History of Greece

The infinite variety of the landscape of mainland Greece, ranging from snow-capped rugged mountains to sun drenched idyllic beaches, is equalled, if not surpassed, by the beauty of the seascape of almost one thousand five hundred islands scattered over the translucent waters of the Aegean and Ionian Seas. Close to eleven million inhabitants live on the 132.160 square kilometres, which are blessed by a temperate climate under the blue sky of the Mediterranean.

Five thousand years of dramatic history have left their indelible imprint, rivalling nature in its diversity, from the Minoan palaces, Mycenaean fortresses, classical temples, Hellenistic tombs, Roman towns, Byzantine churches, Crusader castles, Turkish mosques and the picturesque villages of the distinctive island architecture to the pleasing modernity of the main cities, spas and summer resorts.

Each region displays a characteristic brand of natural and artistic features, which, nevertheless, only serve to emphasise the unity of Europe's oldest culture, the cradle of western civilisation. No wonder that a people looking back on such a glorious past has preserved in its purest and most welcome form the traditional hospitality towards all strangers visiting their lovely country.

Between 4.000 and 3.000 B.C. the Minoans settled in the southern island of Crete, with 3.327 square miles Greece's largest, and founded one of the most brilliant and sophisticated civilisations of antiquity, and Europe's first. Mythology and history blend in the Priest -King Minos, the legendary son of Zeus, ruler of the Olympian gods, and Europa, the lovely princess after whom the continent is named.

From his splendid palace at Knossos, successive Minos ruled the world's first naval empire, which was destroyed by the eruption of the island volcano of Thira, a Cretan colony, in about 1450 B.C. According to some archaeologists this was the lost island of Atlantis, and the recent discovery of a whole town under 160 feet of lava and pumice lends credibility to this theory.

History then shifts to the mainland, where for a thousand years Hellenic tribes, Pelasgians, Achaeans, Aeolians and Ionians had infiltrated from the north, subdued the native Celts and established numerous small principalities following the country's natural division by impassable mountain ranges.

In the eighth century B.C. the great epic poet Homer was to immortalise the Mycenaean age in the Iliad and Odyssey, the story of the Trojan War fought by Achilles, Odysseus and countless other heroes under the leadership of the High King Agamemnon to bring back the beautiful Helen,
wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Long believed to be nothing but poetic fantasy, the German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann vindicated Homer's historical accuracy by following the poets geographical indications to the letter to unearth in the 1870s the palaces and towns of the epic cycle.

In about 1100B.C. the magnificent Bronze Age civilisation of the Mycenaeans tour fell to the iron weapons of a pew invader from the north, the blond, blue-eyed Dorians. Warlike feudal kingdoms emerged from the Dark Ages at the dawn of recorded history in the ninth century B.C. and in the following six-hundred years the Greeks tried and often invented every political system the human mind has as yet conceived. As a tribute to their experimentations, most forms of government still bear the Greek name indicative of their origin.
Tribal, feudal, absolute and constitutional monarchy, landed and commercial oligarchy, Spartan racism followed by a short spell of communism,
dictatorships of all kinds, democracy where the active participation of all citizens was possible due to slavery, decline into demagogy which made the anachronistic city states an easy prey to the unified Macedonian kingdom of Philip, who laid the foundations on which his son Alexander the Greatcould build his world empire.

The great names in this period are Lycurgus, who imposed a totalitarian way of life on Sparta in the eighth century B.C.; Dracon and Solon, the latter one of the Seven Wise of Antiquity, who brought law and order to Athens in the two subsequent centuries; Miltiades, who defeated the Persians at Marathon in 490 one of the decisive battles in the eternal struggle between Europe and Asia; Themistocles, who brought this struggle to a victorious climax at the battle of Salamis 10 years later, by the use of seapower which assured Athens of mastery in the Aegean for the entire fifth century B.C. Yet like his predecessor Miltiades, who had died in prison, he fell a victim to the jealousy of his ungrateful Athenian compatriots, who not only ostracised him -exile for ten years without any accusation and thus no means of defence -but eventually condemned him to death, so that the saviour of Greece had to seek refuge at the court of the Persian king he had so brilliantly defeated; and Pausanias, the Spartan regent who finally drove the Persians from Greek soil in the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C., but succumbed to Persian bribes and was stoned to death, his mother reputedly throwing the first stone.

The billiant generalship of Kimon extended the Athenian empire along the shores of Asia Minor, so that when he in his turn was ostracised in 461 B.C., Pericles presided over the Golden Age of unparalleled intellectual and artistic achievements coinciding with a political decline, almost imperceptible at first, but leading to the outbreak of the disastrous Peloponnesian War (431-404 B. C.) in which the personification of Greek virtues and vices, Alcibiades, played the leading part.

The year of Athens' final defeat and humiliation also witnessed his murder.

Spartan dominance was challenged in the next century by the military genius of Epaminondas, who briefly established Theban supremacy by introducing a new fighting force, the phalanx, which was perfected by Philip of Macedonia and assured his victory over the for once united Greek city states at Chaeronea in 338 B.C. Philip generously forgave his main opponent, the Athenian orator Demosthenes, who yet succeeded in persuading the Greeks to another stand against the Macedonians after Philip's murder two years later.

Young Alexander, who ruthlessly destroyed Thebes but spared Athens for its cultural prestige, swiftly crushed the insurrection. He forced the reluctant Greek states to follow him in his expedition into Persia and in 334 B.C. he crossed the Hellespont at the head of a mere 40.000 men to the greatest conquest the world had ever seen. In eleven years of unbroken victories, Alexander founded an empire that stretched from the Ionian Sea to beyond the Indus, and from the Upper Nile to the Caspian Sea. But the centre of gravity had shifted from Macedonia to Babylon, where Alexander died in 323 B.C., having failed in welding Greeks and Persians into a new imperial master race.

In the deadly struggle for the succession, Demetrius Poliorcetes (Besieger of Towns) lost Asia but gained the Greek-Macedonian kingdom, over which the Antigonid dynasty ruled precariously till the Roman conquest in 146 B.C. Yet Greece achieved a remarkable cultural conquest-in-reverse, and the Roman empire became impregnated with the higher art and thought of Greece, to which the Roman aristocracy sent its sons for education in the schools of Athens and Rhodes.

In exchange the Romans used Greece as the battleground for the momentous civil wars of the first century B.C. In 48 B.C. Julius Caesar at Pharsala in Thessaly crushingly defeated Pompey's numerically superior army. In 42 B.C. Brutus kept his fatal appointment with Caesar's ghost at Philippi in Macedonia, where Brutus and Cassius committed suicide, while Mark Antony and Octavian divided the world in preparation for the final round. That came in 31 B.C. at the naval battle of Actium, where Cleopatra precipitate Mark Antony into unreasonable flight and another double suicide, leaving Octavian sole ruler and at last able to establish the Pax Romana for some four hundred years.

The Roman emperors varied in the treatment of their most precious province from Nero, who shipped priceless statues by the hundred to Italy, to fladrian, who munificently embellished the venerable centres of culture. Roman tourists flocked to the famous sites, so not quite in the same numbers as today.
In the partition of the Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D., Greece was allotted to the Eastern Empire. The new capital, Constantinople, was adorned with the spoils from Greece, while pious Byzantine emperors closed the pagan universities and temples. Successive waves of barbaric tribes, Goths, Huns, Vandals and Avars ravaged the country with fire and sword, joined by Saracen pirates, bringing in their wake Slav settlers who threatened to engulf the mainland till Vasilios the Bulgar-Slayer decisively stopped the flood.
After the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, feudalism returned to the country, which had experienced an earlier version in Mycenaean times. Under the nominal suzerainty of the Latin emperor, the Frankish lords were fighting each other as much as the renascent Byzantines, Bulgarians, Serbs, Catalan mercenaries and soon the advance guard of the Turks. The dying Byzantine empire achieved a final but hollow triumph with the reconquest of the Peloponnese in 1430, where two brothers of the last emperor ruled for another six years after his death in the defence of his capital. But in 1460 they were driven out by Sultan Mohammed II, who replaced the Frankish and Byzantine nobles with Turkish veterans. The Greek peasants remained serfs, paying besides tithes a poll-tax and a blood tribute of a fifth of their male children, who were brought up as Moslems and enrolled in the corps of Janissaries, the military elite of the Turkish armies. The frequent incursions and temporary occupation by the Venetians only worsened the lot. of the wretched inhabitants, whose only protector was their recognised representative, the Patriarch of Constantinople, while the bishops provided local guidance and the parochial clergy the little education there was.

In their decline the Turks became only interested in the collection of tribute, while the country was reduced to a state of anarchy, from which a military adventurer, Ali Pasha, was able to carve, by unscrupulous treachery and merciless cruelty, a private principality centred on Epirus, where he was visited by Lord Byron. After forty years he was finally reduced by the Turks, but not before the Greek War of Independence had started in 1821.
On the 25th of March, the feast of the Annunciation, the Archbishop of Patras proclaimed Greek independence at the Monastery of Aghia Lavra in the Peloponnese. The Turks retaliated with the massacres of Greeks on Chios, in Macedonia and Constantinople, where the Patriarch was hanged on Easter Sunday.

Lord Byron
Lord Byron
The heroic expoits of the Greeks inspired numerous Philhellenic volunteers, especially British, among them Lord Byron who died in Messologi. The intervention by an Egyptian army and fleet in support of the Turks led in 1825 to the formation of a Triple Alliance of Great Britain, France and Russia, whose navy decisively defeated the Turco-Egyptian force at Navarino two years later.
The Protocol of London in 1832 established the frontier of the reborn Greek state, first a republic under the Corfiote nobleman Capodistria, who had for a time been the Czar's foreign minister, and after his murder as a kingdom under the young Bavarian Prince, Otto. After a bloodless revolution in 1843, which culminated in the proclamation of a liberal constitution, Otto was forced to abdicate in 1863.

An overwhelming majority voted to offer the vacant throne to Queen Victoria's second son, the Duke of Edinburgh. But the dynasties of the three Protecting Powers were excluded, and the acceptance of their joint choice, Prince George of Denmark, was made popular by the session of the Ionian Islands by Great Britain to Greece. 1n 1881 Thessaly was incorporated in the Kingdom of the Hellenes, but the Cretan uprising in 1897 led to an unsuccessful war with Turkey and in the following year to the granting of full autonomy to Crete under purely nominal Turkish suzerainty.

The two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 almost doubled Greece's territory and population, but in the interval King George I was murdered in the newly conquered Thessalonica. His son and heir, King Constantine lacked his father's political foresight; having received his military training in Germany he believed in the final victory of the German Emperor William II, whose sister he had married. The Allies intervened and forced King Constantine to leave the country where his second son, Alexander, became king.

In 1920 he died of blood-poisoning from a monkey bite, and by another of the many plebiscites King Constantine was recalled. After a disastrous war with the resurgent Turks in Asia Minor, in defence of the vast gains made by the Treaty of Sevres, Greece had to resign itself to the frontier of the Evros river in Thrace and an unprecedented exchange of populations, 1,500.000 Greeks against 370.000 Turks, which burdened the small country tremendous social and economic problems. Kind Constantine abdicated now in favour of his eldest son, who briefly ruled as George II before the proclamation of a republic in 1924. But the King was recalled by another plebiscite in 1935, only to leave the country again in 1941 after a heroic resistance against the Italians and Germans.

Returning as the result of the plebiscite of 1946, in the lull between two, Communist rebellions, George II died the following year, before the end of the Civil War in 1949 in the reign of his brother, King Paul, who was succeed in 1964 by his son, King Constantine.

Continual cabinet crises led to the military Revolution of the 21st April 1967 and in December of the same year the King left the country.
The military regime in Athens resigned July 23, 1974. Former President Caramanlis returned to Athens and was sworn in as Premier of Greece's first civilian government since 1967. Since 1981 Greece is an E.U. member country. So long and varied a history naturally left splendid architectural and artistic remains scattered al lover the country.

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