How and Why Ancient Greece Fell
Ancient Greece’s title of being one of the most influential civilizations in world history did not come easily. For several centuries, the Greeks and their culture dominated not just the Mediterranean but also other parts of the known world. They gave us numerous scientific, social and cultural inventions, including democracy, histography, the Olympics, geometry, philosophy, theatre and medicine.
And as it is natural with any civilization, the demise of ancient Greece came as a result of a number of factors. Ancient Greece was nudged off by the more powerful and vibrant Romans, who ended up incorporating ancient Greece into their territory.
Below, we explore the factors that caused the decline and fall of ancient Greece. But first, here is a quick look at the political, social and cultural environment of ancient Greece.
Ancient Greece as a civilization and not an empire
In the truest sense of the word, ancient Greece was never really an empire or a country; rather it was a loose coalition of independent city-states that shared so many cultural and religious beliefs. It was only in the modern times (i.e. in 1821) that Greece did eventually become a country. Although, not united per se, the ideas and inventions that were produced by the ancient Greeks ended up becoming the foundation of our Western civilization.
A quick look at the timeline of ancient Greece shows that the history of the civilization goes all the way back to around 1100 BCE, a time period historians often refer to as the Greek Dark Ages. Following that period was the Archaic Period, which started around 776 BCE and ended in 500 BCE.
Then, there was the famous Greek Classical Period (480 BCE – 323 BCE) which witnessed tremendous burst of ideas and scientific innovations. This period could boast of philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, and the famous Greek playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus.
Finally, there was the Hellenist Period, which spanned from 323 BCE to 31 BCE. Hellenistic Greece began following the death of Alexander the Great, the famous conqueror and king of Macedonia.
Not until Alexander Great, ancient Greek city-states often busied themselves either fighting amongst each other or loosely banding together to ward off the Persians. It has been estimated that there were several Greek city-states; however, the most prominent of them were Athens and Sparta.
Even during the reign of Alexander the Great and his father Philip II of Macedon, Greeks never really felt like being part of unified empire. Alexander the Great, a huge admirer of Greek culture, was crucial in spreading Greek culture and ideas to other parts of the Mediterranean, as he went on several conquests in the region.
Read More: 10 Most Famous Ancient Greek Philosophers
Factors that led to the fall of ancient Greece
The following are the 4 major factors that caused the fall of ancient Greece:
The loose coalition that existed amongst Greek city-states
Right from its beginning ancient Greece was always made up of city-states that had their own independent governments. For most of the time, these city-states locked horns with each other, fighting for dominance in the region. For example, it was not uncommon for the very militrialistic city-state of Sparta to spar with the quite liberal and intellectual (philosophical) city-state of Athens.
Individual city-states also suffered from the constant threat of the mighty Persian Empire in the east. The most known of those clashes came in the form of the Persian Wars, which saw a series of Persian attacks from 492 BCE to 449 BCE. Examples of some legendary battles fought in the Persian Wars include Marathon (490 BCE), Platea (479 BCE), and Themopylae (480 BCE). Although, the Greek city-states banded together to repulse the Persians, the effects of the Greco-Persian wars weakened the influence of Greeks in the region.
Basically the combination of those two factors, as well as others, allowed for the decline of the ancient Greek civilization.
The Death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE
In the decades and centuries that followed after the death of Alexander the Great, the various Greek city-states that were on the verge of uniting became more divided. Owing to the sudden death of the 32-year-old military genius, a successor could not be named. Alexander’s generals went ahead and sliced up the empire, leaving each area to be ruled by a general. So, for example, Alexander’s conquered territories in Egypt came to be ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BCE marked the end of the Classical Greek period, ushering in the Hellenistic Period. During this time, attention started moving from traditional cultural hubs such as Athens and Sparta to places like Alexandria (in Egypt) and Ephesus (in Turkey).
Did you know: The military genius and leader Alexander the Great went on a conquering spree that saw him march as far as India?
The Rise of Rome
The inability of ancient Greek city-states to unite was not the only reason why ancient Greece fell. Ancient Rome’s increased influence in the region, which started around 200 BCE, ended up being a huge factor in the fall of ancient Greece. A very militaristic and prosperous Rome made it their goal to conquer all of Greece.
Fearing the growing threat of Rome, many Greek city-states did not hesitate to form an alliance with the North African region of Carthage in waging war against Rome in 215 BCE. However, Rome proved to be a far superior force and defeated the Greeks.
In 146 BCE for example, Rome (under the command of Lucius Mummius) defeated a coalition of Greek armies at the Battle of Corinth. The sheer devastation of the Greek city-state of Corinth scared the living hell out of the remaining Greek city-states, compelling many of them to quickly push for an alliance with Rome. As a result, Rome became the dominant force in the Mediterranean.
Not only did Rome absorb the various ancient Greece city-states into their empire, the Romans also kind of appropriated a great deal of Greek culture, including ancient Greek religious beliefs and gods. So, for example, the king of the Greek pantheon of gods Zeus became Jupiter in Rome; and the Greek god of war Ares became Mars in the pantheon of Roman gods.
Revolt of the lower classes in Ancient Greece
As seen in many empires and civilizations, internal rife within the various Greek city-states ended being a significant factor in the fall of ancient Greece. The rife was primarily caused by a class war, which saw the lower classes rise up against the upper classes and ruling elites.
Often times those uprisings created a conducive environment for brutal rulers to cease power. And with that came more chaos and uprisings. As a result of those internal uprisings, the Greek city-states became even more vulnerable to external invasions.
Other facts about Ancient Greece and its fall
- Although ancient Greece became a protectorate of Rome, it was still allowed to keep much of its culture. So long as the Greek city-states paid homage to Rome, Greeks continued to go about their life unimpeded, even maintaining the Greek language. As a matter of fact, the Romans had deep admiration for the Greek culture. This explains why Roman culture appeared to be similar to the Greek culture.
- By adopting a great deal of Greek culture, the Romans helped spread Greek culture to regions that the Roman Empire conquered. Therefore, the philosophies, literature, educational systems, and other social inventions of the Greeks became an important component of Western Civilization.
- Ancient Greece was only united for about a decade or so. This period was during the reign of Alexander the Great.
- Excluding the Greek Dark Ages (c. 1200 – c. 800 BCE), ancient Greek civilization in effect began in the 8th century BCE and lasted until around the 2nd century BCE.
Timeline of Ancient Greece
1. Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations (circa 2600-1100 BCE):
- Minoan Civilization (2600-1400 BCE): Flourished on the island of Crete. It’s best known for its monumental palaces, especially at Knossos.
- Mycenaean Civilization (1600-1100 BCE): Mainland Greek civilization known for its fortified palaces and Linear B writing.
2. The Dark Ages (circa 1100-800 BCE):
- Following the fall of the Mycenaeans, Greece entered a period of decline characterized by depopulation and the absence of written records.
3. Archaic Period (circa 800-500 BCE):
- The rise of the polis (city-state) and colonization of the Mediterranean basin.
- Introduction of the Greek alphabet.
- Homer composes the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.”
4. Classical Period (circa 500-323 BCE):
- Persian Wars (499-449 BCE): Greek city-states unite against Persian invasions. Major battles include Marathon, Thermopylae, and Salamis.
- Golden Age of Athens (circa 460-404 BCE): Under the leadership of Pericles, the Parthenon was built, and the arts, philosophy, and science flourished.
- Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE): A protracted conflict between Athens and Sparta.
- Socratic Period (469-399 BCE): Time of the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and the establishment of Plato’s Academy in Athens.
- Macedonian Hegemony and the rise of Philip II (359-336 BCE): Consolidation of Macedonian power and the subjugation of much of mainland Greece.
5. Hellenistic Period (circa 323-146 BCE):
- Death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE): After his conquests from Greece to India, his vast empire gets divided among his generals.
- Emergence of Hellenistic Kingdoms (circa 323-30 BCE): The Seleucid Empire, Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Antigonid dynasty in Macedonia.
- The city of Alexandria in Egypt becomes a major center of Greek learning and culture.
- Stoicism, Epicureanism, and other Hellenistic philosophies flourish.
6. Roman Domination (146 BCE onward):
- Battle of Corinth (146 BCE): Marks the beginning of Roman domination over Greece.
- Greek culture heavily influences Roman civilization, leading to the blend known as Greco-Roman culture.
Throughout these periods, Ancient Greece produced foundational texts in philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and politics, and its legacy deeply influenced the Renaissance and modern Western civilization. From the democratic ideals of Athens to the Hellenistic spread of Greek culture, its impact remains profound.