The history of Greece can be traced back to Stone Age hunters. Later came early farmers and the civilizations of the Minoan and Mycenaean kings. This was followed by a period of wars and invasions, known as the Dark Ages. In about 1100 BCE, a people called the Dorians invaded from the north and spread down the west coast. In the period from 500-336 BCE Greece was divided into small city states, each of which consisted of a city and its surrounding countryside.
There were only a few historians in the time of Ancient Greece. Three major ancient historians, were able to record their time of Ancient Greek history, that include Herodotus, known as the 'Father of History' who travelled to many ancient historic sites at the time, Thucydides and Xenophon.
Most other forms of History knowledge and accountability of the ancient Greeks we know is because of temples, sculpture, pottery, artifacts and other archaeological findings.
The Bronze Age:
The Greek Bronze Age started around 2800 BCE and lasted till 1050 BCE in Crete while in the Aegean islands it started in 3000 BCE. The information that is available today on the Bronze Age in Greece is from the architecture, burial styles and lifestyle.
The Bronze Age is known as so because of the invention and introduction of the metal bronze. This metal made its entry into Greece in 3000 BCE. The class system in society started with the arrival of metal depending on their value and availability. Bronze was expensive and copper was to be brought from other areas. The richer class could afford the metals and this was proved by the excavations found wherein people where buried with metal jewelry.
The Bronze Age was also characterized by the burial systems. They were simple pits or graves carved into rocks. These graves were either for one person or a complete family. These burial pits and the remains give us important information on the nutrition and diseases of those eras. Also they give us an insight on the people's minds on their beliefs on human behavior and after life.
The settlements of the Early Bronze Age lived on hills or on low plains, which were close to water. Such regions may have been more fertile for agricultural and settling purposes. The houses were made of stone foundations and mud walls. They had the provision of kilns for cooking and stone counters for sleeping, storage or for cooking. Goods were stored in containers made of wood or reed or simply dug into the ground.
The economy of the villages depended on production of tools, weapons, agriculture and art and architecture. In crops they grew cereals and legumes. Also they introduced olive trees and wine. In animal husbandry they reared sheep's and goats. The need for more metals and goods lead to introduction of different colonies and barter creating set-up for trade. Major production that contributed to the economy included pottery, stone carving, textile and metal carving.
Arts and crafts included ceramic pottery, which were painted in earthy colors. Manufacture of tools was from bone, metals and stones using advanced technology. Figurines reflected the social and lifestyle habits. Weaving also constituted an important part, but the remains were lost in time because they were of perishable nature.
The Early Bronze Age paved the way for Minoans and the Mycenaean Greeks, which was characterized by its prosperity and the rich empires.
The Minoan Civilization:
Knossos was the capital city of Minoan culture that centered on the island of Crete.
The Minoan civilization at Knossos represented a cultural high point in the Mediterranean Sea. According to Greek mythology, it was the capital of King Minos and the home of the labyrinth.
Many details about the Minoan culture in Knossos remain lost to history. What is known about Knossos comes mainly from archaeological findings, specifically those of Sir Arthur Evans. During the Bronze Age, Minoan culture arose on the island of Crete.
Many Minoan cities along the northern coast and the mountainous interior were constructed beginning around 2000 BCE. The Minoan cities were built with few defenses, which indicated that the Minoans controlled the sea and depended on their ability to keep raiders from reaching Crete.
Commerce flourished at Knossos, and goldsmiths, sculptors, painters, and seal makers were patronized by the royal court and provided high-quality products. Minoan pottery and other artifacts have been found as far away as Egypt and Asia Minor. Knossos was largely destroyed around 1700 BCE, possibly because of an earthquake or tidal wave. The Minoans rebuilt the city only to see it destroyed again, possibly by the Mycenaean invasion ain the mid-15th century BCE.
The central palace at Knossos was determined to be more than 226,000 square feet in area. Archaeologists found that the palace was the center of royal power but that it also had religious and administrative facilities. The complex included approximately 1,400 rooms, plus courtyards and corridors. The walls were faced with plaster or gypsum sheets and decorated with mosaics that emphasized animals, fish, and plants.
The most famous examples include blue dolphins and scenes of young men and women leaping over the horns of charging bulls. The bull theme of the frescoes was repeated on many of the pillars, which had a horn-like taper toward the bottom. Other architectural features of the palace at Knossos included light wells to provide natural lighting in interior rooms and large stairways. Frequent doorways provided partitions and easy access to different rooms. At least some rooms served as bathrooms with functioning toilets and running water; the water was carried through sun-baked clay pipes. There was also a sanitation system that featured an elaborate scheme of drains, pipes, and conduits. Reflective pools installed into the floors provided extra elements.
The Minoans of Knossos also developed an alphabet, now known as Linear A, from their earlier hieroglyphics. The Phoenicians used the Minoan alphabet, and the Mycenaeans later adopted it as their first written alphabet, which became known as Linear B. After the Mycenaean invasion in the mid-15th century BCE, Minoan civilization declined, and although the Mycenaeans withdrew from Crete after several centuries, a unique Minoan culture no longer existed. Knossos continued to exist, albeit as an ordinary Greek city until Roman occupation, which lasted through the fourth century CE.
The Mycenaean Civilization: The Mycenaean Age dates from around 1600 BC to 1100 BC, during the Bronze Age. Mycenae is an archaeological site in Greece from which the name Mycenaean Age is derived. Mycenae site is located in the Peloponnese, Southern Greece. The remains of a Mycenaean palace were found at this site, accounting for its importance.
According to Homer, the Mycenaean civilization is dedicated to King Agamemnon who led the Greeks in the Trojan War. The palace found at Mycenae matches Homer's description of Agamemnon's residence. The amount and quality of possessions found at the graves at the site provide an insight to the affluence and prosperity of the Mycenaean civilization. Prior to the Mycenaean's ascendancy in Greece, the Minoan culture was dominant. However, the Mycenaeans defeated the Minoans, acquiring the city of Troy in the process, according to Homer's Illiad (some historians argue this is Myth rather than fact). Mycenaean culture was based around its main cities in Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos, Athens, Thebes, Orchomenos, and Folksier. The Mycenaeans also inhabited the ruins of Knossos on Crete, which was a major city during the Minoan era. Mycenaean and Minoan art melded, forming a cultural amalgamation that is found on Crete (figurines, sculptures and pottery). During the Mycenaean civilization the class diversification of rich and poor, higher classes and lower became more established, with extreme wealth being mostly reserved for the King, his entourage and other members of the royal circle. Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans built grand palaces and fortified citadels, with administrative and political powers firmly under royal authority. Mycenaean society was to some extent a warrior culture and their military was ever prepared for battle, be it in defense of a city or to protect its wealth and cultural treasures.
The Mycenaeans were bold traders and maintained contact with other countries from the Mediterranean and Europe. They were excellent engineers and built outstanding bridges, tombs, residences and palaces. Their tombs known as 'beehive tombs' were circular in shape with a high roof. A single passage made of stone led to the tomb. A variety of possessions, including arms and armor, were buried with the dead, while the more affluent might also be buried with gold and jewelry. Interestingly, rather than being buried in a sleeping position, Mycenaeans were interred in a sitting position, with the richer classes sometimes being mummified.
The Mycenaeans invented their own script known as Linear B, which was an improved derivative of Linear A (a language commonly accepted as Minoan or Eteocretan).
End of the Mycenaean Civilization:
There are two theories about the end of the Mycenaean civilization. One is population movement, the second internal strife and conflict. According to the first theory the Dorians lauched a devastating attack, although this hypothesis has been questioned because the Dorians had always been present in the Greece of that time. Alternatively, it could have been the 'Sea People' who attacked the Mycenaeans. The Sea People are known to have attacked various regions in the Levant and Anatolia, so perhaps this reading of events is more credible.
The second theory suggests an internal societal conflict between the rich and poor, with the lower classes becoming impoverished towards the end of the Late Helladic period and rejecting the system under which they were governed. By end of the LH III C, the Mycenaean civilization had come to an end with the cities of Mycenae and Tirynth completely destroyed. The end of the Mycenaean civilization heralded the start of the Greek Dark Ages.
The Dark Ages
During the Dark Ages of Greece the old major settlements were abandoned (with the notable exception of Athens), and the population dropped dramatically in numbers. Within these three hundred years, the people of Greece lived in small groups that moved constantly in accordance with their new pastoral lifestyle and livestock needs, while they left no written record behind leading to the conclusion that they were illiterate. Later in the Dark Ages (between 950 and 750 BCE), Greeks relearned how to write once again, but this time instead of using the Linear B script used by the Mycenaeans, they adopted the alphabet used by the Phoenicians “innovating in a fundamental way by introducing vowels as letters. The Greek version of the alphabet eventually formed the base of the alphabet used for English today.” (Martin, 43)
Life was undoubtedly harsh for the Greeks of the Dark ages. However, in retrospect we can identify one major benefit of the period. The deconstruction of the old Mycenaean economic and social structures with the strict class hierarchy and hereditary rule were forgotten, and eventually replaced with new socio-political institutions that eventually allowed for the rise of Democracy in 5th c. BCE Athens. Notable events from this period include the occurrence of the first Olympics in 776, and the writing of the Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The next period of Greek History is described as Archaic and lasted for about two hundred years from (700 – 480 BCE). During this epoch Greek population recovered and organized politically in city-states (Polis) comprised of citizens, foreign residents, and slaves. This kind of complex social organization required the development of an advanced legal structure that ensured the smooth coexistence of different classes and the equality of the citizens irrespective of their economic status. This was a required precursor for the Democratic principles that we see developed two hundred years later in Athens.
Greek city-states of the Archaic epoch spread throughout the Mediterranean basin through vigorous colonization. As the major city-states grew in size they spawn a plethora of coastal towns in the Aegean, the Ionian, Anatolia (today’s Turkey), Phoenicia (the Middle East), Libya, Southern Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and as far as southern France, Spain, and the Black Sea. These states, settlements, and trading posts numbered in the hundreds, and became part of an extensive commercial network that involved all the advanced civilizations of the time. As a consequence, Greece came into contact and aided in the exchange of goods and ideas throughout ancient Africa, Asia, and Europe. Through domination of commerce in the Mediterranean, aggressive expansion abroad, and competition at home, several very strong city-states began emerging as dominant cultural centers, most notably Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, Syracuse, Miletus, Halicarnassus among other.
The Classical Age
The flurry of development and expansion of the Archaic Era was followed by the period of maturity we came to know as “Classical Greece”. Between 480 and until 323 BCE Athens and Sparta dominated the Hellenic world with their cultural and military achievements. These two cities, with the involvement of the other Hellenic states, rose to power through alliances, reforms, and a series of victories against the invading Persian armies. They eventually resolved their rivalry in a long, and particularly nasty war that concluded with the demise of Athens first, Sparta second, and the emergence of Macedonia as the dominant power of Greece. Other city-states like Miletus, Thebes, Corinth, and Syracuse among many others played a major role in the cultural achievements of Classical Greece.
Early in the Classical era Athens and Sparta coexisted peacefully through their underlying suspicion of each other until the middle of the 5th c. BCE. The political and cultural disposition of the two city-states occupied the opposite ends of the spectrum. Sparta was a closed society governed by an oligarchic government led by two kings, and occupying the harsh southern end of the Peloponnesus, organized its affairs around a powerful military that protected the Spartan citizens from both external invasion and internal revolt of the helots. Athens on the other hand grew to an adventurous, open society, governed by a Democratic government that thrived through commercial activity. The period of Pericles’ leadership in Athens is described as the “Golden Age”. It was during this period that the massive building project, that included the Acropolis, was undertaken.
The Classical Period produced remarkable cultural and scientific achievements. The city of Athens introduced to the world a direct Democracy the likes of which had never been seen hitherto, or subsequently, with western governments like Great Britain, France, and USA emulating it a thousand years later. The rational approach to exploring and explaining the world as reflected in Classical Art, Philosophy, and Literature became the well-grounded springboard that western culture used to leap forward, beginning with the subsequent Hellenistic Age. The thinkers of the Classical Greek era have since dominated thought for thousands of years, and have remained relevant to our day. The teachings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle among others, either directly, in opposition, or mutation, have been used as reference point of countless western thinkers in the last two thousand years. Hippocrates became the “Father of modern medicine”, and the Hippocratic oath is still used today. The dramas of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and the comedies of Aristophanes are considered among the masterpieces of western culture.
The art of Classical Greece began the trend towards a more naturalistic (even in its early idealistic state) depiction of the world, thus reflecting a shift in philosophy from the abstract and supernatural to more immediate earthly concerns. Artists stopped merely “suggesting” the human form and began “describing” it with accuracy. Man became the focus, and “measure of all things” in daily life through Democratic politics, and in cultural representations. Rational thinking and Logic became the driving force behind this cultural revolution at the expense of emotion and impulse.
The Hellenistic Era
The Hellenistic Age marks the transformation of Greek society from the localized and introverted city-states to an open, cosmopolitan, and at times exuberant culture that permeated the entire eastern Mediterranean, and Southwest Asia. While the Hellenistic world incorporated a number of different people, Greek thinking, mores, and way of life dominated the public affairs of the time. All aspects of culture took a Greek hue, with the Greek language being established as the official language of the Hellenistic world. The art and literature of the era were transformed accordingly. Instead of the previous preoccupation with the Ideal, Hellenistic art focused on the Real. Depictions of man in both art and literature revolved around exuberant, and often amusing themes that for the most part explored the daily life and the emotional world of humans, gods, and heroes alike. The autonomy of individual cities of the Classical era gave way to the will of the large kingdoms that were led by one ruler.
Several Greek cities became dominant in the Hellenistic era. City-states of the classical Greece like Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Miletus, and Syracuse continued to flourish, while others emerged as major centers throughout the kingdoms. Pergamum, Ephesus, Antioch, Damascus, and Trapezus are few of the cities whose reputations have survived to our day. None were more influential than Alexandria of Egypt however. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great himself in 331 BCE and very quickly became the center of commerce and culture of the Hellenistic world under the Ptolemies. Alexandria hosted the tomb of Alexander the Great, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the faros (lighthouse) of Alexandria, and the famed Library of Alexandria that aspired to host the entire knowledge of the known world.
Many famous thinkers and artists of the Hellenistic era created works that remained influential for centuries. Schools of thought like the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Epicurians continued the substantial philosophical tradition of Greece, while art, literature, and poetry reached new heights of innovation. Great works of art were created during the Hellenistic Era. In Architecture, the classical styles were further refined and augmented with new ideas. Public buildings and monuments were constructed on larger scale in more ambitious configuration and complexity.
Hellenistic Greece became a time of substantial maturity of the sciences. In geometry, Euclid’s elements became the standard all the way up to the 20th c. CE., and the work of Archimedes on mathematics along with his practical inventions became influential and legendary. Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth within 1500 miles by simultaneously measuring the shadow of two vertical sticks placed one in Alexandria and one in Syene. The fact that the earth was a sphere was common knowledge in the Hellenistic world.