Greek History at a Glance
(Okay, a long glance!)
For hundreds of years, ancient Greece dominated the Mediterranean and beyond.
Our culture contributed to the development of the arts, ideas and philosophy; our heroes infused myth and legend; our politics defined an era.
Here is a brief look at the history of Ancient and Modern Greece:
Counting back through the centuries, the first traces of man on Greek soil appeared in Northern Greece, where evidence was discovered of early inhabitants living in caves.
They were hunters and gatherers. The oldest find – a human skull estimated to be over 100,000 years old – remains well preserved today at the University of Thessaloniki. Furthermore, Theopetra Cave, in the vicinity of Kalambaka on the Thessalian Plain, revealed a cave-dweller’s dwelling from Neanderthal man down to Homo sapiens, according to the finds. Among the discoveries were footprints of children that dated about 48,000 years old.
The above examples and archaeological research support evidence that certain parts of Greece were already inhabited even before the Neolithic Period (Stone Age). During the Neolithic Period, man made his tools out of stone and discovered for the first time how to cultivate the land.
Agriculture radically changed early man’s life: he was now producing his food and building permanent houses. Today, remains of early settlements are found all over the mainland and the islands. The oldest is considered to be Nea Nikomedia, in northern Greece, dating to around 6000 BCE. But it wasn’t until the Bronze Age (3,600–1,100 BCE) that the great legendary civilizations of the Aegean Sea developed and thrived.
These brilliant civilizations are known as the Cycladic, the Minoan and the Mycenean.
The Cycladic Civilization (4000-1100 BCE)
The so-called Cycladic Civilization flourished on the islands of the Cyclades in the central Aegean. These sun-drenched islands became the home of an intriguing civilization that left us evidence of its presence, but not enough to decipher all its secrets. The Cycladic islanders developed an extraordinary art, mainly in carving white marble, which they could find in abundance in their Aegean homeland.
The Cycladic figurines, with their minimal artistic design, provided centuries to come with inspiration for their modern artists, such as Henry Moore and Amedeo Modigliani.
The Minoan Civilization (3000-1450 BCE)
The Minoan civilization flourished on the island of Crete. It produced amazing works of art in architecture, wall paintings, miniature art and jewellery. The term Minoan is related to the mythical King Minos, who was the ruler of Knossos Palace in the underground maze of which lurked the monstrous Minotaur – at least, according to ancient legend.
The Minoan culture was a Palace Culture, as society revolved around palaces. Palace administration was involved in agricultural production, commerce and import of materials such as gold, ivory and tin. Within the palace grounds, workshops for different crafts such as pottery, jewellery, miniature sculpture, and fresco painting existed not far from the Royal Apartments that stood in the area. Bull games are associated with Minoan culture, as well as many myths among which the most well-known is the myth of Icarus. Minoan sea traders expanded their activity in the Aegean and beyond, reaching distant lands like Egypt and Palestine, where they traded their goods.
The Mycenaean Civilization (1600 – 1000 BCE)
During the Mycenaean Period, mainland Greece developed independent kingdoms. They were built on hills fortified by huge massive walls – known as Cyclopean Walls – and controlled the surrounding fertile areas.
It was Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, who was the leader of the Greeks against the Trojans, as related in the Trojan War narrative. But Mycenae, as well as Troy, were in the realm of imagination before. H. Schlieman’s spade brought to light both cities, turning legend into history and myth to reality. Excavations revealed priceless treasures. Among them, crowns and royal death masks in gold; bronze swords with silver decoration; daggers and vessels in silver; and rock crystal. Dress ornaments in gold, and dazzling jewellery with precious and semiprecious stones, are among the precious finds as well.
Mycenae, “rich in gold,” is mentioned in the Iliad, the timeless poem of Homer. It is situated on the plain of Argos in the Peloponnese, and is one of the most popular visits for people interested in culture and archaeology. A Mycenaean Collection is displayed today in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
The discovery and use of the alphabet made it possible for history to be written.
The Historical Period in Greece is considered to begin around 1000 BCE – and hasn’t ever ended.
Clio was the Muse of History, and she was usually depicted holding an open scroll.
Geometric Period (1100 – 800 BCE)
After a period of about two hundred years, called the Dark Ages or Middle Ages of Antiquity, the curtain rises again, opening with the Geometric period, during which decorative motifs in the form of geometric patterns dominated the arts.
It was this artistic trend that spread throughout the ancient Greek world. At the same time, as there was population growth, Greeks sailed beyond the territory of their city-state, looking for new fertile lands, trade routes and resources. Thus the first Greek colonies were founded all around the Mediterranean, in Asia Minor, Sicily and Southern Italy. This is known as the first Greek colonization of the Mediterranean.
Archaic Period (700- 600 BCE)
“Arche” in Greek means “beginning” and Archaic is the period that marks the beginning of monumental sculpture in ancient Greece. The archaic period saw the birth of Philosophy in Ionia on the shores of Asia Minor, and the establishment of the so-called City-State Institution. The Archaic period saw the second wave of Greek expansion in the Mediterranean, as well as the creation of numerous City-States in Greece.
Among these city-states reigned the powerful Athens and Sparta. Even by today’s standards, Athens was a democratic city-state, while Sparta was a conservative one. But despite their political differences, they were both Greek – a united front against an enemy. As was soon proven…
The Classical period consists the peak of the ancient Greek culture.
Begins with the Persian Wars, continues with the Golden Age of Athens and concludes with the conquerings of Alexander the Great and the expansion of the Greek spirit all around the whole so known world.
The Persian Wars
Greek prosperity in Asia Minor and Persia’s expansion over western Asia, where the Greek city-states were situated, eventually led to war. Darius, the kind of Persia, destroyed the Athenian colony of Miletus and launched the first Persian campaign against mainland Greece.
On its way to Greece, the Persian fleet was destroyed by a storm (492 BCE); two years later, a Second Persian Campaign reached the Greek mainland, and it was in the Marathon plain that the clash between Athenian Greeks and Persians took place (490 BCE). The Athenians defeated the Persians. As Simonidis poet says, “The Athenians fighting as champions of the Greeks at Marathon scattered the might of the gold-clad Medes”
(Note: This was the pivotal moment that the “marathon” was born, when a Greek runner ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek triumph. He was able to utter just the word “victory” before dying of exhaustion!)
The Third Persian Campaign was launched ten years later by Xerxes, the new Persian king. Xerxes led his army across the Hellespont. His march down to
the south was hindered by the Spartans, who fought the famous battle in the narrow pass of Thermopylae (480 BCE). Xerxes was victorious over Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, who all fell on the battlefield.
The Spartans’ sacrifice at Thermopylae gave time for the Greek city-states in the south to prepare and encounter the Persians. The Athenians once again led the Greeks to their glorious victory in Salamis (480 BCE), after which the Persians left Greece, never to return again.
The Golden Age of Athens
After the Persian Wars, Athens came to be known as “the school of Greece,” according to the Athenian historian Thucydides. The period would later be named the “Golden Age,” as Athens became the home of great philosophers like Socrates, playwrights like Sophocles, sculptors like Phidias, and highly cultured, democratic leaders like Pericles.
During his reign the Parthenon was built, drama flourished, and many democratic ideas were introduced. Pericles initiated the idea that people who worked for the state should be paid for their labour, that free male citizens should have a vote, and that citizens should decide who governed them. The word “democracy”, so close to the heart if all Europeans and Americans, is derived from Greek and means “control by the people.”
But the Peloponnesian War shattered the “glory of Athens”. After a bloody and disastrous civil war between Athens and Sparta, the hegemony of Greece passed first to the Spartans, later to the Thebans, and then to King Philip II of Macedon, who united the Greeks after his victory during the battle of Chaironeia in 338 BCE.
Alexander the Great
Philip’s son, whom history would remember as Alexander the Great, succeeded the throne of Macedonia after his father’s death. A brilliant leader and military genius, Alexander reunited the Greeks and led them to the conquest of the Persian Empire.
With his army, he traveled over 10,000 miles, reaching India and beyond, and forming his empire over three continents. Alexander the Great died very young, at the age of 33, and passed into history as the creator of a huge empire that covered over 2 million square miles at its height, and stretched from the Adriatic towards the East, comprising Assyria, Egypt and Libya to the
south. He spread Hellenic culture and language across his empire, beyond what was then known as the Greek world. Alexander’s tutor was the philosopher Aristotle.
According to Alexander’s will, his empire was to be inherited by his beloved comrades, the Successors. But they soon began to fight one another, sending Greece into a decline that ultimately enabled the Romans to capture Greece
and the Greek colonies of the Mediterranean.
Though the Roman rulers appreciated Greek culture, Athens lost the freedom and democratic structure that had nurtured its greater cultural accomplishments. Yet, Athens did retain its reputation as home of philosophical thought, and remained a centre of learning known for its philosophical schools.
As the Roman poet Horace said: “Captive Greece, conquered Rome her rude conqueror!”
The last school of philosophy in Athens was closed down by Emperor Justinian in 529 AD.
The Christian Era
The Eastern and Western Roman Empires
By the early 4th century AD, the Roman Emperor Flavius Theodosius divided his enormous empire for better administration – two halves,
the Eastern and the Western Roman Empires.
The city of Constantinople (today Istanbul) was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, while the city of Rome was the capital of the Western Roman Empire.
The two Empires led “parallel lives,” but each followed a different path into the annals of history.
The Birth of Byzantium
Eventually, the Eastern Roman Empire developed into a Christian Greek Empire – the Byzantine Empire, named after the Ancient Greek colony of Byzantium, the site where the city of Constantinople was built.
Byzantium was a strong theocratic empire with an impressive legislation system. It had Roman Law, Greek Language and Christian Religion. Greek influence pervaded the new empire, as evidenced by Byzantium’s art, architecture and literature. For example, the religious icons so synonymous with Byzantine art, show great Greek artistic influence. The Byzantine empire lasted over 1,000 years.
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During the eighth century, Byzantium witnessed a firestorm of controversy over the use of the religious icons that adorned Byzantine churches and formed part of the Christian devotion. This became known as the iconoclastic movement.
The Byzantine Empire was divided between those who respected the icons and those who rejected them and fought against them; this second group was known as the Iconoclasts. Many holy icons were destroyed en masse during this period; the Iconoclasts were condemned in the ecumenical council at Nicaea, convoked by Empress Irene the Athenian. Icons were finally restored in 843 AD, an event that is commemorated by the Greek Orthodox Church, celebrated the first Sunday after Easter and known as Sunday of Orthodoxy.
The Great Schism
The two great theological centres of Constantinople and Rome constantly fought for supremacy. Eventually, these disputes led to the Great Schism (1054 AD) – the division between Eastern and Western church, or what we today know as the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. The dispute over papal authority, over the “filioque clause,” but also over theological, political and cultural matters, resulted in the splitting of the two churches and the excommunication of one another of Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael.
Attempts to reconcile the two churches failed until the 20th century, when the first reconciliation took place in the name of “Christian Unity” in 1965, by Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Athinagoras, who nullified the 1054 AD denunciations. In 2014, during his visit in Istanbul, Pope Francis declared along with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew that “the
spirit of fraternal love and mutual respect has replaced the old polemic and suspicion”, marking a new beginning between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
End of the Byzantine Empire
With the Schism and theological division came aggression; in 1204 AD, Crusaders of the fourth crusade attacked and conquered Constantinople. For a few decades, most parts of mainland Greece and the islands were under Latin rule. By the time the Greek provinces were finally restored, it was too late to regain the glory of the past.
At this same time, the Ottoman Empire began its ascent. Thus, the Byzantine Empire enjoyed a long and adventurous life for about a thousand years, before finally falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. After the fall of Constantinople, the Ottomans ruled Greece for about 400 years.
Modern Greek History
On March 25, 1821, the Greeks began their fight for freedom from the Ottoman Turks. The fight would last just under a decade.
The Greek War of Independence inspired the European artistic community, especially the French painter Delacroix and the English poet Lord Byron,
who fought on the side of the Greeks during the War of Independence.
Greece was declared a free country in May 1832, by the Treaty of Constantinople. This is the point that many historians refer to
as the beginning of modern Greek history.
Greece’s modern history has witnessed turbulent events, including the Balkan Wars, First World War and the Catastrophe of Smyrna in 1922, which resulted in the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece.
During the Second World War, Greece was first attacked by Mussolini’s forces. Nazi occupation followed, and lasted from 1941 until 1944. The Greeks suffered hardships during Nazi Occupation – the loss of human lives, not only at war but also as civilian victims of reprisals and starvation. It is estimated that in Athens, over 40,000 people died from starvation. During the
occupation, Greece had one of the strongest resistance movements in Europe. Guerrilla groups attacked the occupying powers.
Mainland Greece was liberated from Nazi occupation in October 1944. Unfortunately, what followed was a disastrous civil war that ruined the country, furthering the damages caused during the World War II. The country’s infrastructure of ports, railways and bridges were badly damaged, as were much of the country’s natural resources. The economy was non-existant.
In 1947, the initiative of the Marshall Plan was launched by the U.S. to help Western European communities recover. Greece received help from the United States in 1948, under U.S. President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall. The aid received was very significant for the revival of the Greek economy and for the rebuilding of the country’s infrastructure.
After WWII, Greece became one of the first members of NATO. The country was a parliamentary monarchy until 1967, when a military coup took over until 1974. After the collapse of the military dictatorship and a referendum held in 1974, Greece became a Constitutional Republic.
In 1981, Greece became the 10th member of the EEC (European Economic Community), the ancestor of today’s EU (European Union). Recent notable events in Greece include the successful hosting of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
The Greek Crisis
The so-called “Greek Crisis” began five years later in 2009, putting Greece temporarily under the vigilance of the IMF (International Monetary Fund). This oversight continues to today, joined by the European Commission EC and the European Central Bank ECB. The sustainability of Greek debt remains in question.