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Introduction; The Lands and Settlement of Ancient Greece; Early History; The Archaic and Classical Ages; The Transformation of Greece; Government; Economy; People and Society; Artistic and Scientific Advancements; The Legacy of Ancient Greece
Ancient Greece, civilization that thrived around the Mediterranean Sea from the 3rd millennium to the 1st century bc, known for advances in philosophy, architecture, drama, government, and science. The term “ancient Greece” refers to both where Greeks lived and how they lived long ago. Geographically, it indicates the heartland of Greek communities on the north coast and nearby islands of the Mediterranean Sea. Culturally, it refers to the ways ancient Greeks spoke, worshiped, understood the nature of the physical world, organized their governments, made their livings, entertained themselves, and related to others who were not Greek.
The most famous period of ancient Greek civilization is called the Classical Age, which lasted from about 480 to 323 bc. During this period, ancient Greeks reached their highest prosperity and produced amazing cultural accomplishments. Unlike most other peoples of the time, Greeks of the Classical Age usually were not ruled by kings. Greek communities treasured the freedom to govern themselves, although they argued about the best way to do that and often warred against each other. What Greek communities shared were their traditions of language, religion, customs, and international festivals, such as the ancient Olympic Games.
The city-states of ancient Greece fell to Roman conquerors in 146 bc. When Rome split in the 4th century ad, Greece became part of its eastern half, the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453. (For a discussion of modern Greece, which came into existence in the early 19th century, see Greece.)
Long after ancient Greece lost its political and military power, its cultural accomplishments deeply influenced thinkers, writers, and artists, especially those in ancient Rome, medieval Arabia, and Renaissance Europe. People worldwide still enjoy ancient Greek plays, study the ideas of ancient Greek philosophers, and incorporate elements of ancient Greek architecture into the designs of new buildings. Modern democratic nations owe their fundamental political principles to ancient Greece, where democracy originated. Because of the enduring influence of its ideas, ancient Greece is known as the cradle of Western civilization. In fact, Greeks invented the idea of the West as a distinct region; it was where they lived, west of the powerful civilizations of Egypt, Babylonia, and Phoenicia.
The heartland of ancient Greece consisted of the mountainous Balkan Peninsula and southern Italian Peninsula, as well as dozens of rugged islands in the northern Mediterranean region. Important settlements were located on the southern Balkan Peninsula; on the Pelopónnisos (Peloponnesus), a large peninsula connected to the southern end of the Balkan Peninsula by the Isthmus of Corinth; and on the large islands of Crete (Kríti), south of the Pelopónnisos, and Sicily, south of the Italian Peninsula.
Mountains acted like walls separating communities. The Pindus Mountains, which run down the middle of the Balkan Peninsula, were the dominant range, with an average elevation of 2,650 m (8,700 ft). The mountains were once heavily wooded, but early Greeks steadily deforested the slopes for fuel, housing, and ships. Most fields level enough for farming and raising animals were small, supporting communities of only a few hundred inhabitants. Some locations, such as Sicily and Thessaly, had broader plains that supported larger communities. A few cities, such as Athens, Corinth, and Syracuse, grew to have 100,000 or more inhabitants because they had more farmland, deposits of valuable natural resources, and excellent ports. Both the Italian and Balkan peninsulas have jagged coastlines.
The Mediterranean Sea, which connected Greeks with each other and with the rest of the world, encompasses the Aegean Sea, an arm that extends between the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor, and the Ionian Sea, which lies between the Balkan and Italian peninsulas. In the world of the ancient Greeks, the seas were more efficient travel routes than roads, which were no more than dirt trails. Ships could go much faster and carry much more cargo than wagons bumping over rough terrain. Access to the sea was so important that most Greek communities were within 60 km (40 mi) of the coast. Cities that controlled good harbors grew prosperous from the trade that flowed to them and from the fees they could charge shipowners and merchants. Eventually, ancient Greeks inhabited about 700 communities clustered around the Mediterranean Sea. The settlements reached from the Iberian Peninsula (now occupied mostly by Spain) in the west to the Mediterranean coast of the Middle East in the east, extending southward to the northern coast of Africa.
People probably first entered the Greek heartland about 50,000 years ago in the Stone Age. They wandered in from southwest Asia and from Africa, hunting herds of game animals. About 10,000 years ago, people in the Middle East began farming the land, and knowledge of this new technology slowly spread with migrants into ancient Greece. By 7000 bc, increasing numbers of people were migrating from Asia Minor to start new farming communities in the Greek heartland, eventually establishing large settlements on the Balkan Peninsula, the Aegean Islands, and the large island of Crete. These Stone Age peoples made their tools and weapons from stone, bone, leather, and wood. Their technological skills greatly accelerated around 3000 bc when they learned from Middle Eastern peoples how to work with metals and use the wheel for transport. The period from about 3000 to 1200 bc is known as the Greek Bronze Age because bronze, a mixture of copper and tin, was the most commonly used metal.
Settlers had begun sailing from Asia Minor to Crete about 6000 bc because the island offered large plains for farming and sheltered ports for fishing and sea trade. By 2200 bc, settlers had created a “palace society,” named for its several huge buildings that served as royal residences and administrative centers. Each palace was surrounded by many houses for ordinary people, but there were no defensive walls; smaller towns existed in the countryside. The palaces were probably independent, with no single ruler imposing unity over the island. This culture is named Minoan for King Minos, a legendary ruler in Greek mythology who kept a half-bull, half-human monster, the Minotaur, in a labyrinth in his palace at Knossos (Knosós). Formerly, scholars thought the Minoans were not related to the Greeks, but the most recent linguistic research on Cretan language indicates they were.
The Minoans were the first great culture of Aegean civilization. They mastered metallurgy and other technologies, and knew how to write. They decorated their buildings with brilliantly colored frescoes and celebrated at lively festivals. Innovative agriculture and international trade brought Minoans prosperity rivaling that of their eastern neighbors, such as the Hittite Kingdom in Asia Minor. Farmers made their labor efficient by simultaneously growing olives, grapes, and grain, which each required intense work at different seasons. This combination of crops provided a healthy diet, which helped the population grow, and enabled the Minoans to produce olive oil and wine for trade. The rulers controlled the economy through a redistributive system, so called because farmers and craft workers sent their products to the palaces, which then redistributed goods according to what the rulers decided everyone needed.
Despite recurring earthquakes, the Minoans prospered until about 1400 bc. Their lack of an effective defense, however, made them vulnerable to Mycenaean attacks, probably over the control of Mediterranean trade routes.
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