The Persian Wars (500 BC – 479 BC) were a turning point in the history of Western Civilisation. Even the mighty Persians, the champions of the Orient, now shivered with fear when hearing the word “Greek”. The decisive victories at Platea and Salamis marked the beginning of a new golden age for Hellas.
Shortly after 478 BC Athens organised the so-called Delian League, whose purpose was to liberate Ionia. In a series of naval-engagements that followed, the Persians suffered heavy defeats and finally in 447 BC Artaxerxes I made peace with Athens, withdrawing from Ionia. In the meantime the Delian League had gradually been evolving into an Athenian Empire. Under the clever leadership of Pericles this Empire rose into unprecedented cultural heights. Many new buildings were built in the city of Athens, who now had more than 250,000 citizens.
Athens’ prosperity was brought to a violent end after the long Peloponnesian War with Sparta (431 BC – 404 BC), during which the drawbacks of Athenian democracy finally showed up. Having lost the war, Athens lost its Empire and its walls were destroyed. They were rebuilt later, but the city was never the same again. The process was not local, either, for all of Hellas was declining. The series of wars that followed, chiefly between Sparta and Thebes, only worsened the situation and proved that Greece was helpless. That cleared the way for a strong ruler coming from the north.
Macedonia was a small kingdom situated to the north of Thessally. Its inhabitants were Protohellenic tribes, who settled there in the period 2200-2100 BC. They mixed with the local barbarians, chiefly Thracians and Illyrians, to form the Macedonian nationality. They spoke a form of Greek called Koine, but mixed with so many barbarisms that the Athenians could not understand it. The country was very backward, but in the V-IV c. BC the kings made efforts to introduce Greek culture and civilised it to a large extent. Philip II (359 BC – 336 BC) strengthened the army and conquered new territories. In 338 BC at Chaeronea he defeated the allied forces of Athens and Thebes, after which Greece lost its independence. He was planning on a campaign against Persia when he was assassinated in Aegai in 336 BC.
Philip was succeeded by his son Alexander III, a youth of only 20. In the first two years of his reign the young king defeated the barbarians to the north, making the Danube River his frontier and sacked the rebellious Thebes, reassuring his hegemony over Hellas. After that, in 334 BC, he crossed the Hellespont and marched on Persia. In the large battles of Granicus (334 BC), Issus (333 BC) and Gaugamela (331 BC), he defeated the Persians and conquered the Empire of Cyrus the Great. Going further into India in 326 BC, he defeated king Porus at Hydaspes, but his exhausted troops made him halt the march. Returning to Babylon, which he now made the capital of his Empire, Alexander died on June 10th, 323 BC.
After Alexander the Great’s death, his kingdom quickly disintegrated. The Diadochi (Successors) fought each other for many years before finally establishing boundaries. With the Seleucids now ruling in Asia, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Antigonids in Macedonia, the Eastern Mediterranean entered a new cosmopolitan aeon, called the Hellenistic, or “Greek-like” age, where Greek and Oriental culture fused.
By the end of the III c. BC BC, however, the Hellenistic monarchies started declining. At the same time Rome had become master of the Western Mediterranean after two bloody Punic Wars with Carthage. Rome was drawn into the affairs of the East immediately after that. Philip V of Macedonia was defeated at Cynoscephalae in 197 BC, and in 146 BC the kingdom of Alexander became a Roman province. Antiochus the Great of Asia was defeated at Magnesia ad Syppilum in 190 BC and lost Asia Minor; Syria was finally annexed in 64 BC. Egypt had willingly become a client of Rome and it retained this semi-independence till 30 BC, when it became a Roman province. The Roman Republic had brought together all elements of Alexander’s Empire (Macedonia, Greece, Syria, Egypt) and now also borrowed the idea of a united peaceful world. In 27 BC Caesar Augustus became the first emperor of Rome, whose territories already surrounded all of the Mediterranean.