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Starting Points Map: The Early Greeks

Main Idea / Reading Focus

Minoans and Mycenaeans

Greek City-States

Gods and Heroes

Early Greece


Click the icon to play Listen to History audio.

Click the icon below to connect to the Interactive Maps.


Early Greece

Main Idea

The earliest cultures in Greece, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, were trading societies, but both disappeared and were replaced by Greek city-states.

  • Reading Focus
  • What were Minoan and Mycenaean cultures like?
  • What were the common characteristics of Greek city-states?
  • What role did stories of gods and heroes play in Greek culture?

The Minoans of Crete

Excavations at Knossos

  • Minoan civilization developed as early as 3000 BC
  • Lasted nearly 2,000 years
  • Minoan ships sailed over Aegean Sea, possibly farther
  • Colonies established on dozens of Aegean islands
  • Ships filled with trade goods sailed back and forth between Crete and her colonies
  • Much of Minoan life revealed by excavations
    • Solidly constructed buildings
    • Private rooms
    • Basic plumbing
    • Brightly colored artwork
    • Artwork shows life tied to sea, women as priests, dangerous games

Minoans and Mycenaeans

Many parts of early Greek history are still a mystery, but we do know that two distinct cultures developed in early Greece.



  • Much history of Minoan civilization result of guesswork, speculation
    • Historians cannot read Minoans’ writing, Linear A.
    • Does not appear to be related to languages of mainland Greece
  • Until writing deciphered, most knowledge will come from art, objects
  • Rapid Decline
  • Minoan civilization fell apart rather suddenly, possibly from disaster.
    • Large eruption of volcanic island near Crete may have affected worldwide weather patterns.
    • Damage to Minoan ports, crops may have weakened society
  • Minoans conquered by warlike Mycenaeans


  • The Mycenaean States
  • Mycenaeans built small kingdoms, often fought with each other
  • Name comes from fortress, Mycenae
  • First Greeks
  • Mycenaeans considered first Greeks, spoke form of Greek language
  • Earliest kingdoms owed much to Minoans
  • Minoan Influences
  • Mycenaeans traded with Minoans, copied writing
  • Became great traders
  • Trade increased after they conquered Crete
  • Mycenaean Differences
  • Society dominated by intense competition, frequent warfare, powerful kings
  • Kings taxed trade, farming to build palaces, high walls

Mycenaean Strengths and Downfall

  • Mycenaean Strength
  • To show off strength, Mycenaeans built great monuments like Lion’s Gate
  • Kings’ constant quest for power, glory inspired legends
  • Most famous, story of Trojan War
  • Trojan War
  • War supposedly involved early Greeks, led by Mycenae, who fought powerful city called Troy, in what is now Turkey
  • War may not have happened, but ruins of city believed to be Troy found
  • Downfall
  • War played part in end of Mycenaean civilization, as did drought, famine
  • By end of 1100s BC, Mycenaean cities mostly in ruins; dark age followed
  • Greek civilization almost disappeared

Compare and Contrast

How were Minoan and Mycenaean cultures similar? How were they different?

Answer(s): similar—both were trading states; different—Mycenaean writing has been translated; Mycenaeans had frequent wars


Life in the Polis


Other Attributes

  • Polis, center of daily life, culture
  • Greeks fiercely loyal to their polis
  • Did not think of selves as Greeks, but as residents of their particular city-state
  • Polis built around high area, called acropolis
  • Acropolis used as fortification
  • Included temples, ceremonial spaces
  • Agora, public marketplace, below
  • Shops, houses, temples near agora
  • Gymnasium, athletes’ training grounds, public bath
  • Sturdy wall for defense surrounded polis

Greek City-States

A new type of society emerged in Greece in the 800s BC. The society was centered on the polis, or city-state. Each polis developed independently, with its own form of government, laws and customs.

Each major polis had a different political system that developed over time.

Corinth, an oligarchy, ruled by a few individuals

Athens, birthplace of democracy

Sparta, one of mightiest city-states, but least typical

Political Systems of Greek City-States


The Might of Sparta

  • Beginnings
  • Sparta located on Peloponnesus, large peninsula of southern Greece
  • First surrounded by smaller towns; over time Sparta seized control of towns
  • After conquering town of Messenia, Spartans made Messenians into helots
  • Helots
  • Helots were state slaves given to Spartan citizens to work on farms so citizens did not have to perform manual labor.
  • As result, Spartan citizens free to spend time training for war
  • War
  • Spartan emphasis on war not due to fondness for fighting, but as way to keep order in society
  • Helots outnumbered Spartans seven to one, kept in check by strong army

Combat School

Women in Society

  • Boys taught physical, mental toughness by mothers until age 7
  • Entered combat school to toughen for hardships of being soldier
  • At age 20 boys became hoplites, foot soldiers; remained in army 10 years before becoming citizens
  • Unusual among Greek city-states
  • Women played important role
  • Trained in gymnastics for physical fitness, to bear strong children
  • Women had right to own property, unlike women in most of Greece

Militaristic State

To support their military lifestyle, the Spartans demanded strength and toughness. All babies were examined after birth and unhealthy children were left in the wild to die.

Sparta was led by two kings who served as military commanders. Decision-making was largely left to an elected council of elders.


Identify Cause and Effect

Why did Sparta’s political system develop?

Answer(s): Because of Sparta's emphasis on war; it was led politically by two kings who served as military commanders.


The Gods of Olympus

Legends and Myths

  • Ancient Greeks believed in hundreds of gods, goddesses; each governed one aspect of nature, life
  • Example: Apollo controlled movement of sun; sister Artemis did same for moon
  • Greeks believed gods would protect them, city-states in exchange for proper rituals, sacrifices
  • Much of what is known about early Greece comes from studying Greeks’ legends, myths
  • Myths, stories told to explain natural phenomena, events of distant past
  • Greek myths explained where they came from, how they should live, cope with uncertain world

Gods and Heroes



Sacred Locations

  • Almost all Greeks worshipped same gods
  • Each polis claimed one god, goddess as special protector
  • Example: Athens sacred to Athena
  • Some locations considered sacred by all Greeks
  • Delphi sacred to all Greeks—priestesses of Apollo were thought to receive visions of future
  • Olympia—every four years Greeks assembled there for Olympic Games; athletes competed against each other to honor gods

Mount Olympus

  • 12 gods, goddesses were particularly influential in Greek lives
  • These 12 lived together on Mount Olympus, highest mountain in Greece
  • Olympian gods thought to have great power, though not perfect
  • Myths say gods flawed, often unpredictable—loved, hated, argued, made mistakes, got jealous, played tricks on each other


Hercules and Theseus

  • Heroes killed monsters, made discoveries, founded cities, talked with gods on equal terms
  • Examples inspired individuals, whole city-states, to achieve great things
  • Hubris, great pride, brought many heroes to tragic ends
  • Served as lessons not to overstretch abilities
  • Greeks also told myths about heroes, used to teach Greeks where they came from, what kind of people they should be
  • Some heroes, like Hercules, who had godlike strength, renowned through all Greece
  • Others, like Theseus, who killed Minotaur of Crete, famous chiefly in home cities

Myths about Heroes



What role did mythology play in Greek culture?

Answer(s): explained natural phenomena; taught Greeks where they came from and how to act