Over the centuries, the Greek islands have been the stepping stones between North Africa, Asia Minor and Europe, across which warriors, tradesmen, conquerors and even civilisations have hopped. Successive invaders have fought over and claimed the islands as prizes. Their strategic location, in a seafaring world, made many islands prosperous and autonomous trading centres. Some were run by foreign masters, as evidenced by the Venetian ports, Roman aqueducts and Frankish castles found on the islands today.
The Cycladic civilisation – centred on the islands of the Cyclades – comprised a cluster of small fishing and farming communities with a sophisticated artistic temperament. Scholars divide the Cycladic civilisation into three periods: Early (3000–2000 BC), Middle (2000–1500 BC) and Late (1500–1100 BC).
The most striking legacy of this civilisation is the famous Cycladic figurines – carved statuettes from Parian marble. Other remains include bronze and obsidian tools and weapons, gold jewellery, and stone and clay vases and pots. Cycladic sculptors are also renowned for their impressive, life-sized kouroi (marble statues), carved during the Archaic period.
The Cycladic people were also accomplished sailors who developed prosperous maritime trade links with Crete, continental Greece, Asia Minor (the west of present-day Turkey), Europe and North Africa.
The Minoans – named after King Minos, the mythical ruler of Crete (and stepfather of the Minotaur) – built Europe’s first advanced civilisation, drawing their inspiration from two great Middle Eastern civilisations: the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian.
The Minoan civilisation (3000–1100 BC) reached its peak during the Middle period; around 2000 BC the grand palace complexes of Knossos, Phaestos, Malia and Zakros were built, marking a sharp acceleration from Neolithic village life. Evidence uncovered in these palaces indicates a sophisticated society, with splendid architecture and wonderful, detailed frescoes, highly developed agriculture and an extensive irrigation system.
The advent of bronze enabled the Minoans to build great boats, which helped them establish a powerful thalassocracy (sea power) and prosperous maritime trade. They used tremendous skill to produce fine pottery and metalwork of great beauty, and exported their wares throughout Greece, Asia Minor, Europe and North Africa.
Scholars are still debating the sequence of events that led to the ultimate demise of the Minoans. Scientific evidence suggests they were weakened by a massive tsunami and ash fallout attributed to the eruption of a cataclysmic volcano on Santorini (Thira) around 1500 BC. Some argue that a second powerful quake a century later decimated the society, or perhaps it was the invading force of Mycenae. The decline of the Minoans certainly coincided with the rise of the Mycenaean civilisation on the mainland (1600–1100 BC).
The Dorians were an ancient Hellenic people who settled in the Peloponnese by the 8th century BC. In the 11th or 12th century BC these warrior-like people fanned out to occupy much of the mainland, seizing control of the Mycenaean kingdoms and enslaving the inhabitants. The Dorians also spread their tentacles into the Greek islands, founding the cities of Kamiros, Ialysos and Lindos on Rhodes in about 1000 BC, while Ionians fleeing to the Cyclades from the Peloponnese established a religious sanctuary on Delos.
The following 400-year period is often referred to as Greece’s ‘dark age’. In the Dorians' favour, however, they introduced iron and developed a new intricate style of pottery, decorated with striking geometric designs. They also introduced the practice of polytheism, paving the way for Zeus and his pantheon of 12 principal deities.
By about 800 BC, the Dorians had developed into a class of landholding aristocrats and Greece was becoming divided into a series of independent city-states. Led by Athens and Corinth (which took over Corfu in 734 BC), the city-states created a Magna Graecia (Greater Greece), with southern Italy as an important component. Most abolished monarchic rule and aristocratic monopoly, establishing a set of laws that redistributed wealth and allowed citizens to regain control over their lands.
During the so-called Archaic Age, from around 800 to 650 BC, Greek culture developed rapidly. Many advances in literature, sculpture, theatre, architecture and intellectual endeavour began; this revival overlapped with the Classical Age. Developments from this period include the Greek alphabet; the verses of Homer, including epics the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey'; the founding of the Olympic Games; and the creation of central sanctuaries such as Delphi.
From the 6th to 4th centuries BC, Greece continued its renaissance in cultural creativity. As many city-states enjoyed increased economic reform and political prosperity, literature and drama blossomed.
Athens’ rapid growth meant heavy reliance on food imports from the Black Sea, while Persia’s imperial expansions threatened coastal trade routes across Asia Minor. Athens’ support for a rebellion in the Persian colonies of Asia Minor sparked the Persian Wars.
In 477 BC Athens founded the Delian League, a naval alliance that was based on Delos. It was formed to liberate the city-states still occupied by Persia, and to defend against further Persian attack. The alliance included many of the Aegean islands and some of the Ionian city-states in Asia Minor. Swearing allegiance to Athens and making an annual contribution to the treasury of ships (later contributing just money) were mandatory.
When Pericles became the leader of Athens in 461 BC, he moved the treasury from Delos to the Acropolis, using the funds to construct new buildings and grander temples to replace those destroyed by the Persians.
With the Aegean Sea safely under its wing, Athens looked westwards for more booty. One of the major triggers of the first Peloponnesian War (431–421 BC) that pitted Athens against Sparta was Athens’ support for Corcyra (present-day Corfu) in a row with Corinth, the island's mother city. Athens finally surrendered to Sparta after a drawn-out series of pitched battles.
While Alexander the Great was forging his vast empire in the east, the Romans had been expanding theirs to the west, and were keen to start making inroads into Greece. After several inconclusive clashes, they defeated Macedon in 168 BC. By 146 BC the mainland became the Graeco-Roman province of Achaea. Crete fell in 67 BC, and the southern city of Gortyn became capital of the Roman province of Cyrenaica, which included a large chunk of North Africa. Rhodes held out until AD 70.
As the Romans revered Greek culture, Athens retained its status as a centre of learning. Indeed, the Romans adopted many aspects of Hellenic culture, spreading its unifying traditions throughout their empire. During a succession of Roman emperors, namely Augustus, Nero and Hadrian, the whole empire experienced a period of relative peace, known as the Pax Romana, which was to last for almost 300 years.
Byzantine Empire & the Crusades
The Pax Romana began to crumble in AD 250 when the Goths invaded what is now Greece – the first of a succession of invaders.
In an effort to resolve the conflict in the region, in AD 324 the Roman Emperor Constantine I, a Christian convert, transferred the capital of the empire from Rome to Byzantium, a city on the western shore of the Bosphorus, which was renamed Constantinople (present-day İstanbul). While Rome went into terminal decline, the eastern capital began to grow in wealth and strength as a Christian state. In the ensuing centuries, Byzantine Greece faced continued pressure from Venetians, Franks, Normans, Slavs, Persians and Arabs; the Persians captured Rhodes in 620, but were replaced by the Saracens (Arabs) in 653. The Arabs also captured Crete in 824. Other islands in the Aegean remained under Byzantine control.
The Byzantine Empire began to fracture when the renegade Frankish leaders of the Fourth Crusade decided that Constantinople presented richer pickings than Jerusalem. Constantinople was sacked in 1204, and much of the Byzantine Empire was partitioned into fiefdoms ruled by self-styled ‘Latin’ (mostly Frankish or western-Germanic) princes. The Venetians, meanwhile, had also secured a foothold in Greece. Over the next few centuries they took over key mainland ports, the Cyclades, and Crete in 1210, becoming the most powerful traders in the Mediterranean.
On 29 May 1453, Constantinople fell under Turkish Ottoman rule (referred to by Greeks as turkokratia). Once more Greece became a battleground, this time fought over by the Turks and Venetians. Eventually, with the exception of the Ionian Islands (where the Venetians retained control), Greece became part of the Ottoman Empire.
Ottoman power reached its zenith under Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, who ruled from 1520 to 1566. His successor, Selim the Sot, added Cyprus to Ottoman dominion in 1570. Although they captured Crete in 1669 after a 25-year campaign, the ineffectual sultans that followed in the late 16th and 17th centuries saw the empire go into steady decline.
By the end of the 18th century, pockets of Turkish officials, aristocrats and influential Greeks had emerged as self-governing cliques that ruled over the provincial Greek peasants. But there also existed an ever-increasing group of Greeks, including many intellectual expatriates, who aspired to emancipation.
In 1814 the first Greek independence party, the Filiki Eteria (Friendly Society), was founded and their message spread quickly. On 25 March 1821, the Greeks launched the War of Independence. Uprisings broke out almost simultaneously across most of Greece and the occupied islands. The fighting was savage and atrocities were committed on both sides; in the Peloponnese 12,000 Turkish inhabitants were killed after the capture of the city of Tripolitsa (present-day Tripoli), while the Turks retaliated with massacres in Asia Minor, most notoriously on the island of Chios.
The campaign escalated, and within a year the Greeks had won vital ground. They proclaimed independence on 13 January 1822 at Epidavros.
Soon after, regional wrangling twice escalated into civil war, in 1824 and 1825. The Ottomans took advantage and by 1827 the Turks (with Egyptian reinforcements) had regained control. Western powers intervened and a combined Russian, French and British naval fleet sunk the Turkish-Egyptian force in the Battle of Navarino in October 1827. Despite the long odds against him, Sultan Mahmud II and proclaimed a holy war, prompting Russia to send troops into the Balkans to engage the Ottoman army. Fighting continued until 1829 when, with Russian troops at the gates of Constantinople, the sultan accepted Greek independence with the Treaty of Adrianople. Independence was formally recognised in 1830.
The Modern Greek Nation
In April 1827, Greece elected Corfiot Ioannis Kapodistrias as the first president of the republic. Nafplio, in the Peloponnese, became the capital. There was much dissension and Kapodistrias was assassinated in 1831. Amid the ensuing anarchy, Britain, France and Russia declared Greece a monarchy and set on the throne the non-Greek, 17-year-old Bavarian Prince Otto, in January 1833. The new kingdom (established by the London Convention of 1832) consisted of the Peloponnese, Sterea Ellada, the Cyclades and the Sporades. Otto ruled until he was deposed in 1862.
The Great Idea
Greece’s foreign policy (dubbed the ‘Great Idea’) was to assert sovereignty over its dispersed Greek populations. Set against the background of the Crimean conflict, British and French interests were nervous at the prospect of a Greek alliance with Russia against the Ottomans.
British influence in the Ionian Islands had begun in 1815 (following a spell of political ping-pong between the Venetians, Russians and French). The British did improve the islands’ infrastructure, and many locals adopted British customs (such as afternoon tea and cricket in Corfu). However, Greek independence put pressure on Britain to give sovereignty to the Greek nation, and in 1864 the British left. Meanwhile, Britain eased onto the Greek throne the young Danish Prince William, crowned King George I in 1863, whose reign lasted 50 years.
In 1881, Greece acquired Thessaly and part of Epiros as a result of a Russo-Turkish war. But Greece failed miserably when it tried to attack Turkey in an effort to reach enosis (union) with Crete (which had persistently agitated for liberation from the Ottomans). Timely diplomatic intervention by the Great Powers prevented the Turkish army from taking Athens.
Crete was placed under international administration, but the government of the island was gradually handed over to the Greeks. In 1905 the president of the Cretan assembly, Eleftherios Venizelos (later to become prime minister), announced Crete’s union with Greece (although this was not recognised by international law until 1913).
The Balkan Wars
The declining Ottomans still retained Macedonia, prompting the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. The outcome was the Treaty of Bucharest (August 1913), which greatly expanded Greek territory to take in the southern part of Macedonia (which included Thessaloniki, the vital cultural centre strategically positioned on the Balkan trade routes), part of Thrace, another chunk of Epiros and the northeastern Aegean Islands; the treaty also recognised the union with Crete.
WWI & Smyrna
During the First World War, the Allies (Britain, France and Russia) put increasing pressure on neutral Greece to join forces with them against Germany and Turkey, promising concessions in Asia Minor in return. Greek troops served with distinction on the Allied side, but when the war ended in 1918 the promised land in Asia Minor was not forthcoming. Prime Minister Venizelos then led a diplomatic campaign to further the ‘Great Idea’ and sent troops to Smyrna (present-day İzmir) in May 1919. With a seemingly viable hold in Asia Minor, by September 1921 Greece had advanced as far as Ankara. But by this stage foreign support for Venizelos had ebbed, and Turkish forces, commanded by Mustafa Kemal (later to become Atatürk), halted the offensive. The Greek army retreated and Smyrna fell in 1922, and tens of thousands of its Greek inhabitants were killed.
The outcome of these hostilities was the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, whereby Turkey recovered eastern Thrace and the islands of Imvros and Tenedos, while the Italians kept the Dodecanese (which they had temporarily acquired in 1912 and would hold until 1947).
The treaty also called for a population exchange between Greece and Turkey to prevent any future disputes. Almost 1.5 million Greeks left Turkey and almost 400,000 Turks left Greece. The exchange put a tremendous strain on the Greek economy and caused great bitterness and hardship for the individuals concerned. Many Greeks had to abandon a privileged life in Asia Minor for one of extreme poverty in emerging urban shanty towns in Athens and Thessaloniki.
WWII & the Civil War
During a tumultuous period, a republic was declared in 1924 amid a series of coups and counter-coups. Then in November 1935, King George II installed the right-wing General Ioannis Metaxas as prime minister. He assumed dictatorial powers under the pretext of preventing a communist-inspired republican coup. Metaxas’ grandiose vision was to create a utopian Third Greek Civilisation, based on its glorious ancient and Byzantine past. He then exiled or imprisoned opponents, banned trade unions and the recently established Kommounistiko Komma Elladas (KKE, the Greek Communist Party), imposed press censorship, and created a secret police force and fascist-style youth movement. But Metaxas is best known for his reply of ohi (no) to Mussolini’s ultimatum to allow Italian forces passage through Greece at the beginning of WWII. The Italians invaded anyway, but the Greeks drove them back into Albania.
Despite Allied help, when German troops invaded Greece on 6 April 1941, the whole country was rapidly overrun. The Germans used Crete as an air and naval base to attack British forces in the eastern Mediterranean. The civilian population suffered appallingly during the occupation, many dying of starvation. The Germans rounded up between 60,000 and 70,000 Greek Jews, at least 80% of the country's Jewish population, and transported them to death camps. Numerous resistance movements sprang up, eventually polarising into royalist and communist factions which fought one another with as much venom as they fought the Germans, often with devastating results for the civilian Greek population.
The German retreat from Greece began in October 1944. Meanwhile, the resistance groups continued to fight one another. A bloody civil war resulted, lasting until 1949. The civil war left Greece in chaos, politically frayed and economically shattered. More Greeks were killed in three years of bitter civil war than in WWII, and a quarter of a million people were left homeless. The sense of despair triggered a mass exodus. Villages – whole islands even – were abandoned as almost a million Greeks left in search of a better life elsewhere, primarily to countries such as Australia, Canada and the US.
Colonels, Monarchs & Democracy
Georgos Papandreou came to power in February 1964. He had founded the Centre Union (EK) and wasted no time in implementing a series of radical changes: he freed political prisoners and allowed exiles to come back to Greece, reduced income tax and the defence budget, and increased spending on social services and education. The political right in Greece was rattled by Papandreou’s tolerance of the left, and a group of army colonels led by Georgos Papadopoulos and Stylianos Patakos staged a coup on 21 April 1967. They established a military junta, with Papadopoulos as prime minister.
The colonels declared martial law, banned political parties and trade unions, imposed censorship, and imprisoned, tortured and exiled thousands of dissidents. In June 1972, Papadopoulos declared Greece a republic and appointed himself president.
On 17 November 1973, tanks stormed a building at the Athens Polytechnic (Technical University) to quell a student occupation calling for an uprising against the US-backed junta. While the number of casualties is still in dispute (more than 20 students were reportedly killed and hundreds injured), the act spelt the death knell for the junta.
Shortly after, the head of the military security police, Dimitrios Ioannidis, deposed Papadopoulos and tried to impose unity with Cyprus in a disastrous move that led to the partition in Cyprus and the collapse of the junta.
Konstandinos Karamanlis, prime minister from the 1950s, was invited to return to Greece from self-imposed exile in Paris. His New Democracy (ND) party won a large majority at the November 1974 elections against the newly formed Panhellenic Socialist Union (PASOK), led by Andreas Papandreou (son of Georgos). A plebiscite voted 69% against the restoration of the monarchy, and the ban on communist parties was lifted.
The 1980s & 1990s
When Greece became the 10th member of the EU in 1981, it was the smallest and poorest country in the bloc. In October 1981 Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK party was elected as Greece’s first socialist government, ruling for almost two decades (except for 1990–93). PASOK promised ambitious social reform, to close the US air bases and to withdraw from NATO. US military presence was reduced, but unemployment was high and reforms in education and welfare were limited. Women’s issues fared better: the dowry system was abolished, abortion legalised, and civil marriage and divorce were implemented. But by 1990, significant policy wrangling and economic upheaval wore thin with the electorate and it returned the ND to office, led by Konstandinos Mitsotakis.
Intent on addressing the country’s economic problems – high inflation and high government spending – the government imposed austerity measures, including a wage freeze for civil servants and steep increases in public utility costs and basic services.
By late 1992 corruption allegations were being levelled against the government, and many Mitsotakis supporters abandoned ship; ND lost its parliamentary majority, and an early election held in October returned PASOK to power.
Andreas Papandreou stepped down in early 1996 due to ill health and he died on 26 June, sparking a dramatic change of direction for PASOK. The party abandoned Papandreou’s left-leaning politics and elected economist and lawyer Costas Simitis as the new prime minister. Simitis then won a comfortable majority at the October 1996 polls.
The 21st Century
The new millennium saw Greece join the eurozone in 2001, amid rumblings from existing members that it was not economically ready – its public borrowing was too high, as was its inflation level. In hindsight, many look back on that year and bemoan the miscalibration of the drachma against the euro, claiming Greece's currency was undervalued, and that, overnight, living became disproportionately more expensive. That said, billions of euros poured into large-scale infrastructure projects across Greece, including the redevelopment of Athens – spurred on largely by its hosting of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. However, rising unemployment, ballooning public debt, slowing inflation and the squeezing of consumer credit took their toll. Public opinion soured further in 2007 when the conservative government (which had come to power in 2004) was widely criticised for its handling of severe summer fires, responsible for widespread destruction throughout Greece. Nevertheless, snap elections held in September 2007 returned the conservatives, albeit with a diminished majority.
In the following years, a series of massive general strikes and blockades highlighted mounting electoral discontent. Hundreds of thousands of people protested against proposed radical labour and pension reforms and privatisation plans that analysts claimed would help curb public debt. The backlash against the government reached a boiling point in December 2008, when urban rioting broke out across the country, led by youths outraged by the police shooting of a 15-year-old boy in Athens following an alleged exchange between police and a group of teenagers. Youths hurled stones and firebombs at riot police who responded with tear gas. Following a series of financial and corruption scandals a general election held in October 2009, midway through Karamanlis' term, saw PASOK (under George Papandreou) take back the reins in a landslide win against the conservatives.
The Crisis & Austerity
In 2009 a lethal cocktail of high public spending and widespread tax evasion, combined with the credit crunch of global recession, threatened to cripple Greece's economy. In 2010 fellow eurozone countries agreed to a €125 billion package (half of Greece's GDP) to get the country back on its feet, though with strict conditions – the ruling government, PASOK, still led by George Papandreou, would have to impose austere measures of reform and reduce Greece's bloated deficit. Huge cuts followed, including 10% off public workers' salaries, but it was too little too late and foreign creditors continued to demand ever higher interest rates for their loans.
Greece was stuck between a real-life Scylla and Charybdis – to receive yet another bailout, which was absolutely essential to stop it from toppling the euro as a credible currency, it had to effect reforms that penalised the average Greek even further, pushing formerly nonpolitical citizens towards revolution. While some longed for a return to the drachma, others believed Greece would still be saddled with massive debt and a monetary system with absolutely no standing.
George Papandreou asked the people for a referendum on the EU bailout, then failed to form a coalition government and stepped down from office. In November 2011, Lucas Papademos – a former vice president of the European Central Bank – became prime minister. Antonis Samaras, leader of the New Democracy party, succeeded him the following year and assembled a coalition with third-placed PASOK and smaller groups to pursue the austerity program. A second bailout of €130 billion brought further austerity requirements and Athens again saw major strikes aimed at the massive cuts – 22% off minimum wage, 15% off pensions and the axing of 15,000 public-sector jobs. Suicide rates in the capital were up by 40%. Also up was support for a far-right fascist organisation, the Golden Dawn, bringing with it a rising tide of racism aimed squarely at Greece's immigrant population.
These were indeed brutal times for the average Greek, with wage cuts of around 30% and up to 17 'new' taxes crippling monthly income. While the EU and IMF initially predicted that Greece would return to growth in 2014, the inability for many Greeks to pay their taxes at the end of the year meant that growth was a mere 0.4%.
Road to Recovery?
In January 2015, left-wing Syriza, led by 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, won the general election with an anti-austerity platform, the first-ever such victory for the radical left-wing party. To reach a majority, Syriza established a coalition with right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL), unlikely bedfellows united by their mutual condemnation of the bailout program.
Initially, Tsipras stuck to his guns and June 2015 saw Greece become the first first-world nation to go into arrears with the EU and IMF. Attempts to negotiate a new bailout and avoid default were unsuccessful as Tsipras took the offer back to Greece and held a referendum. Over 61% of voters were not willing to accept the bailout conditions.
The week that followed was one of turmoil. Greek banks closed and began running out of cash, and markets around the world fell as the EU produced a detailed plan for a possible 'Grexit' – Greece's removal from the EU. At the 11th hour, Tsipras secured an €86 billion bailout loan – but the austerity measures attached were even more vigorous than those proposed before the referendum and many felt that, with Greek banks on the brink of collapse, Tsipras had been bullied into accepting the terms. Further tax hikes, pension reforms and privatisation of €50 billion worth of public companies left many viewing Greece as a financial ward of Europe.
Continued political turmoil over the bailout led Tsipras to resign in August 2015 and return to the polls in September. This was Greece's fourth election in just over three years. The outcome was an unexpectedly large victory for Tsipras, just six seats short of an absolute majority. Nevertheless, voter turnout was 57%, the lowest recorded in Greece. For many Greeks, choosing between the austerity measures and Grexit had become akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
In August 2018 Greece finally exited the €86 billion bailout programme that stretched back to 2010. Under Tsipras's government unemployment has fallen, consumer spending has risen and poverty is on the decline. Even so the Greek economy has a long way to go before it reattains its pre-crisis level of health.
Voters, exhausted by austerity, rejected Syriza, first in the local and European Parliament elections in May 2019, and then in the general election in July 2019. The centre-right New Democracy party, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, won by a landslide, giving it an outright majority of 158 seats in the Greek parliament.