Classical Greece was the time when the city-states saw an accelerated development that propelled them to unparalleled cultural achievements.
The Greek Poles rose to power through alliances, reforms, and a series of stunning military victories against the invading Persian armies. Athens and Sparta assumed leadership positions in polarized ideology that eventually led them to fight each other during the Peloponnesian War.
Sparta placed great emphasis in its military development and was governed by two kings, while Athens developed a Democratic government and developed its commerce and navy. Both powers were tested when the invading Persian army landed in Greece in 490 BCE. The Athenian hoplites routed the Persian Army at Marathon, in a victory that surprised even the Greeks themselves. Ten years later, when the Persians returned with the largest army and navy ever assembled, the united Greek city-states managed another stunning victory in the naval battle of Salamina in 480 BCE. The Persian wars ended when the Greeks defeated the Persians a year later at Plataea.
Soon afterwards, Athens entered a particularly productive era under the leadership of Pericles. This era was later named the Golden Age of Athens for its incredible achievements in Philosophy, Literature, Politics, Science, and Art. These achievements culminated in a massive building project that included the buildings of the Acropolis. Athenian power stemmed partly from its leadership position of a military alliance against the Persians, the Delian League, that included many of the Aegean islands and other city-states. In response to the rise of Athenian power, Sparta led the Peloponnesian League.
With the external enemy of the Persians neutralized, the Greeks resumed their old animosity and mistrust towards each other. Eventually, the two superpowers, Athens and Sparta entered a long and nasty war against each other, dragging into it all their willing or reluctant allies. The Peloponnesian War began in 431 BCE. With Sparta dominant on land, and Athens powerful at sea, the war quickly became a stale mate that dragged on for twenty-seven years. Eventually, an ill-advised expedition against Syracuse drained Athens of its resources, and forced her to capitulate to the Spartans in 404 BCE.
The Classical Period shaped some remarkable cultural and scientific achievements. Athens introduced to the world a direct Democracy, and in politics and culture it emphasized rationality over emotion. The ideas of Classical Greece influenced thought for thousands of years afterwards, and remained relevant even to our day. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle among others, shaped the foundations of the western world. Hippocrates became the “Father of modern medicine”, and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes are considered to be masterpieces of western culture. The art of Classical Greece engaged in a more realistic depiction of the world, with Man at its center.
Eventualy, even the Spartan mighty army found its match when Thebes defeated the Spartiates in two battles, the first in Leuctra in 371 BCE, and the second nine years later at Mantinea. With the city states of the south exhausted from repeated squabbles against each other, Philip II of Macedon emerged as the dominant power in Greece, especially after his victory at Chaeronea against the Athenians in 338 BCE. Philip planned an expedition of united Greece against the Persians in Asia, but it was up to his son Alexander the Great to fulfill them after Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE.
In the process of avenging the Persians, Alexander created the largest empire known hitherto. He crossed the Hellespond into Asia in 334 BCE managed to defeat the mighty Persian army and to crash all opposition in his path. Through his victories at Granicus, at Issus, at Tyre, and at Gaugamela among others, in a short period of time Alexander came to control a vast area of land, that included Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, the Middle East, and the remnants of the Persian Empire that reached as far as Bactria (Afganistan) and the western edge of India.
Despite the objections of his officers, Alexander incorporated into his army forces from the conquered lands, adopted local customs, and encouraged his soldiers to marry local women. His sudden death in 323 BCE of a fever at the age of 32 left a vast conquered land without an apparent successor. Alexander the Great changed the course of history for centuries to come. The influence of the Greek culture moved from the limited scope of city-states to a vast territory that included most of the traditional powerful lands of the time. With so many diverse cultures under common hegemony, and with Greek influence spreading rapidly around the Mediterranean and southern Asia, the ancient world entered a new era.