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Expansion and Conflict in the Greek Poleis - 30 credits (HS3314)

Staff: Stephen Lambert, Louis Rawlings, Laurence Totelin

From the seventh century BC onwards Greek society and politics underwent rapid and remarkable transformations, including the rise of the city-state, early 'colonisation', military developments and the emergence of tyrants, and the beginnings of democracy at Athens and elsewhere. These developments led to an increasing self-awareness and the growth of Panhellenic identity, as the Greeks came into contact with foreign cultures and engaged in decisive conflicts with the Persian Empire. The dramatic success of the Greek states in the Persian Wars led to the development of competing claims to the leadership of Greece by Athens and Sparta. The rising power of the Athenian Empire was finally checked by the long and destructive 'Peloponnesian War' (431–404 BC). This module examines all these processes with a particular attention to the sources of the period, above all the Histories of the two greatest Greek historians, Herodotus and Thucydides.

Optional for: all Ancient History degrees
Availability: autumn and spring semesters in alternate years
Teaching: 30 lectures and 6 seminars
Assessment: one essay (35%); two class tests (15%); one 2-hour examination (50%)

Syllabus content

  • the nature of archaic Greek society: the role of wealth and birth; aristocratic lifestyles.
  • the development of archaic states and of hoplite warfare; tyrants and lawgivers in the city-states; politics and constitutional change in Athens and Sparta.
  • Greek 'colonisation' in the West, Africa and the Black Sea.
  • Herodotus on Greeks and Persians; the Ionian revolt, the Persian Wars and the changing self-image of the Greeks.
  • inter-state relations in Greece: the development and natures of the Peloponnesian League and the Athenian Empire.
  • Thucydides' history and the causes and course of the wars between Athens and the Peloponnesian League, especially the main Peloponnesian War.


  • To consider a major period of the history of the Greek city-states (c. 650–404 BC), based on the narrative accounts of Herodotus and Thucydides.
  • To enable students to understand the nature of Greek society and politics in this period of dynamic change and conflict, including the expansion and political growth of the city-states; the interaction of Greeks with other cultures and political systems, especially the Persian Empire; and the shifting patterns of dominance between the leading Greek states.
  • To understand the nature of the sources for the period, above all the two leading historians.

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, the student will demonstrate:

  • a knowledge of the events of sixth- and fifth- century BC Greece, and of the political, economic and social forces that shaped them.
  • an understanding of modern debates on issues such as i) causes and results of Greek expansion; ii) the different internal political developments such as oligarchy, tyranny and democracy; iii) the dynamics of imperialism and warfare in the period; and iv) the causes and course of the wars between Athens and the Peloponnesians.
  • an ability to assess the value of the two main surviving historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, as historical sources, in the light both of their historical and literary aims and preoccupations, and of the other literary and documentary evidence.
  • an ability to discuss these issues in coursework and examinations with coherent and logical arguments, clearly and correctly expressed.

Primary sources (to be bought)

Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A. de Selincourt (rev. J. M. Marincola, Penguin 1996)
Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, trans. P.J. Rhodes (Penguin 1984)
Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War (Penguin Classics)
Xenophon, A History of My Times (Penguin Classics)
LACTOR I, The Athenian Empire, ed. R. Osborne (JACT Publications, 4th edition, 2000)
C. W. Fornara, Archaic Times to the End of the Peloponnesian War: Translated Documents of Greece and Rome, vol 1, (Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 1983)

Preliminary reading

A. Andrewes, The Greek Tyrants (1956)
M. M. Austin & P. Vidal-Naquet, Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece (1977)
J. Boardman, The Greeks Overseas (new edition, 1980)
T. Buckley, Aspects of Greek History 750–323 BC: A Source-Based Approach (1996)
A. R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks (1962)
J. K. Davies, Democracy and Classical Greece (1978; second edition, 1993)
W. G. Forrest, The Emergence of Greek Democracy (1966)
J. Gould, Herodotus (1989)
S. Hodkinson, Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta (2000)
S. Hornblower, The Greek World 479–323 BC (1988; new edition, 2002)
J.A.C.T.: The World of Athens (ed. P.V. Jones) (1984)
LACTOR 16, The Persian Empire from Cyrus II to Artaxerxes I, ed. M. Brosius (JACT Publications, 2000)
O. Murray, Early Greece (2nd edition, 1993)
R. Osborne, Greece in the Making 1200–479 BC (1996; second edition, 2009)
A. Powell, Athens and Sparta (1988; second edition, 2001)
A. M. Snodgrass, Archaic Greece: the Age of Experiment (1980)

Related modules

Prerequisite module: HS3101 Introduction to Ancient Greek History

Other modules to consider taking in conjunction with this one:

HS2386 Art and Archaeology of Archaic Greece

HS2389 Art and Archaeology of Classical Greece

HS3309 Greek Values

HS3315 Kingdoms, Cities and Hellenization

HS3330 Gods and the Polis

HS3345/6 Greek Historical Texts

HS4351 Army and Society: Homer to Alexander