Though the emergence of their culture can be traced back to the eighth century BC, the Greeks exerted their greatest and longest-lasting influence on the world during their Classical and Hellenistic periods, dating roughly from 500 BC until shortly after they were overcome by the Roman Empire in 146 BC.
For all their achievements in so many noble fields of human endeavor, the greatest contribution of the ancient Greeks was their experimentation and success in establishing the concepts of the rights of the individual, personal liberty, and self-government or democracy.
One of the primary reasons for the phenomenal progress of the Greeks, not just in democratic thinking but in so many other areas, was their early adoption of the city-state form of government. The Greeks organized themselves around their local cities. Adjoining areas were considered part of the city-state; for example, the city-state of Athens included the entire Attica peninsula, roughly a thousand square miles.
On occasion, the city-states would unite together in leagues, primarily for mutual protection through military alliances, but also to enrich themselves through trade. But these leagues were always limited in scope and subject to shifting membership. Indeed, they were so fleeting that they could often not be relied upon, for the fiercely independent Greeks were determined not to become just another small part of someone else’s greater kingdom or empire.
Although their resistance to uniting made them vulnerable to more powerful forces, the Greeks’ city-state form of government had many significant advantages. Each city-state was small, locally governed, and in vibrant competition with its fellow Greek city-states. Each set its own priorities and its own agenda. This facilitated innovation and creative genius. One scholar declared them to be examples of “extreme chauvinism . . . highly individualistic and autonomous . . . all that had allowed the creation and growth of a free landowning citizenry like none other.”
Other scholars have noted:
From the close of the Greek Middle Age (ca. 750 b.c.) Greek civilization developed with remarkable rapidity. No other Indo-European or Oriental people has achieved results comparable to those of the next centuries. The one institution more responsible for this extraordinary achievement than any other was the city-state (polis). . . .
. . . [T]he city-state made possible boundless versatility in the fields of literature, art, and philosophy. Perhaps its most precious contribution to civilization is republican government, which the Greeks devised in endless variety and which assured to the citizens a varying degree of liberty and self-government.
Although not alone, the city-state most active in experimenting with self-government was Athens. Over decades its government evolved from a kingship, to a king with a council made up of aristocrats, to rule by a broad collection of aristocrats, to a representative government of all citizens. This evolution was not without its failures and the occasional tyrant or two, but for the quarter century before 480 BC, the city-state of Athens had tested the limits of democracy and found it acceptable. After 480, it continued to experiment and achieved an even higher degree of self-government.
Of the Athenians it was said, “They bow to no man and are no man’s slaves.”
Noted historian Victor Davis Hanson has commented on how unusual the Greek experimentation truly was by pointing out what was at stake when Persia invaded Greece in 480 BC:
First, we should remember that the decade-long Persian Wars . . . offered the East the last real chance to check Western culture in its embryonic state, before the Greeks’ radically dynamic menu of constitutional government, private property, broad-based militias, civilian control of military forces, free scientific inquiry, rationalism, and separation between political and religious authority would spread to Italy, and thus via the Roman Empire to most of northern Europe and the western Mediterranean. Indeed, the words freedom and citizen did not exist in the vocabulary of any other Mediterranean culture, which were either tribal monarchies, or theocracies.
With its culture that valued freedom, individual liberty, and self-government, the Greek city-state was critical to the future development of the Western world. And although it is impossible to know how the history of Europe would have unfolded, this much is surely true: had the Greeks been defeated at Salamis—had their people been conquered by a power for whom the concepts of freedom and citizen did not even exist—history would have unfolded much differently.