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Ancient Greece

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Greece is a peninsula in the Balkans, cut in half by the Gulf of Corin (creating a historically significant north-south divide). On one side is the Aegean Sea. It is more expansive than the mainland. It encompassed Crete island, Ionia's coast (Turkish), settlements on the Black Sea shore, and Greek communities as far as southern Italy and Sicily. It has a Mediterranean climate with long, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Its geology is mainly limestone, with fairly good (albeit quite stony) soil. There are no truly enormous mountains, but some quite important peaks nonetheless.

There are few navigable rivers; instead, there are valleys separated by mountains. Greek community organization took the form of independent city-states (polis) likely as a result of this geography. The Greeks were always sea peoples. The Greek coastline is carved up by small bays and coves, perfect harbors for sailing ships.

Greek farming largely took place on small subsistence plots. The Ancient Greek diet was dominated by olives, grapes and grains. Athena's gift of the olive tree to the Atheneans won her the role of being their chief deity. The olive was crucial to the Ancient Greeks. The grape was a hardy, long-living plant like the olive. It was used as a fruit, and also, of course, for wine.

Bronze Age


Early Bronze Age

3200-2000 BC

Middle Bronze Age

2000-1600 BC

Late Bronze Age

1600-1100 BC

Greece's Late Bronze Age (aka Mycenaean era, after the site it was first identified).

Crete is the southern shell of Greek civilization.

Peer polity model

Developed first by Colin Renfrew. It is essential where a limited area has a group of related communities based on more or less the same structure, with no centralized government. With one another, they engage in competition, rivalry and emulation. They share much in common -- symbolic entrainment -- such as symbols, ideology and gods.

Redistributive economy

Another way to describe Greek society is as a redistributive economy where produce was stored at the palace. Growers were provided protection; elites were given foodstuffs, and also material with which to trade. Harvester Vase shows harvesters knocking off olives with long sticks.

Minoan Civilization, 1800 to 1500 BC
Bronze Age history

Excavated at Knossos by Sir Arthur Evans. Type site for Minoan civilization, named after King Minos. The legend was that Minos had built a trackless maze -- a labyrinth. People thought that the vast palace at Knossos with a jungle of rooms might be connected with the labyrinth. However, the labyrinth's etymological root is the labrys, a double-headed axe. The labrys motif decorated Knossos.

Major finds included the bull vaulting fresco; bull-headed cup; prince of the lilies; three ladies. People at Knossos were literate. They had Linear A, rarely found and not fully deciphered. Linear B was deciphered in the 1950s. Linear B is a proto-Greek where each character represents a syllable. Linear B had no narrative drive, and used only for storehouse records. But Linear B documents reveal social structure and historical continuity. The Minoan palace culture thrived from roughly 1700 to 1400 BC. Then it collapsed. Widespread destruction at almost every site on Crete.

Mycenaean Civilization

Location that is easily defended, with ample access to fresh water. Mycenaea was excavated by Heinrich Schliemann.

Dark, Geometric and Orientalizing Ages

Mycenaean civilization rapidly collapsed; there is archaeological evidence of pillaging and burning. Population declined. International trade collapsed; Mycenaean artifacts were no longer found throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Literacy also went missing. Mycenaean Linear B -- with its clumsy, excessive 87 characters -- vanished when the few scribes who knew it lost their jobs. Similarly, skilled artisans and their products also vanished. Scholars have suggested many possible causes including climate (an enormous drought); revolt (but there was not a unified proletariat); and economic disruption. This period around 1200 BC was extremely stressful in the entire Mediterranean (in the Levant, there were the Sea Peoples). Some scholars have said that the economy was so fragile that when trade networks were disrupted, the entire civilization collapsed.

However, foreign invasion seems much likely. When peoples from a less developed culture invade a more highly developed culture, they rarely leave any record besides destruction. (A so-called Dorian Invasion was a popular but now-dismissed theory of invasion from the north.) Scholars can be sure of little more about the Mycenaean collapse, than that it did occur.

However, it is also mysterious why the collapse lasted so long. A reason might be that society relied on terraced agriculture. The terraces were fragile, and so if animals were allowed to run through the terraces (during an attack) they could quickly degrade the terraces. Landslides could wipe out farming.


Dark Ages

1100-900 BC

The collapse of Mycenaean civilization in the twelfth century BC was followed by a two or three hundred year 'Dark Age' of cultural poverty. There was a decline in the population, a fall in living standards and many Bronze Age arts and crafts including writing were forgotten.

Geometric Period

900-700 BC

Geometric Art (900-750 BC) flourished at the end of the Greek Dark Ages and heralded a cultural and political renaissance. Trade and communication started to revive and a new political unit, the city-state or polis, began to merge. The citizens of each polis guarded their independence fiercely but they were united by their common language. At common meeting grounds such as the pan-Hellenic sanctuary of Olympia music and poetry were celebrated alongside athletic prowess. The recitation of epic poems, including the Iliad and the Odyssey preserved faint memories of the Bronze Age as an age of heroes.

From about 750 BC onwards increased prosperity and an expanding population encouraged the Greeks to trade and found colonies all around the Mediterranean. From civilizations of the east such as Egypt and Phoenicia, the Greeks re-learned the art of writing and adopted new techniques of metal and ivory working. With the incorporation of 'orientalising' motifs such as animals and florals, the linear Geometric style developed inot a new but still distinctively Greek style of art.

Orientalizing Period

720-600 BC

Archaic Era


Archaic Period

600-480 BC

Hellenic (Classical) Greece
480-323 BC


Hellenic Period

480-323 BC

Hellenic aka Classical Greece.

Alexander the Great

Hellenistic Greece

Since Alexander both reinvented and propagated Greece in unprecedentedly successful and ambitious manners, the end of his reign marks a turning point in Greek history.

It was at this point that the new Greece fragmented and thereby became an idea, a culture and a way of life that took the world by storm. Alexander inherited a powerful kingdom and an excellent army: these two tools enabled him to spread Greece throughout most of the world. This reincarnated the concept of being Greek to encompass anybody subscribing to the culture. Although Greece was increasingly unstable due to many decades of warfare, Alexander not only united it but made it a global phenomenon which persists to this day.

Following Alexander's death, a struggle for power broke out among his generals, which resulted in the break-up of his empire and the establishment of a number of new kingdoms. Macedon fell to Cassander, son of Alexander's leading general Antipater, who after several years of warfare made himself master of most of Greece. He founded a new Macedonian capital at Thessaloniki and was generally a constructive ruler. Following Alexander's death, the entirety of Greece had expanded and was a worldpower. After this, though, it fragmented and dispersed. Greece itself waned, although the concept of Greece became evermore fierce.




A Macedonian cap.


British Museum

Caygill, Marjorie. 1999. The British Museum: A-Z Companion to the Collections. London: The British Museum Press.