Living by the Sea

The Mediterranean and Aegean seas were as central to the Greek world as the Nile was to Egypt. While mountains divided Greeks from one another, the seas provided a vital link to the world outside. With its hundreds of bays, the Greek coastline offered safe harbors for ships. Like the Phoenicians, the Greeks became skilled sailors. Carrying cargoes of olive oil, wine, and marble, Greek traders sailed to Eygpt, the Middle East, and Asia Minor.

They returned not only with grains and metals but also with ideas, which they adapted to their own needs. For example, the Greeks expanded the Phoenician alphabet. The resulting alphabet in turn became the basis for all later Western alphabets.

By 750 B.C., rapid population growth was forcing many Greeks to leave their own overcrowded valleys. With fertile land limited, the Greeks expanded overseas. Gradually, a scattering of Greek colonies took root all around the Mediterranean from Spain to Egypt. Wherever they traveled, Greek settlers and traders carried their ideas and culture.

Rise of Greek City-States

As their world expanded after 750 B.C., the Greeks evolved a unique version of the city-state, which they called the polis (POH lis). Typically, the polis was built on two levels.

On a hilltop stood the acropolis (uh KRAH puh lis), or high city, with its great marble temples dedicated to different gods and goddesses. On flatter ground below lay the walled main city with its marketplace, theater, public buildings, and homes.

The population of each city-state was fairly small, which helped the citizens, or free residents, share a sense of responsibility for its triumphs and defeats. In the warm climate of Greece, free men spent much time outdoors in the marketplace, debating issues that affected their lives. The whole community joined in festivals honoring the city's special god or goddess. The rights of citizens were unequal, however, and male landowners held all the political power.

Types of Government Evolve

Between 750 B.C. and 500 B.C. Greeks developed different forms of government. At first, the ruler of the polis, like those in the river valley empires, was a king.

A government in which a hereditary ruler, such as a king or queen, exercises central power is a monarchy. Slowly, however, power shifted to a class of noble landowners. Because only they could afford bronze weapons and chariots, these nobles were also the military defenders of the city-states. At first these nobles defended the king. In time, however, they won power for themselves. The result was an aristocracy, or rule by a landholding elite.

As trade expanded, a new middle class of wealthy merchants, farmers, and artisans emerged in some cities. They challenged the landowning nobles for power and came to dominate some city-states. The result was a form of government called an oligarchy. In an oligarchy, power is in the hands of a small, wealthy elite.

New Ways of War Shape Greece

Changes in military technology increased the power of the middle class. By about 650 B.C., iron weapons replaced bronze ones. Since iron was cheaper, ordinary citizens could afford iron helmets, shields, and swords. Meanwhile, a new method of fighting emerged—the phalanx, a massive tactical formation of heavily armed foot soldiers. It required long hours of drill to master. Shared training created a strong sense of unity among the citizen-soldiers.

Hereditary ruler (king, queen) holds central power. Hereditary landholding upper class rules. Small wealthy elite exercises power.


England (1558–1603), France (1643–1715), Russia (1762–1796), Oman, Saudi Arabia


England (1688–1832), France (1700s before French Revolution)


Renaissance Florence, South Africa under apartheid, former Soviet Union

Analyze Charts

Athenian democracy evolved from these basic forms of government, which have been used over time in many other places. Describe how an aristocracy and an oligarchy are similar and different.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments