Few cultures have left as strong a mark on civilization as the Ancient Greeks. From art and architecture to science, philosophy, and politics, the historical significance of the Ancient Greeks is hard to measure. But where, exactly, did the Ancient Greeks come from?
Minoans and Mycenaeans
Various peoples going back to the Stone Age inhabited the geographical area known today as “Greece”. In the first half of the second millennium BCE, a civilization known as the Mycenaean developed in this area. (Mycenae was the name of the most important city during this time period. Its archaeological remains were discovered in the 1800s.)
The Mycenaeans were highly influenced by the Minoan culture that dominated the large Mediterranean island of Crete. (The archaeological remains of the Minoans were discovered in the early 1900s, and named after Minos, of Greek mythology fame.) The Minoans were an advanced society, with large palaces, beautiful art and pottery, and vast trade networks across the Mediterranean. They exchanged both goods and ideas with the nearby Egyptians, as well as the civilizations of the Near East. They also traded with the Mycenaeans, who adopted much from their culture.
In the middle of the second millennium BCE, the Minoan civilization collapsed (likely due to a severe earthquake and/or volcanic eruption). The Mycenaens stepped up to fill the void, becoming the dominant force in the Mediterranean.
Wars and Collapse
The Mycenaeans did more than just trade in the Mediterranean. They also started to establish colonies along these coasts, particularly along the Aegean Sea. This put them in conflict with the Hittites that inhabited modern-day Turkey. Multiple wars were waged between various Hittite and Mycenaean kings. It is believed that these wars are the basis for the famous Trojan War of Greek myth.
By the end of the second millennium BCE, the Mycenaean civilization had collapsed. Historians are still unclear as to why this occurred. Some say it was because of invasions by the mysterious “Sea People”, who wreaked havoc in the Mediterranean around this time. Others say it was because of natural catastrophes like earthquakes and droughts. Most agree that internal conflicts played a large role. Finally, it is believed that the Mycenaeans were conquered and replaced by a new ethnic group called the Dorians, which hailed form the northwestern regions of Greece.
Whatever the case, at this point Ancient Greece plunged into a time known as the “Greek Dark Ages”.
Greek Dark Ages and the Archaic Period
For about three hundred years (c. 1100-800 BCE), Greece experienced a severe downturn in culture, art, and trade. Cities were falling apart and apparently being abandoned. There was widespread famine, and very little settlement-building. In fact, much of the Mediterranean region experienced a decline during this period. The large Hittite and Egyptian kingdoms were fracturing as well.
This period slowly came to an end around the 9th century BCE. City-states such as Athens were rising across Greece, ushering in a new era known as the “Archaic” period. As cities grew bigger and bigger, they also became overpopulated and politically tense, leading many to seek better lives elsewhere. This led to the formation of new colonies across the Mediterranean, as far as the coasts of Italy, France, and Spain.
Meanwhile, powerful men took control of these city-states (or poleis), amassing large armies and great amounts of wealth. These leaders were known as tyrants (though not necessarily in the modern, evil sense of the word!) and people were soon fed up with them. By the end of the 6th century BCE, the last tyrants were being overthrown, and new forms of government was taking root, democracy most famous among them.
The Classical Period and Hellenism
The next two hundred years saw what many consider the “Golden Age” of Greece. It brought a prosperous time period full of art, philosophy, science, and literature. However, it also came with many conflicts and wars, both among various Greek city-states (in what are known as the Peloponnesian Wars), and the rival Persian Empire.
By the end of this period, the northern state of Macedon became the most powerful, particularly during the successful reign of Philip II. His son, Alexander (the Great), went on to conquer the rest of Greece, as well as Egypt, the Middle East, and far beyond, all the way to India. However, Alexander himself died very young, and his massive empire collapsed just as quickly.
Despite this, Alexander brought Greek culture and ideas (known as Hellenism) all across the ancient world. This made Greek language and thought dominant throughout the Mediterranean and Near East for the next several hundred years, even after the Roman Empire absorbed all of the Greek territories, putting Ancient Greece to an end.