By 3000 BC civilization on the Aegean peninsula had advanced to an extremely high level in comparison to other western cultures. The Bronze
Age people were divided into two easily identifiable cultures, the Cretan or Minoan on the Island of Crete, and Helladic or
Mycenaean which developed on the mainland continent. Cretan culture
and trade maintained early superiority in the Mediterranean until around 1500 BC,
when this eventually began to shift to the Mycenaeans.
A series of tribal invasions by from the north in the late 3rd millenium BC began to alter the landscape of what would eventually become Greece. The most prominent of the invaders
were known as the Achaeans (from where Achaea/Graecia/Greece takes its name), and they established their dominance of the Peloponnesus. Additional invaders included the Ionians who settled near Attica and mixed with the local Mycenean population, and the Aeolians who settled near Thessaly.
The mainland Achaeans began to dominate the region and by around 1500 BC they absorbed the civilization of Crete.
However, the Dorians who resided in the mountainous regions of Epirus (modern Albania) slowly began to push south using advanced military technology (primarily iron weapons).
These invading Dorians
defeated the Achaeans and settled with and around their conquered subjects principally in such places as Sparta and Corinth.
It is quite possible that The Trojan War preserved in literary history by
Homer in the Iliad was partly as a result of the Dorian conquests.
The Dorians, though advanced in military means bringing with them the iron age were more primitive from a social and cultural perspective than the tribes they
conquered thereby ushering in what could be labelled as a sort of Greek Dark Age. As a result of the political chaos that ensued individual cities
began to establish their own methods of control and the city-state or polis concept was born. Perhaps as a precursor of much later feudal Europe, the ancient people located
as near to these fortified towns (Acropolis) as possible. Athens which had been the center of the now evolving Mycenaean culture quickly established itself as a leader among the city-states.
At the conclusion of this migratory turmoil in the Aegean, the
Greek people began to develop an awareness of their cultural superiority. Though still fractured by political rivalry and allegience to various city-states, they would eventually come to be collectively known
as Hellenes (from the name of a small tribe in the region). Although
these small Hellenic states maintained independence from one another and in fact engaged in wars of their own,
they developed politically along a similar path. The local
monarchies were slowly supplanted and replaced, between 800 and 650
BC, by oligarchies. These aristocratic ruling factions were rather short lived and were subsequently replaced
by dissatisfied noble rivals and common people of wealth who were called tyrants. Ironically,
this age of the Greek tyrants (about 650 to 500 BC) was one of
great advances made in Hellenic civilization. Unlike the English connotations for the word tyrant, the title of
tyrant in its Greek context meant that power was simply seized by unlawful measures, rather than
that it was an abusive or oppressive dictator or monarchy. Many pf the leaders in this era were both very popular and beneficial
to the development of Greek civilization as a whole.
Between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, Athens and Sparta emerged as
the two dominant cities of Greece. Each developed and dominated its own league of neighboring cities. Sparta was a militarized
state and established its status mainly by conquest keeping it's subject cities on a short political leash. Athens on the other hand
accomplished the same goal of unification via diplomacy accomplished as a large part via citizenship inclusion. The Kingdom
of Athens was abolished in 683 BC by its oligarchic nobility, known as
the Eupatridae, who governed Athens for little more than a century. This government gradually evolved
into that of an elected government and by 502 BC Athens was
governed through a democratic constitution. The beginning of
democratic rule ushered in the of the greatest period of Athenian
history, called the Golden Age of Greece. Agricultural development and
trade grew exponentially and the center of ancient art and education migrated from Asia Minor to Athens.
In the mid 6th century BC, Greek colonies and coastal islands
in Asia Minor were conquered by the Persians. In 499
BC, the city of Ionia was assisted by Athens and Eretria and revolted against
this Persia rule. The rebels had some early success but were eventually eliminated by
King Darius I in 493 BC. A year later
Darius' son-in-law Mardonius led an enormous Persian fleet to
punish Greek interference in Persia's affairs, but most of the ships were wrecked
en route. Undaunted, Darius sent ambassadors
to Greece, requiring submissive tribute from all the Greek
city-states but Sparta and Athens refused killing the Persians
in defiance. Darius prepared a second
invasionary force in 490 BC and after besieging and destroying
Eretria resistance the Persian army marched towards Athens.
Led by Militiades, an Athenian army that was one-third the size of its enemy repulsed the invaders in an overwhelming
Again not to be denied, Darius immediately began preparation a third expedition. His
son, Xerxes I, who succeeded his father in 486 BC, formed
one of the largest armies in ancient history and by 481 BC
the Persians crossed the Hellespont and marched south into the Greek mainland once again. The Persians first met resistance
in 480 at Thermopylae, where Leonidas I of Sparta
and several thousand warriors valiantly defended the narrow
pass which provided a stalwart position to rebutt the massive invasionary force. The defection of a local shepherd and his knowledge of hidden passes in the mountains gave the Persians access
to the rear of the Spartan position and aware of his eventual destruction Leonidas ordered the bulk of his own force to withdraw.
He and a force of 300 Spartans remained to cover the withdrawal and to resist
the Persian advance to the very end. After a gallant effort the Greeks (outnumbered by the Persian army of over 2 million) were finally defeated but the cost to the invaders in numbers and moral was immense. The victorious Persians continued to Athens where they sacked the city. The Persian fleet meanwhile
pursued a Greek fleet to the island of Salamis where the tide was turned in favor of the Greeks. Fewer
than 400 Greek ships, under the Athenian admiral Themistocles,
defeated 1200 Persian vessels and the Persian King Xerxes, who had watched the
battle from a golden throne on a hill overlooking the harbor
withdrew to Asia. A year later 479 BC, the
remaining Persian forces in Greece were defeated at Plataea,
and Greece was free from foreign dominance.
In light of its great naval victory Athens developed a fleet that gave the city the same military dominance at sea that the Spartans
enjoyed on land. Athens, with the ability to strike swiftly by sea, began to exert control over the other city-states
in a military fashion similar to its Spartan rivals. The Athenians began to demand heavy tributes from these new conquests and their
formerlly allied cities. The city-state of Naxos attempted to withdraw from the alliance of cities formed against the Persians, called
the Delian League the city was destroyed in retribution.
Since the mid 6th century BC (550) the Peloponnesian League had been formed under the supremacy of Sparta as a rival to Athens.
In 431 BC as Athenian power and influence grew and Athens had assisted the city of Corcyra in a war against the Spartan ally of Corinth, the
a great war between the two Greek rivals was begun. The Peloponnesian War was the struggle between those two city states
that had dominated Greek politics for several centuries. It lasted until 404 BC and resulted in eventual Spartan supremacy over its rivals.
Upon its victory, Sparta formed an
oligarchic government known as the Thirty Tyrants to rule Athens and similar
forms of oppressive governments were formed in the city states throughout the region. Despite previous Athenian aggression and domination of its neighbors, Spartan rule soon proved itself to be a far less
welcome alternative. Three decades later, in 403 BC, the Athenians
under Thrasybulus revolted and defeated the garrison
that had supported the Spartan developed oligarchy restoring independent rule to Athens.
In light of the success of Athens in throwing off the Spartan yoke, many
other cities attempted the same, resulting in a state of perpetual resitance to Spartan rule over the next few years.
Despite this, Sparta maintained control and the Greek cities sought help from their
traditional enemy in Persia. As a result, in 399 BC, the interference of Persians
in the affairs of cities on the Asia Minor coast led to the arrival of a Spartan army. Though
this army was successful against Persian defenders it was unable to complete its tasks due to new revolts closer to home in Greece. The army
was withdrawn from Asia Minor in 395 BC to put down a coalition of Argos, Athens, Corinth
and Thebes who collectively had developed enough power to give the Spartans cause for concern. However, the Corinthian War only developed
into several small conflicts that lasted for the better part of the next decade. In 387 BC Sparta grew weary of the conflict and allied
with Persia to establish some sense of control. Together Sparta and Persia
concluded the Peace of Antalcidas (or the King's Peace from the Persian perspective)which allowed autonomous city-state rule in Greece and allowed the Persians to take control of the Asia Minor coastal cities. By the terms
of the Persian-Spartan settlement, the entire west coast of
Asia Minor was ceded to Persia, and the city-states of Greece
were made autonomous. Despite this agreement, in 382 BC Sparta invaded Thebes and
captured the city of Olynthus. The Theban general Pelopidas who was not surprisingly supported by the Spartan rival of Athens,
led a revolt in 379 that forced the Spartan
occupiers to withdraw. War between Sparta and Athens in alliance
was renewed eventually ending at Leuctra in 371 BC. Thebes so completely dominated the war that
Spartan domination in the area was brought to an end. As a result of its victory over Sparta, a third regional power emerged
and Thebes grew into the leading Greek city-state of the time. The other cities seemed to resent this change in the status quo
and resisted their new found power. Athens, the ally who helped Thebes achieve its supremacy, refused entirely
to recognize Theban authority and eventually even became an ally of Sparta in 369 BC.
Unfortunately for Thebes its position in Peloponnesian affairs
was dependent upon the authority of Epaminondas himself. When he was
killed in the Battle of Mantinea in 362 BC Thebes reverted to its former position as one city among many.
During this period of military and political turmoil in Greece, Macedonia, Greece's decidedly contemptible northern
neighbors, took advantage and expanded its own territories. By 359 BC King Philip II
annexed Greek colonies on the coast of Macedonia and Thrace
and moved his borders to the south. Within two decades, by
338 BC, Philip and Macedonia were established
as the political and military authority. A year later in 337 BC Philip declared war on Persia, reigniting old rivalries
but was assassinated before an invasion could
be mounted. His death gave rise to his son, Alexander, soon
to be called "the Great."
Establishing his authority in the wake of his father's death by 334 BC Alexander led the invasion of Persia that had been planned by Philip. Over the course
of the next 10 years his conquests extended Greek (Hellenistic) influence, civilization
and language throughout a Macedonian empire. This empire extended
as far east as India and as far south as Egypt and throughout the entire Greek world.
By the time of Alexander's death in 323 BC and in association with centuries of continued Hellenistic successor Kingdoms, Greek culture had been and would continue to spread and take hold throughout the eastern world.
Following the death of Alexander his empire collapsed as an entity controlled by a single authority, and
his Macedonian generals began to partition its pieces among themselves.
Political rivalries and attempts for complete domination resulting from these divisions not only led to reoccuring wars between such states as Seleucia, Ptolemaic Egypt and Macedonia, but
resulted in a debilitating series of civil wars in Greece. By 290 BC, the north central Greek cities formed
the Aetolian league and Peloponnesian cities formed the Achaean
League shortly thereafter. Both alliances were established as a counter to Macedonian
domination, but inevitable rivalries destabilized the effectiveness of the leagues. This political instability and near constant state of war predictably weakened
Greek power at just the time that a new power Rome,
was rising to the west.
By 215 BC Rome began to take an active interest in the Greek political situation. Philip
V of Macedonia allied himself with Carthage against Rome during
the Punic wars not only as an opportunity to expand his own borders but as a counter to Roman influence. However, the Romans along with the support of the Aetolian
League who had resented the domination of Philip, overcame the Macedonian forces in 206 BC and established
a permanent presence in Greece. A short time after Rome defeated Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal at Zama effectively ending the Second Punic War, Rome, this time with the support of both the Aetolian and Achaean city state leagues,
defeated Philip in 197 BC. Macedonia was completely
defeated and brought under precarious Roman authority in agreement for peace, and the independence of Greece from Macedonia was
secured. Unfortunately for the Greek states, however, they soon found
that they had exchanged one master for another. In one last
desperate attempt to free themselves in 149 BC, the members
of the Achaean League resisted tribute demands from Rome. In response, the Romans, under Lucius Mummius led legions into Greece and destroyed Corinth in 146 BC. As a result the city leagues were abolished and Greece passed
completely into the power of Rome, which united Macedonia
and Greece into a single Roman province.
For some six decades after Roman control was established, Greece was effectively governed by their western neighbors.
Some cities, such as Athens and Sparta, even retained a semblence of freedom.
However, by 88 BC the ROman civil wars between Marius, Sulla and Cinna and the rise of Mithridates VI
Eupator, king of Pontus in the east would shake the established order of the east. Mithridates invaded Roman controlled
territories with the support of many of the Greek cities who, much like previous reactions under Macedonian rule, had grown tired of Roman authority.
Roman legions under Lucius Cornelius Sulla forced Mithridates
out of Greece and Asia Minor crushing the rebellion of Greek city states in the process. Athens was sacked
in 86 BC and Thebes suffered the same fate a year later. Roman retribution against all the
rebellious cities was destructive and overwhelming. The campaigns in Greece by Sulla and his lieutenants
left much of Greece in utter ruin. As a result, the economic and military capacity of the collective city states
virtually disentegrated. Athens did remain a center
of philosophy and learning and would continue to be a destination for Roman aristocrats for centuries to come, but commercial capacity and political influence were reduced to
After the defeat of Antonius and Cleopatra, the first Roman Emperor
Augustus in massive reforms of Roman government separated Greece from Macedonia and established Achaea as its own administrative province
in about 22 BC. Over the next century
and a half the ancient glory of Greece would be slowly rebuilt,
culminating during the reign of Hadrian between 117
and 138 AD. Along with the Greek scholar Herodes Atticus, a great patron of the arts and Greek culture
the emperor Hadrian undertook an extensive rebuilding program. He beautified
Athens, which included the temple of Zeus and the great ivory and gold statue of the leading Olympian god, and restored many of the ruined Greek
cities to their original lustre. Greece not only stood as a cultural icon of ancient times, but provided that culture as a deeply rooted foundation of the later eastern empire and the Byzantines. It remained a part of the Roman or Byzantine Empires until the 11th century AD.
The Greeks had a fairly complex system of trade and commerce
in place throughout most of their civilization. Many raw materials,
like copper, lead and iron were available in Achaea, though
the mining of these metals was overshadowed by other provinces,
like Hispania, Britannia, Noricum, etc. Of agricultural items,
major imports included olives, along with olive oil, wine
Nearly any household
luxury item was produced in Greece. Precious oils, powders,
perfumes, cosmetics, linens, pottery, paints, furniture and
many other goods were all manufactured in Greek factories
and workshops. Artisans and craftspeople of all kinds labored
in Greek cities. Doctors, philosophers and educators in Roman
society were also very often of Greek origin. Marble was also
found in Greece and was exported for building projects. Sculpture
and other works of art were also highly sought after by wealthy
people all over the Roman world.