Brief History of Greece

23 05 2009

You’ve probably heard that Greece has a glorious history. You may also know a few things like ancient philosophers, the Parthenon and others. You may also have seen a couple of movies. All in all you know what you’re told. Or, for personal reasons, you have given more attention to the Greek civilization and also may manage to put together some ancient Greek phrases. In that case probably you’re Dutch, those people seem to have a brilliant educational system. What I intend to do here, is to give you a brief history of Greece. Very brief and not the one that you can find in any textbook. I will stretch those elements that are most important to understand the trajectory of this people through time and those that have woven its complex psyche.

The part of Greek history I am going to discuss here stretches until 1453 and includes three eras: Antiquity, Hellenistic and Eastern Roman Empire. In all three eras, Greece was a mighty empire on the face of the known world.

It is interesting to know that you, as a non-Greek reader (or even Greek), have probably a skewed idea of those three eras. This is because historical and archaeological evidence as well as public belief have been infiltrated and distorted by the Roman Empire and the Christian Church. Let’s take a look at them:


This is the time that most westerners are familiar with due to the produced wealth of theoretical knowledge and art. However, there are important aspects that are completely neglected. For starters, this is a period that not only Greece, but all nations of the Mediterranean were really flourishing intellectually and technologically. Second, besides the important achievements in math, philosophy, engineering, there is another achievement, Democracy. People think Democracy was born in Greece. Actually it was exercised in Greece but there were already other nations with the same ideas that . In Greece it was somehow perfected: it fitted very well to the mentality of the Greeks. However, Democracy (which literally means ruling of the people) was forged in the flames of war. A war quite unknown to people outside Greece, the wars between Greece and Persia.

One of the most important figures in the history of Greece, Athens and the concept of democracy is Solon. He is the lawmaker that first gave to people civil rules and – typical of Greeks – he was accused for it. At a time of profound political corruption he was the one to provide the foundations of the system that would much later become the most widely accepted and difficult to achieve political system. But despite the short-term apparent failure of Solon’s system the Greeks where difficult to put under the yoke. They were seafarers and merchants, craftsmen and artisans, no strangers to letters, math and literature. I bet it would not be that easy to swallow that a tyrant out of the blue could tell them what to do.

Then came the wars to add up. The Persians of the notorious Achaemenid empire decided to conquer Greece. The Greeks in general despised the Persians, considered them barbarians, dressed in gold and immersed in lust. I think the Greeks were a bit jealous and therefore rejected what they didn’t have. The Persians where of course all that but barbarians – they were an impressive empire and culture. They could also amass an impressive army, and decided to move against Greece. Why? Mostly because Greece was geographically and commercially in the way of the Persians towards Europe. All the other nations of the Mediterranean had joined the Empire.  It is not known exactly how big their army was, but it must have been awesome. The Greek army was smaller. In times maybe orders of magnitude smaller, taking into account the defections and treason that were very frequent, even due to the rumors of the size of the enemy’s army alone. The Persians tried twice to conquer Greece and twice they failed.

What’s the aftermath? Well, take a bunch of skillful people that can make a living on their own and have defeated the largest army of their time and try to rule them… I guess that’s how democracy was born. As a side effect, Greece plays maybe for the first time in history the role of shield of Europe against the East. More circumstances will follow.

So, where ancient Greeks so handsome as their statues?

Ahem… well little tourist, I’m afraid not… Our perception of ancient Greeks as divine and athletic creatures that were walking calmly and philosophizing when not running in the stadium is probably some a notion that originates in the Enlightment. Ancients Greeks were to a large extent like modern Greeks: chubby, emotional, selfish, irrational. Just the type of people that the masters of Enlightment could not stand for a second. An excellent source of information on the real Ancient Greeks is Aristophanes. My favourite, also the one that proves the point that modern Greeks share at least the same vices as ancient ones, is The Wasps.

Hellenistic era

This is the period that all Greek city-states are united in one Greek state under Alexander the Great. The latter eventually took off to conquer the world, at least the most interesting and intriguing part of it, from Persia to India. This was kind of a pay back time for the Greeks, now a mighty empire capable to conquer Persia. Some say though that Alexander just had to get away from his mom, and being Greek I can very well understand his motive… After the short and adventurous life of Alexander came to an end, his enormous Greek Empire was divided into smaller kingdoms making it easier to govern.

This period of Greek history, between classical antiquity and the Roman empire, is considered by some historians a period of decadence and decline. They are completely misguided, as it is the Roman empire that simply destroyed all the achievements of the Hellenistic period, as it did not suit them at all. This is a period that philosophy ans arts thrived and technology mounted to heights that it would take more than a thousand years to reinvent. It is a period that the Greek language becomes the lingua franca of the whole world, leading to an enormous exchange of ideas between different civilizations. It is probably what people had in mind when they coined the term “globalization”.


If I admire one thing in the ancient peoples that is their ability and thirst to communicate and exchange ideas, something so natural to them. If we can benefit from something, this is it. Interaction, understanding, thirst for knowledge. I always thought Greece never actually influenced the West, it was Rome and a Romanized Greece that did that. I always thought Greece never influenced anything, until one of my trips brought me to Northern Thailand. There, a local guide informed me that the first statues of Buddha are actually depicting Alexander the Great! He told me that before that time, there where no statues of Buddha, as people in the areas where He was worshipped did not practice sculpture, mainly due to lack of solid materials, such as stone or marble. I was surprised to learn that and, frankly, a bit sceptical by nature, I thought it was a local legend or some story the guide made up. However, looking into it when I came back, I found out that during the Hellenistic period, there existed an amalgam of Greek and Buddhist culture! This was yet another era of very vivid cultural, philosophical and artistic interaction between Greece and The East, albeit maybe the most important. Apparently it was very important for the development of Buddhism, though I unfortunately know little about it to draw any conclusions. But one thing is now clear to me. I was always wondering how big was that man, Jesus, that in an era of hatred and slaughter, he came up front and talked about love and caring for our neighbour? for sure, it takes guts, but to jump up with such ideas out of the blue it takes more than that. Greeks had already quite a solid moral order, but the idea of respect for all beings and love obviously came from the philosophical interaction with the Buddhism. The Greek language was the transport vehicle for that. So Greece influenced the West after all, but through the East! And as usual in the worst way possible, by distorting an anthropocentric and loving philosophy to yet another religion of hate and fear.

Romans and tech freaks

Ask anyone what’s the major contribution of the Romans to humanity and the answer will be “technology” or “civil law” or both depending on the background of the answerer.  Well, Romans were related to technology and law but in a totally different way. They did whatever they could to make them vanish. They even destroyed any evidence they ever existed. People think Romans built roads and aqueducts. These are probably the remnants of what the peoples of the Mediterranean could do anyway. Rome was an empire and its foundations laid on human labour and war. War provided the money to keep people busy. Technology would allow people to think. As for justice, ask the Dacians, if you find any…

Maybe you’ve heard that he armies of Alexander the Great featured the mightiest war machines of their time but also for the centuries to come. Siege towers, causeways, huge ballistas, polyspasta, etc. But for sure you know that Ancient Greeks did not have technology right? Well, think twice. From the Antikethyra mechanism to the triemes, if they did not have technology, well, they did a really good job hiding it. Let me tell you one thing for the Greeks: we’ve always been so lazy and bored of doing repetitive tasks that we would have to be stupid not to produce technology all the time. Alas, it was the Romans that destroyed all technological achievements and delayed the evolution of civilization for centuries. Ask Archimedes if you don’t believe me. From the Greeks to the Celts, there were marvelous discoveries and inventions that disappeared for ever. Do you know Heron and his steam engine? How about aqueducts? Isn’t it strange that all this wisdom got lost? What might have happened? Ancient people do not seem so ancient any more… It seems to me that the Romans in order to establish their empire demolished everything on their way, and then some Greeks liked the twist and even gave it a boost…

In the west we had the Middle Ages. Was anything on in the east?

The mighty Byzantine Empire, the Empire of the Greeks. If Jesus ever existed, one thing he tried to do for sure was to dismantle the order of priests. Any priests. He failed. Whatever happened at that time we might never learn. There are only fragments of truth that survive. Alexander opened the way to the West to constitute its own empires. For Greece, Persia was an immense land of miracles. Loved (secretly), loathed and envied, it opened up a whole new world when it fell. It was the same when the Hellenistic kingdoms fell into the hands of Romans. It was a whole new world. Whenever civilizations reach their zenith oftheir prosperity, usually a decline follows. Empires and kingdoms collapse under their own weight unless they manage to gather the money they need to set for new adventures, colonies and resources. That’s why Empires, from Persia, to Rome to the modern time US of A seek wars: to stay up. But when they go down, the mess is really ugly. This is what happened to Rome. When it started it’s free fall, the situation didn’t only look bad it was bad. The Empire was in bits and pieces and Pax Romana was a practical joke. As if this is not enough, there’s another tragedy that escorts Empires to their grave: religion. People at such times are subdued to their fears and priests have that capacity to amplify them and present remorse and repent to their favorite God as the only solution.

As Rome was going down, Constantine the Great decided that it was no longer safe or reasonable to keep the heart of the Emplire beating west, close to so much trouble and away from the Eastern frontiers. Not overnight but indue time he decided to move the Capital of the Empire to Constantinople. This small Greek speaking city was to become the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for a thousand years, centre of one of the longer lasting empires in human history, the subject of the dreams of most living men. Little can be said about the joys and pains that this city has offered. What is so astonishing is that people in the West literally ignore its existence. Home to a string of Emperors, unimaginable vaults and numerous mischievous and ruthless patriarchs, it embodied a strange combination of Greek culture and what had become of Christianity.

If you visit the Catacombs in Rome what you see is the art of people eager to liberate themselves from the ancient worlds and immerse int oa world of love. Hiding in these sub-terrain mazes, they painted the brightest and most optimistic paintings I have ever seen.  The priests of the time must have realized pretty early that this ray of hope was the next big thing to control the masses. And that’s what they did. During the first centuries after JC, people really did not believe much to the Gods on Olympus. It was rather a set of nice tales and beautiful traditions. The Gods of the Greeks where in many respects quite human: they shared the same vices with their human subjects, apart from the fact that they would not die. All the rest was more or less the same. Vices and bad habits is what helps us identify the Greeks among and inside us for centuries now, and so did they with their Gods. They were not only human, they also were humane. In Ancient Greek Tradition, there is another striking thing: there is no devil. Actually in most religions before Christianity and Islam there is no devil, simply because there is no need for one. Life was probably quite difficult as it was. The temples of Aphrodite, where love was often offered for free, where probably the only relief. All this was about to change with the invention of the hating, revengeful and retaliating gods. I think it was the Romans first that developed that sick combination of puritanism and perversion. Probably they saw that their collapsing morality was allowing the surrounding tribes to harvest on their empire but – being still strapped to their vices  – they could not help it. “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” but this was often not the case. People now got attached to this puritanism and the priests attached to their fears. I think the reason why Christianity started to spread lies at his thin border, between the true purity and ideological struggle of some of the first Christians and the strive for purity as a means to salvation for the Romans. Eventually Christianity got to become a widespread religion for the masses with different dogmas and beliefs. Up until the First Council of Nicaea where a bunch of priests – most of them Greeks – strangled whatever was remaining of freedom of speech and beliefs. This is the kickoff meeting of the Middle Ages in the West and the Empire of the Greeks in the East. It is what I call the Big Filter, where it was decided that “if you are not with us you are against us”. Anything that did not fit the dogma these people established was doomed to oblivion. You do not believe me? Ask Hypatia.

This is how the new order of Greek Orthodox Christians came to existence. This is the era that forged the Greek culture as we know it today. This is an era completely neglected by the West,which is gravitating in it feud wars, and strangely overlooked by the Greeks, who put more weight in theis Ancient history. There’ s a whole lot of history, battles, wars, crusades, emperors, princes and kings to read. But I will not go through what you can find in any text book, instead I will concentrate on how the Byzantine Empire affects our life today. And there’s no better way to illustrate that than the aftermath of the collapse of the Empire. First off, the Greeks once again acted as a shield that protected the West from the Eastern invaders. The mighty Empire was holding strong even until the day Constantinople fell, in 1453. More than keeping order, it was keeping the commercial roads open. The Fall of Constantinople was the main motivation for Western people to look for access to the East by travelling west. The eastern routes were not accessible anymore. So in a way the fall of Constantinople was the reason for the rise of the Americas. Another important effect is the cultural legacy. Between the 13th and the 16th century, i.e. the siege of Constantinople by the crusaders and its fall to the Ottmans, there is a considerable outflow of Greek scholars to the West. These scholars were to Renaissance what yeast is to bread.


If there is to learn something from Greek history is that things go up and down, people are good, people are bad, but what matters is to have a good time and understand what’s going on. You find the marks everywhere, the eternal struggle between hubris and metron. So many miracles, so many crimes, so many peoples. But still the little used up and battered place smells so good, when you’re at the edge of a cliff on an island, you can smell the sea, the dry land, the beautiful and fascinating East, the prosperous and dynamic West, you can smell the past and can only anticipate the future.




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