You don't need to be an expert in Greek history to enjoy a holiday in Greece. Complete ignorance, on the other hand, may be frustrating to visitors of a country with such a long and complex history. Even when leafing through a normal travel guide, you will be confronted with labels of historical periods such as 'Classical' or 'Hellenistic'. What is the place of these and other periods on a timeline? What happened, by and large, during them? Why did Greeks call themselves 'Romans' for a substantial part of their history? Why is 'Kostas' such a popular name? What are all these 'Frankish' and Venetian castles doing in Greece? Why are the relations with Turkey less cordial than one might hope for between neighbours? Why are Greeks allergic to German dictates?

This webpage answers these and similar questions in the framework of a brief survey of Greek history from the Stone Age to the present day. The survey has an undeniable focus on the Peloponnese (the peninsula constituting the southern part of the Greek mainland). This not only reflects the region's historical importance, but also its status as the author's favourite holiday destination. The survey is an enlarged version of the Dutch original. I am grateful to Nigel Copage for its translation and for its inclusion in his website 'Archaeological Sites of the Peloponnese'.

Before 1700 BC Stone Age and Early & Middle Bronze Age Greece

Before 7000 BC, during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, groups of hunter-gatherers must have roamed Greek landscapes. Interesting sites in the Peloponnese include several caves in the Mani region, where evidence of a strong Neanderthal presence has been found; and the Franchthi Cave, in the Argolid, intermittently inhabited by humans from about 30,000 years ago.

From around 7000 BC a sedentary way of life, based on agriculture and livestock farming, was introduced in Greece. Both cultural diffusion and migration from Anatolia and from the coastal regions of the Eastern Mediterranean may have played a part. The shift to an agricultural way of life went with the introduction of more advanced stone tools – that is why archaeologists label the following millennia the Neolithic ('New Stone Age'). In Greece, this period lasted until approximately 3200 BC. Especially in Central and Northern Greece we find a dense network of small agricultural villages.

In the Early Bronze Age (3200-2000 BC) people in the Aegean became familiar with metallurgy. It is also the period during which the 'Mediterranean Triad' (cereals, olive oil and wine) became the characteristic form of agricultural production. Settlements of greater socio-political complexity emerged, a trend exemplified in the Peloponnese by Lerna and Geraki.

The Middle Bronze Age (2000-1700 BC) is the period of the rise on Crete of the so-called Minoan civilization, centred on palaces such as Knossos and Phaistos. Minoan influence also made itself felt in the nearby Aegean islands and the coasts of the southern and central mainland. By the end of this period, the mainland witnesses the beginning of a new civilization which is labelled 'Mycenaean' after what was to become its most impressive centre. As this was a Greek-language civilization, speakers of an Indo-European language, the predecessor of Greek, must have settled in the south of the Balkan Peninsula before approximately 1700 BC. The precise date of 'the coming of the Greeks' is, however, a hotly debated issue, on which consensus does not seem imminent.

1700-1200 BC The Mycenaean civilization

During this period, the Late Bronze Age, a number of sizeable palaces appear in the Peloponnese and central Greece. Well-known examples include Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos. The presence of similar palaces has been demonstrated (or at least made plausible) in Thebes, Sparta and Athens (among other places). Probably around 1500 BC mainland Greeks conquered the older Minoan palaces on Crete; Knossos became a centre of Mycenaean rule. Administrative records in the form of clay tablets show that each of these palaces was the centre of economic activity in its surrounding territory. In 1939 excavations near Pylos (Messenia) revealed a comprehensive archive from the palace’s twilight days. This discovery proved crucial in the decipherment of Linear B, which turned out to be a syllabic script used for writing an early form of Greek. The political organization of Mycenaean Greece remains controversial. Was each palace the centre of a separate state? Or was there a certain degree of central authority? Memories of the Mycenaean world, however vague, lived on in stories about a Heroic Age told and retold by Greeks of later periods. The most famous of these was the tale of Troy.

1200-750 BC The Dark Age

Shortly after 1200 BC all the palaces were destroyed and abandoned. Their downfall coincided with the general chaos and disruption that occurred around this time throughout the eastern Mediterranean and was presumably accompanied by large population movements. These events also marked the transition from the Late Bronze to the Early Iron Age. The following centuries in Greece are characterised by political fragmentation, population decline, isolation from the outside world and a degradation of material culture with the low point being reached around 1000 BC. A partial exception to this bleak picture is constituted by a settlement at Lefkandi on Euboea (Modern Greek: Evia), excavated since 1964, where burial gifts attest to continuity of contacts with Egypt and the Near East. After 1000 BC the tide seems to turn, although communities remain, for the time being, very modest in size. Around 1000 BC Greeks also begin to settle along the west coast of Asia Minor.

750-500 BC The Archaic Period

Humble Dark-Age beginnings now start to pay off. In the eighth century, local communities develop into mini-states, so-called poleis ('city-states'), of which there are soon many hundreds. In later stages of the Archaic period, the Greeks from the motherland and western Asia Minor swarmed over the coasts of the Mediterranean and Black Seas, founding new poleis everywhere they went, Naples and Marseille being two examples. Culture flourished in the Archaic Period, reaching its peak in the following era, the Classical Period. As early as the Dark Age, the Greeks may have adopted an alphabetic script from the Phoenicians. The two great epic poems about the Trojan War attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, date to around 700 BC. The Archaic Period also saw rapid developments in vase painting and sculpture, as well as in architecture, witness the impressive remains of a temple of the god Apollo at Ancient Corinth.

500-336 BC The Classical Period

Shortly after 500 BC the Persian Empire, which stretched from Egypt and the Aegean Sea in the west to the Indus in the east, tried to subjugate the Greek city-states. In 490 BC, an Athenian citizen army repelled a Persian landing (battle of Marathon). Ten years later, a few dozen poleis led by Sparta and Athens called a halt to the Persian expansion (naval battle off the island of Salamis). During the rest of the fifth century BC Athens, which since 507 BC had a democratic constitution, became a major naval power, leading an alliance of many poleis in the Aegean (it should be added that membership was not always voluntary). The contributions of these allies, the revenues of the silver mines at Laurion (Lavrion), taxes paid by resident foreigners as well as harbour dues provided the Athenians with a steady flow of income, which enabled them both to finance their military efforts and to build the grandiose temples on the Acropolis.

The growing power of Athens brought it into conflict with Sparta which since the Archaic Period had been at the head of its own alliance comprising most of the states in the Peloponnese. The result was the so-called Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). The Spartans won the war but subsequently failed to maintain their lead and throughout the fourth century BC Athens, Sparta and Thebes competed for hegemony in Greece. Meanwhile the kingdom of Macedonia led by Philip II was on the rise and after the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC the Macedonians dominated Greece.

In the Classical period, especially in Athens, achievements were made in the fields of architecture, visual arts, literature, eloquence and philosophy, which would continue to be regarded as first-class ('classical') throughout the rest of antiquity and thereafter. Even in a very brief overview like this the names of the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the sculptor and master builder Phidias, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the comic poet Aristophanes, the orator Demosthenes and the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle should not go unmentioned.

336-30 BC The Hellenistic Period

After his death in 336 BC Philip II was succeeded by his son Alexander (the Great) who, during his reign, conquered the Persian Empire. In 323 BC he died in Babylon at the age of 32. During the rest of the fourth and third centuries BC Greek culture and a Greek way of life spread throughout large parts of the Middle East (Asia Minor, Syria-Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia and further east) largely as a result of the settlement of Greek migrants. Relations of political power in the vast Greek world that arose with the conquest of the Persian Empire were determined by kingdoms founded by Alexander's generals after his death. In Greece itself, during the Hellenistic period, Sparta and Athens receded somewhat into the background while the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues (on either sides of the Gulf of Corinth) grew in importance. The main power in the southern Balkans, however, was still the Kingdom of Macedonia. From around 200 BC the kingdoms founded by Alexander's generals were successively conquered by the Romans who, around the turn of the common era, had united under their rule the whole Mediterranean. Greece itself had become part of their empire by 146 BC.

30 BC-395 AD The Roman Period

In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, Greek was the language of administration and of the social upper classes. This part of the empire was held together by a network of cities (poleis) with a Greek character and Greek institutions. In the first centuries of this era, these eastern Greek-speaking provinces of the Roman Empire flourished. This was especially true of western Asia Minor, in many ways the centre of the Greek world under Roman rule, but to a lesser extent also for a few cities in Greece itself, especially Corinth and Athens.

During this period, a new religion, Christianity, experienced modest but steady growth. The turning point came in the year 312, with the conversion of the emperor Constantine after which Christianity became a privileged rather than a persecuted religion. By the end of the fourth century, the traditional cults for the gods of the Greek pantheon, such as Zeus, Apollo and Dionysus, were banned. Constantine (the Great), who in 326 made Byzantium (= Constantinople, present-day Istanbul) the second capital of the Roman Empire, has always remained an important saint in the Greek Church. To this day, 'Kostas' is one of the most common boys' names; Kostas = Konstandinos = Constantinus = Constantine.

The name the Greeks had used for themselves since the Archaic period, Hellēnes, was identified with paganism and fell into disuse. From Late Antiquity onwards and right up until the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, the Greeks preferred to call themselves Rhōmaioi (Greek for 'Romans'). During the first and second century AD, Roman citizenship had spread in the provinces of the Roman Empire, and since the early third century almost all its free inhabitants were in the possession of Roman citizenship and, therefore, 'Romans'. For the inhabitants of the Greek-language provinces of the empire, this turned out to be more than a formality: the change in ethnic designation is also indicative of the extent to which they had started to identify with Rome. Incidentally, our word 'Greeks' is derived from Graeci which was the label used by the Romans for the Greeks in Antiquity.

395-1453 AD The Byzantine Period

At the end of the fourth century, the eastern and western half of the Roman Empire went their separate ways. In the fifth century the Roman Empire collapsed in the west but managed to survive in the areas around the eastern Mediterranean basin. What we now call the 'Byzantine Empire' was referred to by the inhabitants themselves as Basileia tōn Rhōmaiōn ('Empire of the Romans') or Rhōmania ('Romanland'). From a religious perspective the paths of the two halves also diverged, in 1054 resulting in a formal split (the so-called Great Schism) between the Church of Rome and the Church in the East of which the Patriarchate of Constantinople was the principal episcopal seat.

In the seventh century, North Africa and the Middle East were lost to the Arab conquests and from 1000 AD onwards the empire in Asia Minor collapsed as a result of incursions of the Turks. In the thirteenth century, Western Europeans ('Franks') came to the region as part of the Fourth Crusade (1204) where they managed to carve out their own states from the territory of the empire. The Venetian republic also established numerous footholds.

For a long time the Peloponnese was dominated by the principality of Achaea, which was ruled by the dynasty of the Frankish Villehardouins while important Venetian strongpoints were Methóni and Coróni, in southern Messenia. However, several castles in the Southeast Peloponnese, including Monemvasiá and Mistrás, near Sparta, fell back into Byzantine hands in 1262 and in 1430 the last Franks were forced to leave the Peloponnese. For the Greeks, however, the joy would be short-lived.

The Byzantine Empire finally came to an end in 1453 with the conquest of the capital Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. By 1460 almost all of the Peloponnese was also in Turkish hands with the exception of a few Venetian fortresses.

1453-1821 BC The Tourkokratia

Greece, including the Peloponnese, remained part of the Ottoman Empire until 1821, although the Venetians managed to maintain strongholds in the area of the Aegean Sea for a long time and around 1700 even succeeded in conquering and holding on to the Peloponnese ('Morea') for several decades. Under Turkish rule, the Orthodox Greeks enjoyed religious freedom and a considerable degree of self-government. Nevertheless, the hope of liberation from Turkish rule remained alive among Greeks throughout the Ottoman Empire; they were numerous in large parts of Asia Minor as well as present-day Greece.

1821 - Modern Greece

In March 1821, the Greek revolt began in several locations in the Peloponnese which was soon wholly in Greek hands; Turks and other Muslims were killed or survived by fleeing. The intervention of Great Britain, France and Russia in favour of the Greeks at the Battle of Navarino in 1827 led to the establishment of an internationally recognized Greek state in 1832. At first this consisted of only the Peloponnese and central Greece but from then until 1920 the territory steadily expanded at the expense of the Ottoman Empire.

The greatest territorial gains were made in the so-called Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, when Montenegro, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria first expelled the Ottoman Turks from Europe but then came into conflict between themselves over the division of the territorial spoils. As a result the northern prefectures of Epirus and Macedonia (including Greece's second city, Thessaloniki) became part of the territory of the Greek state, as well as the islands of Crete, Samos, Chios, Lesvos, Limnos, Samothraki and Thassos.

In the years following the First World War an attempt to take control of western Turkey, where a large Greek population lived, ended in a military failure (the so-called Megáli Katastrofí, 1922); Smyrna, where a large minority or even a majority of the population was Greek or Armenian, went up in flames. In the ensuing population exchange, the Orthodox population of Asia Minor (1.1 million people) were deported to Greece and the Muslim population of Greece (380,000 people) to Turkey bringing an end to 3,000 years of Greek presence in Asia Minor. In 1923, the borders between Turkey and Greece were settled in the Treaty of Lausanne which was ratified by both countries.

In October 1940 Greece became involved in the Second World War when the Italians launched an invasion via Albania. Throughout that winter Greece successfully resisted the invading forces, but in the spring of 1941, after German intervention, it was forced to surrender and subsequently occupied by the Germans and their Italian and Bulgarian allies. During the occupation the Nazis implemented their 'Final Solution of the Judenfrage'. In Thessaloniki there had been a Jewish community of about 50,000, dating back to the fifteenth century, when Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal and settled in Ottoman territory. In 1943 this community was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

After the retreat of the Germans and their allies in 1944, a conflict broke out between the communist-dominated partisan movement EAM-ELAS and the government, which was supported by Great Britain. This culminated in a civil war that was decided in favour of the right-wing government in 1949 after massive American intervention. Throughout these years there was heavy fighting in the Peloponnese especially in the Parnonas and the Taigetos mountain regions.

After the repressive 1950s, the 1960s initially saw a return to a more democratic political climate. This development was interrupted by the 1967 coup, which resulted in a seven-year military dictatorship. In the decades after the fall of the junta, in 1974, Greece was alternately ruled by one of the two major parties, the conservative Néa Dimokratía (ND) and the socialist PASOK. In 1981 Greece became a member of the EU.

The financial crisis that gripped the country after 2010 put an end to this two-party system and in 2011 a government of national unity was formed, which included both ND and PASOK. In the May 2012 elections, their combined vote dropped from 77% in 2009 to just 32% (19% for ND, 13% for PASOK). The big winner was the radical leftist SYRIZA, which came in second with almost 17% of the vote. Meanwhile the rise of the fascist right was disturbing: Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) won the support of 7% of the electorate.

As it was impossible to form a new government on the basis of these results new elections were called. In June 2012 ND emerged as the largest party with 30% of the vote while SYRIZA came in second with 27%, and PASOK dropped to 12%. This led to a government composed of ND members and non-party technocrats along with the support of PASOK and one of the minor parties.

Fresh elections in January 2015 were won by SYRIZA with 36% of the vote enabling it to form a government with the support of ANEL, a small right-wing but anti-globalist party. SYRIZA had promised voters it would end the draconian austerity and privatization measures imposed on the country by the 'Troika' (the European Central Bank, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund) but later that same year was forced to surrender to the Troika's demands.

In the January 2019 elections, the two largest parties again won more than 70% of the vote: 31% for SYRIZA (which had replaced PASOK as the largest party on the left) and 40% for ND, which achieved a parliamentary majority and formed a government. Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) failed to pass the electoral threshold and the following year was designated a criminal organisation; its leaders were sentenced to long prison terms.

Today Greece's relationship with Turkey remains tense due to the 1974 Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus and disputes over the demarcation of maritime zones. Since the islands in the Aegean Sea (including those close to the Turkish coast) form part of Greek territory, the application of international maritime law is disadvantageous for Turkey. For this reason the country often ignores maritime law and even questions the borders established by the 1923 Lausanne treaty. This drama continues to play out.

Jaap-Jan Flinterman

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