Greece

Definition

by
published on 13 November 2013
Map of Greece under Theban Hegemony (Megistias)

Greece is a country in southeastern Europe, known in Greek as Hellas or Ellada, and consisting of a mainland and an archipelago of islands. Greece is the birthplace of Western philosophy (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle), literature (Homer and Hesiod), mathematics (Pythagoras and Euclid), history (Herodotus), drama (Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aristophanes), the Olympic Games, and democracy. The concept of an atomic universe was first posited in Greece through the work of Democritus and Leucippus. The process of today's scientific method was first introduced through the work of Thales of Miletus and those who followed him. The Latin alphabet also comes from Greece, having been introduced to the region by the Phoenicians in the 8th century BCE, and early work in physics and engineering was pioneered by Archimedes, of the Greek colony of Syracuse, among others.

Mainland Greece is a large peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean Sea (branching into the Ionian Sea in the west and the Aegean Sea in the east) which also comprises the islands known as the Cyclades and the Dodecanese (including Rhodes), the Ionian islands (including Corcyra), the isle of Crete, and the southern peninsula known as the Peloponnese.

The geography of Greece greatly influenced the culture in that, with few natural resources and surrounded by water, the people eventually took to the sea for their livelihood. Mountains cover eighty percent of Greece and only small rivers run through a rocky landscape which, for the most part, provides little encouragement for agriculture. Consequently, the early Greeks colonized neighboring islands and founded settlements along the coast of Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor, modern day Turkey). The Greeks became skilled seafaring people and traders who, possessing an abundance of raw materials for construction in stone, and great skill, built some of the most impressive structures in antiquity.

Etymology of Hellas

The designation Hellas derives from Hellen, the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha who feature prominently in Ovid's tale of the Great Flood in his Metamorphoses. The mythical Deucalion (son of the fire-bringing titan Prometheus) was the savior of the human race from the Great Flood, in the same way Noah is presented in the biblical version or Utnapishtim in the Mesopotamian one. Deucalion and Pyrrha repopulate the land once the flood waters have receded by casting stones which become people, the first being Hellen. Contrary to popular opinion, Hellas and Ellada have nothing to do with Helen of Troy from Homer's Iliad. Ovid, however, did not coin the designation. Thucydides writes, in Book I of his Histories:

I am inclined to think that the very name was not as yet given to the whole country, and in fact did not exist at all before the time of Hellen, the son of Deucalion; the different tribes, of which the Pelasgian was the most widely spread, gave their own names to different districts. But when Hellen and his sons became powerful in Phthiotis, their aid was invoked by other cities, and those who associated with them gradually began to be called Hellenes, though a long time elapsed before the name was prevalent over the whole country. Of this, Homer affords the best evidence; for he, although he lived long after the Trojan War, nowhere uses this name collectively, but confines it to the followers of Achilles from Phthiotis, who were the original Hellenes; when speaking of the entire host, he calls them Danäans, or Argives, or Achaeans.

Early History of Greece

Greek history is most easily understood by dividing it into time periods. The region was already settled, and agriculture initiated, during the Paleolithic era as evidenced by finds at Petralona and Franchthi caves (two of the oldest human habitations in the world). The Neolithic Age (c. 6000 - c. 2900 BCE) is characterized by permanent settlements (primarily in northern Greece), domestication of animals, and the further development of agriculture. Archaeological finds in northern Greece (Thessaly, Macedonia, and Sesklo, among others) suggest a migration from Anatolia in that the ceramic cups and bowls and figures found there share qualities distinctive to Neolithic finds in Anatolia. These inland settlers were primarily farmers, as northern Greece was more conducive to agriculture than elsewhere in the region, and lived in one-room stone houses with a roof of timber and clay daubing. 

The Cycladic Civilization (c. 3200-1100 BCE) flourished in the islands of the Aegean Sea (including Delos, Naxos and Paros) and provides the earliest evidence of continual human habitation in that region. During the Cycladic Period, houses and temples were built of finished stone and the people made their living through fishing and trade. This period is usually divided into three phases: Early Cycladic, Middle Cycladic, and Late Cycladic with a steady development in art and architecture. The latter two phases overlap and finally merge with the Minoan Civilization, and differences between the periods become indistinguishable. 

The Minoan Civilization (2700-1500 BCE) developed on the island of Crete, and rapidly became the dominant sea power in the region. The term `Minoan' was coined by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who uncovered the Minoan palace of Knossos in 1900 CE and named the culture for the ancient Cretan king Minos. The name by which the people knew themselves is not known. The Minoan Civilization was thriving, as the Cycladic Civilization seems to have been, long before the accepted modern dates which mark its existence and probably earlier than 6000 BCE.

The Minoans developed a writing system known as Linear A (which has not yet been deciphered) and made advances in ship building, construction, ceramics, the arts and sciences, and warfare. King Minos was credited by ancient historians (Thucydides among them) as being the first person to establish a navy with which he colonized, or conquered, the Cyclades. Archaeological and geological evidence on Crete suggests this civilization fell due to an overuse of the land causing deforestation though, traditionally, it is accepted that they were conquered by the Mycenaeans. The eruption of the volcano on the nearby island of Thera (modern day Santorini) between 1650 and 1550 BCE, and the resulting tsunami, is acknowledged as the final cause for the fall of the Minoans. The isle of Crete was deluged and the cities and villages destroyed. This event has been frequently cited as Plato's inspiration in creating his myth of Atlantis in his dialogues of the Critias and Timaeus.

The Mycenaeans & Their Gods

Prior to the coming of the Romans, the only road in mainland Greece that was not a cow path was the Sacred Way which ran between the city of Athens and the holy city of Eleusis.

The Mycenaean Civilization (approximately 1900-1100 BCE) is commonly acknowledged as the beginning of Greek culture, even though we know almost nothing about the Mycenaeans save what can be determined through archaeological finds and through Homer’s account of their war with Troy as recorded in The Iliad. They are credited with establishing the culture owing primarily to their architectural advances, their development of a writing system (known as Linear B, an early form of Greek descended from the Minoan Linear A), and the establishment, or enhancement of, religious rites. The Mycenaeans appear to have been greatly influenced by the Minoans of Crete in their worship of earth goddesses and sky gods, which, in time, become the classical pantheon of ancient Greece.

The gods and goddesses provided the Greeks with a solid paradigm of the creation of the universe, the world, and human beings. An early myth relates how, in the beginning, there was nothing but chaos in the form of unending waters. From this chaos came the goddess Eurynome who separated the water from the air and began her dance of creation with the serpent Ophion. From their dance, all of creation sprang and Eurynome was, originally, the Great Mother Goddess and Creator of All Things.

By the time Hesiod and Homer were writing (8th century BCE), this story had changed into the more familiar myth concerning the titans, Zeus' war against them, and the birth of the Olympian Gods with Zeus as their chief. This shift indicates a movement from a matriarchal religion to a patriarchal paradigm. Whichever model was followed, however, the gods clearly interacted regularly with the humans who worshipped them and were a large part of daily life in ancient Greece. Prior to the coming of the Romans, the only road in mainland Greece that was not a cow path was the Sacred Way which ran between the city of Athens and the holy city of Eleusis, birthplace of the Eleusinian Mysteries celebrating the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone.

By 1100 BCE the great Mycenaean cities of southwest Greece were abandoned and, some claim, their civilization destroyed by an invasion of Doric Greeks. Archaeological evidence is inconclusive as to what led to the fall of the Mycenaeans. As no written records of this period survive (or have yet to be unearthed) one may only speculate on causes. The tablets of Linear B script found thus far contain only lists of goods bartered in trade or kept in stock. No history of the time has yet emerged. It seems clear, however, that after what is known as the Greek Dark Ages (approximately 1100-800 BCE, so named because of the absence of written documentation) the Greeks further colonized much of Asia Minor, and the islands surrounding mainland Greece and began to make significant cultural advances. Beginning in c. 585 BCE the first Greek philosopher, Thales, was engaged in what, today, would be recognised as scientific inquiry in the settlement of Miletus on the Asia Minor coast and this region of Ionian colonies would make significant breakthroughs in the fields of philosophy and mathematics.

From the Archaic to the Classical Periods

The Archaic Period (800-500 BCE) is characterized by the introduction of Republics instead of Monarchies (which, in Athens, moved toward Democratic rule) organised as a single city-state or polis, the institution of laws (Draco’s reforms in Athens), the great Panathenaeic Festival was established, distinctive Greek pottery and Greek sculpture were born, and the first coins minted on the island kingdom of Aegina. This, then, set the stage for the flourishing of the Classical Period of Greece given as 500-400 BCE or, more precisely, as 480-323 BCE, from the Greek victory at Salamis to the death of Alexander the Great. This was the Golden Age of Athens, when Pericles initiated the building of the Acropolis and spoke his famous eulogy for the men who died defending Greece at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Greece reached the heights in almost every area of human learning during this time and the great thinkers and artists of antiquity (Phidias, Plato, Aristophanes, to mention only three) flourished. Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fell at Thermopylae and, the same year (480 BCE), Themistocles won victory over the superior Persian naval fleet at Salamis leading to the final defeat of the Persians at Plataea in 379 BCE.

Democracy (literally Demos = people and Kratos = power, so power of the people) was established in Athens allowing all male citizens over the age of twenty a voice in government. The Pre-Socratic philosophers, following Thales' lead, initiated what would become the scientific method in exploring natural phenomena. Men like Anixamander, Anaximenes, Pythagoras, Democritus, Xenophanes, and Heraclitus abandoned the theistic model of the universe and strove to uncover the underlying, first cause of life and the universe.

Their successors, among whom were Euclid and Archimedes, continued philosophical inquiry and further established mathematics as a serious discipline. The example of Socrates, and the writings of Plato and Aristotle after him, have influenced western culture and society for over two thousand years. This period also saw advances in architecture and art with a movement away from the ideal to the realistic. Famous works of Greek sculpture such as the Parthenon Marbles and Discobolos (the discus thrower) date from this time and epitomize the artist's interest in depicting human emotion, beauty, and accomplishment realistically, even if those qualities are presented in works featuring immortals.

All of these developments in culture were made possible by the ascent of Athens following her victory over the Persians in 480 BCE. The peace and prosperity which followed the Persian defeat provided the finances and stability for culture to flourish. Athens became the superpower of her day and, with the most powerful navy, was able to demand tribute from other city states and enforce her wishes. Athens formed the Delian League, a defensive alliance whose stated purpose was to deter the Persians from further hostilities.

The city-state of Sparta, however, doubted Athenian sincerity and formed their own association for protection against their enemies, the Peloponnesian League (so named for the Peloponnesus region where Sparta and the others were located). The city-states which sided with Sparta increasingly perceived Athens as a bully and a tyrant, while those cities which sided with Athens viewed Sparta and her allies with growing distrust. The tension between these two parties eventually erupted in what has become known as the Peloponnesian Wars. The first conflict (c. 460-445 BCE) ended in a truce and continued prosperity for both parties while the second (431-404 BCE) left Athens in ruins and Sparta, the victor, bankrupt after her protracted war with Thebes.

This time is generally referred to as the Late Classical Period (c. 400-330 BCE). The power vacuum left by the fall of these two cities was filled by Philip II of Macedon (382-336 BCE) after his victory over the Athenian forces and their allies at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. Philip united the Greek city states under Macedonian rule and, upon his assassination in 336 BCE, his son Alexander assumed the throne.

Alexander the Great and the Coming of Rome

Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) carried on his father's plans for a full scale invasion of Persia in retaliation for their invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. As he had almost the whole of Greece under his command, a standing army of considerable size and strength, and a full treasury, Alexander did not need to bother with allies nor with consulting anyone regarding his plan for invasion and so led his army into Egypt, across Asia Minor, through Persia, and finally to India. Tutored in his youth by Plato’s great student Aristotle, Alexander would spread the ideals of Greek civilization through his conquests and, in so doing, transmitted Greek philosophy, culture, language, and art to every region he came in contact with.

In 323 BCE Alexander died and his vast empire was divided between four of his generals. This initiated what has come to be known to historians as the Hellenistic Age (323-31 BCE) during which Greek thought and culture became dominant in the various regions under these generals' influence. After a series of struggles between the Diodachi (`the successors' as Alexander's generals came to be known) General Antigonus established the Antigonid Dynasty in Greece which he then lost. It was regained by his grandson, Antigonus II Gonatus, by 276 BCE who ruled the country from his palace at Macedon.

The Roman Republic became increasingly involved in the affairs of Greece during this time and, in 168 BCE, defeated Macedon at the Battle of Pydna. After this date, Greece steadily came under the influence of Rome. In 146 BCE the region was designated a Protectorate of Rome and Romans began to emulate Greek fashion, philosophy and, to a certain extent, sensibilities. In 31 BCE Octavian Caesar annexed the country as a province of Rome following his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium. Octavian became Augustus Caesar and Greece a part of the Roman Empire.



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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 6000 BCE - 2900 BCE
    Neolithic Age settlements in Greece, beginning of agriculture. .
  • c. 3200 BCE - 1100 BCE
    The Cycladic Civilization in Greece.
  • 2700 BCE - 1500 BCE
    The Minoan Civilization flourishes on Crete, Greece. King Minos establishes the first navy in the region.
  • 2300 BCE
    Bronze is used in the Aegean.
  • 2000 BCE
    Early Greeks settle the Peloponnese.
  • 2000 BCE - 1450 BCE
  • 1900 BCE - 1100 BCE
    Mycenaean civilization in Greece and the Aegean.
  • 1650 BCE - 1550 BCE
    Eruption of Thera and consequent tidal waves, destruction of Akrotiri and other Aegean centres.
  • 1100 BCE
    Dorian peoples occupy Greece.
  • c. 1100 BCE
    Greeks implement use of individual tombs and graves.
  • c. 1000 BCE
    The first distinctive Greek pottery is produced, the Proto-geometric style.
  • c. 900 BCE
    Sparta is founded.
  • c. 900 BCE
    The Geometric style of Greek pottery is first produced.
  • c. 800 BCE - c. 700 BCE
    Homer of Greece writes his Iliad and Odyssey.
  • 800 BCE - 500 BCE
    Greek colonization of the Mediterranean and Black Sea.
  • c. 800 BCE - 500 BCE
  • c. 740 BCE - c. 433 BCE
    Greek poleis or city-states establish colonies in Magna Graecia.
  • c. 734 BCE
    Corinth founds the colony of Syracuse in Sicily.
  • 683 BCE - 682 BCE
    List of annual archons at Athens begins.
  • c. 660 BCE
    Pheidon is tyrant in Argos.
  • c. 657 BCE - 585 BCE
    The Kypselidai are tyrants of Corinth.
  • c. 650 BCE
    Sparta crushes Messenian revolt.
  • 650 BCE
    Earliest large scale Greek marble sculpture.
  • 650 BCE - 600 BCE
    Age of law-givers in Greece.
  • c. 625 BCE
    Black-figure pottery created in Corinth.
  • c. 625 BCE - 600 BCE
    The orientalizing style of Greek pottery becomes popular in Corinth.
  • 594 BCE - 593 BCE
    In Athens the archon Solon lays the foundations for democracy.
  • 580 BCE - 376 BCE
    Carthage and Greece fight for dominance in Sicily.
  • c. 560 BCE
    Pisistratos becomes tyrant in Athens for the first time.
  • 546 BCE - 545 BCE
    Persian conquest of Ionian Greek city-states.
  • 539 BCE
    Etruscan & Carthaginian alliance expels the Greeks from Corsica.
  • c. 530 BCE
    Red-figure pottery style takes precedent over black-figure.
  • 530 BCE
    The Andokides Painter invents red-figure pottery.
  • 530 BCE - 522 BCE
    Polykrates is tyrant at Samos.
  • c. 525 BCE - c. 456 BCE
    Life of Greek tragedy poet Aeschylus.
  • 521 BCE
    Darius I (Darius the Great) succeeds to the throne of Persia after the death of Cambyses.
  • 514 BCE
    Fall of the Peisistratid tyranny in Athens.
  • 514 BCE
    The tyrant of Athens Hipparchos is killed by Harmodios and Aristogeiton - the 'tyrannicides'.
  • c. 508 BCE
    Reforms by Cleisthenes establishes democracy in Athens.
  • 507 BCE
    Cleisthenes establishes new form of government, Democracy, in Athens.
  • 499 BCE - 494 BCE
    Ionian cities rebel against Persian rule.
  • c. 498 BCE
    Ionians and Greek allies invade and burn Sardis (capital of Lydia).
  • c. 496 BCE - c. 406 BCE
    Life of Greek tragedy poet Sophocles.
  • c. 495 BCE
    Birth of Pericles.
  • 492 BCE
    Darius I of Persia invades Greece.
  • 11 Sep 490 BCE
    A combined force of Greek hoplites defeat the Persians at Marathon.
  • 487 BCE - 486 BCE
    Archons begin to be appointed by lot in Athens.
  • 486 BCE
    Xerxes succeeds to the throne of Persia after the death of Darius I.
  • c. 484 BCE - 407 BCE
    Life of Greek tragedy poet Euripides.
  • 482 BCE
    Themistocles persuades the Athenians to build a fleet, which saves them at Salamis and becomes their source of power.
  • 480 BCE - 323 BCE
    The Classical Period in Greece.
  • Jul 480 BCE
    Xerxes I makes extensive preparations to invade mainland Greece by building depots, canals and a boat bridge across the Hellespont.
  • Aug 480 BCE
    Battle of Thermopylae. 300 Spartans under King Leonidas and other Greek allies hold back the Persians led by Xerxes I for three days but are defeated.
  • Aug 480 BCE
    The indecisive battle of Artemision between the Greek and Persian fleets of Xerxes I. The Greeks withdraw to Salamis.
  • Sep 480 BCE
    Battle of Salamis where the Greek naval fleet defeats the invading armada of Xerxes I of Persia.
  • 479 BCE
    Xerxes' Persian forces are defeated by Greek forces at Plataea effectively ending Persia's imperial ambitions in Greece.
  • 478 BCE
    Sparta withdraws from alliance against Persia.
  • 478 BCE - 404 BCE
    The Delian League in Greece, led by Athens.
  • c. 469 BCE - 399 BCE
    Life of Socrates.
  • c. 462 BCE - 458 BCE
    Pericles introduces democratic institutions in Athens.
  • 460 BCE - 445 BCE
    First Peloponnesian War.
  • c. 460 BCE - c. 380 BCE
    Life of Greek comic poet Aristophanes.
  • 457 BCE
    Hegemony of Athens over central Greece.
  • 451 BCE
    Thirty years peace between Argos and Sparta.
  • c. 451 BCE - c. 403 CE
    Life of Athenian statesman and general Alcibiades.
  • 449 BCE - 448 BCE
    Peace between Greece and Persia.
  • 448 BCE
    Ionian cities become independent from Persia.
  • 448 BCE
    The Peace of Callias with Persia.
  • 447 BCE - 432 BCE
    The construction of the Parthenon in Athens by the architects Iktinos and Kallikrates under the direction of Pheidias.
  • 446 BCE - 445 BCE
    Thirty years peace between Athens and Peloponnesians.
  • 431 BCE - 404 BCE
    The 2nd Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta (the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League) which involved all of Greece.
  • 427 BCE - 347 BCE
    Life of Plato.
  • 421 BCE
    Peace of Nicias, a truce between the Delian and Peloponnesian Leagues.
  • 420 BCE
    Democritos develops an atomic theory of matter.
  • c. 415 BCE
    The Histories of Herodotus is published. The work is divided into nine chapters, each dedicated to one of the Muses.
  • 412 BCE
    Sparta allies with Persia.
  • 404 BCE
    End of the Peloponnesian war, Athens defeated By Sparta at Aigospotamoi, Rule of the Thirty Tyrants in Athens.
  • 403 BCE
    Plato turns away from politics toward philosophy.
  • 400 BCE
    Pepper is known in Greece.
  • 400 BCE - 330 BCE
    The Late Classical Period in Greece.
  • 399 BCE
    Trial and death of the philosopher Socrates, who taught in the court of the Agora.
  • c. 398 BCE - c. 380 BCE
    Plato travels in Egypt, Cyrene, Italy, Syracuse and Sicily.
  • 395 BCE - 386 BCE
    The Corinthian Wars between Sparta and an alliance of Athens, Corinth, Argos, Boeotia and Thebes.
  • 384 BCE - 322 BCE
    Life of Aristotle.
  • 380 BCE
    Plato founds his Academy outside of Athens.
  • 371 BCE
    Thebes defeats Sparta in the Battle of Leuktra.
  • 371 BCE - 362 BCE
    Thebes is the dominant city-state in Greece.
  • 359 BCE - 336 BCE
    Reign of Philip II of Macedon.
  • 356 BCE
    Third Social War in Greece.
  • 21 Jul 356 BCE - 11 Jun 323 BCE
    Life of Alexander the Great.
  • 350 BCE
    The Scythians have absorbed a lot of Greek culture, Scythian artefacts show Greek-style depictions.
  • 347 BCE
    Plato dies at his Academy.
  • 343 BCE
    Aristotle becomes tutor of young Alexander.
  • 336 BCE - 323 BCE
    Reign of Alexander the Great.
  • 334 BCE
    Alexander invades the Persian empire.
  • 331 BCE
    Egypt is conquered by Alexander the Great without resistance.
  • 323 BCE - 31 BCE
  • 323 BCE - 31 BCE
    The Hellenistic Age.Greek thought and culture infuses with indigenous people.
  • 320 BCE
    Last recorded examples of Attic Red-Figure Pottery.
  • 310 BCE
    Assassination of Roxanne and Alexander IV, wife and son of Alexander the Great.
  • 307 BCE
    Democracy is restored in Athens.
  • 270 BCE
    Aristarchus of Samos proposes a heliocentric world view.
  • 168 BCE
    Rome defeats Macedon at Battle of Pydna.
  • 146 BCE
    Rome sacks Corinth and dissolves the Achaean league. Greece is ruled by Rome.
  • 146 BCE
    Roman influence over Greece begins to rise.
  • 140 BCE
    Venus of Milo is completed.
  • 88 BCE - 63 BCE
    Mithridates of Pontus fights three wars to free Greece from Rome.
  • 86 BCE
    The Roman general Sulla sacks Athens and the port of Piraeus.
  • 31 BCE
    Greece absorbed into Roman Empire.
  • 42 CE - 62 CE
    St. Paul goes on missionary journeys across Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome.
  • c. 50 CE - c. 60 CE
    Establishment of various Christian communities in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece, Egypt, and at least the city of Rome.
  • 257 CE - 263 CE
    The Goths raid Greece.
  • 267 CE
    The Goths sack Athens, Corinth, Sparta, and Argos.

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