Timeline of World History: Year by Year from Prehistory to Present Day


  Illustrated History of the World

The Ancient World - ca. 2500 B.C. - 900 A.D.

The Ancient World

ca. 2500 B.C. - 900 A.D.


Classical Greece from the Culture of the Polis

to the End of Independence



The Military State of Sparta

Sparta, the most powerful state on the Peloponnesus, was significantly more traditional than other city-states. Its public life was characterized by austerity and martial order, and the state boasted a formidable military force.

Alongside Athens, 1, 2 Sparta played a dominant role among the city-states of Greece.


1 The landscape of ancient Sparta

2 The Agora of Sparta, artist's reconstruction


Due to the conflict between the two powers, which emerged in the fifth century B.C., comparisons of their political structures and lifestyles have often been drawn that do not do justice to their dissimilar development and background. Sparta's expansion in order to solve its demographic problems began around 720 B.C. when the Spartans occupied Laconia and invaded Messenia. The Messenians rebelled between 660 and 640, which led to the city's subjugation, giving Sparta control over the whole of the Peloponnesus. The conquered peoples became helots, or serfs. Individual tribes of helots were able to gain their freedom through bravery in war, however, and later even acquired the right to Spartan citizenship.

Sparta's social order rested on the upholding of traditional tribal customs such as the petitioning of the gods, communal meals, and the raising of boys from the age of seven by the state rather than the family. The Spartans were famed for their discipline, the austerity of their lives and their obedience to authority. The consequences, however, were that Sparta remained socially and economically backward, for example, not even minting a coinage. By the sixth century B.C. the rule of the aristocracy had been abolished and replaced by a society of equals (Homoioi) composed of all able men.

They ate their 3 meals—for example, the notorious Spartan "black soup"— communally.

3 Spartan communal meal

Fifteen men comprised an eating community and undertook the training of their adolescents (ephebi). Until the age of 30, the men lived with their military unit and underwent continuous training. This led to the sidelining of marriage and family life and encouraged homosexual relationships. As the men were frequently absent due to war or military training, the women of Sparta led a more liberated life than women in other cities. Aristotle even spoke of an "unbridled regiment of women" in Sparta.

Sparta's political goal was military effectiveness and readiness for battle against outside enemies as well as against possible revolts of the helots.

Through physical and weapons 4, 6 training, young Spartans were disciplined to fight, kill, and die for the good of Sparta.

This archetypal character—readiness for battle and fearlessness in the face of death—is history's image of Sparta.

4 Gymnastic exercises of Spartan youths

6 Youths wrestling, marble relief, ca. 500 B.C.




Translated from Herodotus' History:

Inscription on
Graves of Spartans
Killed Defending the
Pass of Thermopylae

"Go, stranger, and tell the
Spartans that we lie here
in obedience to their laws."



Ephebe with pole and sling




Greek historian

born 484 bc?, Halicarnassus, Asia Minor [now Bodrum, Tur.]?
died 430–420

Greek author of the first great narrative history produced in the ancient world, the History of the Greco-Persian Wars.

It is believed that Herodotus was born at Halicarnassus, a Greek city in southwest Asia Minor that was then under Persian rule. The precise dates of his birth and death are alike uncertain. He is thought to have resided in Athens and to have met Sophocles and then to have left for Thurii, a new colony in southern Italy sponsored by Athens. The latest event alluded to in his History belongs to 430, but how soon after or where he died is not known. There is good reason to believe that he was in Athens, or at least in central Greece, during the early years of the Peloponnesian War, from 431, and that his work was published and known there before 425.

Herodotus was a wide traveler. His longer wandering covered a large part of the Persian Empire: he went to Egypt, at least as far south as Elephantine (Aswān), and he also visited Libya, Syria, Babylonia, Susa in Elam, Lydia, and Phrygia. He journeyed up the Hellespont to Byzantium, went to Thrace and Macedonia, and traveled northward to beyond the Danube and to Scythia eastward along the northern shores of the Black Sea as far as the Don River and some way inland. These travels would have taken many years.

Structure and scope of the History
Herodotus’ subject in his History is the wars between Greece and Persia (499–479 bc) and their preliminaries. As it has survived, the History is divided into nine books (the division is not Herodotus’ own): Books I–V describe the background to the Greco-Persian Wars; Books VI–IX contain the history of the wars, culminating in an account of the Persian king Xerxes’ invasion of Greece (Book VII) and the great Greek victories at Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale in 480–479 bc There are two parts in the History, one being the systematic narrative of the war of 480–479 with its preliminaries from 499 onward (including the Ionic revolt and the Battle of Marathon in Book VI), the other being the story of the growth and organization of the Persian Empire and a description of its geography, social structure, and history.

There has been much debate among modern scholars whether Herodotus from the first had this arrangement in mind or had begun with a scheme for only one part, either a description of Persia or a history of the war, and if so, with which. One likely opinion is that Herodotus began with a plan for the history of the war and that later he decided on a description of the Persian Empire itself. For a man like Herodotus was bound to ask himself what the Persian-led invasion force meant. Herodotus was deeply impressed not only by the great size of the Persian Empire but also by the varied and polyglot nature of its army, which was yet united in a single command, in complete contrast to the Greek forces with their political divisions and disputatious commanders, although the Greeks shared a common language, religion, and way of thought and the same feeling about what they were fighting for. This difference had to be explained to his readers, and to this end he describes the empire.

A logical link between the two main sections is to be found in the account in Book VII of the westward march of Xerxes’ immense army from Sardis to the Hellespont on the way to the crossing by the bridge of boats into Greece proper. First comes a story of Xerxes’ arrogance and petulance, followed by another of his savage and autocratic cruelty, and then comes a long, detailed description of the separate military contingents of the army marching as if on parade, followed by a detailed enumeration of all the national and racial elements in the huge invasion force.

Herodotus describes the history and constituent parts of the Persian Empire in Books I–IV. His method in the account of the empire is to describe each division of it not in a geographical order but as each was conquered by Persia—by the successive Persian kings Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius. (The one exception to this arrangement is Lydia, which is treated at the very beginning of the history not because it was first conquered but because it was the first foreign country to attack and overcome the Greek cities of Asia Minor.)

The first section of Book I, the history and description of Lydia and its conquest by the Persians, is followed by the story of Cyrus himself, his defeat of the Medes and a description of Persia proper, his attack on the Massagetae (in the northeast, toward the Caspian), and his death. Book II contains the succession of Cambyses, Cyrus’ son, his plan to attack Egypt, and an immensely long account of that unique land and its history. Book III describes the Persians’ conquest of Egypt, the failure of their invasions to the south (Ethiopia) and west; the madness and death of Cambyses; the struggles over the succession in Persia, ending with the choice of Darius as the new king; the organization of the vast new empire by him, with some account of the most distant provinces as far east as Bactria and northwest India; and the internal revolts suppressed by Darius. Book IV begins with the description and history of the Scythian peoples, from the Danube to the Don, whom Darius proposed to attack by crossing the Bosporus, and of their land and of the Black Sea.

Then follows the story of the Persian invasion of Scythia, which carried with it the submission of more Greek cities, such as Byzantium; of the Persians’ simultaneous attack from Egypt on Libya, which had been colonized by Greeks; and the description of that country and its colonization. Book V describes further Persian advances into Greece proper from the Hellespont and the submission of Thrace and Macedonia and many more Greek cities to Persian might, then the beginning of the revolt of the Greek cities of Ionia against Persia in 499, and so to the main subject of the whole work.

Method of narration
This brief account of the first half of Herodotus’ History not only conceals its infinite variety but is positively misleading insofar as it suggests a straightforward geographical, sociological, and historical description of a varied empire. The History’s structure is more complex than that, and so is Herodotus’ method of narration. For example, Herodotus had no need to explain Greek geography, customs, or political systems to his Greek readers, but he did wish to describe the political situation at the relevant times of the many Greek cities later involved in the war. This he achieved by means of digressions skillfully worked into his main narrative. He thus describes the actions of Croesus, the king of Lydia, who conquered the Greeks of mainland Ionia but who was in turn subjugated by the Persians, and this account leads Herodotus into a digression on the past history of the Ionians and Dorians and the division between the two most powerful Greek cities, the Ionian Athens and the Doric Sparta. Athens’ complex political development in the 6th century bc is touched upon, as is the conservative character of the Spartans. All of this, and much besides, some of it only included because of Herodotus’ personal interest, helps to explain the positions of these Greek states in 490, the year of the Battle of Marathon, and in 480, the year in which Xerxes invaded Greece.

One important and, indeed, remarkable feature of Herodotus’ History is his love of and gift for narrating history in the storyteller’s manner (which is not unlike Homer’s). In this regard he inserts not only amusing short stories but also dialogue and even speeches by the leading historical figures into his narrative, thus beginning a practice that would persist throughout the course of historiography in the classical world.

Outlook on life
The story of Croesus in Book I gives Herodotus the occasion to foreshadow, as it were, in Croesus’ talk with Solon the general meaning of the story of the Greco-Persian Wars, and so of his whole History—that great prosperity is “a slippery thing” and may lead to a fall, more particularly if it is accompanied by arrogance and folly as it was in Xerxes. The story of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece is a clear illustration of the moral viewpoint here; a war that by all human reasoning should have been won was irretrievably lost. To Herodotus, the old moral “pride comes before a fall” was a matter of common observation and had been proved true by the greatest historical event of his time. Herodotus believes in divine retribution as a punishment of human impiety, arrogance, and cruelty, but his emphasis is always on the actions and character of men, rather than on the interventions of the gods, in his descriptions of historical events. This fundamentally rationalistic approach was an epochal innovation in Western historiography.

Qualities as a historian
Herodotus was a great traveler with an eye for detail, a good geographer, a man with an indefatigable interest in the customs and past history of his fellowmen, and a man of the widest tolerance, with no bias for the Greeks and against the barbarians. He was neither naive nor easily credulous. It is this which makes the first half of his work not only so readable but of such historical importance. In the second half he is largely, but by no means only, writing military history, and it is evident that he knew little of military matters. Yet he understood at least one essential of the strategy of Xerxes’ invasion, the Persians’ dependence on their fleet though they came by land, and therefore Herodotus understood the decisive importance of the naval battle at Salamis. Similarly, in his political summaries he is commonly content with explaining events on the basis of trivial personal motives, yet here again he understood certain essentials: that the political meaning of the struggle between the great territorial empire of Persia and the small Greek states was not one of Greek independence only but the rule of law as the Greeks understood it; and that the political importance of the Battle of Marathon for the Greek world was that it foreshadowed the rise of Athens (confirmed by Salamis) to a position of equality and rivalry with Sparta and the end of the long-accepted primacy of the latter. He knew that war was not only a question of victory or defeat, glorious as the Greek victory was, but brought its own consequences in its train, including the internal quarrels and rivalry between the leading Greek city-states, quarreling that was to later culminate in the devastating internecine strife of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 bc).

Herodotus had his predecessors in prose writing, especially Hecataeus of Miletus, a great traveler whom Herodotus mentions more than once. But these predecessors, for all their charm, wrote either chronicles of local events, of one city or another, covering a great length of time, or comprehensive accounts of travel over a large part of the known world, none of them creating a unity, an organic whole. In the sense that he created a work that is an organic whole, Herodotus was the first of Greek, and so of European, historians. Herodotus’ work is not only an artistic masterpiece; for all his mistakes (and for all his fantasies and inaccuracies) he remains the leading source of original information not only for Greek history of the all-important period between 550 and 479 bc but also for much of that of western Asia and of Egypt at that time.

Encyclopædia Britannica


The Political Organization of Sparta

Sparta was ruled by two royal dynasties, though the ephorate occasionally seized the reins of power. The original harmonious relationship with Athens turned into rivalry and confrontation after the Persian Wars.

Sparta's form of government was a monarchy with two lines of kings, the Agiads and the Eurypontids, sharing power between them.

The Spartan aristocracy dedicated itself to 7, 8, 11 warfare and was supported by the taxes of the helot peoples.

In the first half of the seventh century в.с, the lawmaker 10 Lycurgus instituted a  political code called the Great Rhetra ("agreement" or "law"), which listed Spartan customs and traditions.

A council of 28 aristocrats, elected for life, governed with the kings. Beside the council was an assembly (apella) of male citizens that approved or vetoed council proposals. A new institution called the ephorate ("overseers") emerged in the fifth century в.с: this group of five men was at first elected annually by the apella, but soon usurped the leadership of both the council and the apella and eventually displaced the kings from power. It wasn't until 226 B.C. that King Cleomenes III was able to break the power of the ephorate.

Sparta established its domination over the whole of the Peloponnesus, and only few dared to rebel against the powerful state. In contrast to Athens, Sparta was wise enough to demand only men and weapons from other city-states and not to interfere otherwise in their internal affairs.


8 Duel or ritualized combat between hoplites armed with spears and shields, painting on a Greek vase, ca. 560-550 B.C.
Spartan hoplite wearing a Corinthian helmet and greaves
7 Greek helmet and armor


10 Lycurgus Demonstrates the Meaning of Education,
painting by Caesar van Everdingen, 1660-61


Sparta's relations with Athens were good at first; the Spartans, under Cleomenes I, helped the Athenians dispose of the tyrant Hippias in 510 B.C. Furthermore, given the Spartans' military capabilities, they carried the burden of the heaviest fighting during the Persian Wars.

This is illustrated by the Spartan king 12 Leonidas, who in 480 в.с. blocked the advance of the vast Persian army with a tiny force of warriors at the Pass of 9, 13 Thermopylae, buying time for the other Greeks to arm themselves for the Battle of Salamis.

The Spartans fought and died to the last man. Afterwards, harmony between the two city-states was replaced by rivalry as Athens sought to expand. The resultant tensions eventually led to the Peloponnesian War.


12 Leonidas, King of Sparta

9 Leonidas and his companions before the
Battle of Thermopylae, 480 B.C.




13 Leonidas at Thermopylae, painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1814



Cleomenes I of Sparta

Cleomenes I of the Agiad family was king in Sparta from ca. 521 to 490 B.C. He played an important role in deposing the tyrants in Athens. Later, however, he came into conflict with the Athenians.

In 494, he dealt Argos, Sparta's traditional enemy, a crushing defeat at Sepeia, and he intervened in several other conflicts. As he wanted to restore a strong monarchy, the ephorates used his absence in war to depose him in 491 and he committed suicide a year later.