The Persian wars came to strengthen the spirit of the Olympic religion, of the religion of the polis. In the hour of danger, the religious life of the state became more intense, as the state was threatened. The gods protected men as in the time of the Trojan war; and with men they too won: the polyiad divinities, which were also the Homeric ones, won. All the ancient tradition was strengthened, and especially religion. And to strengthen it now also art, a great ally of myth, whereby the figures of the gods were fixed in bronze and marble forever, as poetry had already ideally shaped them, but now more concrete and more human, to complete triumph. of anthropomorphism. In this atmosphere saturated with traditionalism, democracy also arose and grew without breaking with tradition. The polis was intimately renewed: the paintings expanded (in Athens already with Clistene); but the forms remained unchanged. Already excluded and now participating in the life of the polis, the new social classes now also participated in its religious life: the religion of the polis attracted them with its divinities, its cults, its festivals, its temples, its simulacra divine, distracting them from other religious suggestions. Once again, the political upward movement of the lower classes went hand in hand with their orientation towards what had been the congenital religious form intimately connected with the origins of the polis: the Olympic religion. And when, in Athens, democracy culminated with Pericles, its triumph coincided with the maximum artistic sublimation of the Olympic religion by Phidias and Sophocles. But already in Asian colonial Greece, more detached from traditions, more unscrupulous, freer, philosophical thought had begun to affect religion, and, especially with Xenophanes, had denied the anthropomorphic and Homeric conception of the gods, in the name of a higher divine ideal. New thought entered Athens, at the time of Pericles, with Anaxagoras of Clazomenes; and immediately, with the Sophists, he went so far as to invest with his audacious and destructive criticism the whole traditional system of Greek life, including religion (Protagoras, Prodicus, Critias, etc.).
The Peloponnesian war overwhelmed the religious ideals who had already supported the Greeks against the foreigner. With the team of the polis also the religion of the polis weakened. A superstitious religiosity emerged from the lowest strata of the population, and, no longer contained by the Olympic religion, it was already seeking an outlet in exotic and barbaric cults (the Thracian Bendis, the Phrygian Sabatius, the Phoenician Adonis, the Egyptian Isis): one of them, that of the goddess Bendis, was officially recognized by the Athenian state, the last act of that function of progressive absorption of popular religious currents to which the polis was now abdicating. In Athens the crisis was more acute. There an extreme and destructive demagogy found itself invested with the contradictory task of defending, with the state, its traditional religion. The crisis manifested itself in unexpected and strange forms which are of the greatest interest to religious history. Then there was rampant irreligiousness (profanation of the Eleusinian mysteries, mutilation of herms), atheism (sophists), reverse conversion (Diagora di Melo?), Religious intolerance, political persecution of thinkers, even – perhaps – the destruction of their works. Anaxagoras, Protagora, Prodicus were tried and condemned not for their personal ideas on religion and divinity, but for the consequent too unscrupulous attitude towards state religion, which seemed dangerous: the crime of ἀσέβεια was above all a political crime; last great victim, Socrates. With him the crisis of thought was overcome, but not that of religion. The polis lasted for many more centuries and, with the polis, his religion: new temples and new statues continued to be dedicated to the ancient gods. But the downward curve was already marked; and from the incipient decadence already emerged man, as an individual, and the religion of man.
In the century IV even more human is the figurative representation of the gods (Praxiteles, Lysippus), and among the gods the most human come in supreme honor, such as Asclepius. Pity for the dead is accentuated. The cult of heroes flourished and became more general and – a more symptomatic novelty – heroic honors were also decreed and paid to illustrious living beings (Lisandro in Samo, Agesilao in Taso, Demetrio Poliorcete in Sicyon). A new sense of humanity circulates in the widespread Dionysian religion and is nourished by the religiosity of the mysteries (Eleusinian mysteries, of Andania, of Samothrace), of exotic cults and superstitions (magicians, fortune tellers, sorcerers), while here and there (Boeotia, Magna Greece) orphism re-emerges and manages to reach as far as Plato.
Religiously, as well as politically, the polis was exhausted (new tyrannies in Thessaly, Sicily, Cyprus, Asia Minor). But the new political body that already appeared destined to overcome it, the federal state, the κοινόν did not have time to express a religious form of its own, because, as soon as it reached the maximum approximation to a national unitary state (with the exclusion of the Aetolian league, but with the aggregation of Macedonia in a hegemonic function), he was immediately overwhelmed by the lightning expansion of Macedonian power with Alexander. To the new supernational imperial unity, heir to the monarchies and empires of the East, there had to correspond a new religion in order for East and West, the barbarians and the Greeks to be religiously unified: and it was the religion of the sovereign, which is, in a special form.