What Made the Unification of Ancient Greece Under a Single Government So Difficult?

Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea make up most of the Greek world.
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1 The History

Throughout the course of ancient Greek history, many tyrants rose and fell. The Peloponnesian War forced a power shift from Athenian to Spartan forces, collapsing Athenian democracy during that time. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Hellenistic Period began and became known as the Hellenistic World.

Employing both practical and devious means to take over, they sometimes succeeded in various city-states to establish stable regimes. Other cities and towns, too small to attract the gaze of potential conquerors, existed under the rule of established elites or as democracies. However, no single tyrant or governing body in ancient Greece was able to unite all of the city-states into one united nation. Some of them were united under the Delian League, but never all of them.

The Athenian, Mycenaean, Aegean, Corinthian, Macedonian, and Ionian city-states, among others, couldn’t be brought together under a single government as a whole Greek civilization in the ancient world. Surrounding areas such as Anatolia, Asia minor, Sicily, Rome, Egypt, and Macedonia had influence on Greek history as well during this time.

Greek culture during this time in ancient history was rich and varied, with notable people including Homer, Alexander the Great, Herodotus, Plato, Solon, Aristotle, and Socrates. Homer’s classical Greek works, the Odyssey and the Iliad, gave readers a glimpse into different aspects of Greek society during this time. Architecture was also important during this time, with buildings like the Parthenon and the Ancient Agora of Athens and the Acropolis of Athens.

2 The Greek Polis

The Greek polis, or city-state, was small, sometimes even tiny, and existed under various types of rule. Among the more than 1,500 city-states that developed in ancient Greece, Athens was unusual with its large population of over 200,000. Other prominent poleis included Corinth, with 10,000 people, and Sparta, which had even fewer -- most of whom were slaves. But whether a monarchy, oligarchy or democracy, they all had one thing in common. The citizens of each polis -- the wealthy or land-owning males -- were expected to take an active role in society and in politics. Even Sparta, which was ruled by a military elite, had an assembly that helped guide its highest councils in this form of government.

3 The Geography

Though city-states, villages and hamlets sprang up all over Greece, geography prevented them from uniting under one rule of law. Water was a dividing factor, as civilization in the region developed on many different islands, rather than on one continent. On the islands, mountains hindered travel, trade and communication between populated areas. Consequently, local governments arose, each with its own leaders, character and method of rule. For example, though Athens and Thebes were only about 60 miles apart, they evolved so differently -- Athens into a democracy and Thebes into an oligarchy -- that they developed a bitter rivalry highlighted by the Theban alliance with Persia against Greece during the Persian Wars.

4 The Mediterranean Sea

Early Greeks had a pioneering spirit that often led them away from their own city-states to colonize on other islands or even along the coasts of other countries such as Italy, Turkey and France. The dearth of arable land on the Greek islands coupled with the invitingly calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea enticed many Greeks to become sailors. Setting out when overcrowding or crisis threatened their prosperity, they steered a course to a new life somewhere more hospitable. The founders of these new colonies felt no obligation to remain under the rule of their former land, creating an even bigger challenge to Greek unification.

5 Aristocratic Power

The various aristocracies of the Greek city-states further prevented unification of the country under one government. The word aristocracy itself is Greek, meaning "rule of the best." This right to rule came to the Greek nobility not from mere birth, but also from wealth and social standing. Their power derived from how connected they were to others of influence in the political arena. Such aristocrats were unlikely to view the imposition of a ruling tyrant or monarch as welcome or wise. Even would-be usurpers recognized the power of the entrenched aristocracies, seeking ways to conquer from within. In 632 B.C., the tyrant Theagenes of Megara married his daughter to Cylon, a member of the noble class of Athens. Together, they conspired to take over that city-state. However, Cylon failed and was executed. Many others met the same fate over the course of Greek history.

Karen Clark has been writing professionally since 2001. Her work includes articles on gardening, education and literature. Clark has also published short literary fiction in the "Southern Humanities Review" and has co-authored a novel. Her professional experience includes teaching and tutoring students of all ages in literature, history and writing. She holds a Bachelor of the Arts in political science and a Master of Fine Arts in writing.