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Greece - History

The burden of history lies heavily on Greece. In the early 1990s, as new subway tunnels were being excavated under Athens, Greece's museums were being filled to overflowing with the material remains of the past: remnants of houses from the Turkokratia (the era of Ottoman rule); coins and shops from the period of the Byzantine Empire; pottery remains from the Greek workshops that flourished during the Roman Empire; and graves, shrines, and houses from the classical period when Athens stood at the head of its own empire. The glories of ancient Greece and the splendor of the Christian Byzantine Empire give the modern Greeks a proud and rich heritage. The resilience and durability of Greek culture and traditions through times of turmoil provide a strong sense of cultural destiny. These elements also pose a considerable challenge to Greeks of the present: to live up to the legacies of the past. Much of the history of the modern state of Greece has witnessed a playing out of these contradictory forces.

An important theme in Greek history is the multiple identities of its civilization. Greece is both a Mediterranean country and a Balkan country. And, throughout its history, Greece has been a part of both the Near East and Western Europe. During the Bronze Age and again at the time of the Greek Renaissance of the eighth century B.C., Greece and the Near East were closely connected. The empire of Alexander the Great of Macedonia brought under Greek dominion a vast expanse of territory from the Balkans to the Indus. The Byzantine Empire, with its heart in Constantinople, bridged the continents of Europe and Asia. Greece's history is also closely intertwined with that of Europe and has been since Greek colonists settled the shores of Italy and Spain and Greek traders brought their wares to Celtic France in the seventh century BC.

A second theme is the influence of the Greek diaspora. From the sixth century BC, when Greeks settled over an expanse from the Caucasus to Gibraltar, until the dispersal of hundreds of thousands of Greeks to Australia and Canada during the 1950s and 1960s, Greeks have been on the move. The experience of the diaspora has been and continues to be a defining element in the development of Greece and Greek society.

The third major theme is the role of foreign dependence. Until 1832, the Greek nation had never existed as a single state. In antiquity, hundreds of states were inhabited by Greeks, so the Greek national identity transcended any one state. For much of their history, Greeks have been part of large, multiethnic states. Whether under the suzerainty of the emperors of Rome or the dominion of the Ottoman Empire, much of Greek history can only be understood in the context of foreign rule. In more recent times, the fortunes of Greece have been linked in integral ways to the struggles of the Great Powers in the nineteenth century and the polarizing diplomacy of the late twentieth-century Cold War. The history of Greece and the Greek people, then, is bound up with forces and developments on a scale larger than just southeastern Europe. To understand the history of Greece, one has to examine this complex interplay between indigenous development and foreign influences.

The Greek War of Independence began in 1821 and concluded in 1830 when England, France, and Russia forced the Ottoman Empire to grant Greece its independence under a European monarch. In European Great Power politics after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, maintenance of the status quo was the first priority. In such an atmosphere, the attention of the Great Powers (primarily France and Britain) could be drawn most quickly by situations that disrupted their common economic interests. Indeed, in 1823 the war in Greece had already begun curtailing commerce in the eastern Mediterranean, but the European powers realized that the defeat of the Ottoman Empire would leave a power vacuum over a very large, strategically important region. Therefore, they moved cautiously to ensure an advantageous position after the anticipated collapse. These calculations balanced Britain and France against Russia, the third Great Power, whose proximity to Ottoman territory had long caused fears in London and Paris that the Russian Empire might reach the Mediterranean Sea.

The involvement of Egypt in 1825 was a turning point because Egyptian control of the Peloponnesus was unacceptable to the French and British. Thus motivated, the Great Powers, with Britain taking the lead, began to search for a diplomatic solution. In the summer of 1825, the British-sponsored Act of Submission set the conditions for a Greek state that would be an autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire but under the protection of Britain. Two years later, the Treaty of London stated that France and Britain would intervene militarily if the Porte refused to negotiate a satisfactory settlement after its military success in the second phase of the war. The combined British and French fleets eventually decided the issue by destroying the Turco-Egyptian fleet at the Battle of Navarino in October 1827. Navarino created the conditions for a new Greek state. The exact boundaries, nature, and disposition of that state remained to be determined, but nonetheless by the spring of 1828 a free Greece had been established.

A powerful, if somewhat utopian (in view of the paucity of Greece's resources and the declared opposition of all European powers), irredentist movement was created that dominated Greek politics for the next century. Only a fragment of Greece, the poorest and economically less developed south, was liberated: in total 47,516 km2 and 753,400 inhabitants, who were overwhelmingly Greek-Orthodox except for two small communities of Roman-Catholic Greeks and Greek Jews (romaniotes). The larger percentage of Greeks still lived in the Ottoman Empire in Thessaly, Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, Crete, Cyprus and the other islands, and in parts of Asia Minor. As a consequence, from the very start all Greeks, living either in the Kingdom of Greece, or in the Ottoman Empire, or in the Septinsular Republic (which was under British protection since 1814) considered the new independent state just the first step towards the unification of all Hellenes in a sovereign constitutional polity.

The Duke of Wellington was in power when the Greek monarchy was founded, and wishing to retain territory for Turkey, he cut off from the Greek monarchy Thessaly, Epirus, and Macedonia, the very cradle of the Greek race. The consequence of the absurd line of demarcation he then made was, that considerable numbers of Greeks from the Turkish provinces had emigrated into the kingdom of Greece, and those who remained had never abandoned the hope that the day would come when they might be able to rejoin their fellow-countrymen in the monarchy of Greece.

At independence, Greece had an area of 47,516 square kilometers (18,346 square miles, and its northern boundary extended from the Gulf of Volos to the Gulf of Arta. Under the influence of the "Megali Idea," which in its most broad interpretation meant the expansion of the Greek state to include all areas where significant Greek communities existed, Greece acquired the Ionian islands in 1864; Thessaly and part of Epirus in 1881; part of Macedonia, Crete, Epirus, and the Aegean islands in 1913; western Thrace in 1918; and the Dodecanese islands in 1947.

Greek politics, particularly between the two world wars, involved a struggle for power between monarchists and republicans. Greece was proclaimed a republic in 1924, but George II returned to the throne in 1935. A plebiscite in 1946 upheld the monarchy, which was finally abolished by referendum on December 8, 1974.

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Page last modified: 27-07-2018 22:36:18 ZULU