A Brief History of Greece – A Short one for Travelers

This is a short history of Greece for travelers who want to appreciate the country in it’s many facets. It includes a timeline, highlights of the major eras, and notes on the significance for the world.

Introduction and Significance

Every modern country can trace it’s own history back to the depths of time, but few on this earth have seen their history be as influential on a global level as the history of Greece.

In a Nutshell

Bronze helmet of Miltiades
A remarkable find, the helmet dedicated by Milteades at Olympia after he led the Greeks to victory against the Persians in the battle of Marathon.

In a nutshell, the country’s history reaches back to the stone age era, but it it became significant for us today during the ancient Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic eras.

Between the stone age and today, Greece has suffered earthshaking events and has gone through several dramatic transformations.

For example, the kingdoms of the Bronze age transformed into the first ever Democratic societies, and the dominant Pagan religion was replaced after four thousand years by passionate devotion to Christianity.

The culture produced by the ancient Greek civilization touched every neighbor it came in contact with, and many of its ideas have become the foundation of what we consider Western civilization.

Over 3000 Years of History

Visitors to Greece are often surprised to learn that Greek history is not restricted to the ancient era, and that it weaves through the centuries up to date with threads of intense color and diversity.

The history of Ancient Greece up to the end of the Hellenistic era in 32 BCE is undoubtedly the most splendid. The ideas, concepts, and art that ancient Greece left formed the foundation of western civilization.

The two previous millennia that led to Classical and Hellenistic eras, and the two millennia that came after are all part of the history of Greece and have left just as rich a cultural imprint on the land and its people.

Ancient Influence Today

Modern Greek culture is a fusion of the influence that diverse, and often opposing, cultures had on the people and the land as they alternated or coexisted throughout the centuries.

Much of the ancient Greek civilization has survived either directly or through permutations to our day. Ancient Greek ideals, Byzantine ethics, and Eastern sensibilities all coexist in various degrees of blend in the life, culture, and politics of modern Greece.

The history of Ancient Greece has been influential to western society up to our day.

Ancient Greek Ideals Influenced the Renaissance

The much-celebrated Renaissance was guided in large part by the re-discovery of the ancient Greek ideas through text and art.

Greek art, architecture, literature, philosophy, science, and language have been firmly embedded in the western culture for the past two millenia.

History Was Invented in Ancient Greece

History as a discipline was created in Ancient Greece with the work of Herodotus (484 – 425 BCE) who is considered the Father of History, and that of Thucydides (460 – 395 BCE).

Writing in completely opposite style, these two historians attempted to record the events of their time for posterity, and in the process they created the foundation that future historians relied upon all the way up to the 20th c. CE.

Timeline: Eras

In a nutshell, Greek history is divided in the following eras:

  • Stone Age (circa 400,000 – 3000 BCE)
    • Paleolithic (circa 400,000 – 13,000 BP)
    • Mesolithic (circa 10,000 – 7000 BCE
    • Neolithic (circa 7000 – 3000 BCE)
  • Bronze Age (circa 3300 – 1150 BCE)
    • Cycladic (circa 3300 – 2000 BCE)
    • Minoan (circa 2600 – 1200 BCE)
    • Helladic (circa 2800 – 1600 BCE)
    • Mycenaean or Late Helladic (circa 1600 – 1100 BCE)
  • Dark Ages (circa 1100 – 700 BCE)
  • Archaic (circa 700 – 480 BCE)
  • Classical (480 – 323 BCE)
  • Hellenistic (323 – 30 BCE)
  • Roman (146 BCE – 330 CE)
  • Byzantine (330 – 1453 CE)
  • Ottoman (1453 – 1821 CE)
  • Modern (1821 – today)

This classification is generally accepted and based on the individual unique characteristics of Greek culture at a particular time period.

While the dates of the prehistoric era (up until the Archaic period) vary slightly depending on the source, the dates that define the historical eras are marked by crucial events that changed the course of society in significant ways.

Timeline: Important Dates Of Greek History

3000 BCE: Beginning of Minoan and Helladic civilizations
1300 BCE: End of Minoan civilization
1000 BCE: End of Mycenaean and Helladic civilization
7th-5th c. BCE: Major expansion of Greeks through colonization (establishment of cities) throughout the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea.
480 BCE: Greeks defeat the invading Persians and enter the Classical era.
323 BCE: The death of Alexander the Great marks the beginning of the Hellenistic era
30 BCE: Octavian (later Augustus) defeats the army of Cleopatra and Antony at Aktion in western Greece, and establishes Roman control over all the old Hellenistic kingdoms. This event marks the end of the “Ancient Greece” era.
330 CE: Constantine the Great moves the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Byzantium which her renames Constantinople, thus marking the beginning of the Byzantine Empire which takes a “Greek” character in letters, administration and commerce.
1453 CE: The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, marks the end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of Ottoman rule for the Greeks. Greeks play a major administrative and commercial role during the Ottoman occupation.
1821 CE: The Greek revolution overthrows the Ottoman rulers and marks the beginning of Modern Greece.
1832 CE: The Treaty of London reconginzes Greece as Independent country
1916 CE: Greece enters World War I on the side of the alies
1923 CE: Forced Christian/Muslim population exchange between Greece and Turkey
1940 CE: Greece enters World War II on the side of the alies (German and Italian occupation: 1941-1945)
1946 CE: Greek civil war until 1949
1981 CE: Greece joins the European Union as a full member
2001 CE: Greece becomes a member of the European Economic and Monetary Union

Geography and Borders

Greece is located at the crossroads between Africa, Asia, and Europe, and its position has played a major role in its diverse and often turbulent history, making it both the beneficiary of commercial traffic, and the target of external forces.

Greece occupies the southern-most end of the Balkan Peninsula and protrudes towards the eastern Mediterranean.

Morphology and Climate

The land of Greece consists mostly of rugged mountains and possesses very few fertile valleys.

The Mediterranean climate with the long, dry summers makes fresh water a commodity in short supply. Consequently, Greece has few rivers and lakes of note.

The southern part of the country near the coast is dry with low vegetation, but the mountainous interior and the northern provinces are covered with lush vegetation.

Greece satellite photoGreece is touched by water on all sides but the north, and it possesses thousands of islands of various sizes.

A Maritime Nation

Greece is smaller than the state of Alabama, but its coastline is longer than the coastline of the continental United States (excluding Alaska).

As such, Greece has remained a significant naval power throughout history, all the way up to our day.

Border Changes Since Ancient Times

The borders of Greece have changed dramatically throughout history. It’s important to remember that ancient “borders” were not what we think of as borders today.

In ancient times the borders of Greece were expanded to include land beyond today’s modern country.

Until the late Classical era, Greek colonies existed on al the shores of the Mediterranean from Spain to the Middle East, and all around the shores of the Black Sea.

With the conquests of Alexander the Great, and until 30 BCE the Hellenic world reached as far as Egypt, India, and Bactria.

After 30 BCE and the death of Cleopatra, Greece became a province of the Roman Empire.

In 330 CE, the foundation of Constantinople made Greece part of the Byzantine Empire. With the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 it became part of the Ottoman Empire.

Throughout these centuries, Greeks continued to live and thrive in Greece proper and the coast of Egypt, the Middle East, Asia Minor, and the Black Sea.

The modern borders of Greece were created through conflict and successive wars that occured after the 1821 revolution of the Greeks against Ottoman rule and up until the 1950s.

The Stone Age (circa 400,000 – 3000 BCE)

In the Stone Age, humans inhabited Greece relatively later than the rest of Europe, according to most scientists.

A skull found in the Petralona cave in Halkidiki is tentatively dated between 300,000 and 400,000. Some estimates putting it as far back as 700,000 BP.

Frangthi cave in Argolis provide us with the earliest evidence of commerce and burials in Greece (7250 BCE).

Other Stone Age sites found in Epirus, Thessaly, Macedonia, and the Peloponnesse tell of the existence of successful Paleolithic and Mesolithic settlements.

Neolithic settlements of Sesklo (c. 7000 – 3200 BCE) and Dimini (c. 4800 – 4500 BCE) in Thessaly reveal that Stone Age peoples of Greece had reached a high level of development by 3000 BCE. They had advanced economies, art,  and complex social structures.

Important Stone Age sites: Francthi, Sesklo, Dimini

The Bronze Age (circa 3300 – 1150 BCE)

The Bronze Age lasted roughly three thousand years, during which major progress was achieved by the peoples of Greece who dominated the world around the Aegean Sea.

On the mainland the Helladic civilization dominated the strongholds in southern Greece, and was later transformed to the mighty Mycenaean civilization that was based in the Argolid.

About the same time, on the islands of the Aegean, the distinct Cycladic civilization frourished, while the Minoans attain their highly refined culture on the island of Crete.

This tumultuous time was named the Age of Heroes becaue it gave birth to many stories and legends like the Illiad and the Odyssey.

These three civilizations were similar in many respects, while at the same time were distinct in their culture and disposition but they managed to coexist for almost three thousand years.

Eventually the Mycenaeans came to dominate the entire Aegean region while the other two civilizations ceased for reasons not entirely understood.

Around 1100 BCE even the mighty Mycenaeans civilization suddently extinguished either through internal strife, or outside invasions.

A possible invasion of a new race, the Dorians, was thought to be the reason, but recent studies suggest that the reasons for the Mycenaean demise are more complex.

What is certain is that just like in the case of the Minoan Palaces, Mycenaean centers met a sudden, and violent end.

With the demise of Mycenaean civilization Greece entered a long period when cultural achievement ceased, and the people of Greece fell into a period of basic sustenance.

We call this period The Dark Ages because there is no significant evidence of cultural development, and partly because the archaeological record is rather thin.

Important Bronze Age sites: Mycenae, Knossos, Phaistos, Tyrins, Pylos

The Dark Ages (circa 1100 – 700 BCE)

During the Dark Ages of Greece the old major settlements were abandoned, the population dropped dramatically in numbers, and no written record was created.

During this period of three hundred years, the people of Greece assumed a pastoral lifestyle and moved often.

Later in the Dark Ages Greeks adopted the alphabet used by the Phoenicians. This alphabet with major improvements became the norm and it’s still in use today in Greece.

Furthermore, the Greek alphabet became the base for Latin, and by extension the base of modern English.

Despite what seems to have been a harsh lifestyle, this period gave us the first Olympics in 776 BCE, Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, in written form.

Top Dark Ages Archaeological Site: Eretria

The Archaic Era (700 – 480 BCE)

Around 700 BCE Greece entered the Archaic period. Greeks began living in organized city-states (Polis). Poles housed of citizens, foreign residents, and slaves and required complex political and legal structures.

Eventually, the refinement of the political system was transformed to the Democratic governance in Classical Athens and other city-states around Greece.

As the major city-states grew they underwent vigorous colonization. Citizens from a mother-city founded numerous cities in the Aegean, the Ionian, Anatolia (today’s Turkey), Phoenicia (the Middle East), Libya, Southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and as far as southern France, Spain, and all around the coast of the Black Sea.

These settlements, and trading posts retained close ties with the mother-cities, and helped Greece dominate the substantial commercial network that involved all the advanced civilizations of the time.

Thus, Greece as a major maritime power became the conduit for commerce and ideas, to and from Africa, Asia, and Europe.

Powerful cities like Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Syracuse, Miletus, and Halicarnassus among others, grew more powerful, and came to dominate the affairs of the next four centuries.

Important Archaic Era Art may be seen at:  Acropolis Museum, and the Athens National Archeological Museum

Classical Greece (480 – 323 BCE)

Classical Greece was the time when the city-states saw an accelerated development that propelled them to unparalleled cultural achievements.

The Greek Poles rose to power through alliances, reforms, and a series of stunning military victories against the invading Persian armies.

Athens and Sparta assumed leadership positions in polarized ideology that eventually led them to fight each other during the Peloponnesian War.

Sparta placed great emphasis in its military development and was governed by two kings, while Athens developed a Democratic government and developed its commerce and navy.

The Persian Wars

Both powers were tested when the invading Persian army landed in Greece in 490 BCE. The Athenian hoplites routed the Persian Army at Marathon, in a victory that surprised even the Greeks themselves.

Ten years later, when the Persians returned with the largest army and navy ever assembled, the united Greek city-states managed another stunning victory in the naval battle of Salamina in 480 BCE. The Persian wars ended when the Greeks defeated the Persians a year later at Plataea.

The Golden Era

Soon afterwards, Athens entered a particularly productive era under the leadership of Pericles. This era was later named the Golden Age of Athens for its incredible achievements in Philosophy, Literature, Politics, Science, and Art.

These achievements culminated in a massive building project that included the buildings of the Acropolis.

Athenian power stemmed partly from its leadership position of a military alliance against the Persians, the Delian League, that included many of the Aegean islands and other city-states. In response to the rise of Athenian power, Sparta led the Peloponnesian League.

With the external enemy of the Persians neutralized, the Greeks resumed their old animosity and mistrust towards each other.

The Peloponnesian War

Eventually, the two superpowers, Athens and Sparta entered a long and nasty war against each other, dragging into it all their willing or reluctant allies.

The Peloponnesian War began in 431 BCE. With Sparta dominant on land, and Athens powerful at sea, the war quickly became a stale mate that dragged on for twenty-seven years.

In the end, an ill-advised expedition against Syracuse drained Athens of its resources, and forced her to capitulate to the Spartans in 404 BCE.

The Achievements of Ancient Greece

The Classical Period shaped some remarkable cultural and scientific achievements.

Democracy,  Philosophy, and Art

Athens introduced to the world a direct Democracy, and in politics and culture it emphasized rationality over emotion.

The ideas of Classical Greece influenced thought for thousands of years afterwards, and remained relevant even to our day.

Socrates, Plato and Aristotle among others, shaped the foundations of the western world. Hippocrates became the “Father of modern medicine”, and the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes are considered to be masterpieces of western culture.

The art of Classical Greece engaged in a more realistic depiction of the world, with Man at its center.

Eventualy, even the Spartan mighty army found its match when Thebes defeated the Spartiates in two battles, the first in Leuctra in 371 BCE, and the second nine years later at Mantinea.

The Ascent of Macedonia

With the city states of the south exhausted from repeated squabbles against each other, Philip II of Macedon emerged as the dominant power in Greece, especially after his victory at Chaeronea against the Athenians in 338 BCE.

Philip planned an expedition of united Greece against the Persians in Asia, but it was up to his son Alexander the Great to fulfill them after Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE.

Greeks Overapower the Persians and Reach India

In the process of avenging the Persians, Alexander created the largest empire known hitherto. He crossed the Hellespond into Asia in 334 BCE managed to defeat the mighty Persian army and to crash all opposition in his path.

Through his victories at Granicus, at Issus, at Tyre, and at Gaugamela among others, in a short period of time Alexander came to control a vast area of land.

It included Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, the Middle East, and the remnants of the Persian Empire that reached as far as Bactria (Afganistan) and the western edge of India.

Despite the objections of his officers, Alexander incorporated into his army forces from the conquered lands, adopted local customs, and encouraged his soldiers to marry local women.

His sudden death in 323 BCE of a fever at the age of 32 left a vast conquered land without an apparent successor.

Greek Influence Reach After Alexander’s Conquests

The conquests of Alexander the Great changed the course of history for centuries to come.

The influence of Greek culture moved from the limited scope of city-states to a vast territory that included most of the traditional powerful lands of the time.

With so many diverse cultures under common hegemony, and with Greek thought spreading rapidly around the Mediterranean and southern Asia, the ancient world entered a new era.

Top Classical Archaeological Sites: Acropolis, Delphi, Olympia,

Hellenistic Greece (323 – 30 BCE)

During the Hellenistic Age Greek culture extended its influence over vast territory in the eastern Mediterranean, and Southeast Asia.

All aspects of life in the Hellenistic world adopted a Greek hue.

Public education helped the Greek language spread and become the official language of all the Kingdoms.

Hellenistic art and literature became more realistic and revolved around more human subjects and emotions, in contrast to the previous preoccupation with the Ideal of the Classical era.

Hellenistic Kingdoms After Alexander’s Death

The influence of the individual cities of the Classical era was replaced by kingdoms that were led by one ruler.

After Alexander’s death, his generals controlled the empire and they often fought against each other as they attempted to dominate. Eventually, through these squabbles three major kingdoms emerged that endured over the next three hundred years.

Ptolemy controlled Egypt and parts of the Middle East, and Seleucus became the ruler of Syria and the remnants of the Persian Empire. Macedonia, Thrace, and parts of northern Asia Minor came under the control of Antigonus and his son Demetrius.

In subsequent centuries several smaller kingdoms were established at various times, most noteworthy of which was the Attalid kingdom around Pergamum in eastern Asia Minor, and the independent kingdom of Bactria (in today’s Afghanistan).

Most of the classical Greek cities and on the southern shores of the Black Sea remained independent.

Some of the old city-states like Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Miletus, and Syracuse continued to flourish, while others new ones like Pergamum, Ephesus, Antioch, Damascus, and Trapezus emerged as metropolitan centers.

The Rise of Alexandria

Of all the cities however, Alexandria of Egypt managed to outshine all of them as the most important center of cultural and commercial achievement.

Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE and under the Ptolemies it hosted the tomb of Alexander the Great, the Great Library, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Great Lighthouse.

Greek Art and Architecture Transformed

In the Hellenistic Era great philosophers like the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Epicurians founded major schools.

Writers like Kalimachus, Apollonious of Rhodes, Menander, and Theocritos created major works of literature. In sculpture Polykleitos devised canons for representing the human figure that remained influential for centuries to come.

In Architecture, new ideas like the Corinthian order emerged to create public buildings and monuments on a more grandiose scale and complexity.

The Mausoleum of Pergamum and the theater of Epidaurus are two fine examples of architecture from this era.

The Foundation of Science

Parallel to the arts, the sciences also saw significant advancement in Hellenistic Greece.

Euclid’s Elements of Geometry became the standard all the way up to the 20th c. CE., and the mathematical work and inventions of Archimedes became legendary.

As a small example of the high state of advancement of mathematics and science in general, Eratosthenes managed to calculated the circumference of the earth with great accuracy.

He achieved this by simultaneously measuring the shadow of two vertical features, one placed in Alexandria and one in Syene. His calculations came within only 1500 miles of what we know the measurement to be today.

Challenges to Greek Dominance

The Hellenistic kingdoms suffered from both internal conflict and external enemies.

The long border lines and the vast interior suffered from enemy incursions, bandits, and pirates that operated beyond the relative safety of the large cities.

The Gauls invaded Macedonia and reached southern Greece in 279 BCE causing much damage before Attalus defeated them after they crossed into Asia Minor.

The Rise of Rome and Its Conquest of Greece

At the same time, Rome had risen to a formidable power and by 200 BCE and expanded all the way to Illyria.

An alliance of Macedonia with Hanibal against the Romans became the beginning of a series that eventually led to the annexation of Greece by the Romans.

By the time Augustus defeated the last standing Hellenistic power of Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE, most of the Hellenistic kingdoms disintegrated by constant incursions of the borders, while many other parts transferred rule to Rome through the will of deceased rulers.

The defeat of Cleopatra and Anthony at the battle of Actium marks the end of what we know as Ancient Greece.

After Ancient Greece

In the next two thousand years, Greece tolerated a series of conquests that made its people subjects of numerous powers.

As a testament to their powerful cultural tradition, adaptability, and resiliency, Hellenes endured and persevered until they emerged in the 19th century through the ashes of the Ottoman Empire to form the modern country of Greece.

Top Hellenistic Archaeological sites: Epidauros, Dodoni, Vergina

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