Greece’s colorful history is as marvelous as it is extensive. Where would one begin? To sum up the features of everything between the prehistoric ages to contemporary Greek history is equivalent to composing a whole tome – and even that could be argued in terms of sufficiency. However, there are some characteristics that stand out in every historical period, each having greatly contributed to what Greece, or Hellas, is today.
Please note that the term Hellenic often substitutes the word Greek in earlier historical periods. This is because the term Greek was coined hundreds of years later by the Romans to describe the peoples of Hellas. However, the word Hellas is still the Greek word for Greece nowadays.
Ancient Greece encompasses the historical period extending from the Neolithic Era all the way to the age of the Roman Empire. Containing most of what we call “Greek” today, this is the era where philosophy, science, culture, trade and politics are rooted in.
Neolithic Era – Bronze Age
Greece and the Balkans served as the gateway for the Neolithic Revolution, which began in the 7th millennia BCE. Findings pertaining to this era are mainly settlements, with the first having been built between 6500 and 3500 BCE in Sesclo, Thessaly and in Lerna, Argolida. The first Hellenic tribes of this era were the Pelasgians and the Minyes.
In the beginning of the Bronze Age (3500 – 1100 BCE) the first significant civilization began to emerge in the Aegean Sea; this culture was known as the Cycladic civilization, which resided on the Cyclades islands and thrived between 3200 and 1200 BCE. Examples of this fine civilization can be found on the islands of Milos, Paros, Naxos, and Santorini. A plethora of Cycladic statuettes can also be found at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
Another great Hellenic maritime civilization which thrived during the Bronze Age was the Minoan civilization, with Crete being its epicenter. The name of this culture derived from the mythical king Minoas. The civilization itself endured from 3500 to 1500 BCE and was the first to develop the Linear A alphabet. The Minoans succeeded in dominating the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Sea, especially in the field of trade, due to their powerful fleet and naval imposition. Examples of the Minoan prevalence can be observed at the ruins of the majestic palaces of Knossos, Phaestos and Mallia in Heraklion, Crete.
Both the Cycladic and the Minoan cultures, along with their renowned palaces, were abruptly destroyed in 1450 BCE by the colossal volcanic explosion of Santorini. However the natural disaster benefited the Achaeans, a tribe residing on the mainland and who later became known as the Myceneans, thus developing the next great civilization of Bronze Age Greece. The Mycenean culture spread across the areas of Argolida (Mycenae, Tiryns), Boeotia (Orchomenos, Glas, Thebes), and Magnesia (Iolkos). The civilization lasted 500 years (1600-1100 BCE) during which the Trojan War broke among the Achaeans and the Trojans. This era is also marked by the construction of Mycenaean acropolises and their towering Cyclopean walls, but also the development of Linear B.
Known as the ‘’Middle Ages of Antiquity’’ due to the fact that findings are scarce, the Iron (or Geometric) Age is estimated to have endured between 1100 and 800 BCE. The definition Geometric was coined due to the geometric motifs found on pottery pertaining to that era. It is also known that this period is marked by the last migration of the Hellenic tribe known as the Doreans, the destruction of the Mycenaean centers, the colonization of Asia Minor, the pervasive use of iron, and the establishment of monarchy as the characteristic polity of the era. Finally the most pivotal cultural features of the geometric age are the writings of Homer (Iliad and Odyssey) which were composed in the 9th century BCE, as well as the composition of the Hellenic alphabet.
This era defines the period between 800 – 500 BCE. One of the hallmarks of the Archaic Era is the 2nd Hellenic colonization, wherein Hellenes colonized most of the Mediterranean coastline and the Black Sea region. Places like Marseilles, Naples, and Syracuse have all been colonized by Hellenic tribes. The city-state construct was also established during this era and endured until the 3rd century BCE. The Olympic Games additionally originated from this period, with the first Olympiad commencing in 776 BCE. Other features of the Archaic Era include the abolition of monarchy, the imposition of Tyranny, the promotion of Sparta and Athens as the most significant city-states of Greece, the inception of the phalanx as a war tactic, the creation of a national currency, and the establishment of philosophical academies with representatives such as Pythagoras, Thales, Heraclitus, and Parmenides.
The Classical Era, also known as the Golden Age of Greece, scales between 500 and 323 BCE. This is the most thriving period in Ancient Greek history and the time of the birth of Democracy. Starting off, we have the Persian Wars, a threat that was thwarted in three phases:
a. 490 BCE: The Marathon Battle
b. 480 BCE: The Thermopiles Battle and the Battles of Artemesio and Salamis
c. 479 BCE: The Battle of Plataea and the Battle of Mycales
Following the successful overthrow of the Persians invaders, Athens entered a fifty-year period of peace, wealth, and growth in all its sectors. This prosperous period however came to its close when a civil war broke between Athens and Sparta. This is known as the infamous Peloponnesian War. Following the course of a 27-year conflict, Sparta was proclaimed victorious, even though this did not ensure the most harmonious of relationships among the city-states up until 359 BCE. This is the same year Philip II rose to the throne of Macedonia, a Hellenic kingdom north of Thessaly. Within a twenty year period, Philip succeeded in uniting all the Hellenic tribes against the Persians. Unsuccessful in commencing the campaign due to the fact that he was murdered, he was succeeded by his son, Alexander, who took over the campaign. Throughout the course of 11 years, Alexander relentlessly pursued his father’s vision by conquering the East and reaching as far as India. He died in 323 BCE after having spread the Hellenic culture across the Middle East. Simultaneously, sciences, philosophy and the arts began to flourish. This is the era of Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Socrates, Aristophanes, Democritus and more.
The death of Alexander The Great marks this next period, known as the Hellenistic Period, between 323 BCE and 31 BCE. It is known as Hellenistic due to the widespread distribution of the Hellenic language and culture in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Alexander’s empire was divided into smaller kingdoms due to the inevitable conflicts among his successors. As a chain reaction, other city-states throughout Greece began to lose their power too and, as an inevitable result, when the Romans decided to implement their expansionistic ambitions, the Hellenic city-states were too weak to stand up against them. Thus, the Romans conquered the whole of Greece. Up until 31 BCE and only after the Roman Civil Wars, did the Romans conquer the rest of the Hellenic kingdoms of Asia Minor, Egypt and the Middle East. Culturally, the Hellenistic Era thrived in the arts with representatives such as Xenon, Epicurus, Archimedes, Eucleides and others.
Roman Empire Period
During 146 BCE and 395 CE, a period of Roman rule was present in Greece. Politically there were no further changes made, yet at the beginning of the era the Greek peninsula became a conflict zone for Roman generals. These conflicts endured for one hundred years, yet luckily, by the end of the era, peace was successfully restored. The most characteristic event of this period however was the appearance and prevalence of Christianity, a new religion brought from the Middle East during the 1st era CE. Christianity spread at a rapid rate throughout the Roman Empire and was soon a major religion. It was proclaimed the official Roman religion by Theodosius, who then divided the Empire into two geographic regions: the Western and Eastern. During this period no significant advancements were made culturally. This was however the age of philosophers, scientists, and historians such as Plutarch, Strabo, Ptolemy, Apollodorus and Diodorus Siculus.
With the end of the Roman influence and the adoption of Christianity as a new religion, Greece steps into its middle ages. This is also known as the Byzantine Period.
This is the era between 395 CE and 1453, the period during which the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire possessed the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece included. The Greek language remained an international language until the country collapsed under the Ottoman Turkish invasion. In the beginning of the era Greek mentality and Greek ‘’identity’’ weren’t deemed particularly acceptable by the Byzantines due to the fact that the word ‘’Greek’’ was a synonym of ‘’pagan’’. Oddly, Greek was the predominantly spoken and written language of the Eastern Empire in spite of its association to idolatry. It is unfortunate that most ancient Greek manuscripts were either lost or destroyed as products of heresy during this time, as were many temples and philosophical academies. Only few texts were saved and copied. It was only until the 11th century that Greek identity began to flourish again and the term ‘’Roman’’ gradually began to lose its value. Being ‘’Greek’’ did no longer imply being pagan, and resumed its initial meaning. The emergence of the Neoplatonic academies is probably one of the most positive cultural achievements of the era, illustrative members of which were Porfirius, Hypatia, Proclus, Michael Psellos and George Gemistos.
Ottoman Turkish Occupation
After the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Greece was invaded and occupied by the Ottoman Turks from 1453-1821. During this 370-year period a great amount of rebellions took place, yet were easily repressed by the conquerors. The Greeks suffered greatly under the horrifically oppressive and brutal behavior of the Ottomans. The most significant rebellions for Greece’s liberation occurred in 1611, 1770 and 1788. Only after the 17th century did the Greek peoples begin to recover due to developments in trade, the Navy, and the simultaneous growth of shipping enterprises in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Through the traders and merchants emerged influential figures such as Konstantinos Koumas, Theofilos Cairis, Adamantios Korais, Rigas Fereos. Kosmas of Aetolia also played a significant part in aiding the occupied nation and inspiring it to stand to its feet and claim back its sovereignty.
Modern Greece – An Epilogue
The revolution for Greece’s liberation in 1821 marks the beginning of what is known as Greece’s contemporary history. It took the nation nine whole years (1821-1830) to find its independence and break free from its oppressors. The Greek kingdom was thus reconstructed with king Othon of Bavaria as its monarch. His reign lasted up until 1862. The crown was then offered to Prince George of Denmark who became King George I (1864). While the country managed to redevelop itself, its economy still had flaws. During King George’s reign (1864-1913), Greece increased in geographical regions with the annexation of Thessaly, Macedonia, Epirus, the Aegean Islands and Crete. But soon after the end of the Balkan Wars (1912-13) the king was murdered and the crown passed onto his successor King Constantine I. During his reign (1913-1922) Greece took part in WWI (1917) yet suffered a major disaster afterwards in Asia Minor (1920-1922). In the years of the Interwar (1922-1940) modernization efforts took place, but the political anomalies continued. In 1940 Greece joined WWII after the Italian and German invasions and after having suffered heavy losses throughout the German occupation. But the Greek people were in for more after the Germans left (1944), as a horrific civil war broke among the monarchists and the communists between 1945 and 1949, with the monarchists triumphing in the end.
Greece today is the result of both prosperous and dark times, with the latter possibly tipping the scale. From 1950 until 1974, the country was blessed with enormous economical growth, but through a far from ideal political environment. After enduring dictatorship (1967-1974), Democracy was restored, the political scene came to calm, the kingdom was repealed, and Greece became part of the E.U. (1981) and the Eurozone (2002).