History of Greece/Introduction

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Greek History: Introduction · 01 · 02 · 03 · 04 · 05 · 06 · 07 · 08 · 09 · 10


Map of regions throughout the Mediterranean under Greek influence around 550 BCE.

Ancient Greece is undoubtedly one of the most important civilizations in history. The Hellenes, the term used by the Greeks to describe themselves, laid the foundations for democracy, philosophy, theater, and the sciences. In architecture the Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders were perfected and their aesthetic function utilized during all periods up to the modern state. In the plastic arts Greek sculptors shook off the influence of Egyptian statuary with its stylized perspective seeking instead to explore proportion in relation to an aesthetic ideal of perfect form. Above the entrance to the Delphi oracle were inscribed the words "Know Thyself" as an ominous portent to those seeking answers at the sanctuary of Apollo. Critical introspection, of which the Delphic epigram is only one example among many, freed the Greeks from the restraints of censure. The arts and sciences flourished and the great poets and philosophers of Ancient Greece laid bare the human condition in a psychological drama that still resonates today. The Greeks adopting the Phoenician alphabet created a script that would form the basis for the development of other European writing systems. An achievement which is acknowledged today by the English word "alphabet" - a compound of alpha and beta which are the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. For the next three thousand years the written word would be the only method of recording human thought as expressed in language and in three thousand years time people will marvel at the ingenuity of Thomas Edison who devised a machine to record sound. A Golden Age is not defined as a product of linear continuity, though this is the path of progress, but by those individuals or societies who enrich mankind universally. Our debt to the Ancient Greeks is only now being repaid in kind for we truly live in a Golden Age of comparable universal achievements.


The location and topography of a land is important to understanding the environmental factors that shape a civilization. It allows historians and archaeologists to assign a permanent physical condition under which human development can be traced from the distant past to the present day. A people's response to these conditions is not only interpretative but also flexible allowing them to shape and to be shaped by their environment. The fluidity of this response presents a mosaic of meanings that scholars seek to uncover to explain the origins and development of a civilization. That the Ancient Greeks believed the gods resided on Mount Olympus, the highest peak in Greece, is a reminder of how the physical landscape can determine the cultural foci of a people. Zeus who ruled from Mount Olympus gave to his brothers, Poseidon and Hades, the sea and underworld. To the Greeks this trinity encompassed their religious world with a host of minor deities whose abodes either marked a landscape feature or whose existence gave an aetiological response to natural phenomena. The anthropomorphic nature and transformation of the Olympian deities allowed the Greeks to rationalize their interaction with the natural world of flora and fauna.

The four Greek elements of fire, water, earth and air also belonged to the Gods. It was Poseidon who shook the earth and Zeus who would strike dead with lightning those who did not hold to an oath sworn in his name. To the Greeks these beliefs defined their behaviour and to swear by Zeus held the same gravitas as swearing to truthful testimony on the Bible. The multitude of Greeks myths are not to be dismissed as the archaic practices of a primitive people. The Greeks sought to personify their beliefs within the parameters of their environment assigning characteristics in accord with their knowledge. That the Greeks understood this meant that they expanded their investigation into the elements in a scientific way and separate from the divine though never with a view to displacing the Gods. This tenuous detachment is why the Greeks are still held in high regard as the first to take a tentative step towards a greater understanding of the observable elements.

The west coast of Greece faces the Mediterranean and the east coast the Aegean. The west coast of Greece is more favourably placed for trade with Italy and Spain. The east coast of Greece offers access to the coast of Asia Minor as well as the Balkans and the Black Sea. At the southern tip of Greece is the Corinthian isthmus which acts as a land bridge to the Peloponnese peninsula. The north of Greece fans out to the borders of Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria. Mainland Greece is divided north to south by the Pindus mountain range of which Mount Olympus is the highest peak. The Aegean islands were colonized by Greek settlers in prehistoric times and their importance is reflected in Greek mythology notably as the birthplace of major Greek deities. The two largest islands in the Aegean are Euboea and Crete.

The Spartans claimed Dorian ancestry and in this assertion we may find the clues to the destruction of Mycenaean hegemony and the seeds to future conflict. Archaeologists have long been puzzled by the paucity of Dorian archaeology yet their existence as a tribe is irrefutable based on linguistics. Sparta, a much admired and feared military aristocracy, whose dominance of its tribal neighbours points to a singular purpose also leaves to history less archaeological evidence. The Spartans were renowned for their austerity, severeness and laconic speech and though luxury was no stranger to their tables their myopic militarism does suggest that they were truly the descendants of the original Dorian invaders.

As modern archaeology progresses the dates of human activity are pushed further back highlighting the errors in the assumptions of the twentieth century historian. The Dorian invasion that was believed to have caused the collapse of Mycenae is now being examined as new interpretations of the archaeological evidence points to continuous human activity. The two world wars of the twentieth century act as a caveat against interpreting archaeological evidence of widespread destruction as a prelude or conclusion to permanent displacement. Modern conflict teaches us that despite the destructive forces we unleash upon ourselves the one assurance we have is that as long as people seek to live together society cannot be destroyed.

Revolutionaries bless the Greek flag.

The Greek peninsula resisted Roman rule, until it was organized into the Roman province of Achaea in 27 BCE by Augustus. Throughout history, conquerors have imposed their culture upon the vanquished, but the Roman annexation of Greece was perhaps one of history's most-influential exceptions to this rule. In the words of the Roman poet Horace, "Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit" ("Greece took captive her conqueror."). The Romans adopted nearly every aspect of Greek culture, allowing it to continue to thrive much as it had done for centuries. During this time period, Christianity began to rise, and Greece was one of the first areas of the Roman Empire to be heavily influenced by the new religion.

When Emperor Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople in 330, Greece experienced a revival of its economic power, becoming one of the richest areas of the Byzantine Empire that was created by the Roman Empire's split in 305. After more than a thousand years of Byzantine rule, the Ottoman Empire in nearby Asia Minor began to rise in power, eventually capturing Constantinople in 1453. By 1460, Greece was under Ottoman control. As the Ottoman Empire gradually weakened, the Greeks were influenced by the growing nationalist movements throughout Europe during the early nineteenth century. In 1821, they rose up, and gained independence, leading to the creation of the modern Greek state.

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Greek History: Introduction · 01 · 02 · 03 · 04 · 05 · 06 · 07 · 08 · 09 · 10