The Archaic Period in Greek history (c. 700–500 b.c.e.) laid the groundwork for the political, economic, artistic, and philosophical achievements of the Classical Period. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts to Western civilization by the ancient Greeks was the beginning of democratic government and philosophy. The seventh century b.c.e. witnessed the decline of the old aristocratic order that had dominated Greek politics and the rise of the tyrant.
For the Greeks the term tyrant referred to someone who had seized power through unconstitutional means. Tyrants were often accomplished men from aristocratic families who had fallen from political grace. They rode the tide of discontent and demand for more opportunities spawned by population and economic growth to lead the charge against the old aristocracy.
In order to help solidify their positions they often encouraged trade and business and sponsored ambitious building projects throughout their city-state. Tyrannies did not last beyond the third generation as the sons and grandsons of tyrants typically lacked the political skills and base of support enjoyed by their father and grandfather.
The Archaic Period saw the continuation of Greek migration that had begun late in the Greek Dark Ages. An increase in population and the resulting land shortage combined with economic growth, primarily in trade, spurred the movement in search of new lands, colonies, and trading posts. The economic expansion brought the Greeks into extensive contact with other peoples and led to the development of Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean, Ionia, and even into the Black Sea region.
The growing economic prosperity of the Archaic Period led to cultural changes as city-states viewed building projects, particularly of temples, as expressions of their civic wealth and pride. During this period the Greeks used with greater frequency the more graceful Ionic style in their public buildings.
Colonization and trade had brought the Greeks into more frequent contact with other great civilizations, such as Egypt. Some scholars give credit to Egypt and her development of large columned halls as influencing the Greeks and their move toward monumental architecture.
The move toward monumental architecture was further encouraged as stone replaced wood in public buildings such as temples, treasuries, and the agora as it transformed from a public meeting site to a local marketplace. In addition to the use of the Ionic column, relief sculptures illustrating mythological scenes increasingly appeared on the pediments and entablatures of late sixth century b.c.e. temples.
The seventh century b.c.e. saw the rise of lyric poetry, a song accompanied by a lyre. Unlike epic poetry (such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), lyric poetry is set in the present and tells the interests and passions of the author. Lyric poetry provides us with a rare insight to the travails of an individual versus the epic sagas involving entire states.
The poet Archilochus wrote a poem wishing harm to a man who had rejected the author as unsuitable for his daughter. Sappho, a poetess from the island of Lesbos, wrote a hymn to Aphrodite asking for assistance in a matter of love—her love for another woman. Both poems speak directly and passionately to the audience on matters of a very personal nature.
In this period the Greeks took the creation of a practical item, pottery, and turned it into such a beautiful piece of art that it spawned cheap imitations and demand for the pieces throughout the Mediterranean. Greek pottery in the seventh century b.c.e. was dominated by Corinthian pottery and its portrayal of animal life.
Athenian pottery and its portrayal of mythical themes rose to prominence in the sixth century b.c.e. The same century also saw the shift from black figures engraved on a red background to drawing red figures on a black background, which allowed for more detail and movement in their figures.
Perhaps the greatest contribution made to Western civilization by the Archaic Greeks was in the realm of ideas further developed during the Classical Period that continue to influence us, such as the search for a rational view of the universe, a “scientific” explanation for the world, and the birth of philosophy by the cosmologists in sixth century b.c.e. Miletus.
In addition, the Archaic Greeks bequeathed to humanity the concept of democratic government, wherein members of the polis (i.e., free men) enjoyed social liberty and freedom and willingly submitted to laws enacted directly by their fellow citizens.