A Brief History of Greece

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Greece

From about 7,000 BC stone age farmers lived in Greece. Then about 3,000 BC bronze was introduced. About 2,500 BC a sophisticated society grew up on the island of Crete. It is known as the Minoan civilization. By about 1,950 BC the inhabitants had invented a form of writing using hieroglyphs. This writing is called linear A. The Minoans were a bronze age civilization. (They made tools and weapons from bronze). Their civilization was at its height from about 1700 BC to 1500 BC.

However Minoan culture declined after 1450 BC. We are not sure why but they may have been conquered by Mycenaeans from mainland Greece.

Most of the Minoans lived in small villages and made their living from farming. They grew wheat, barley, grapes, and olives. They raised goats, cattle, sheep, and pigs. Minoan farmers had to give part of their crops to the ruler as a tax.

The Minoans were also trading people. They traded with Sicily, Cyprus, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East. The Minoans exported wine, olive oil, timber, and pottery. (Minoan potters made very thin pottery called Kamares ware). They also exported jewelry and weapons. Merchants imported lead, copper, obsidian, and ivory.

Each Minoan palace was surrounded by a large, unfortified town. The fact that the towns were unfortified showed that life in ancient Crete was peaceful. Perhaps the fact that the Minoans had a large and powerful fleet made them secure.

About 1,600 BC civilization spread to the Greek mainland. This early Greek civilization is called the Mycenaeans after the city of Mycenae, which was found by the great German archaeologist Schliemann. The Mycenaeans lived in city-states. Their palaces were fortified showing life was less peaceful than on Crete.

The Mycenaeans were also great traders and their craftsmen worked in gold and silver. However, after 1200 BC Mycenaean civilization went into decline, and by 1100 BC Greece had entered a dark age.

At that time a people called the Dorians conquered the Mycenaean cities. However, the Dorians also introduced iron into Greece. By about 800 BC a new civilization arose in Greece based on city-states such as Athens and Sparta.

In 490 BC Darius, the Persian king led an army into Greece. However, the Persians were crushed at the Battle of Marathon. In 480 the next Persian king Xerxes invaded Greece again but he was completely defeated at the naval battle of Salamis. The next year the Greeks triumphed at the Battle of Platea.

In 477 BC Athens formed an alliance of Greek city-states called the Delian League. However, Athens came into conflict with Sparta and they fought a long war from 431 to 404 BC. It was called the Peloponnesian War and it ended with a Spartan victory. However, Sparta later fell out with the city of Thebes. The Thebans won a great victory at Leuctra in 371 AD. For a short time, Thebes became the leading Greek city. Sparta and Athens joined forces against Thebes in 362. The great Theban general Epaminondas was killed and Theban power waned.

Meanwhile, in the north, the power of Macedon was growing. In 338 BC Philip of Macedon defeated an alliance of Greeks in battle. He was assassinated in 336 BC but his son Alexander took firm control of Greece.

In the 5th and 4th centuries BC Greece excelled in architecture, sculpture, and literature. They also produced some of the world’s greatest philosophers and mathematicians. They also gave us the Olympic Games.

Alexander the Great led an army into what is now Turkey in 334 BC. He crushed the Persians at the battle of Issus in 333 BC and he conquered a vast empire that stretched from Egypt to India. However, Alexander died in 323 BC and his empire broke up. Yet Greek culture was spread through the Middle East.

After the death of Alexander the Greek cities became independent again. However, it did not last long. Rome was a rising power. In 168 BC the Romans defeated Macedon. In 86 BC they captured Athens. Greece became a province of the Roman Empire known as Achaea.

However, under Roman rule, Greece prospered. During this era, Greece was converted to Christianity. St Paul traveled to Greece in the 1st century AD and afterward, Christianity gradually spread through the region. In 395 AD the Roman Empire split into east and west. The Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire with its capital at Constantinople.

Byzantine Greece

The great emperor Justinian reigned from 527-565. During his time Roman influences weakened in the Byzantine Empire and Greek ones grew stronger. Justinian tried to keep Latin as the official language of the empire so he became known as the ‘last of the Romans’.

Justinian was also famous for building. His greatest building was the Church of St Sophia in Constantinople, which was built between 532 and 538. As well as architecture the other arts also flourished in the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines made great mosaics, frescoes, jewelry, and illuminated manuscripts.

Meanwhile during the reign of Heraclius (610-641) ties with Western Europe weakened and Greek was finally made the official language of the Byzantine Empire. In 1054 the Eastern Orthodox Church formally separated from the Western Church.

In 1204 the Crusaders captured Constantinople. However, some parts of the Byzantine Empire remained independent and were ruled by emperors in exile. Gradually the emperors in exile won back territory and in 1261 they recaptured Constantinople. Nevertheless, the Byzantine Empire never recovered.

From the end of the 13th century, Byzantium was threatened by a new people from Central Asia, the Ottoman Turks. They gradually gained strength and Byzantium dwindled. By the time of Emperor Manuel II (1391-1425) the Byzantine Empire consisted of Constantinople and small parts of Greece and Asia Minor. However, Constantinople finally fell in 1453 and the Byzantine Empire came to an end.

From the 15th century to the early 19th century Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish Empire was at its peak in the 16th century. However, from the late 17th century it slowly declined and in the late 18th century nationalism grew in Greece.

In the early 19th century many Greek expatriates were living in Odessa on the Black Sea coast. In 1814 some of them formed the Filiki Eteria (Friendly Society) to fight for Greek independence. The society soon became widespread in Greece and on 25 March 1821 rebellion broke out against the Turks. Eventually, the European powers intervened and a French, British, and Russian fleet destroyed the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Navarino in 1827. Greece finally became independent in 1829.

Britain, France, and Russia decided Greece should be a monarchy and they sent Prince Otto of Bavaria. He became king of Greece in 1833. In 1863 he was replaced by a Dane who became King George I. In 1893 the Corinth Canal opened between the Ionian and Aegean Seas. In 1896 the Olympic Games were revived. Meanwhile at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th many Greeks migrated to the USA.

In 1912 Greece, with its allies, Bulgaria and Serbia fought the First Balkan War against Turkey. Greece and Serbia then argued with Bulgaria and they fought the Second Balkan War against her in 1913. Afterward, Greece was left with her territory greatly enlarged.

When the First World War began in 1914 Greece, at first remained neutral but in 1917 she joined the Allies. In 1922 the Greeks captured Smyrna (now Izmir) in Turkey. Greece and Turkey made peace with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. However afterward there was a huge exchange of population with hundreds of thousands of Turks leaving Greece and over a million Greeks leaving Turkey. In 1924 Greece became a republic but the king was restored in 1935. Then in 1936 Prime Minister, Metaxas became the virtual dictator of Greece.

On 28 October 1940, the Italians invaded Greece but they were quickly driven back into Albania. Metaxas refused to allow British troops to land in Greece for fear of provoking Germany but he died in January 1941 and his successor reversed that decision. The Germans invaded Greece on 6 April 1941. They captured Athens on 23 April. Greece was then occupied by Germans and Italians.

The Greeks suffered terribly during the Second World War and many died from starvation. However, Communists and non-Communists formed resistance groups. The Germans withdrew from Greece in October 1944 and on 18 October a Greek government in exile returned to Athens. However, at the end of 1944, fighting began between Communists and non-Communists in Greece. The USA sent aid to the non-Communists and by 1949 they were in control of Greece.

Elections were held in 1952 and during the 1950s and 1960s, Greece grew more prosperous. However, in 1967 the army staged a coup and introduced a military dictatorship. The army held power in Greece until 1974 when democracy was restored.

In 1981 Greece joined the EU. In 2001 Greece joined the Euro. In 2009 Greece entered a severe economic crisis. By 2012 unemployment in Greece rose to 25%. However, it then fell. In November 2018 it stood at 18.5%. From 2017 the economy of Greece began to grow again. In 2024 the population of Greece was 10.6 million.

Last revised 2024