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Introduction to the Fifth Century

Athens1 achieved its greatest international power, economic prosperity, and cultural flowering during the fifth century B.C. The enduring fame of the drama, art, architecture, historical writing, and philosophy produced at Athens in these years by Athenians and non-Athenians, who had been attracted to the city by its economic and cultural vitality, has impelled historians to refer to the fifth century after the Persian Wars as the “Golden Age of Athens.” This Athenian Golden Age coincides with the first part of the so-called Classical period of ancient Greek history, a modern designation that is conventionally fixed between about 500 B. C., when the Greeks began to come into conflict with the kingdom of Persia to the east, and the death of the Macedonian king and conqueror Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. This section of the Overview will concentrate on the military, political, economic, and cultural history of Athens during this most famous span of Greek history, the Golden Age. The focus on Athens in this period reflects both the traditional fame that the city and its people have acquired in later times and the undeniable fact that far more ancient evidence has survived concerning Athens than any other ancient Greek state.

The Major Conflicts of Fifth-Century Greece

As the association of the Classical period's opening chronological boundary with clashes against Persian forces and of its close with the military expeditions of Alexander reveals, the Classical period of Greek history was an age often marked by turbulence and war. The Golden Age of Athens was no exception, and one bloody conflict after another raged in mainland Greece during the fifth century, beginning with war against the great kingdom of Persia, whose heartland lay in what is today southern Iran. The kingdom of Persia had by around 500 expanded far enough westward that the Greeks were becoming aware of its enormous might, but neither the Persians nor the Greeks, especially those on the mainland, yet knew much about each other. Their mutual ignorance opened the door to explosive misunderstandings and a deadly war. When the Greeks allied against the Persians managed by 479 to defeat their more numerous foe and expel its invading army from the Greek mainland, the way was opened to the full blossoming of the Golden Age. After their success in the war with the Persians, however, the two major powers in mainland Greece—Sparta and Athens, who had cooperated in fighting the Persians—gradually became more and more hostile to each other in the course of the fifth century. Eventually, their mutual suspicions and hostilities erupted into open warfare of Greek against Greek, culminating in the drawn-out and destructive Peloponesian War (431-404) between Athens and Sparta and their allies. This catastrophic struggle lasted for twenty-seven bitter years. Athens' defeat in this war brought an end to the Athenian Golden Age.

Sources of Strife betweeen Athens and Sparta

The sources of the strife2 between these two major powers of the Greek mainland are significant for an understanding of the history of the Athenian Golden Age because that greatest era of Athens' prosperity and cultural achievement came to an end as a result of the terrible defeat inflicted on Athens by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War. Sparta, dominated politically by a conservative oligarchy3 that was always suspicious of change, had already become concerned by the end of the sixth century by the development of greater democracy at Athens under the leadership of Cleisthenes after 507. The Spartan leaders feared that the increasing democratization of Athenian government under the reforms of Cleisthenes4 would lead Athens to contest Spartan predominance in Greece. After seeing the military power, epecially the navy5, that Athens marshalled against the Persian army, the Spartan leaders increasingly saw Athens as more than just a theoretical threat to their state's dominance. The majority of men at Athens reciprocated this feeling of suspicion and feared the Spartan army, Greece's most formidable infantry force, as a threat to their international ambitions and security. The allies of Athens and Sparta also contributed signficantly to the friction between the two powers by complaining to their respective leaders about real and imagined grievances against the other leading state.

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hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (5):
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.1
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.23.5
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 6.29
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 6.3
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 6.30
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