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A Brief History of Greece

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A Greek soldier performs ceremonial guard duty. A Presidential guard marches with his rifle at the tomb of the unknown soldier, in front of parliament in central Athens.

People have been living in Greece since at least 4000 BC. The country has thousands of islands within easy reach of each other, encouraging movement between the islands. This has made Greece a crossroads for various cultures throughout the ages, with many different peoples making the country their home.

The Cycladic Civilisation

In 4000 BC, an Early Bronze Age civilisation flourished in the Cyclades islands, which lie between Athens and Crete. Not a lot is known about these people, but they produced some wonderful marble figures of humans: these have a very abstract look, often with no facial features other than a nose. They are reminiscent of the giant heads of Easter Island or the sculptures of Henry Moore. The Cycladic civilisation appears to have died out or been incorporated into other civilisations in about 2000 BC.

The Minoans

In the Middle Bronze Age, the Minoan Civilisation of Crete started to develop around 2500 BC. The Minoans were extremely advanced, with art, music and architecture. They built huge palaces on Crete, with hundreds or even thousands of rooms. They decorated these with beautiful frescoes (wall paintings) - these show the people dressed in amazing finery, with highly coiffured hair and ornate jewellery. Much of this jewellery has been recovered from excavations of the palaces.

The Minoans do not appear to have been a Greek-speaking people, but it is not known what language they did speak. They had a form of writing which is now known as Linear A. This appears to be a syllabic script, with each symbol representing one syllable, but it has never been deciphered.

Minoan remains have been found in Santorini which is the southernmost of the Cyclades islands, and the first major island north of Crete. Frescoes there show that the Minoans had big sea-going vessels. There have been no discoveries of any fortresses on Crete, suggesting that these were a peaceful people, but it seems more likely that they defended their island by means of a defensive fleet of ships.

The Volcano of Santorini erupted in about 1650 BC, with devastating effect. The Minoan settlement there was wiped off the face of the earth, buried beneath metres of pumice, and was not in fact rediscovered until the 20th Century. It is not known what effect the volcanic eruption had on Crete, but it seems likely that the Minoan fleet would have been badly damaged by tsunamis.

The Mycenaeans

The Mycenaean Civilisation was another Bronze Age Civilisation, which started in about 2000 BC. It grew up in the Peloponnese peninsula (to the southwest of Athens) but spread to other areas of Greece. It is named after its biggest city, Mycenae1, which is in the Plain of Argos near to modern day Corinth. Mycenaean buildings, unlike the Minoan ones, are heavily fortified. They are built with huge stones, which the later Greeks called 'cyclopean', because they thought that only a cyclops, a type of one-eyed giant, could have moved such stones. The most distinctive feature of the palace of Mycenae is the Lion Gate with its carved lions guarding the doorway.

The Mycenaeans spoke a very ancient sort of Greek, so they could be considered the first Greeks. They appear to have invaded Crete in 1450 BC, burning down all the palaces and then rebuilding them again. After the rebuilding, the palaces were under Mycenaean control and Greek was spoken throughout Crete. They took the writing system of the Minoans and adapted it to suit their own language. They then used this in Crete and in their cities on the Greek mainland for writing records. This system is known as Linear B. Unfortunately Linear B does not seem to have been used to write down any literature or accounts of history - it is used purely for stock lists.

Mycenaean civilisation came to an abrupt end in about 1200 BC. Why it ended is a mystery. Perhaps it was civil war or maybe an uprising of slaves; nobody knows for certain what happened.

Iron Age Dorians

In about 1100 BC, Greek-speaking people known as Dorians invaded Greece from the North. These have been described as 'barbarians', but they brought with them the knowledge of iron. The Iron Age had arrived.

Under control of the Dorians, the knowledge of writing was lost. This era is often known as the 'Dark Age' of Greece, because there are no written records. In addition, the Dorian buildings were made of wood, so none of them have survived.

The Beginnings of Greek Literature

In about 800 BC, a new form of writing appeared in Greece. This was the Phoenician alphabet. The Greeks used it and changed it to suit their own language, making the Greek Alphabet which is still used in Greece to this day. It is also the forerunner of our Roman alphabet and of the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet.

The earliest pieces of literature to survive in the Greek language are the two epic poems attributed to the poet Homer: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both of these talk about the Trojan War, a supposed war between the Achaians and the Trojans. The Iliad tells of an incident in the war, while the Odyssey tells of the home journey of the hero Odysseus (also known as Ulysses, which was his Roman name) after the war. Both are huge poems2. They appear to tell of a time when King Agamemnon ruled the Achaians in Mainland Greece.

These poems were first written down in about the 8th Century BC, but it is clear that they date from long before that. Exactly how old they are and whether they are historically accurate is a matter for debate. Some believe that they describe the time when the Mycenaeans ruled Mainland Greece, and feel that Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus and all the others were genuine characters. These people set the events of the poems in about 1200 BC. Others think they were written much later and are purely imaginary, but based on folk memories of the earlier era.

Many other Greek legends were also written down soon after this, such as the stories of Oedipus, Jason and Theseus. Many of these are set in Mycenaean cities such as Thebes, or Mycenae itself. This suggests that they date back to Mycenaean times, but they may have just become associated with these cities because of their antiquity, in the way that a modern writer may set a piece of fiction in ancient Rome.

One thing is for certain; by about 800 BC, Greece had a strong tradition of storytelling, and a pantheon of gods and goddesses in whose hands it was believed the fate of the people lay. Most of us will have heard of Zeus, Poseidon and Aphrodite, although we may know them by their Roman names of Jupiter, Neptune and Venus.

What's a Greek Urn?

At the same time, a tradition in pottery grew up, in which earthenware pots were decorated in an elaborate red and black style with pictures showing scenes from mythology and everyday life. In 'black figure' style, they painted the figures in black paint on the red background of the ceramic material. In 'red figure', they painted the background black and left the red colour to show through for the figures, the details of which were then picked out in thin black lines.

There were three main styles. From earliest to latest these were: Corinthian style, showing processions of animals and floral patterns in black figure; early Athenian, showing scenes from mythology in both black and red figure; and later Athenian, showing everyday scenes in red figure.

There are literally hundreds of thousands of these pots and urns, showing every aspect of Greek life, so we have an incredible record of what the everyday Greeks did and looked like. This makes the ancient Greek culture one of the best documented in history.

The Archaic Age 800 - 500 BC

By about 800 BC, various cities had grown up, each ruling over the agricultural land around it. Athens, Thebes, Corinth and Sparta are the most famous of them, but there were many more.

As agricultural land is scarce due to the high mountains, and the cities needed to expand their land to support their growing populations, a process of colonisation started, where groups would go out in ships and found new cities. The new cities would send food back to the mother city. In this way, Greek-speaking cities grew up all around the Mediterranean and on the Black Sea. Such cities as Malaca (Malaga) in Spain, Massalia (Marseilles) in France, Syracuse in Sicily and Byzantion (Istanbul) in Turkey all started out as Greek colonies. There were hundreds of such cities, and the Greek world spread to include most of Southern Italy, the west coast of Turkey, the northern part of Libya, most of the coast of the Black Sea, and the island of Cyprus, as well as many small patches dotted around the coast of the Mediterranean. The furthest west these colonists reached was the valley of the Guadiana river, on the modern border between Spain and Portugal.

The Classical Age 500 - 350 BC

The height of Greek civilisation is generally considered to be the period 500 to 350 BC. This is known as the Classical Age. It is the time when Greek sculpture reached its most advanced form, and many elegant temples such as the Parthenon were built. The new art form of 'drama' was developed, and many of the plays that were written at that time are still performed to this day. This time also saw the great Greek philosophers: Plato, Aristotle and Socrates.

The Greeks were always a war-like people, and the Classical Age saw two major wars. The first of these wars was the Graeco-Persian War, in which the Greeks successfully united to repel an invasion from Persia. After this, two cities came to prominence, Athens and Sparta, with most other cities siding with one or the other. This culminated in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which eventually resulted in victory for Sparta and the ruin of Athens.

The Hellenistic Age

Philip (382 - 336 BC) was king of Macedon, a small independent Greek country in the north of modern Greece. Unlike the rest of Greece which consisted of independent cities, Macedon was a single country united under one king. The country had a strong army while the city-states of Greece were weak having worn themselves out fighting. Almost as soon as he became king, Philip started the conquest of Greece, and soon had taken all of Thrace and Thessaly. He defeated Athens and Thebes, two of the most powerful cities, in the Battle of Chaironeia in 338 BC, which effectively put him in control of almost all of Greece. But then in 336 BC, he was suddenly murdered.

Philip's son, Alexander the Great (356 - 323 BC) was a brilliant general, who carried on to greatly expand the region of Greece's control, conquering Phrygia (modern Turkey), the middle East, Egypt, and and finally the Persian Empire. He created in his short lifetime a huge empire known as the Hellenistic Empire. Greek became the language of the new empire, but because ancient Greek was a complex language, a simplified version of the language called Koinë (koe-eenay) grew up and was used throughout the empire. In the heartland of ancient Greece, people considered Alexander a yokel and the new language to be a corruption of their pure tongue, so they looked down on the new empire and were never proud of it. Nevertheless, Alexander's conquests spread the new Greek so that it was the standard language of the educated people in the east for the next thousand years or so.

Alexander also founded a number of cities called 'Alexandria', the first and most important being the one on the north coast of Egypt. This grew to be one of the greatest cities in the world, and with the wisdom of Egypt behind it, became a great centre of the arts and learning. Many ancient Greeks we learn about didn't come from Greece itself but from Alexandria, for example, the mathematician Euclid, the astronomer Ptolemy and the geographer Eratosthenes.

Alexander died suddenly while he was still on his campaigns - illness, excessive drinking and poison have all been suggested as reasons. His empire was immediately divided between his generals. Alexander left behind a Greek speaking core to the civilised world, but it was divided into separately controlled regions which spent the next 50 years or so fighting each other for control. By 270 BC, the Hellenistic world consisted of three main regions:

  • The Kingdom of Macedonia, comprising most of Greece.
  • The Kingdom of Ptolemy, which included Egypt, North Africa as far as Libya, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan.
  • The Seleukid Empire, the biggest of the three, with most of modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikstan, most of Uzbekistan and some of Pakistan.

The Roman Empire

The up and coming Roman Empire managed to take over the reins of much of the Hellenistic Empire, gradually over the period 229 BC - 1 AD conquering the whole of Greece, then the Middle East and finally Egypt. The Romans did not conquer a lot of the Seleukid Kingdom (the former Persian Empire), and it grew to be a great thorn in the side to the Roman Empire in later centuries.

The Romans greatly admired the Greeks and considered Greek to be the language of knowledge and culture. Educated Romans were expected to be able to speak Greek and to be familiar with the works of the by now ancient Greek philosophers. The Romans adopted the Greek Gods, although they gave them different names: Zeus became Jupiter, Aphrodite became Venus and so on.

The Byzantine Empire

The eastern parts of the Roman Empire were much richer and more prosperous than the western parts. Eventually in 330 AD, the Empire moved its capital from Rome to Byzantion, renaming it Byzantium. Sixty five years later, the name changed once more to Constantinople, in honour of the Roman emperor Constantine. This city is now Istanbul in Turkey. When the western Roman Empire was invaded by 'barbarians', the Romans remained in Byzantium, speaking Greek and to all intents and purposes a Greek Empire. The history of the Byzantine Empire is given in detail elsewhere in the Guide.

Events in the history of the Byzantine Empire that were particularly significant for Greece are as follows:

  • In the 7th Century, Slavic peoples invade the Balkan Peninsula from the North, conquering most of modern-day Greece. These people then adopted the Greek language with many Slavic words, so the modern Greek man or woman is racially a mixture of many different races.

  • In the 13th Century, Western European crusaders, known to the Greeks as Franks, and Venetians conquered the Empire. The land was divided up between the westerners, the Venetians getting control of most of the islands. Although the capital went back to Greek control less than a century later, many of the islands stayed under Venetian, and subsequently Italian, control until as late as the 20th Century.

  • The Byzantine Empire was totally destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. They took over the capital, Constantinople, and made it into their own capital, Istanbul. Greece was then ruled by the Turks for the best part of four centuries.

The Turks and the Ottoman Empire

Although the Greeks would describe the 400 years of Turkish rule as slavery, they were in fact treated quite well. The Turks were ruthless in war, but in peace they favoured a pluralist society, and were prepared to allow their Greek 'subjects' to do as they pleased as long as they paid their taxes. So although the official religion throughout the Ottoman Empire was Islam, the Greeks were completely free to practise their Greek Orthodox Christianity. It's true that the Greeks were taxed more heavily than other parts of the Empire, but on the other hand, they were excused from compulsory military service.

The Ottoman Empire grew until it occupied within Europe not just Greece but most of south east Europe, the Turks reaching the gates of Vienna on one occasion. The Venetians still controlled various bits around the edges of Greece - four ports in the Peloponnese, and some islands: Corfu, Crete, Evia, Rhodes and so on. Over the four centuries of Ottoman rule, the Turks kept up a relentless war against the Venetians, gradually taking possession of all of the mainland ports and most of the islands.

The Kingdom Of Greece

In the late 18th Century, there was a failed rebellion by the Greeks against their Turkish masters, but the movement for independence only really came about in the 19th Century. The traditional date for the start of the War of Independence is 25 March, 1821. On this day, Bishop Germanos of Patra raised a Greek flag at the Monastery of Ayia Lavra in the Peloponnese and called upon the Greeks to rise up against the Turks. This marked the beginning of the war, and there was plenty of fighting. The rebel peasants were ruthless, killing any Muslims they came across whether they were armed or not. Within a few weeks they had slaughtered an estimated 20,000 Muslims. The Turkish response was to blame it all on Patriarch Gregorios V. He was not only the leader of the Greek Church but also represented the nearest thing to a ruler of the Greeks. So they hanged him.

This was not enough to stop the fighting, though, and gradually, more and more of Greece came under control of the rebels. They were aided in this by the allied support of the British, French and Russians, who weren't officially at war with the Turks but were not far off it; they applied political pressure to try and force the Turks to give the Greeks their freedom.

In one bizarre incident, on 20 October, 1827, virtually the entire Turkish navy was stationed in Navarino Bay, a huge natural safe harbour on the west coast of the Peloponnese. The allied navy sailed into the bay in an effort to show the Turks what they would be up against should they go to war. There was no intention of attacking. But the Turks opened fire, and in the ensuing mayhem, the allies destroyed 58 of the 87 Turkish ships, with a loss of only a few ships of their own.

Eventually on 3 February, 1830, the London Protocol was signed in which the allies recognised Greece as an independent state. This meant that the Turks would have to fight the allies to pursue their claim to sovereignty over Greece.

Things were not plain sailing for the new country. The allies provided a Bavarian prince, Otto von Wittelsbach, as the first king of Greece. He initially set up court in Nafplio, but a year later moved to Athens, at the time reduced to a small farming village at the base of the Acropolis; with the arrival of the king, Athens became the capital and has never looked back since.

Not everyone liked the new king, and there were frequent risings against him. Otto resigned after about 30 years and was replaced by a Danish prince, William of Sonderburg-Glücksburg, who became King George I.

Relations with the 'allies' weren't all roses either, as Europe was in turmoil. In the 1850s, the British and the French went to war with the Russians in the Crimea, and Greece supported the Russian side, leading to blockades on Greek ports.

By the time of the First World War, Greece had gained most of the territory it now possesses, with the exception of the Dodecanese Islands which were held by Italy. Greece supported the Austro-Hungarian / German alliance in the war and was occupied by the Allied forces. After the war, the Greeks decided it was time to get back some more land from the Turks. They went to war with them and lost.

The Purges of the 1920s

The war ended with the Treaty of Lausanne which allowed an 'exchange of population'. Basically, the Turks rounded up everyone in Turkey who was of the Greek Orthodox religion and said that they were Greek; they were kicked out of their homes and shipped to Greece, arriving in Piraeus, the port of Athens. Here they lived in a giant shanty town, bringing much of Turkish culture with them, including the Turkish bouzouki, now the mainstay of Greek 'traditional' music. More than a million people from Turkey arrived in Piraeus, some having fled of their own choice.

At the same time, the Greeks decided that anybody of the Muslim religion couldn't possibly be Greek, so they must be Turkish. About 400,000 such people were thrown out of their homes and sent off to Turkey. Greece is littered with mosques which, without any Muslims to use them, have been converted into museums.

From 1924 - 1935, the Greeks also did without a king, declaring a republic, but they restored the king in 1935. But clashes between ultra-right-wing and ulta-left-wing groups led to much unrest. The king was hardly back on his throne when the prime minister, General Metaxas, carried out a coup d'état and seized control, establishing a dictatorship.

The Second World War and After

Metaxas was in favour of siding with the British in World War II. On 28 October, 1940, when Italian dictator Mussolini demanded that Greece should allow Axis powers to occupy strategic defense locations within Greece, he refused; 28 October is still celebrated as a public holiday in Greece, known as Okhi Day (literally 'No Day'). As a consequence of the refusal, Italy invaded parts of Greece, and later Germany conquered the whole of the country. The king fled to Egypt.

Metaxas died suddenly during the war. After the war, the stage was set once again for clashes between the forces of the conservative Greek government and the communists. This degenerated into a bloody civil war which lasted until 1949. It is estimated that 100,000 people were killed and another 700,000 left homeless by this war. The final victory in the war was to the government forces.

In the late 1960s it looked as if the communists might be gaining popular support again. To combat this, in 1967, the United States of America backed a group of colonels who seized power in a coup d'état and ran the country as a fascist dictatorship, led by Colonel George Papadopoulos.

Democracy was restored in 1974 and the country adopted a new constitution which abolished the monarchy. Greece is officially now the 'Hellenic Republic' (Ελληνικη  Δημοκρατια). It joined the European Community (now the European Union) in 1981, and adopted the Euro as currency in 2002.

1Pronounced in English 'My see nee'.2The Iliad has more than 15,000 lines, the Odyssey more than 12,000 lines.

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