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Greece - Ancient History

Migrations from the east brought the foundations of new civilizations to the Greek mainland, the island of Crete, and the Cyclades Islands east of the Peloponnesian Peninsula (more commonly known as the Peloponnesus; Greek form Peloponnisos). The Minoan civilization (in Crete) and the Mycenaean civilization (on the mainland) developed distinctive social structures that are documented in archeological records. The dominant Mycenaean civilization then declined for a 250-year period known as the Dark Age of Greece.

Greece never at any period formed a single and independent state. As long as it remained independent it was divided into a number of separate states, and during the only period when it was administered as a single territory it was subject to a foreign power. A general sketch of the history of ancient Greece must therefore touch only upon those leading events which belong to the common history of the Greek states, or which tne Greek people as a whole, even although they may belong more especially to the history of an individual state.

The earliest inhabitants of Greece of whom anything is known arc called by Greek writers Pelasgians. The ethnological affinities of these have often been discussed, but the most recent authorities believe that they were an IndoGermanic or Aryan people. They occupied Greece before the influx of Ionians, AEolians and Dorians. They seem to have been agricultural in pursuits, dwelt along the fertile valleys, built strong cities, walls of the so-called Cyclopean masonry, and among their most famous seats were Dodona in Epirus, Thessaly, Orchomenos in Bceotia, Mycenae in Argolis, Sicyon, etc.

In religion they abhorred both polytheism and anthropomorphism. Their name afterward became changed to Hellenes and under this appellation they amalgamated with the Ionians, the Achaeans, the AEolians and the Dorians. The early relations of Greece with the East are perhaps reflected in the legends of Oriental colonists — Cadmus, Pelops, Cecrops, etc.— who settled in Greece in very remote times. The reality of an early connection between Greece and the East is established by the fact that the Greeks derived the greater part of their alphabet from the Phoenicians.

The Hellenes, or Greeks properly so called, entering the country probably from the northwest, subdued and partly displaced the Pelasgians. They are usually represented as having been divided into four chief tribes — the AEolians, occupying the northern parts of Greece (Thessaly, Boeotia, etc.) ; the Dorians, occupying originally only the small region in the neighborhood of Mount AEta; the Achaeans, occupying the greater part of the Peloponnesus; and the Ionians, occupying the northern strip of the Peloponnesus and Attica. The middle part of the Peloponnesus was still mainly inhabited by a Pclasgic population. The warlike and enterprising character of these Hellenic invaders is evidenced by the poetic legends of their achievements in the heroic ages, such as the tale of the Troian War, of Theseus, of Jason and the Argonauts, etc.

From all these it may be gathered at least that the Hellenes early distinguished themselves by building towns, making long voyages, planting distant settlements and carrying on foreign wars. As in later times, they were divided into numerous states, each consisting of a single city with the surrounding territory. These states were governed by kings who were the heads of the supreme families and who traced their descent from Zeus. By the side of the kings stood the heads of the other leading families of the state, who in Homer are also called kings and likewise boasted of a descent from Zeus. In the public market-place (agora), where all the affairs of the state were transacted, these subordinate kings gave their opinions on every subject of deliberation and advised the supreme ruler as to the course he should pursue, but beyond that they had no authority. Their influence, however, was very great, especially where the rightful head of the state did not possess the abilities of a ruler.

The event known to modern scholars as the Dorian migration, and to the ancient Greeks as the return of the Heracleids, was placed by Thucydides about 80 years after the fall of Troy and thus about the year 1104 BC, according to the traditional system of chronology. Modern scholars date the end of the Mycenaean period to around 1100 BC, and the following four centuries are known as the Geometric period [to art historians], or simply the Dark Ages.

The Ionians who were driven out of the Peloponnesus found at first a refuge among their kindred in Attica, but when this district did not suffice for all the inhabitants, old and new, large numbers of them left it and founded Ionic colonies on several of the islands of the Aegean Sea and on the middle part of the coast of Asia Minor, where they built 12 cities, which formed an Ionic Confederacy. The principal of these were Ephesus and Miletus. About the same time as the Ionians are said to have colonized the middle part of the seaboard of Asia Minor, another body of Greeks, proceeding from Thessaly and Bceotia, are said to have founded colonies on some of the northern island of the Aegean, and on the northern part of the western coast of Asia Minor. The Aeolic colonies of Asia Minor also formed a confederacy of 12 cities, but the number was afterward reduced to 11 by the accession of Smyrna to the Ionic Confederacy. While Ionians and Aeolians thus colonized the middle and northern islands of the Aegean and coasts of Asia, the southern islands and the southern part of the west coast of Asia Minor were in like manner colonized by the Dorian settlers. The six Doric towns in Asia Minor, along with the island of Rhodes, formed a confederacy similar to the Ionic and Aeolic ones.

In settling in foreign lands, the Greeks kept distinct from each other. One of the great keys to an understanding of Greek history is a right understanding of the relation between the two great people of the Greek name, the Dorians and Ionians. The Dorians were inland mountaineers, the Ionians were of the seacoast. The former, as represented in the institutions of Sparta, were a practical and conservative race, living a simple and unimaginative life. Their poetry was the public ode, accompanied with the dance in the market-place, often carried on under arms.

The Ionians were versatile, imaginative, impressible. They were devoted to the maritime life, were travelers and fond of welcoming strangers to their cities. They were traders. Moreover, they were keenly intellectual and reached the summit of excellence in art, literature and philosophy. Their poetry was the epic narrative; and they invented the drama, in which the Ionian tale of personal adventure was united with the Doric ode.

These two contrasted peoples between them swayed the fate of Greece. Their relations were complicated by the different colonies which they established at different points on the Mediterranean and Euxine coasts. In the course of time new Greek settlements were made on the coasts of the Hellespont, the Propontis (Sea of Marmora), and the Black Sea by both Dorians and Ionians. The most important of these were Byzantium (Constantinople) (Dorian), Sinope (Ionian), Cerasus_ (Ionian) and Trapezus Trebizonde) (Ionian). Further, there were ourishing Greek colonies on the coasts of Thrace and Macedonia; for example, Abdera, Amphipolis, Olynthus, Potidaea, etc., which were all Ionian; and the Greek colonies in Lower Italy were so numerous that the inhabitants of the interior spoke Greek, arid the whole region received the name of Greater Greece. The most famous of the Greek colonies in this quarter were Tarantum, Sybaris, Croton, Cumae and Naples. The island of Sicily also came to a great extent into the hands of the Greeks, who founded on it or enlarged many towns.

By far the largest, most powerful and most highly cultured of the Greek colonies was the Dorian colony of Syracuse, founded in the 8th century BC. On the north coast of Africa the Dorian colony of Cyrene rivaled in wealth and commerce the city of Carthage; and on the south coast of Gaul Ionian Massilia (Marseilles) presented a model of civilized government to the inhabitants of the surrounding districts. All these towns kept up a commerce in the products of the land in which they were planted. They exerted a most important and beneficent influence on the manners of the neighboring inhabitants. They preserved the customs and institutions of their mother city, which they regarded with filial reverence; but otherwise they were perfectly free and independent.

Although ancient Greece never formed a single state, the various Greek tribes always looked upon themselves as one people, and classed all other nations under the general name of Barbaroi (foreigners). There were four chief bonds of union between the Greek tribes. First and chiefly they had a common language, which, though it had considerable dialectic peculiarities when spoken by different tribes, was yet understood throughout every part of Greece and in all the Greek colonics. Secondly, they had common religious ideas and institutions, and especially in the oracle of Delphi they had a common religious sanctuary, which was held by all the states in equal reverence, and was resorted to from all parts of Greece, alike by communities and individuals, for advice in circumstances of difficulty, and not unfrequently for indications as to the future.

Thirdly, there was a general assembly of the Greeks called the Amphictyonic League, in which the whole nation was represented by tribes (not by states), and the chief functions of which were to guard the interests of the sanctuary of Delphi, and to see that the wars between the separate states of Greece were not carried on in too merciless a manner. When any of the ordinances of the league were violated it was its duty to see that the violators were punished, and to entrust the infliction of the punishment to some one of its members.

The fourth bond of union between the tribes of Greece consisted in the four great national festivals or games, the Olympian, Isthmian, Nemean and Pythian which were held at different intervals in four different parts of Greece, in which all Greeks, and none but Greeks, were allowed to participate, and which slaves were not allowed even to witness. At these games contests took place in foot-racing and chariot-racing, boxing, wrestling ana throwing with the quoit (or discus), and prizes were also awarded for works of art, poems, dramas, histories, etc. The prize was a simple wreath of olive or pine branches, or of parsley; but such a prize brought glory not only on the winner himself, but on his whole family and kindred, and even on the state to which he belonged. The victor was welcomed home by a triumphal procession, and his victory was celebrated in odes sung on the occasion, and sometimes composed by such poets as Simonides and Pindar.

The Olympic games were the most celebrated of these festivals. They were held in the summer once every four years at Olympia, in Elis; the month in which they were held was considered as sacred, and during it no acts of hostility were allowed to take place between any of the Greek states. Originally, the only contest was a foot-race, and so high was the honor of a victory in this race esteemed, that from that of Corcebus in 776 BC the whole of Greece reckoned the time. The year in which any event happened was styled the first, second, third or fourth year of a certain Olympiad, the name given to the interval elapsing between each celebration.

The term “Orientalising” is applied to Greek art of the 7th century BC, because it shows a strong influence from the Near East. The Greeks incorporated many design elements from Near Eastern art including animals, plants, and mythical creatures that were previously unknown to them, such as the lion, the sphinx, the griffin, cockerels, lotus flowers, helix-shaped shoots of plants, palms, etc. In this period, large-scale Greek sculpture was born. For the first time, stone temples were built, and painting – on pottery – found an inexhaustible supply of representational material in mythology that was to sustain it for centuries. This occurred contemporaneously with the transition to a more urban life around the end of the 8th and the beginning of the 7th century BC.

In the Archaic period, mid-7th - 6th century BC, two areas in the growing cities received special attention, sanctuaries and cemeteries. The focus of a sanctuary was the house of the god. Conceived literally, temples housed brilliant devotional statues and were decorated with relief compositions. In the sacred precinct around the temple were setup countless votive sculptures, prominent statues, reliefs, and ceramic pots. The other areas lavished with attention were the cemeteries. The statues were placed on tombs and funeral gifts were offered to the dead.

In the course of the succeeding Classical period, the architectural centerpiece of Athens’ acropolis – the Parthenon, a temple for the goddess Athena – was created. Tragic and comic poetry matured, and visual artists attempted to give substance to the beauty of thought and measure to earthly infinity. The Classical period is now seen as a peak period in the history of the Greek city-state, condensing the traditions of preceding centuries and sowing the seeds for later harvesting. From the 7th century BC onwards, Greek art tended towards naturalism and realism. After a measured and schematised archaic form of expression and later, after a Classical style largely beyond time and place, art in the Hellenistic period, mid-4th to mid-1st century BC, tended to represent the real world around it, as well as the internal world of humanity, in an extreme and unrestrained manifestation of emotion and passion.

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Page last modified: 29-09-2012 18:37:20 ZULU