A statue of the Greek philosopher Aristotle
A statue of the Greek philosopher Aristotle

Ancient Greece, which consisted of a collection of city-states, the most influential of which was Athens, is often considered the birthplace of many elements of modern Western culture. The Golden Age of Greece, usually placed around 500 to 300 B.C., produced some of the greatest accomplishments in the Western tradition and inspired European and American styles of civilization, art and government.

Democracy

Greek leaders such as Solon and Pericles put in place laws and changed government structures toward a more democratic practice. Solon introduced economic reform to forgive the debts of the lower classes, therefore providing some much-needed economic equality. The change from aristocratic leaders to more democratic leadership happened after urgings from an aristocrat named Cleisthenes, who encouraged wider civic involvement in government. Pericles moved these initial reforms forward by encouraging equal rights for all free citizens. Although not all people were able to vote in ancient Greece -- women, slaves and male Athenians who did not live within the city limits of Athens could not vote -- these changes in Athens created the first recorded stirrings of democracy.

Philosophy

The Golden Age of Greece is probably best known for philosophy, and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are the three greatest philosophers of the age. Socrates was known for his non-traditional teaching methods and his use of questioning to help reveal the underlying assumptions of his students. Socrates radically challenged the cultural norms of his time, which finally earned him a trial and death sentence for "corrupting the youth" of Athens. Plato, Socrates' student, preserved the wisdom of Socrates in written accounts of his teaching. Plato's treatise on government, "The Republic," and his concept of forms versus material reality are still studied by philosophy students today. Aristotle, never a citizen of Athens, lived in the city for much of his life and was Plato's student. Aristotle's writing about politics, literature and the natural world paved the way for future thinkers and scientists.

Art

The most significant advances in art during the Greek Golden Age were in sculpture, architecture and pottery. Greek sculpture during this time moved from a rigid, unnatural form to more realistic and natural human forms, as demonstrated in famous surviving sculptures such as the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Greek architecture is known for its post and lintel style, in which a horizontal block is laid across pillars or columns. The three major styles are Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Greek pottery had many shapes and styles, but its most interesting aspect during the Golden Age is the use of black pigment to create figures and scenes that run horizontally across the vase. These figures are often complex representations of mythological scenes.

Theater

Greek theater had its origins in religious festivals and evolved to become a complex art form during the Greek Golden Age. Playwrights such as Aeschylus, who dramatized the story of Agamemnon, and Sophocles, writer of the famous Oedipus tragedy, are considered masters of the form. These playwrights, while they remained true to traditional myths, explored the ethical and emotional complications of traditional stories and addressed the humanity of their characters.