The Golden Age of Greece

The “golden age” of Greece lasted for little more than a century, but it laid the foundations of western civilization. The age began with the unlikely defeat of a vast Persian army by badly outnumbered Greeks, and it ended with an inglorious and lengthy war between Athens and Sparta. This era is also referred to as the “Age of Pericles” after the Athenian statesman who directed the affairs of Athens at the height of her glory.

During this period, there were significant advances in government, art, philosophy, drama and literature. Athens’ citizens were supremely confident, filled with energy and enthusiasm, and convinced that their city provided the best culture.

Military victory over the Persians, largely achieved under Athenian leadership, set the stage. The transition in government from the aristocratic elite to the mass of common people also played an important role. More people felt that their opinions mattered.

One of the greatest inventions of the ancient Greeks was drama. It evolved out of religious ritual and quickly proved to be both an enduring and popular creation. Greek tragedies, featuring historical and mythological events, were written and directed by authors such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

The lyric poet Pindar became famous for victory odes written to celebrate athletic success. The writers of prose also flourished. Herodotus, regarded as the father of history, wrote several illuminating books on the Persian wars (and is still an often-consulted source on ancient Egypt). Another war historian, Thucydides, is still admired as a lucid and evocative writer. Plato, whose writings largely survive, is said to have penned the most poetical prose since the Bible.

Socrates steered philosophy in the direction of morals, logic and ethics. His life, and the manner of his death, had a massive impact on other major figures of that era, such as Plato, Aristophanes, and Xenophon.

The physician Hippocrates, the sculptor Phideas, and the architects of the Parthenon, all contributed to this “golden” era.

What brought the golden age to an end? The long and mutually murderous war between Athens and Sparta, with their conflicting values and aspirations? Military misadventures? Dreams of imperialism? Possibly the best answer lies in what the Greeks call hubris. Perhaps Athens overstepped its bounds and failed to follow the adages of Delphi: “Know thyself” and “All things in moderation.”

Source: The Golden Age of Greece
© Canadian Museum of History

Back to top