greece guide

Greek history from the Ancient times to modern Greece

prehistory The first evidence of human life in Greece dates back to the Palaeolithic period between 120,000-10,000 B.C. However, it was not until the Neolithic period dated approximately 7,000 – 3,000 B.C. that Greek civilisation grew and flourished. Many remains of settlements and burial chambers of this period have been discovered in Thessaly, Macedonia and the Peloponnese. The first urban centres appeared during the Bronze Age (3,000-1100 B.C.) Evidence of these have been found all over modern day Greece, for example, in some North Eastern Aegean islands, the Cycladic islands, Crete and the Greek mainland. Due to its strategic position, straddling east and west, Greece was considered a vital link in world’s History. The first Greek-speaking peoples are thought to have migrated into the Balkan peninsula shortly before 2200 , during the Aegean Bronze Age. Their arrival is attested by signs of violent destruction in the vicinity of Argos, most notably at Lerna. By 1500 their descendants in mainland Greece had established a civilisation that reached as far as Rhodes and was in contact with Near Eastern kingdoms. The Mycenaean, as these people are known, were much influenced by the Minoan Cretans, whose importance was remembered in such myths as stories about King Minos and Theseus of Athens. By the middle of the 15th century, Knossos, Crete’s greatest city, had fallen into Mycenaean hands, as is known from the discovery in the palace of Knossos of clay tablets inscribed in Linear B, an early Greek script. Knossos was destroyed about 1400; other Cretan cities had been destroyed about a century before.

One of the great civilizations in the world during the 4th and 3d millennium BC was the Minoan culture of Crete. The Minoan culture is divided in three periods: old, middle and late. The old period was synchronized with the Old Kingdom of Egypt. There were connections between the two cultures through trade, and these influences can be found in the art in both Crete and Egypt.

knossosDuring the middle period, about 1900 BC, the great palaces of Knossos and Phaestos were built. There are debates whether these buildings were housing kings or priests, but it is thought there was a religious association to them. The Great Goddess, perhaps called Rhea was worshipped, and her priests and priestesses had the highest position in the society.

During the second millennium BC a series of natural catastrophies plagued the Minoan civilization. At 1700 BC there was a terrible earthquake that destroyed the old palaces, and a second one occurred at about 1450 BC destroying most of the buildings of that time. The Volcano at Thira ( Santorini ) erupted at this time, causing half the island to sink.

The palace of Knossos was destroyed and rebuilt several times but the final catastrophy happened in 1200 BC when the temple of Rhea burnt. Ironically, this was what saved the claytables – in the fire they were burnt hard, and so saved to history. When the archaeo-logist Nicholas Evans found them in the beginning of the 20th century he did not know they were actually written in Greek.

At the same time of the Minoan civilization, especially the middle and late, the Mycenaean culture flourished on mainland Greece. It was also around the 13th and 12th century BC that the Dorians invaded the Peloponnese and took over as a leading tribe with Sparta and Corinth as their main cities.

The time between the end of the Mycenaean culture and the Classic times are sometimes called the Greek Middle Ages or Dark Ages. This is partly because we do not know much about this time. In general, the ancient world was going through a period with small states without major connections. The Doric invasion of Greece had left Mycenae in ruins, and there were limited resources to build anything.

Greece consisted of many small city-states, with kings as rulers. The people were only united at certain days of the year at various cultlocations. There they worshipped the Gods and organized athletic competitions. So called rhapsodists, bards, traveled around and recited epic poems, the Iliad and Odyssey being the best known to the aftermath.

From 800 – 650 BC aristocratic families had the power and a system of oligarchy was dominant. During the 8th century BC connections with other countries improved and it is during this time the writing started, with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as the earliest known works. In 776 the first Olympic Games were held. Another important discovery was the chicken, imported from Persia. This improved the Greeks diet and health.


Ca 650 BC there were many turnovers in the leadership of the city-states, since many noble families were overthrown and replaced by tyrants, or one man rulers as the title suggests. The tyrant system, which often was popular, lasted until about 500 BC.

archaic periodThe Archaic Period started at about 550 BC and during this time connections with the other countries improved even more. But there was also the new threat of Persia, which was expanding westwards, forcing the Greeks of Asia Minor emigrate. Many moved to the colonies in south Italy, and to the Greek mainland. Athens was beginning to be a powerful city. During Pisistratos, who was considered a tyrant, Athens became an important political and financial center. Until now cities like Corinth, Megara and Aegina had been significant commercial centers, but Athens was now rising in power.

On the Peloponnese, Sparta was completing its organization, making pacts with other city-states on the peninsula. Argos remained independent, but suffered interior setbacks under its king Kleomenes, who had tried to stretch the Doric reign to Middle Greece. In the west, other important centers were Syracuse, Akragas (Agrigentum), Selinous and Taras (Tarent). From the South of Sicily they had the threat from the Carthages and from the North the Etruscans.

The religion was flourishing everywhere, with the oracle of Delphi and its many visitors and the Eleusinian mysteries in Athens.The first philosophers started gathering knowledge. From Miletus Thales and Anaximander worked, and this influenced amongst others Heraclitus in Efesos and Pythagoras and Xenofanes in South Italy. Pisistratos and his sons gathered scientists and artist at their court and the first dramas were played in Athens.

This was a time when the Greeks came closer together, and what one would call a nationa-listic feeling. Although the city-states were still very much autonomous, people came to realize that they shared the same culture, history, language, religion and also games.

In the beginning of the 5th Century BC the cities in the Ionian part had been destroyed by the Persians, and Greece had to struggle against the Eastern enemy. Athens united the Greeks against the Persians, and managed to free the cities of the coast of Asia Minor, thus controlling the Aegean sea. The feelings towards the orient were hostile, and the different cultures were set against each other: democracy against despotism, freedom against slavery, simplicity against overwhelming luxury. Pindarus with his religious poetry and Aeschylus with his serious strictness were the literary giants.

The classic period 450-300 BC was the time when Athens became the most powerful city-state. Thanks to its fleet, the Greeks had defeated the Persians, and Athens now had a vast empire. It became the cultural and financial center of Greece, attracting merchants, scientists, philosophers and people of the Arts. Sophocles wrote dramas about the power of the Gods and the religious feelings were depicted in the arts. The Parthenon on the Acropolis was built by Ictinus and Callicrates, the crown of the Greek temples..

In 431 the Peloponnesian wars began. The old political and religious ideals were crushed, the new ideal was the individual, the person, and not the whole and general any more. It was a kind of anarchy against authorities and religious rules. Alcibiades was the first to practice this – he recognized noone as his superior, neither in official nor in private life. As far as we know he was the first to hire an artist to decorate his house. New gods were worshipped, like Asclepius, the god of medicine and obviously closer to Man than the Olympic Gods. Also foreign gods were venerated, like Cybele from Asia Minor.

Athens lost its empire and financial power at the Peloponnesian wars, but remained cultural center. The 4th century was to be the time of the Macedonians, since the state in the north grew stronger under its king Philip II, who became ruler in 359 BC. Philip had the vision to unite Greece since he saw the country’s potential if united. Macedonia expanded into Greek territory and in Athens the Macedonians had a great enemy in the orator Demosthenes. Eventually the Greek city states recognized Philip II as commander. He started preparing for war against Persia, but was assassinated before he started.

It was his son, Alexander, that was to make the Greek culture and civilization ruler of the then known world. After a series of conquest, Alexander the Great had expanded Greece’s borders from Egypt and Greece to India.

The Hellenistic time 200 – 27 BC followed the conquers of Alexander the Great. Many foreign peoples, as far away as from India, now was part of the Greek culture, and the ancient world took an international form. The individualism was now stronger than ever, creating the idea of nothing being impossible.

Periods of the History of Greece

The Minoan period

During the Minoan period in Crete (approximately, 2nd millennium B.C.) a more sophisticated, organised society developed with a culture specific to that region. The first scripts were invented and communication opened up between the Minoans and people from the East Mediterranean countries. This led to an exchange of culture and ideas which became not only established as part of Minoan culture but spread to influence cultures, religion and government all over the Greek islands of the Aegean and the mainland of Greece. During this time Crete became the main exporter of jewellery, skilled craft works, oil and wine as well as importers of food and raw materials. It was during this time in Crete that the first major mercantile navy was developed.
Mycenaean period

This state of affairs continued until around 1500 B.C. when the tragic destruction of Crete occurred due to the eruption of the volcano of Santorini. The Mycenaeans, based on the Greek mainland were able to take advantage of this collapse of Cretan culture and established themselves as the leading force throughout the Aegean in the last centuries of the 2nd millennium B.C. Their cities in Mycenae, Pylos, Tiryns, Thebes, Iolkos and Athens became the bureaucratic centres of their vast kingdom. This period of Mycenaean civilisation saw the conquest and settlement by Greeks. Their society was based essentially upon warfare and its elite class were war-chiefs. Their culture thrived for around four hundred years. The cities of the warlords were large and powerful, art and agriculture flourished and there was great prosperity. However, unlike the earlier Minoan societies the wealth was not distributed amongst the population. As a monarchical society, it was the warring kings who accumulated the riches of the society and spent vast amounts of it upon battles and invasions. This continued until around 1200 B.C., by which time the power of the Mycenae kings was declining and by the 12th century BC their dominance had collapsed – considered by some to be due to the invasion of the Dorian tribes from the north of Greece.

Alternatively, it is postulated that as the Mycenaean superstructure weakened it was overthrown by other groups of the Mycenaean population who then settled in many of the areas formerly controlled by them.
Mycenaean civilisation is best known from the remains of Mycenae, although many other sites exist in the Peloponnesus as well as in south central Greece, on the islands of the Aegean, and on the coast of Anatolia. The graves at Mycenae have yielded many precious objects of great beauty. Golden crowns, diadems, and cups, some in raised relief, were found with vessels of silver and alabaster and numerous bronze weapons. Some tombs, called beehive tombs because of their shape, show developed architectural skill. The most monumental tomb is the so-called Treasury of Atreus. Like Mycenae’s Lion Gate and the palace remains, this tomb reflects the Mycenaeans’ ability to organize their resources on a large scale. The great palaces of the mainland were built in the 14th century .

mycenaeThey were enclosed in fortified citadels defended by strong walls. Major palaces have been excavated at Tiryns and Pylos as well as at Mycenae. The Linear B tablets found at Knossos and Pylos attest the existence of an elaborate palace bureaucracy headed by a king. Matters of cult were overseen by a priest or priestess, and the workforce was highly specialized and regimented. The workers lived beyond the walls of the palaces, the king and nobles within. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Mycenaeans enjoyed their greatest prosperity during the 14th and early 13th centuries . They pursued trade with east and west, establishing footholds in both areas of the Aegean.

As their fortifications suggest, the Mycenaeans were a warlike people. Battle scenes are prominent in their art, and they took their weapons with them to their graves. Homer made one of their military expeditions famous when he sang about the Trojan War. Troy, in northwest Anatolia, was in fact violently destroyed shortly after 1300, apparently after a siege, and there is no reason to doubt that this destruction was brought by the Mycenaeans. It is unknown, however, whether the town of Mycenae ever acquired the leadership of Greece, as Homer supposed, or whether each palace was autonomous. The homogeneity of the civilisation is not conclusive evidence that there was a dominant imperial city.

The Geometric period

Following the Mycenaeans, there was a long period of cultural and economic stagnation which lasted from around 1150-900 BC. This Dark Age however ended with the emergence of the beginning of the Greek renaissance, known as the Geometric period (9th-8th century BC). The Greek city-states were formed and, as in all subsequent renaissance times, the Geometric period saw the development of literature and arts. Homeric epics and the Greek alphabet were both created during this time of enlightenment. The Archaic Period which followed during the 7th-6th centuries BC saw fundamental political and social changes. The Greek city states began to colonise and open up their dominance, establishing colonies at all points of the compass, North Africa to the south, the Black Sea to the north and Spain to the west.

Archaic period

In the 13th century a dark age set in, although the precise cause of Mycenaean decline is unknown. There may have been some intercity warfare; wandering peoples certainly brought war by sea into both the Near East and Greece. The main Mycenaean cities were destroyed by the end of the century. The Dorians, themselves a Greek people, took possession of much of the Peloponnesus, and although some Mycenaean sites lingered on for a considerable period, civilisation was swept away and the population decreased. The art of writing was lost, not to be regained until the Greeks adapted it from the Phoenician script about 400 years later. Many Mycenaeans fled from Greece to the coast of Anatolia, which later came to be called Ionia. Athens, which was immune from Dorian conquest, was the embarkation point. These refugees took with them a recollection of their traditions, which crystallized into the oral and epic poetry best known from Homer.

A new aristocratic social structure, less rigid than the Mycenaean, began to take rootÑin Ionia, as well as in Greece itself. The DoriansÑsome of whom passed from the Peloponnesus to Crete, other islands in the Aegean, southwest Anatolia, and RhodesÑlived in tribal communities led by a hereditary king who commanded in war and served as chief priest. The king heeded the advice of a council of elders, and the warrior class ratified major decisions about war and peace. Hunting and war were the main business of life. The non-Dorian Greeks of Boeotia and elsewhere led a similar existence.

Establishment of City States

In Ionia, where kingship was also the early rule, the refugees remained on the seacoast and quickly organized themselves into cities, probably in order to defend themselves better from the adjacent Near Eastern population, although there must have been considerable cultural interchange between the two peoples. The walled cities, which served as the focus of the surrounding population, began to evolve into city-states (the polis). The defensible city, with its citadel, central shrine, hearth and sacred fire, and marketplace (agora), became the center of government for town and country. One’s city, not one’s village or race, determined one’s political identity. A similar process occurred in Greece itself, though in some areas, such as Arcadia in the center of the Peloponnesus, village life continued; in other areas exceptional or fortunate cities assimilated a relatively large surrounding area. Thus Athens and Sparta absorbed Attica and Laconia, respectively.

The Greeks on both sides of the Aegean early on frequented common shrines. Apollo was worshipped at Delphi, Zeus at Olympia, Apollo and Artemis at Delos. The Greeks celebrated festivals at these shrines with dance, song, and athletics. These meetings reinforced their common identity and prompted them to formulate some basic rules of interstate behavior concerning warfare, religious truces, and the sanctity of heralds or messengers. Delphi became the center of a league that initially comprised only the surrounding peoples but eventually came to include both Athens and Sparta. The oracle at Delphi was much consulted throughout ancient times. In the archaic period it was very influential, fixing the site of prospective colonies and helping to formulate major policies for cities as well as individuals.


Increasing stability and prosperity caused a growth of population; a great wave of colonization ensued between 750 and 500 . Greek culture spread throughout the Mediterranean and even into the southern Ukraine. Markets were opened for Greek oil, wine, and other wares in return for precious metals, timber, grain, and other goods. One major center of colonization was Sicily and southern Italy. Corinth founded Syracuse, the greatest Greek city in the west; Chalcis (modern Khalkis), in Euboea, settled many other cities in the area. The region of the Black Sea was settled from Ionia, Miletus being the chief coloniser. The small island of Thera ( Santorini today ) founded the great kingdom of Cyrene in northeast Libya. Further expansion in Africa was blocked by Carthage; Phoenicia proved impermeable; in Egypt the Greeks were able to establish a commercial emporium, Naucratis, on the Nile delta. Neither Sparta nor Athens were colonial powers.
Aristocracy and Tyranny

This was also a time of great social upheaval. The landholding aristocracy, which had already wrested power from the kings, found their own supremacy challenged by those beneath them. People of less-distinguished birth became increasingly dissatisfied with the prevailing aristocratic order and were acquiring power in their own right. The rise of literacy, the increased concentration of economic power in the hands of traders and artisans, and the introduction of the phalanx mass of men fighting in unison in heavy armour, which made discipline and manpower the key element of success in warÑshifted the balance of power to the general citizenry.

By the 7th century , ambitious or sympathetic individuals from the circle of the aristocracy were capitalising on the general discontent, especially in prosperous cities, and establishing tyrannies. Cypselus (d. 625) seized control of Corinth and built a colonial empire, founding cities on the west coast of Greece and modern Albania. Tyrants also arose in Megara, Epidaurus, and Sicyon, just northwest of Corinth. In the Aegean, Polycrates, (d. c.522), tyrant of Samos, made his island a major naval power.


Early Athenian and Spartan Development

Athens’s tyranny developed after a long series of troubles. The Athenian noble and Olympic athlete Cylon’s early attempt to establish a tyranny, probably in 632 , ended in failure. The social discontent reflected in his attempt, and perhaps also the sacrilegious murder of his partisans, which brought a curse on the murderers and led to a vendetta, apparently prompted Draco to draw up and publish a code of laws in 621. Even that proved ineffective, however; the oppression of the poor, some of whom suffered debt-slavery, the exclusion of the middle class from political office, and other factors combined to precipitate a crisis. In 594, Solon was given unique powers as diallakt¼s, or mediator; he canceled debts, abolished debt-slavery, and made wealth the criterion of public office. But his reforms were only temporarily successful; civil strife soon broke out again.

Peisistratus seized the tyranny in 561 by defeating his aristocratic rivals. Though exiled twice, he ended his days as tyrant of Athens in 527, after a continuous rule of 19 years. He was succeeded by his sons Hipparchus and Hippias; the assassination of the former in 514 ended the benign character of the tyranny. In 510, Hippias was expelled from Athens with Spartan assistance. Three years later Cleisthenes established the Athenian democracy, which in many respects fulfilled the tendencies begun by Solon and enforced by Peisistratus.

Despite the modern connotation of the word, tyranny was generally a beneficial stage in the evolution of government. Though the tyrant seized power illegally and ruled extra constitutionally, his power ultimately derived from popular support. The first tyrants centralized the city-state, repressed the aristocracy, fostered commerce and the arts, and brought civic pride to the citizenry. Their heirs, however, ruled despotically and brought about their own destruction. Most tyrants were removed from power by the end of the 6th century, except in Sicily and other areas on the periphery of Greece, where they became monarchs rather than true tyrants.

Tyranny failed to develop at Sparta in archaic times, undoubtedly because of that city’s unique social order. Discontent seems to have arisen by the middle of the 7th century, when Sparta was engaged in the Second Messenian War. While suppressing this rebellion in Messenia, which Sparta had conquered in 735 BC the Spartans effected changes in their constitution. They abolished the right of the people to contradict their leaders, the two kings and the 28-member council of elders. At some point thereafter the power of the five ephors, or overseers, was increased at the expense of the power of the kings. The Spartans also instituted a sweeping social reform, which they attributed to Lycurgus, facilitating the virtually total subordination of the citizenry to the military demands of the state. Helots, or serfs, supplied the Spartans with their material needs, and the use of money was forbidden. By the middle of the 6th century, after taking the southeast portion of the Peloponnesus from Argos, Sparta began to form a series of alliances with other city-states and localities, which it turned into a league under its leadership. Sparta’s policy from c.550 was to oppose and overthrow the tyrannies. This policy was generally successful.
Persian Wars

A threat to Greek liberty arose in the last half of the 6th century when Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, defeated Croesus in 546 and conquered his kingdom of Lydia, in Anatolia. The subjugation of Ionia, already begun by Croesus, entered its final phase. The Ionians, who became tributary to Cyrus and his successors, Cambyses II and Darius I, rebelled in 499. They were granted token aid, which was swiftly withdrawn, by Athens and Eretria, but nevertheless struggled for six years until the Persians sacked Miletus and gained command of the sea.

Darius, alleging Athenian participation in the revolt, dispatched an army across the Aegean to conquer Athens. After Athens won a splendid victory in the Battle of Marathon in 490, a new expedition, on a grander scale, was readied by Darius’s son, Xerxes I. It too was defeated, in the Great Persian War of 480Ð79. Though a small band of Spartans led by King Leonidas was destroyed at the narrow pass of Thermopylae, a sea battle fought simultaneously off Artemesium, the northern tip of Euboea, resulted in the destruction of a considerable portion of Xerxes’ fleet. The Greeks withdrew to the isthmus of Corinth while the Persians sacked Athens. Later in the same year the Greeks annihilated Xerxes’ fleet at Salamis; in 479, they destroyed his land army at Plataea, in Boeotia. The battle of Mycale, on the southern coast of Anatolia, opened up Ionia to the Greeks. Athens continued the Ionian war, liberated the Greeks, and, in 478Ð77, organized the Delian League. The Greeks always remembered the defeat of Xerxes as their finest achievement.

Athenian-Spartan Rivalry

The 5th century also was marked by a great conflict between Athens and Sparta, the strongest powers in Greece and the proponents of two different systems of government and society progressively radical democracy and oligarchy, respectively. By the middle of the century Athens had used its mighty naval force to transform the Delian League into an empire. Athens’s new prosperity and pride in its achievements, particularly under the leadership of Pericles (r. c.460Ð429) led to an outpouring of creativity, especially in drama, and allowed the city to adorn itself with public buildings of unsurpassed beauty, such as the Parthenon, begun in 447.

In the 450s, while Athens was attempting to deprive Persia of Egypt, it entered into a sporadically fought and inconclusive war with the Peloponnesians for the possession of Megara and Aegina. Sparta was largely inactive in this war, though it fought and defeated the Athenians in the Battle of Tanagra (c.457). Sparta was probably distracted (or left weakened) by the great helot revolt that had erupted in 464 and lasted for ten (or possibly only four) years.

The war ended in the winter of 446 BC with the so-called Thirty Years’ Peace. The peace was broken in 431, however, when the Peloponnesian War began; it was to last until 404. This destructive conflict, which is chronicled by Thucydides, brought revolution to many cities and resulted in increasingly brutal acts perpetrated by both sides. After the Spartans invaded Attica and sought to incite Athens’s subjects to rebellion, Athens retaliated by raiding the Peloponnesian coast. The Athenians sought to retain control of the sea and attacked Corinthian settlements in northwestern Greece. After Athens’s disastrous defeat in Sicily in 413, Sparta itself became a naval power and gradually drove Athens from the sea. Under siege, Athens capitulated in 404. It consented to the destruction of its fortifications and gave up its navy and empire. Meanwhile, Persia had succeeded in reasserting its presence in Ionia by financing the Spartan fleet.
Spartan and Theban Ascendancy

The Spartans, now leaders of the Greeks, soon aroused widespread enmity by their high-handed rule. In 395 , Thebes and Corinth, which had been fierce enemies of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, formed a coalition with Argos to wage war against Sparta. To maintain its predominance, Sparta had to bargain with Persia. In 386 the Persians dictated the so-called King’s Peace, which asserted Persia’s ancestral claim to Ionia and acknowledged, in exchange, Spartan supremacy in Greece. Nevertheless, Thebes defeated Sparta at Leuctra in 371. The Theban army under Epaminondas then drove into the Peloponnesus and liberated Messenia from Sparta in 369Ña devastating blow to the Spartans. Meanwhile, the Athenians partially regained their naval leadership by forming the Second Athenian Confederacy in 377. The confederacy was too decentralized to permit Athens to regain its earlier dominance, however; within 20 years it virtually disintegrated.

Rise of the Macedonian Kingdom

A monarchy in the north soon arose to dictate the fortunes of the Greeks. The brilliant statesman and warrior Philip II became regent of Macedonia in 359 and its king in 356. Under his leadership this newly centralized kingdom gradually overwhelmed the disunited land. By easy stages Philip advanced into central Greece, winning control of Delphi as a result of the Third Sacred War (355Ð47) against Phocis. In 338 he destroyed a Theban and Athenian army on the field of Chaeronea. He imposed a short-lived federal union on the Greeks and made himself their commander in chief in anticipation of a war against Persia. He was assassinated in 336, however, before the war could be fought.

The defeat of the Greek city-states at Chaeronea ended an era of the Ancient Greek history. Neither Sparta, Athens, nor any other city-state had proved capable of uniting Greece under its leadership. Intense mutual jealousies, sharpened by the egoistic abuse each polis dealt the others whenever circumstances permitted, made unity a hopeless dream.