The history of Greece and its willful people is longer and more absorbing than a cursory look can convey. The earliest continuously occupied site was discovered at the Franchthi Cave in southeast Argolid, Peloponnese; evidence suggests the cavern was inhabited as early as 20,000 B.C.
Greece has a long history, indeed. Here is a brief introduction to some of the main periods in Greek history, along with some suggestions as to where you can see some of Greece's most memorable monuments. I'm going to use the term "Greece" throughout, even though today's country did not come into being until the 19th century. Still, long before that, the people who lived here regarded themselves as unified by a common language and many shared traditions and beliefs.
Greeks were delighted when a Neanderthal skull found in 1960 in the Petralona cave in Chalkidiki, Macedonia, pushed their history back as far as 700,000 B.C. There are signs of human habitation in Greece from the Paleolithic (ca. 7000 B.C.) and Neolithic (ca. 6000-3000 B.C.) eras, and you can walk the narrow streets of astonishingly well-preserved Neolithic sites at Lerna (in the Argolid) and Dimini and Sesklo (in Thessaly). The Archaeological Museum in Thessaloniki and Volos are two places that bring daily life in Greece's oldest civilizations to life with displays of useful pottery and tools, and ornamental necklaces and rings. Some of the oldest known representational sculpture in Greece come from this period, often small, well-endowed clay figurines of women. Some believe that these figures represent a mother goddess who was honored before Zeus and the Olympians became popular.
In Greece, the Bronze Age seems to have lasted from around 3000 B.C. to 1500 B.C. By around 3000 B.C., people in much of Greece seem to have learned how to craft bronze; this meant that they no longer had to fashion weapons and tools out of stone and obsidian, but could make the sharp knives, swords, and heavy shields on view in so many Greek museums. What the Bronze Age inhabitants of Greece thought is more mysterious, in the absence of written records of anything except lists of the pots, pans, shields, and swords kept in palaces. Archaeologists and historians have identified three different civilizations or cultures that flourished in different parts of Greece during the Bronze Age: Cycladic, Minoan, and Mycenaean. Historians think that all these civilizations spoke a form of Greek. Only the Mycenaeans seem to have used early forms of writing, Linear B and Linear A, to keep inventories. No one seems to have used writing to send a note or write a poem.
The Cycladic civilization takes its name from the Cycladic islands where it flourished. Although architectural remains are sparse, you can see elegant Cycladic figurines, crafted from island marble, at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the Goulandris Museum in Athens, and the Archaeological Museum on Naxos. Unfortunately, even the world's leading experts on Cycladic figurines are not sure whether the figurines were, or were not, representations of deities or people. Almost everyone is startled by how "modern" these spare figurines are.
Their culture was succeeded by the Minoans, the regional strongmen in seafaring and trade, who traded around the Mediterranean, selling timber, building ships, and possibly even sailing as far as England to obtain metal. Outstanding displays of Minoan culture can be viewed at the palace of Knossos near Iraklion, Crete, and the Iraklion Archaeological Museum.
Much of Santorini was destroyed in 1500 B.C. in an unimaginably powerful earthquake which also destroyed settlements on Minoan Crete, 63 nautical miles away, and led to its decline. On mainland Greece, the Mycenaean civilization, named after its center at Mycenae in the Peloponnese, flourished during many of these same years. The extensive remains of Mycenae, with its defense walls, palace, and enormous beehive tombs, demonstrates the architectural skill and political power of the Mycenaeans. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens is a showcase for the famous gold of Mycenae, whereas the Archaeological Museum at Mycenae itself tries to reconstruct how people here lived and to suggest what they may have believed and how they may have worshipped. Mycenae's museum also reminds us of that city's maritime empire that may have extended from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. In the Iliad, Homer commemorated the Greek expedition to recapture the beautiful Helen that was led by Mycenae's best known king, Agamemnon. The Iliad ends with the fall of Troy to the Greeks; Mycenae's own decline seems to have begun not long after, and is sometimes blamed on the mysterious invaders known as the Dorians.
The Geometric & Archaic Periods
These two terms are both used to describe Greece during the years from around 1000 B.C. until the dawn of the classical era, around 500 B.C. The Geometric period takes its name from the figured pottery that started to be made around 800 B.C., on which bodies are often shown as simple triangles and borders are created from rows of meanders and cross hatchings. The Archaic period began around 700 B.C., when the first monumental human sculpture was made in Greece. The National Archaeological Museum in Athens has superb collections of both geometric pottery and archaic sculpture.
After the decline of the Mycenaeans in mainland Greece, things were a bit murky for several hundred years—hardly surprising, as we have no contemporary written sources of this period. Gradually, it seems that people living on mainland Greece, and in the islands, began to live in the sort of towns we would recognize today, rather than in small, scattered settlements. Many of the cities that are still prominent in Greece today developed during this period, Athens and Sparta, Argos and Corinth among them. The growth of independent city-states—many ruled by powerful tyrants—was important, as was the spread of trade and invention of coinage, but the emergence of writing, using an early but still recognizable form of the Greek alphabet, was even more important.
The city-states were fiercely independent. This is a serious understatement: Each city-state had not only its own dialect, but its own calendar, system of weights and measures, and important deities. Still, when the Persians from adjacent Asia Minor invaded Greece in 490 and 480 B.C., many of the Greeks—led by Athens and Sparta—stood together and turned back the Persians. You can read about the conflict in Herodotus, and visit the battlefields of Marathon and Thermopylae and see the bust of the Spartan hero Leonidas in the Archaeological Museum at Sparta. If Persia had conquered Greece, our history of Greece might well end now, before the classical era and the birth of Greek democracy.
The Classical Era
Brief and glorious, the Classical era lasted from the 5th century to the rise of Philip of Macedon, in the mid-4th century. This is when Pericles led Athens and when the Parthenon—and nearly every other ancient Greek monument, statue, and vase most of us are familiar with—was created. These ancient Greeks made advances in the arts, sciences, philosophy, and politics. Five of the seven Ancient Wonders were built during the Classical era: the statue of Zeus in Olympia (destroyed); the Colossus of Rhodes (destroyed); the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, now Bodrum, Turkey (dismantled, some bas reliefs in the U.K.); the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (destroyed); and the onetime tallest building, the Lighthouse in Alexandria (destroyed).
While the Spartans were known for their austere and militaristic form of governance, Athens took a different course with democracy. This is when Greek democracy was born: All male citizens, but no women, resident aliens, or slaves, could vote. Very quickly, Athenian democracy morphed into an aggressive empire, which "liberated" Greek city-states in Asia Minor from Persia—and then turned those Greek cities into Athenian client states. Greece's other major power, Sparta, saw its own influence threatened, and Athens and Sparta fought on and off from 431 to 404 B.C., by which time Athens had exhausted its resources and surrendered to Sparta.
Yet soon thereafter, they united against the massive invading force of the Persians. First the Greeks won, at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. Ten years later, at Thermopylae, the Persians won against a small army led by King Leonidas of Sparta. Finally the Athenians defeated the Persians in 480 B.C. at the Battle of Salamis, led by Themistocles, who fought and won the battle decisively at sea.
The historian Thucydides wrote an account of these Peloponnesian Wars. For the next 50 or so years, Athens, Sparta, and Thebes alternately united and fought with each other.
The Hellenistic Era
This left all three cities weakened and unable to stop Philip of Macedon when he moved south to conquer Greece. The Hellenistic era is usually said to run from the 4th to the late 1st centuries B.C. and includes the rise of Philip of Macedon, the triumphs of his son Alexander the Great, and the several centuries of rule by Alexander's heirs and successors. Philip of Macedon conquered Greece in 338 B.C. and died only 2 years later. During his brief reign, Philip endowed a number of quite spectacular buildings at important Greek sanctuaries, including the Philippeion at Olympia, which he modestly named after himself. The royal tombs at Vergina, with their gold ornaments and frescoes, are lasting proof of Macedon's wealth.
Alexander became king of Macedon when he was only 23 and marched from his base camp at Dion all the way to India, conquering everything in his path. At that point, his soldiers virtually turned him around and pointed him back toward Macedonia. Alexander died under mysterious circumstances (Poison? Too much wine?) en route home in 334 B.C., leaving behind the vast empire that he had conquered but had not had time to organize and administer. Alexander's leading generals divided up his empire, and declared themselves not just rulers but, in many cases, divine rulers.
Alexander's conquests, which included much of Asia Minor and Egypt, made the Greek language the administrative and spoken language of much of the world. Within Greece itself, powerful new cities, such as Thessaloniki, were founded. Old cities, such as Athens, were revivified and ornamented with magnificent new civic buildings, such as the 2nd-century-B.C. Stoa of Attalos, which contained shops and offices. Today, this Hellenistic building, restored by American archaeologists in the 20th century, is the most conspicuous building in the Athenian agora.
The Roman Conquest
Along with most of Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor, Greece was ruled by Rome from the 2nd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. As part of their eastward expansion, the Romans conquered Macedon in 168 B.C. and turned the once-powerful kingdom into the Roman province of Macedonia. In 147 B.C., Rome grabbed most of the rest of Greece and called it the province of Achaea. Still, the Romans honored the Greeks for their literature and art, and a tour of Greece was the equivalent of a gap year for many well-born Roman youths. As occupations go, the Roman occupation was benign and the Greeks participated in what has become known as the Pax Romana, the several centuries of general peace and calm in the Roman Empire. By the late 3rd century A.D. the Roman Empire was so vast that it was divided into eastern and western empires, each with its own emperor. One lasting legacy of the Roman occupation: the sprawling bath complexes that are often the most visible remain at many ancient Greek sites, from Dion in Macedonia to Corinth in the Peloponnese.
The Byzantine Empire
In various forms, in various countries, the Byzantine Empire lasted from the 4th to the 15th century. In 324 B.C., the Roman emperor Constantine the Great took control of the entire empire, moved its capital from Rome to the Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosporus, and renamed his capital Constantinople (Constantine's City). This move effectively remade the Roman Empire (which included Greece) and was now firmly based in the east. In another bold move, Constantine reversed the prosecutions of Diocletian, changing the religious character of his vast empire. The monasteries of Mount Athos and the Meteora, of Osios Loukas in Central Greece, the icons on view in the Byzantine Museums in Athens and Thessaloniki, and the countless chapels in use everywhere in Greece today all speak to Christianity's deep and lasting influence.
It took a new people, the Ottoman Turks, to overturn the Byzantine Empire; in Greece, most people privately continued to speak the Greek language and remained devout Orthodox Christians. The official end of the empire came when Constantinople fell to the Turks, led by Mehmed the Conqueror, on Tuesday, May 29, 1453; to this day, Tuesday is considered an unlucky day in Greece.
The Occupation(s) & Independence
The Greeks celebrate Independence Day on March 25. Greece’s modern era follows its War of Independence, which began in 1821, when the bishop at the Monastery of Agia Lavra, Peloponnese, raised the flag of revolt and called for freedom or death. The ideals of Greece also captured the imagination of the Romantics in Western Europe; Lord George Gordon Byron and others traveled to Greece to take up the fight. In 1827, combined forces of Britain, France, and Russia crushed the Ottoman and Egyptian naval forces at the Battle of Navarino in the Peloponnese and granted Greece autonomy under an appointed monarchy. Otto, the 17-year-old son of King Ludwig of Bavaria, became united Greece’s first king.
This put an end to the long period of occupation (1453–1832), when Greece was ruled by a bewildering and often overlapping series of foreign powers: Venetians and Franks from the West, and Turks from the East. Many Greeks left for western Europe and brought ancient Greek texts with them, influencing the Renaissance. Those who remained became a subject people. The phrase “under the Turkish yoke for 400 years” became a common refrain.
Castles and fortresses at Nafplion, Koroni, Methoni, and Argos in the Peloponnese are imposing reminders of the foreign occupiers. Today, the Catholic churches and considerable Catholic population of many Cycladic islands (including Tinos and Naxos) are a testament to the days when the Venetians ruled these islands. Another reminder: today's roofless Parthenon. In 1687, a shell lobbed by the Venetians hit the Parthenon, which the Turks were using as a storehouse for gunpowder.
Throughout Greece, almost every village has at least one monument to the War of Independence, and Athens's Benaki Museum has superb displays of paintings, flags, costumes, and weapons documenting the struggle for Greek independence.
Greece Since Independence
By the end of the 19th century, Greece's capital was in Athens, but most of today's country was still held by the Turks and Italians. The great Greek leader from Crete, Eleftherios Venizelos (after whom Athens International Airport is named) led Greece in the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913. When the wars were done, Greece had increased its territory by two-thirds, and included much of Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace in the north and the large islands of Samos, Chios, and Crete.
At the end of World War I, Greece invaded Turkey in an attempt to reclaim Constantinople and much of Aegean Turkey. Initially, the invasion went well, but the Turks, led by their future leader Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), rallied and pushed the Greeks back to the sea. There, in 1922, in Smyrna (Izmir) and other seaside towns, the Greeks were slaughtered in what is still referred to in Greece as "The Catastrophe."
In the Treaty of Lausanne, Greece and Turkey agreed to an exchange of populations. The boundaries of Greece were fixed more or less as they are today. Some 1.5 million Greeks who lived in Turkey had to move to Greece, and about 500,000 Turks were sent from Greece to Turkey. Many spoke little or none of their ancestral language, and most were regarded with intense hostility in their new homelands. Thessaloniki, which doubled in size in less than a year, bore the brunt of the Greek population exchange. To this day, Greece is dotted with towns with names like Nea Smyrni and Nea Chios (New Smyrna and New Chios), reminders of this forced migration. A small Greek Muslim population still lives in Greece, primarily in Thrace.
Whatever stability and prosperity Greece gained after the population exchange of the 1920s was seriously undercut by the harsh German and Italian occupations during World War II. The famines of 1941 and 1942 were particularly harsh; in Athens, carts went around the city each morning to collect the corpses of those who had died in the night. A bitter civil war (1944–49), between pro- and anticommunist forces, further weakened Greece. Recovery began slowly—assisted by the Marshall Plan—and did not take hold until well into the 1960s.
In the 1960s, Greece was discovered by travelers from western Europe and North America, who fell in love with the unspoiled—and cheap—country. In 1967, a right-wing junta of army officers, nicknamed the Colonels, seized power, ended the monarchy, and were themselves toppled when democracy was restored in 1974.
In the years since then, Greek voters have alternated between favoring two parties: the conservative New Democracy and the left-wing PASOK. For much of the time, New Democracy has been led by various members of the powerful Caramanlis family, while PASOK has been led by a series of Papandreous. In 1981, Greece was accepted into the European Union and began a period of initial prosperity (jump-started by EEC funding), followed by steady inflation. The euphoria of 2004 when Greece won the European soccer championship and hosted the wildly successful Athens Olympics lasted a year, and then fizzled, as did plans to turn the Olympic village into low-income housing. Soon, Greece, along with its EU neighbors, was trying to cope with the problems of illegal immigration, rising prices, an increasingly fragile ecosystem, and the economic recession that began to affect much of the world in 2008.
Greece has since seen its finances crumble in a very public and, to many Greeks, a very humiliating way, leading the country to ask for help from the E.U. and subsequently the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Bailout packages have meant a slashing of government spending and extreme austerity measures. Many Greeks have had to accept these tough measures that have brought with them job losses and wage and pension cuts. Unemployment is high, jobs are scarce, wages shockingly low, and the cost of living is high. Meanwhile, the illegal migrant population has swelled, and younger people are looking for employment in other countries, much as the older generations before them had to do after World War II.
Many Greeks feel their country has been occupied once again, as it had been so many times during its turbulent history—this time by the E.U. and the IMF. Unable to devalue its currency, Greece has had to give up much of its sovereignty in order to accept bailouts, along with new even harsher austerity measures.
Yet there are reasons for optimism. Greece owns the largest maritime fleet in the world, and shipping and tourism account for the two biggest sectors of its economy (tourism has actually been up in recent years). Greece has untapped oil reserves in its sea and gold in its land and could become a major player in renewable energy in the near future. Meanwhile, much as they did in antiquity, all roads in Greece lead to Athens. With its enviable location, large port, and state-of-the-art infrastructure, the capital may well be the key to leading the country back into the light.
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