Gain an understanding of the major figures, events, and periods of Greek History.
Ancient Greece (Before 1100 BCE)
Greece features some of the earliest civilizations in Europe. The oldest organized settlement in Europe was discovered in Poliochni on Lemnos island in Greece, dating back to the 3rd millennium BCE. The Bronze Age began around 3000 BCE and saw the rise of at least 3 great civilizations.
The Cycladic civilization, which centered on the Cyclades islands, prospered from its key position as a trade station between Asia and Europe. They developed rapidly in trade, politics, and culture as they produced impressive frescoes and marble figurines.
The Minoan Civilization, on Crete, began around 2600 BCE and quickly grew into a regional power. They developed the first writing in the Greek World, built luxurious palaces, and set up colonies all throughout the Aegean Sea. The Minoans disappeared around 1500 BCE, possibly because of a volcanic eruption on Santorini island which caused an earthquake and massive tsunamis to brutalize the Aegeans.
The most powerful of all ancient Greek civilizations was the Mycenaean Civilization, centered in the town of Mycenae, on the mainland. They built advanced walled cities, developed ‘Linear B’ as a written language, and went to war with Troy.
The “Dark” Ages (1100-800 BCE)
Sometime in the 12th century BCE, the Dorians invaded from the north and decimated the Mycenaean civilization. This was likely caused by the fact that the Dorians had superior iron weapons, which later signaled the end of the Bronze Age. When destroying the Mycenaean people, the Dorians also destroyed their culture as vast amounts of knowledge were lost, most notably, their written language. This was the same time the mysterious ‘Sea Peoples’ traveled the Mediterranean and wiped out the Egyptians and several other advanced civilizations. In this era, warfare shifted from cavalry-focused to infantry-focused.
Initially, kings ruled divided territories, but over time, the aristocrats took power, and then even smaller groups of elite citizens began to rule independent and unique ‘city-states.’
The Archaic Period (750 - 500 BCE)
The Archaic period saw these city-states take on a particular deity as a sponsor and protector, a shift to agriculture led to large-scale population growth, and writing was relearned from the Phoenicians. Over 1,500 Greek settlements sprang up across the Mediterranean between 750 and 600 BCE. Unique to the Archaic period, every one of these was a completely independent city-state, with no allegiance to the cities from which they came. As trade increased wealth, new autocratic leaders, called ‘Tyrants,’ gained power.
The humanities began to flourish in this era. Homer wrote his epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Pythagoras developed his Theorem, Anaximandros developed an early theory of gravity, and sculptors created ‘kouroi’ and ‘korai,’ intricate statues made as memorials to the dead, showing the cultural power of the Archaic period.
The Classical Period (500 BCE - 323 BCE)
The Classical period of ancient Greece was filled with both tremendous conflict and tremendous cultural achievement. The early years were characterized by continual war with the Persian Empire, most famously including King Leonidas’ valiant stand against a massive Persian invading force at Thermopylae, resulting in an eventual Greek victory. An Athenian nobleman named Cleisthenes came up with a new political system in 507 BCE he called ‘demokratia,’ where every male citizen over 18 could join the ruling body and vote on policy. Athens grew in power until a conflict with Sparta resulted in the Peloponnesian War from 431-404 BCE, which was won by Sparta.
Macedonians Phillip II and his son Alexander the Great first conquered Greece, and then nearly all of the Ancient world as far away as the Ganges river in India, Egypt, and most of North Africa.
Culturally, this period featured the historian Herodotus, the physician Hippokrates, and the philosopher Socrates.
Hellenistic Period (323 BCE - 31 BCE)
The Hellenistic period lasted from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to when the Romans conquered the last Macedonian territory in 31 BCE. The word Hellazein means “to speak Greek or identify with Greeks,” and, thanks to Alexander, this was true of a huge portion of the world after his death. His generals divided the massive empire between themselves, with dynasties formed by each: the Seleucids of Syria, the Ptolemies of Egypt, and the Antigonids of Greece.
These three empires were distinct politically, but the age gets its name from the fact that they shared a common culture. Travelers could move from one to the next and nearly all spoke the same language and practiced similar customs. Kings built elaborate palaces and commissioned art, sculptures, and jewelry, as well as sponsored museums, zoos, universities, and libraries, the most famous of which was at Alexandria.
Roman Greece (31 BCE - 324 CE)
Although the Romans would fully subjugate Greece in 31 BCE, it was Greek culture that would subjugate Roman culture, best exemplified by the Roman adoption of renamed Greek deities. The first two centuries occurred during the ‘Pax Romana.’ a time of peace and prosperity throughout the empire. At this time, the Greeks were allowed to govern themselves so long as they paid tribute to Rome.
Greeks were also allowed to be citizens, and even Senators, in Rome beginning in 212 CE. The Romans welcomed Greek culture and soon, both Latin and Greek became official languages of the empire. Homer’s epics inspired the Roman Virgil to write his Latin epic, The Aeneid, and Roman nobles eagerly studied Greek philosophy, mathematics, and science. Christianity was also spread throughout Greece during this time.
Byzantine Greece (324 - 1204 CE)
When the Roman Empire split, Greece became part of the largely Hellenistic Byzantine empire, centered in Constantinople. The first few centuries of Byzantine rule saw emperors Constantine the Great and Justinian secure the borders of the empire, and embrace orthodox Christian doctrine as the religion.
Between 600 and 800 CE, Greece and the empire were repeatedly invaded. Near-constant conflict with the Persians, Slavs, Arabs, and Bulgars defined this period, sometimes with invasions that almost reached Constantinople itself.
800 – 1100 CE was a time of peace, as well as cultural and economic prosperity for Byzantine Greece. The population increased and orthodox churches sprouted up throughout the countryside. Art flourished in the form of distinctly Byzantine mosaics, architecture, and silks which inspired the rest of the West.
Frankish/Latin Greece (1204 - 1453)
The bizarre 4th crusade in 1204 would set in motion a series of events that would divide Green by Latin conquerors for decades before being reunited with the Byzantine empire. The crusade arrived in Venice with less than a third of the army expected and had already commissioned a massive fleet and provisions for transport. They ended up ransacking a Christian town as payment. They were then offered a massive financial reward if they could topple the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. This reward was offered by his son, Alexius, who also offered to convert to Catholicism and have the Byzantines once again swear fealty to the Pope in Rome.
The bankrupt Crusaders accepted the bargain and toppled the emperor, raising Alexius to the Crown. However, Alexius could not afford to pay the Crusaders, who, disgusted that they had helped him betray his own father, promptly ransacked the city and divided much of the Byzantine territory amongst themselves, including Greece, which split into multiple territories.
57 years later, the Byzantine empire would reform and regain control of most of Greece. Over the course of the next few centuries, it would slowly shrink, losing power until its final defeat by the Ottomans in 1453.
Ottoman Greece (1453-1829)
The Ottomans began subjugating Greece in 1453 after taking Constantinople but would not fully complete their conquest until 1499. They instituted the ‘millet system,’ which divided Ottoman territories into castes based on religion, with Muslims at the top and other ‘religions of the book,’ like Christianity and Judaism, beneath. The main punishment for non-Muslims was extra taxes, which was a great deal more tolerant than the forced conversions and expulsions Christians enacted on Muslims during this period. Ottoman bureaucracy only interacted with localities in collecting taxes and recruitment, leaving many Greeks to become economically successful through trade.
As more Greeks at home and abroad found economic success, they founded schools and universities throughout Greece. This led to a population more prideful and focused on their national identity and independence was declared in 1821. Although at first the fighting was done mostly by guerilla fighters, by 1827, the great powers of Russia, France, and Britain took up the Greek cause, sending naval support and acting as intermediaries for negotiations. Greek Independence became official in 1829, but the new country struggled to industrialize, and thousands of Greeks emigrated over the coming decades.
20th Century Greece (1900 - Present)
The early part of the 20th century saw Greece double in size through victory in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 and then gain Smyrna after siding with the Allies in WWI. Turkey attacked to regain Smyrna in 1919, and after 4 years of war, a peace agreement was signed, which allowed for a massive population exchange based on religion. Over 1 million Orthodox Christians left Turkey, and 400,000 Muslims left Greece.
During World War II, Greece fended off an Italian invasion but was defeated and occupied by the Nazis in 1941. After the Soviets’ advance forced the Germans to retreat, the very first conflict of the Cold War took place in Greece in the form of a 5-year (1944-1949) Civil War between Communists and the victorious British and American-backed Nationalists.
After a brief military coup resulted in a 7-year dictatorship from 1967-1974, the ‘Third Hellenic Republic’ was established, and Greece has been a democracy ever since.