; drama; the Peloponnesian War; historical inquiry; medicine; philosophy)

479-323 BCE    The Classical Age (from end of Persian Wars to conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great):

479-431 BCE  The golden age of Athens lasted less than 50 years, but  included:

Creation of the Delian League as a military alliance, with treasury at Delos, but Athens as head – Athens becomes a despotic bully, using the common treasury for its own expenses, turning allies into de facto colonies, and becoming an imperial power, to the alarm of Sparta and its allies.

462-429 BCE    Pericles (b. 495 BCE) leads Athens, holding office of  general (strategos); his achievements include extending the franchise to all adult male citizens; constructing the Parthenon (temple dedicated to Athena Parthenos, built 447-432 BCE); promoting the arts generally, including sculpture, poetry, and drama (theatrical performances were presented at the annual festival of Dionysus), as well as philosophy, history, and natural science.

Girls were educated at home; this might include reading, playing instruments, and domestic arts. They were expected to marry young and (except for farm women who sold their produce in towns) to spend most of their lives secluded in the women’s quarters (gynaeceum) of their home. Slaves did most of the domestic work, but married women were expected to supervise the care of their children and household, and to spin wool into yarn and to  weave woollen cloth.

Boys were sent to school at about age 7, and had extensive physical training before going into the army as hoplites at age 18. Men socialized with other men at dinners and drinking parties (symposia), where the only women present were hired entertainers.

Drama was a distinctively Greek invention. Beginning in the 500s BCE, tragedies were staged in Athens at the annual religious festival of Dionysus, and all major cities soon followed. The earliest plays to survive – all Athenian – date from the 400s  BCE, including tragedies by AeschylusSophocles, and Euripides, and comedies by Aristophanes. There was a competition among dramatists each year to submit trilogies of tragedies (based on traditional legends and folklore) plus a comic play (often political) to a civic council, which chose the winners and produced them for the festival. All male citizens were required to attend, and the audience chose the winning trilogy, whose author received prizes and civic honor. Tragedy focused on how people respond to their fate – whether they accept it with courage, or resist it with weeping. Aristophanes’ comedies were very politicallater comedies were more generic farces featuring stock comic characters.

431-404 BCE    Peloponnesian War:

Athens’ navy controls the sea, but Athens is besieged by Sparta’s superior hoplite army, suffers a devastating typhus epidemic in 429 BCE (which kills Pericles), sends a large military expedition to Sicily that ends in catastrophe (415-413 BCE), is betrayed by the brilliant, self-serving aristocrat Alcibiades (who transfers his loyalties first to Sparta, then to the Persians, and then to the Athenian navy), is challenged by a naval alliance between Sparta and the Persians (407 BCE), and finally surrenders (404 BCE). Greece was left in ruins. The Spartans pulled down the fortifications of Athens, scuttled its fleet, installed a committee of Thirty Tyrants to govern the city, and returned to  Sparta. Athens never recovered its former wealth or power.

The war was observed as it unfolded by the historian Thucydides (c. 460-395 BCE), who analyzed its causes and did extensive factual research by means of interviews and examination of documents. He concluded that “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon [Sparta], made war inevitable.” He saw the war as ultimately a clash of ideologies, between Sparta’s determined use of force to obliterate any threat to its stability, and Athens’ desire to live free from restraint while proclaiming a commitment to democracy (which Thucydides saw as bound to fail, because it was based on a false belief in human equality).

Hippocrates of Kos (c. 460-370 BCE) studied disease and medicine systematically and rationally, seeing them as natural phenomena rather than as divine or demonic. His separation of physical health from religion makes him the founder of Western medicine.

The flowering of Greek philosophy:

Following the Milesian pioneers came the Pythagoreans (later 500s-400s BCE) – notably, Pythagoras, Heraclitus of Ephesus, and Zeno of Elea – who used mathematics to analyze and identify universal patterns. The Sophists (400s-300s BCE) offered instruction in “excellence” to wealthy students. In the wake of the Peloponnesian War, three Athenian philosophers – Socrates (469-399 BCE)Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), and Aristotle (384-322 BCE) – changed Western intellectual history forever.  Socrates, a stonemason’s son, shifted the focus of philosophy from abstract concerns to a focus on questions that can affect how one can understand life, and live a meaningful life. He left no writings, but pioneered the “Socratic method” of posing endless questions to demolish false assumptions and to distill an understanding of what answer to seek. Despite his distinguished military service, he was seen by the ruling elite as an unbearable gadfly. At age 70, he was tried for impiety and of corrupting the youth of Athens, convicted, and required to drink poison. His student Plato, a wealthy Athenian aristocrat, left Athens for a time after Socrates’ death, but returned c. 385 and founded a school of philosophy called the Academy, where he lectured and wrote with great wit and clarity; many of his writings used Socrates as the central character. Plato posited that everything in the material world that we observe through our senses is in some way an imperfect version of an Ideal Form, and that it is the Ideal Forms, not their defective versions in the material world, that constitute the ultimate reality. Plato’s student Aristotle, the son of a physician, was a brilliant scholar in the natural sciences as well as philosophy. He saw every existing thing as having an intrinsic purpose or role (telos), and he saw the telos of humanity as the pursuit of happiness; individuals could achieve this, if they chose, through their actions and their reactions to the world, as  informed by rational thought. From 343 to 335 BCE Aristotle served as tutor to Alexander (the Great), son of Philip II of Macedonia; then he returned to Athens and founded a school called the Lyceum where he taught until his death.



“Alexander the Great”: tomb of Philip II of Macedon at Vergina, with ivory portraits of Philip and Alexander (8:18 min.; start at 2:40):

Michael Wood: “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great,” 31 parts (BBC documentary, 1997)

“Lord of Asia,” part 9 (9:32 min.):

“Susa,” part 10 (5:23 min.):

“The Trap,” part 11 (8:29 min.):

“Persian Gates,” part 12 (6:30 min.):

“Darius Dies,” part 13 (4:49 min.):

Ending, part 31 (7:42 min.):


Cultures, pp. 146-163 (Alexander the Great’s conquests; the Hellenistic world; revolt and religion in Judaea)

Sources, pp. 63-77 (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound; Plato, Symposium; Aristotle, “The Elements of Tragedy;” Diogenes Laërtius, Life of Zeno of CitiumBook of Ezra)

336-323 BCE     Reign of Alexander the Great, son of Philip II, king of Macedon (map of Alexander’s empire and campaign route):

356-336 BCE      Alexander born in Pella, the Macedonian capital. His mother was Olympias of Epirus, Philip II’s chief wife. When Alexander was 10-12, he tamed the stallion Bucephalus, and Philip paid 13 talents for the horse and gave it to Alexander. Alexander and some young nobles were tutored by Aristotle for some years, until Alexander was 16, when he was made regent by Philip while Philip left on a military campaign, and later joined Philip in his invasion of Greece. Alexander became king in 336, at age 20, when Philip was assassinated.

336-335      Gains control of all of Greece
334                    Conquers Asia Minor (at the ancient Phrygian capital of Gordium he solved the famous puzzle of how to undo the Gordian Knot of knotted bark)
333-332           Conquers Syro-Palestine (in 333 defeating at Issus a huge Persian army led by Darius, who fled, abandoning his mother, wife, two daughters, and immense treasure) and Egypt (in 331 founds Alexandria)
331                    Conquers Syria; annihilates main Persian army at  battle of Gaugamela (near Nineveh)
330                    Destroys Persian capital of Persepolis
329-323           Pushes east through E. Iran and Afghanistan to Indus Valley (Alexander’s horse Bucephalus dies, 326), then forced by his men to head back to Babylon, where he died of illness, aged 33.

Hellenization of Alexander’s empire:

Alexander planted new cities across his newly-conquered territories, with Greek institutions, laws, and libraries. When he added Persian troops and officers to his army, he required them to learn “common” (koine) Greek and to adopt Greek dress. When his Macedonian and Greek forces protested, Alexander tried to reconcile them to the Persians with a massive common banquet, and forced his Greek and Macedonian officers marry Persian women.

323- 30 BCE    The Hellenistic Age (from death of Alexander to beginning of the Roman Empire):

After Alexander’s death, his generals divided up his empire into four kingdoms and established dynasties: Egypt (Ptolemid), Asia (Seleucid), Anatolia (i.e., Pergamene kingdom: Attalid), and Greece (Antigonid). They continued Alexander’s policies of  founding new cities and spreading the use of koine Greek, they promoted cities and urban arts, sciences, and industries while keeping small farmers poor and powerless, and they sent out explorers to travel to distant and unknown lands and bring back reports.

Light comedy flourished in the theaters; mathematics, medicine, astronomy, and physics flourished in the schools and libraries; and four major branches of philosophy rose to dominance: Skepticism (which distrusted human intellect’s ability to achieve certainty about anything), Cynicism (which accepted only natural instinct as reliable, thus rejecting civic laws, morals, and customs), Epicureanism and Stoicism (both of which focused on avoiding suffering, such as through seeking out true principles when making choices, and rejecting false beliefs).

2nd century BCE :  Growing instability in the Hellenistic kingdoms leads to the Maccabean Revolt (167-142 BCE) by the Jews in Judea against the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, after he allowed pagan altars to be set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Seleucids capitulated, and Judea became an independent Jewish kingdom, ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty (descendants of Judas Maccabeus’s brother) until 40 BCE.

Second Temple Judaism:

The Jews who returned to Palestine from Babylonia in the 530s BCE rebuilt the Temple by c. 515 BCE. For almost 200 years, Jewish society in Palestine was divided by disputes between the “children of the Exile” and “people of the land,” and by conflicting doctrinal beliefs, tribal loyalites, politics, class, language, etc. Conquered by Alexander (333-332 BCE), Judea was soon after claimed by both Seleucid Asia and Ptolemid Egypt. This led to the growth of large Jewish communities in Anatolia and in Egypt – especially at Alexandria, where, beginning c. 260 BCE,  Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek (the Septuagint Bible). During the centuries that followed the Babylonian Captivity, Judaism absorbed a degree of moral earnestness from Zoroastrianism, and also developed an apocalyptic sense that a messiah would herald God’s justice on earth, destroying the wicked and rewarding the righteous. These were reflected in the composition of the third segment of the Hebrew Bible, Nevi’im (“Writings”), containing the books of Chronicles, Lamentations, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Daniel. These books also contain Persian loan-words and some use of Greek, reflecting the influences of Persian and Hellenic culture.

Primary sources:

Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BCE), Prometheus Bound: Prometheus describes how humans were barbaric cave-dwellers until he gave them knowledge of the crucial arts of writing, animal domestication, sailing, and metal-working, and knowledge of how to prophesy and to please the gods.

Plato, Symposium (385-380 BCE): Alcibiades wanders into Agathon’s symposium late and half-drunk, and gives a long monologue about his passion for Socrates. He describes Socrates in both flattering and unflattering terms, but acknowledges that Socrates can enchant anyone who hears him speak, and that he is the only man in the world who can make Alcibiades feel ashamed of himself, and he confesses that he tried repeatedly to seduce Socrates, and failed every time. He reflects a male-centered society in which male beauty, talent, and courage are admired, and witty conversation is cultivated. Women, children, and domestic matters are ignored in the masculine social world of Periclean Athens.

Aristotle, “The Elements of Tragedy”(c. 335 BCE): Tragedy, to Aristotle, is the representation of a major serious action that culminates in an emotional catharsis. Tragedy has six elements: spectacle, character, plot, language, song, and thought.  The actions that make up the plot are the whole point of tragedy.

Diogenes Laërtius, Life of Zeno of Citium (c. 300-250 BCE): Zeno, born on Cyprus, was the founder of Stoicism, which took its name from the Painted Stoa in Athens where Zeno used to lecture. Diogenes depicts him as well-educated, witty, and as one who lived his life according to Stoic principles.

Book of Ezra (c. 480-420 BCE): Describes how Cyrus of Persia permitted the Jewish exiles in Babylon to return to Judah and he gives them the 5400 god and silver vessels looted by Nebuchadnezzar from Solomon’s Temple to bring back to Jerusalem and to use in the new Temple that they are to build. Ezra enumerates the exact number of Jewish exiles in Babylon, and their horses, mules, camels, and asses. When the Persian governor tried to stop them from re-building the Temple, King Darius gave orders for the Persian archives to be searched for evidence of Cyrus’s orders, and in the archive at Ecbatana a scroll was found containing Cyrus’s permission to rebuild, and saying that the palace would pay the costs. Darius ordered that it be enforced, and ordered the governor to use tax revenues to pay the costs, and the building was competed in the 6th year of his reign.