Greece has always fascinated me. Its history blends both reason and imagination; the writings of Plato stand alongside fantastic myths of gods and goddesses. Greece is the cradle of not just the Olympics, but of democracy and freedom. More than even Italy, Greece speaks to my soul. Maybe it’s the magic. Maybe it’s the fierce love of freedom. Maybe it’s just an appreciation of a great civilization that preceded some of the darkest days in this world. Regardless, here are the highlights of that history—courtesy of Alexander Eliot’s Greece: A History—that so enchants me.
A Note on Geography:
Greece, like Italy in a way (but more so), is mountainous. These mountains—the Pindus Mountains and Rhodope Mountains—separate the country into little valleys which became the centers of the polis or Greek city-state. The Hellenes (or Greeks) were loyal to their own polis. Some of these city-states you might recognize: Athens, Sparta, Argos, and Corinth. Water in the form of the Ionians Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Sea of Crete, and Aegean Sea formed the natural barriers of the other city-states. So basically you get a lot of independent little cities fighting each other, only uniting when a bigger threat (like Persia) tries to conquer them. This geography had a huge effect on Greece’s history.
Some important moments in Greece’s history:
- Early Civilizations – Minoan Civilization (2,200) in Crete and Mycenaean Civilization (1,600 B.C.) in mainland Greece. These are the civilizations that were the source of Greek mythology. Who knew, right?
- Greek Civilization – Ancient Greeks (or Hellenes) appear in Greece around 1,000 B.C.
- Olympic Games – The first Olympic Games take place in 776 B.C. They then take place every four years for the next 1,000 years until 393 A.D.
- Homer – Homer writes (around 760 B.C.) the Iliad and the Odyssey, arguably two of the most influential works of ancient Greece.
- Democracy – In 594 B.C. in Athens is the birth of democracy, thanks to Solon.
- The Persian Wars – The Greeks unite (mostly) against the Persians from 490 to 479 B.C. Think the invasion at Marathon and the famous runner, the 300 Spartans that stood up to tens of thousands of Persians, the decisive destruction of the Persian navy by the Athens, and the final Persian defeat by the Spartan-led allied army.
- The Peloponnesian War – War between Sparta and Athens from about 431 to 404 B.C. The city-states were always fighting amongst themselves. Prior to this war, which Sparta won, was the golden age of Athens.
- Alexander the Great – Thanks in part to his father, King Philip II of Macedon, Alexander III (also known as the Great) proceeds to conquer Greece, Egypt, Persia, and much of Asia (336 to 323 B.C.)
- Hellenistic Period – The Hellenic culture, thanks to Alexander, is spread throughout the known world even though the empire was split up after his death.
- Fall of Greece – Greece begins to crumble under the rising power of Rome:
- Punic Wars (264 to 146 B.C.) fought primarily between Carthage in North Africa and Rome decisively ends Greek power by giving it to Rome. Luckily, the Romans adored the Hellenic culture and adopted much of it.
- Visigoths, Huns, and other invaders pretty much destroy Greece (300s A.D.)
- Last of Hellenic culture ends with the fall of Byzantium (which held ancient Greece’s glittering remains) in the 1400s
- Free Greece – It took centuries under Turkish, Venetian, and foreign rule for the country to start to coalesce again. It found freedom in 1827, had a combination of royal and military rule for the next 150 years, a dictator, and at last a democracy (1974).
Instead of satisfying my lust for knowledge about Ancient Greece, this book has just peaked it. It really explained why Greece was and is so important, even tying it to Christianity (Greek was most likely a language spoken by Jesus Christ. Plus the first translation of the Old Testament was in Greek and called the Septuagint).
I find it sadly ironic that the civilization that gifted us with democracy went without it for so many centuries. I find it sadder still that the great Greek civilization fizzled to what it is now, a ghost, a shadow of what was with a failing economy. Maybe one day it will rise like the Phoenix of its mythology.