Much of Ancient Greek’s civilization, culture and philosophy became the foundation of Western civilization.
Greece is located in the Eastern Mediterranean between Africa, Asia, and Europe. This country has been both a benefactor and a target of the 3 continents. California is 3 times larger in size than Greece, however, Greece’s coastline is longer than the entire coastline of the lower 48 states in the USA. There are between 1,200 and 6,000 islands, depending on the minimum size used to define “island”, in Greece and approximately 200 are inhabited.
Modern Greek culture is described as a fusion of Ancient Greek ideals, Byzantine ethics and Eastern sensibilities. Known to be very friendly and welcoming, we found the people to be outgoing, intelligent and interesting. No grouchy Greeks. 😁
A condensed history of Greece
Greece has a remarkably long and interesting history but here will only be the cliffsnotes version. It is perhaps easiest to view Greece’s history as a timeline, similar to a Wikipedia site.
*Stone Age (circa 400,000 – 3000 BCE)
-Paleolithic (circa 400,000 – 13,000 BCE)
-Mesolithic (circa 10,000 – 7000 BCE)
-Neolithic (circa 7000 – 3000 BCE)
A skull found in a cave in Greece tentatively dates to between 300,000 – 400,000 BCE, perhaps older. Successful Paleolithic and Mesolithic settlements have been discovered and the earliest evidence of commerce and burials in Greece is 7,250 BCE. Neolithic settlements reveal that the Stone Age people of Greece had reached a high level of development with advanced economies, art and complex social structures.
*Bronze Age (circa 3300 – 1100 BCE)
-Cycladic (circa 3300 – 2000 BCE)
-Minoan (circa 2600 – 1200 BCE)
-Helladic (circa 2800 – 1600 BCE)
-Mycenaean or Late Helladic (circa 1600 – 1100 BCE)
On the mainland, the Helladic civilization dominated southern Greece. The Helladics would eventually transform and become known as the Mycenaean civilization. About the same time, on the islands of the Aegean, the distinct Cycladic civilization flourished and the Minoans attained their highly refined culture on the island of Crete.
Although these three civilizations had similarities, their cultures were quite distinct and they coexisted for nearly 3000 years.
The Mycenaeans would dominate the entire Aegean region after the other two civilizations abruptly ceased for reasons not entirely known. Around 1100 BCE the Mycenaean civilization suddenly ended as well and like the Minoan Palaces, the Mycenaean centers seemed to have met a sudden and violent end.
*Dark Ages (circa 1100 – 700 BCE)
With the demise of the Mycenaean civilization, Greece was thrown into its Dark Ages. Major settlements were abandoned, populations dramatically decreased, no written record was created, knowledge and information was lost.
The Greeks would come to loosely adopt the alphabet used by the Phoenicians however they made major changes to it which are still in use today. The Greek alphabet became the base for Latin and by extension the base of English. Two significant events happened during this relatively unknown period in time – the first Olympics in 776 BCE were held and Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey in the 8th century BCE.
*Archaic (circa 700 – 480 BCE)
Around 700 BCE Greeks began living in organized city-states called Polis with political and legal structures in place. The political system evolved into a democratic society in Athens as well as other city-states around Greece. During this time the Greeks expanded to Anatolia (now Turkey), Phoenicia (the Middle East), Libya, Southern Italy, Southern France, Spain, and all around the coast of the Black Sea creating a substantial commercial network with all other advanced civilizations of the time. Powerful Greek cities would dominate the affairs of the region for the next four centuries.
*Classical (480 – 323 BCE)
Classical Greece was the time of unparalleled cultural achievements, rapid development and military victories, specifically against the Persians. Under the leadership of Pericles, Athens entered a productive growth period with major achievements in philosophy, literature, politics, science, and art. This was also a time of massive building projects including the building of the Acropolis.
Athens and Sparta were two of the largest and most powerful cities, however, they were ideologically opposite and those differences eventually led to a 30-year war, called the Peloponnesian War. In 404 BCE, Athens surrendered to the Spartans. The Spartans were, in turn, defeated in 362 BCE by the city-state of Thebes. With both Sparta and Athens exhausted, King Philip of Macedonia emerged as the dominant power in Greece and his plan was to unite all of Greece’s territories. When King Philip was assassinated in 336 BCE, it was up to his son to fulfill his plans.
At the age of 20, his son, Alexander the Great, became the King of Macedonia. Alexander not only united Greece but he was undefeated against every army he faced and is widely considered one of history’s most successful military commanders. In 10 years he created the largest empire in history up to his time. It included Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, the Middle East, the Persian Empire as far as Afghanistan and to the western edge of India. Alexander the Great is often ranked among the most influential people in history.
His sudden death in 323 BCE of a fever, at the age of 32, left a vast conquered land without a successor.
*Hellenistic (323 – 30 BCE)
During the Hellenistic Age, Greek culture extended its influence over it’s vast territory. Mathematics, science, architecture, the arts, literature and philosophy continued to flourish. The Greek language became the official language of all the Kingdoms.
After Alexander’s death, his generals took control of the empire and three major kingdoms emerged. Ptolemy controlled Egypt and parts of the Middle East, Seleucus ruled Syria and the Persian Empire and Antigonus and son Demetrius took Macedonia, Thrace (Bulgaria) and northern Asia Minor. Smaller kingdoms were set up in eastern Asia Minor and Afghanistan as well.
The city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE became the shining star in all of Greece’s empire and after his death, it hosted Alexander the Great’s tomb, The Great Library of Alexandria and one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria.
*Roman (146 BCE – 330 CE)
Rome had risen to a formidable power by 200 BCE and had expanded all the way to Illyria. (Illyria in today’s terms covered Croatia in the north to Albania in the south and through Serbia in the east). The Greek peninsula came under Roman rule in 146 BCE but it was after numerous civil wars and following the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Antony that Augustus Caesar turned the Greek peninsula into the Roman province of Achaea in 27 BCE. Greece became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and a major power in Europe and the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages.
*Byzantine (330 – 1453 CE)
Nearly 400 years later, after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, in 330 CE turned Byzantium into the new capital of the East Roman Empire and Greece became part of the Byzantine Empire. Constantine changed Byzantium’s name to Constantinople. (Today it is Istanbul).
Between the 10th-12th centuries Greece saw a steady increase in its population and Byzantine art began to flourish. Mosaic art, with nature, wild animals and the hunt being favorite topics, other types of art became popular including beautiful silks from the Constantinople workshops and the new architecture schools opening in Greece.
The growth attracted the Venetians, who came to rule and control various places in Greece including Crete, Corfu, Lefkas, Zakynthos, Cephalonia, Ithaca, Tinos, Mykonos, and several places on mainland Greece including Peloponnese, Argos, Parga, and even Athens for a short time.
In 1204 Constantinople and other Byzantine territories were conquered by the Latins. The Latin Empire lasted only 57 years and in 1261 Constantinople was reclaimed by the Byzantine Greeks and the Byzantine Empire was restored. However, Ottoman invasions began to weaken Constantinople’s defenses and the city fell in 1453 marking the end of both the Eastern Roman empire and the Byzantine period of Greek history.
*Ottoman (1453 – 1821 CE)
With the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottomans arrived in Greece, the Greek intelligentsia migrated to western Europe, influencing the beginning of the Renaissance movement while others migrated from the plains of the Greek peninsula and resettled in the mountains. The Ottomans ruled most of Greece until the early 19th century.
*Modern (1821 – today)
In the early months of 1821, the Greeks declared their independence, although they did not achieve it until 1829. Scores of non-Greeks volunteered to fight for the Greek cause, including the Englishman, Lord Byron.
What a surprise this museum held and it was steps away from our apartment. We saw models and graphic representations of the most important and impressive warship of Greek antiquity, called the trireme. The trireme was a warship made up of three levels of oars, manned with one man per oar. We were thrilled to find a fill-sized trireme moored at a marina we visited a few days later.
Other exhibits had models of fortifications, defensive and offensive siege machines and weapons. One very interesting display explained how they used the lighting of lanterns as a means of telecommunication. Along the lines of Morse code but by lighting lanterns in various patterns.
The culmination of technology was in the Hellenistic period (323 – 30 BCE), with mechanical inventions, including the automata named Philon, a human-like robot maid. In her right hand she held a jug of wine and when the guest placed a cup in the palm of her left hand, she automatically poured wine into the cup.
Loved this small museum!
Museum of Cycladic Art
This museum houses one of the most complete private collections of Cycladic Art worldwide. We saw a number of the famous, almost translucent white marble female figurines as well as vases, tools, weapons and pottery from the distinctive Cycladic culture (3300 – 2000 BCE). The female figurines typically have their arms folded across their body and although they are striking in white, we learned the artists would have typically painted them.
National Archaeological Museum
The National Archaeological Museum is the largest museum in Greece and we spent a thoroughly enjoyable 3 hours inside. Its rich collections cover ancient Greek culture from prehistoric times to late antiquity. There were so many amazing pieces inside. We loved the gold cups and gold scales below, believed to symbolize the weighing of one’s soul in the Underworld.
A helmet with cheek guards made of boar’s tusk was pretty cool. The ancient bronze swords with gold hilts were beautiful.
One of the most fascinating exhibits was the Antikythera mechanism, a sophisticated ancient Greek analogue computer which was used to predict astronomical positions, eclipses and more. The instrument is believed to have been designed and constructed by Greek scientists between 150 – 100 BCE or even older. It was found in 1901 in a shipwreck that may have sunk approximately 70-60 BCE off the coast of one of the Greek islands.
Byzantine & Christian Museum
The Byzantine and Christian Museum exhibits artefacts covering the Early Christian, Byzantine, Medieval and post-Byzantine periods, dating between the 3rd and 20th century CE with a focus on religion in Greece and wherever Hellenism flourished.
We also visited the current temporary exhibition. It was an outstanding miniature collection of 100 Chinese carved figurines on loan from the Foundation of Greek collectors, Ioannis and Dimitra Passas. The decorative objects date back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Each is carved from precious and semi-precious stones. We saw lapis lazuli, rock crystal, turquoise, chalcedony, carnelian, sodalite, tiger’s eye and nephrite Jade figurines. Unfortunately the lighting was not great so photos did not come out as crisp as we would have liked.
Benaki Museum of Greek Culture
The Benaki museum is housed in a beautiful neoclassical-style building in Athens. The history and art collections range from prehistory through to the 20th century. It is evident that Antonia Benakis (1873-1954) was a passionate art collector. The pieces in this museum are top quality and have been beautifully preserved. The jewelry collection is spectacular. There is a generous collection of colorful costumes, books, figures, magnificent pottery and art.
This was our favorite museum in Athens.
The Goulandris Museum is a newly opened modern art museum in Athens that displays many of the works amassed by Basil & Elise Goulandris. It only opened in October 2019 so it was not on our radar but a visit to the local tourism office highly recommended it. We are grateful we took their advice! Their extensive collection included works by artists Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Paul Gaugin, Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacometti, Auguste Renoir, Joan Miro, Wassily Kandinsky, El Greco, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec as well as works by Greek modern painters including Parthenis, Bouzianis, Vasileiou, Hadjikyriakos-Ghika, Tsarouchis, Moralis, and Tetsis.
A couple of pieces that stood out for us was the 1878 life-sized statue by Edgar Degas, called Little Dancer Aged Fourteen and a painting by Marc Chagall called E.B.G. 1969 – the initials of Elise Goulandris of the Goulandris Foundation and Museum. We truly have many favorites in this collection.
Delving into the history of Ancient Greece has been a fascinating journey. This resilient country is amazing and we are especially happy to be here during the quiet off-season.
Yamas from these Athenians,
Ted and Julia
View our Benaki Museum photo gallery here
View our Goulandris Museum photo gallery here
View our Herakleidon Museum photo gallery here
View our Museum of Cycladic Art photo gallery here
View our National Archaeological Museum photo gallery here