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Stone age

The discovery of a Neanderthal skull in a cave on the Halkidiki peninsula of Macedonia in 1960 confirmed the presence of humans in Greece 700,000 years ago. Bones and tools from as far back as Palaeolithic times (around 6500 BC) have been found in the Pindos Mountains.

The move to a pastoral existence came during Neolithic times (7000–3000 BC). The fertile region that is now Thessaly was the first area to be settled. The people grew barley and wheat, and bred sheep and goats. They used clay to produce pots, vases and simple statuettes of the Great Mother (the earth goddess), whom they worshipped.

By 3000 BC people were living in settlements complete with streets, squares and mud-brick houses. The villages were centred on a large palace-like structure that belonged to the tribal leader. The most complete Neolithic settlements in Greece are Dimini (inhabited from 4000 to 1200 BC) and Sesklo, near Volos.

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Bronze age

Around 3000 BC, Indo-European migrants introduced the processing of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) into Greece and so began three remarkable civilisations: the Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean.

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Cycladic civilisation

The Cycladic civilisation, centred on the islands of the Cyclades, is divided into three periods: Early (3000–2000 BC), Middle (2000–1500 BC) and Late (1500–1100 BC). The most impressive legacy of this civilisation is the statuettes carved from Parian marble – the famous Cycladic figurines. Like statuettes from Neolithic times, the Cycladic figurines depicted images of the Great Mother. Other remains include bronze and obsidian tools and weapons, gold jewellery, and stone and clay vases and pots.

The peoples of the Cycladic civilisation were accomplished sailors who developed prosperous maritime trade links. They exported their wares to Asia Minor (the west of present-day Turkey), Europe and North Africa, as well as to Crete and continental Greece. The Cyclades islands were influenced by both the Minoan and Mycenaean civilisations.

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Minoan civilisation

Crete’s Minoan civilisation was the first advanced civilisation to emerge in Europe, drawing its inspiration from two great Middle Eastern civilisations, the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian. Archaeologists divide the Minoan civilisation, like the Cycladic, into three phases: Early (3000–2100 BC), Middle (2100–1500 BC) and Late (1500–1100 BC).

Many aspects of Neolithic life endured during the Early period, but by 2500 BC most people on the island had been assimilated into a new culture that we now call the Minoan – after King Minos, the mythical ruler of Crete. The Minoan civilisation reached its peak during the Middle period, producing pottery and metalwork of great beauty that required much imagination and skill to make.

The Late period saw the civilisation decline both commercially and militarily against Mycenaean competition from the mainland, until its abrupt end, attributed to the eruption of the volcano on Thira (Santorini) in around 1100 BC.

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Mycenaean civilisation

The decline of the Minoan civilisation coincided with the rise of the first great civilisation on the Greek mainland, the Mycenaean (1900–1100 BC), which reached its peak between 1500 and 1200 BC. Named after the ancient city of Mycenae, where the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann made his celebrated finds in 1876, it is also known as the Achaean civilisation, after the Indo-European branch of migrants who had settled on mainland Greece and absorbed many aspects of Minoan culture.

Unlike Minoan society, where the lack of city walls seems to indicate relative peace under some form of central authority, Mycenaean civilisation was characterised by independent city-states such as Corinth, Pylos, Tiryns and, most powerful of them all, Mycenae. These were ruled by kings who inhabited palaces enclosed within massive walls on easily defensible hilltops.

The Mycenaeans’ most impressive legacy is their magnificent gold jewellery and ornaments, the best of which can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The Mycenaeans wrote in what is called Linear B (an early form of Greek), and worshipped gods who were precursors of the later Greek deities.

The Mycenaean civilisation came to an end in the 12th century BC, when it was overrun by the Dorians.

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Geometric age

The origins of the Dorians remain uncertain. They are generally thought to have come from Epiros or northern Macedonia, but some historians argue that they only arrived from that direction because they had been driven out of Doris, in central Greece, by the Mycenaeans.

The warrior-like Dorians settled first in the Peloponnese, but soon fanned out over much of the mainland, razing the city-states and enslaving the inhabitants. The Dorians brought a traumatic break with the past, and the next 400 years are often referred to as Greece’s ‘dark age’. But it is unfair to dismiss the Dorians completely; they brought iron with them and developed a new style of pottery, decorated with striking geometric designs – although art historians are still divided on whether they merely copied designs perfected by Ionians in Attica. The Dorians worshipped male gods instead of fertility goddesses and adopted the Mycenaean gods Poseidon, Zeus and Apollo, paving the way for the later Greek religious pantheon.

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Archaic age

By about 800 BC Greece had begun to settle down again. The Dorians had developed into a class of land-holding aristocrats and Greece had been divided into a series of independent city-states. The most important of these were Argos, Athens, Corinth, Elis, Sparta and Thebes (Thiva).

The city-states were autonomous, free to pursue their own interests as they saw fit. Most abolished monarchic rule in favour of an aristocratic form of government, usually headed by an arhon (chief magistrate). Aristocrats were often disliked by the population because of their inherited privileges, and some city-states fell to the rule of tyrants after Kypselos, the first tyrant of Corinth, started the practice in Corinth around 650 BC. Tyrants seized their position rather than inheriting it. While today the word ‘tyrant’ may have darker overtones, in ancient times they were often seen as being on the side of ordinary citizens.

The people of the various city-states were unified by the development of a Greek alphabet (of Phoenician origin, though the Greeks introduced the practice of indicating vowels within the script), the verses of Homer (which created a sense of a shared Mycenaean past), the establishment of the Olympic Games (which brought all the city-states together) and the setting up of central sanctuaries such as Delphi (a neutral meeting ground for lively negotiations); all common bonds giving Greeks, for the first time, a sense of national identity. This period is known as the Archaic, or Middle, Age.

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Athens & Solon

The seafaring city-state of Athens, meanwhile, was still in the hands of aristocrats when Solon was appointed arhon in 594 BC with a mandate to defuse the mounting tensions between the haves and the have-nots. He cancelled all debts and freed those who had become enslaved because of them. Declaring all free Athenians equal by law, Solon abolished inherited privileges and restructured political power establishing four classes based on wealth. Although only the first two classes were eligible for office, all four were allowed to elect magistrates and vote on legislation. His reforms have led him to be regarded as a harbinger of democracy.

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In the Peloponnese, Sparta was a very different kind of city-state. The Spartans were descended from Dorian invaders and used the Helots, the original inhabitants of Laconia, as their slaves. They ran their society along strict military lines.

Newborn babies were inspected and, if found wanting, were left to die on a mountaintop. At the age of seven boys were taken from their homes to start rigorous training that would turn them into elite soldiers. Girls were spared military training, but were forced to keep very fit in order to produce healthy sons. Spartan indoctrination was so effective that dissent was unknown and a degree of stability was achieved that other city-states could only dream of.

While Athens became powerful through trade, Sparta became the ultimate military machine and it towered above the other city-states.

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The Persian wars

The Persian drive to destroy Athens was sparked by the city’s support for a rebellion in the Persian colonies of Asia Minor. Emperor Darius spent five years suppressing the revolt and emerged hellbent on revenge.

A 25,000-strong Persian army reached Attica in 490 BC, but suffered a humiliating defeat when outmanoeuvred by an Athenian force of 10,000 at the Battle of Marathon.

Darius died in 485 BC, so it was left to his son Xerxes to fulfil his father’s ambition of conquering Greece. In 480 BC Xerxes gathered men from every far-flung nation of his empire and launched a coordinated invasion by land and sea, the size of which the world had never seen.

Some 30 city-states met in Corinth to devise a common defence (others, including Delphi, sided with the Persians). They agreed on a combined army and navy under Spartan command, with the strategy provided by the Athenian leader Themistocles. The Spartan King Leonidas led the army to the pass at Thermopylae, near present-day Lamia, the main passage into central Greece from the north. This bottleneck was easy to defend, and although the Greeks were greatly outnumbered they held the pass until a traitor showed the Persians a way over the mountains. The Greeks were forced to retreat, but Leonidas, along with 300 of his elite Spartan troops, fought to the death.

The Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies fell back on their second line of defence, an earthen wall across the Isthmus of Corinth, while the Persians advanced upon Athens. Themistocles ordered his people to flee the city, the women and children to Salamis (today’s Salamina) and the men to sea with the Athenian fleet. The Persians razed Attica and burned Athens to the ground.

Things did not go so well for the Persian navy. By skilful manoeuvring, the Greek navy trapped the larger Persian ships in the narrow waters off Salamis, where they became easy pickings for the more mobile Greek vessels. Xerxes returned to Persia in disgust, leaving his general Mardonius to subdue Greece. The result was quite the reverse; a year later the Greeks, under the Spartan general Pausanias, obliterated the Persian army at the Battle of Plataea.

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Classical age

After defeating the Persians the disciplined Spartans retreated to the Peloponnese, while Athens basked in its role as liberator. In 477 BC it founded the Delian League – so called because its treasury was on the sacred island of Delos. The league consisted of almost every state with a navy, no matter how small, including many of the Aegean islands and some of the Ionian city-states in Asia Minor.

Ostensibly its purpose was twofold: to create a naval force to liberate the city-states that were still occupied by Persia, and to protect against another Persian attack. The swearing of allegiance to Athens and an annual contribution of ships (later just money) were mandatory. The league, in effect, became an Athenian empire.

Indeed, when Pericles became leader of Athens in 461 BC, he moved the treasury from Delos to the Acropolis and focused on using the treasury’s contents to begin a building programme in which no expense was spared. Pericles’ first objectives were to rebuild the temple complex of the Acropolis, which had been destroyed by the Persians, and to link Athens to its lifeline, the port of Piraeus, with fortified walls designed to withstand any future onslaught.

With the Aegean Sea safely under its wing, Athens began to look westwards for further expansion, bringing it into conflict with the Sparta-dominated Peloponnesian League. A series of skirmishes and provocations subsequently led to the Peloponnesian Wars.

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First Peloponnesian war

One of the major triggers of the first Peloponnesian War (431–421 BC) was the Corcyra incident, in which Athens supported Corcyra (present-day Corfu) in a row with Corinth, its mother city. Corinth called on Sparta to help and the Spartans, whose power depended to a large extent on Corinth’s wealth, duly rallied to the cause.

Athens knew it couldn’t defeat the Spartans on land, so it abandoned Attica and withdrew behind its mighty walls, opting to rely on its navy to put pressure on Sparta by blockading the Peloponnese. Athens suffered badly during the siege; plague broke out in the overcrowded city, killing a third of the population – including Pericles – but the defences held firm. The blockade of the Peloponnese eventually began to hurt and the two cities reached an uneasy truce.

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Second Peloponnesian war

The truce lasted until 413 BC, when the Spartans went to the aid of the Sicilian city of Syracuse, which the Athenians had been besieging for three years. The Spartans ended the siege, and destroyed the Athenian fleet and army in the process.

Despite this, Athens fought on for a further nine years before it finally surrendered to Sparta in 404 BC. Corinth urged the total destruction of Athens, but the Spartans felt honour-bound to spare the city that had saved Greece from the Persians. Instead they crippled it by confiscating its fleet, abolishing the Delian League and tearing down the walls between the city and Piraeus.

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Spartan rule

During the wars Sparta had promised to restore liberty to the city-states that had turned against Athens, but now it changed its mind and installed oligarchies (governments run by the super-rich) supervised by Spartan garrisons. Soon there was widespread dissatisfaction.

Sparta found it had bitten off more than it could chew when it began a campaign to reclaim the cities of Asia Minor from Persian rule. This brought the Persians back into Greek affairs, where they found willing allies in Athens and an increasingly powerful Thebes. The rivalry between Sparta and Thebes culminated in the decisive Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, where Thebes, led by Epaminondas, inflicted Sparta’s first defeat in a pitched battle. Spartan influence collapsed and Thebes filled the vacuum.

In a surprise about-turn, Athens now allied itself with Sparta, and their combined forces met the Theban army at Mantinea in the Peloponnese in 362 BC. The battle was won by Thebes, but Epaminondas was killed. Without him, Theban power soon crumbled.

Athens was unable to take advantage of the situation; like the other city-states it was a spent force, and a new power was rising in the north: Macedon.

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The rise of Macedon

While the Greeks engineered their own decline through the Peloponnesian Wars, Macedon (geographically the modern nomós, or prefecture, of Macedonia) was gathering strength in the north. Macedon had long been regarded as a bit of a backwater, a loose assembly of primitive hill tribes nominally ruled by a king. They probably spoke a variant of Greek, which to Athenian ears would have sounded rural or countrified, thus giving the Macedonians a reputation for being rough country cousins.

The man who turned them into a force to be reckoned with was Philip II, who came to the throne in 359 BC.

In 338 BC, he marched into Greece and defeated a combined army of Athenians and Thebans at the Battle of Chaironeia. The following year Philip called together all the city-states (except Sparta) at Corinth and persuaded them to swear allegiance to Macedonia by promising to campaign against Persia.

Philip’s ambition to tackle Persia never materialised, for in 336 BC he was assassinated by a Macedonian noble. His son, 20-year-old Alexander, became king.

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Alexander the Great

Philip II’s death had been the signal for rebellions throughout the budding empire, but Alexander wasted no time in crushing them, making an example of Thebes by razing it to the ground. After restoring order, he turned his attention to the Persian Empire and marched his army of 40, 000 men into Asia Minor in 334 BC.

After a few bloody battles with the Persians, most notably at Issus (333 BC), Alexander succeeded in conquering Syria, Palestine and Egypt – where he was proclaimed pharaoh and founded the city of Alexandria. He then began hunting down the Persian king, Darius III, defeating his army in 331 BC. Alexander continued east into what is now known as Uzbekistan, Balkh in Afghanistan and northern India. His ambition was now to conquer the world, which he believed ended at the sea beyond India, but his soldiers grew weary and in 324 BC forced him to return to Mesopotamia, where he settled in Babylon. The following year he fell ill suddenly and died, heirless, at the age of 33. His generals swooped like vultures on the empire.

When the dust settled, Alexander’s empire had fallen apart into three large kingdoms and several smaller states. The three generals with the richest pickings were Ptolemy, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt (capital: Alexandria), which died out when the last of the dynasty, Cleopatra, committed suicide in 30 BC; Seleucus, founder of the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled over Persia and Syria (capital: Antiochia); and Antigonus, who ruled over Asia Minor and whose Antigonid successors would win control over Macedonia proper.

Macedonia lost control of the Greek city-states to the south, which banded together into the Aetolian League, centred on Delphi, and the Achaean League, based in the Peloponnese. Athens and Sparta joined neither.

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Roman rule

While Alexander the Great was forging his vast empire in the east, the Romans had been expanding theirs to the west, and now they were keen to start making inroads into Greece. After several inconclusive clashes, they defeated Macedon in 168 BC at the Battle of Pydna.

The Achaean League was defeated in 146 BC; the Roman consul Mummius made an example of the rebellious Corinthians by destroying their city. In 86 BC Athens joined an ill-fated rebellion against the Romans in Asia Minor staged by the king of the Black Sea region, Mithridates VI. In retribution, the Roman statesman Sulla invaded Athens, destroyed its walls and took off with its most valuable sculptures.

For the next 300 years Greece, as the Roman province of Achaea, experienced an unprecedented period of peace, known as the ‘Pax Romana’. The Romans had always venerated Greek art, literature and philosophy, and aristocratic Romans sent their offspring to the many schools in Athens. Indeed, the Romans adopted most aspects of Hellenistic culture, spreading its unifying traditions throughout their empire.

The Romans were also the first to refer to the Hellenes as Greeks, which is derived from the word graikos – the name of a prehistoric tribe.

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Christianity & the Byzantine empire

The Pax Romana began to crumble in AD 250 when the Goths invaded Greece, the first of a succession of invaders spurred on by the ‘great migrations’ of the Goths from the middle Balkans.

Christianity, in the meantime, had emerged as the country’s new religion. St Paul had visited Greece several times in the 1st century AD and made converts in many places. The definitive boost to the spread of Christianity in this part of the world came with the conversion of the Roman emperors and the rise of the Byzantine Empire, which blended Hellenistic culture with Christianity.

In AD 324 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. Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of Greece in 394 and outlawed the worship of all Greek and Roman gods, now branded as pagan. Athens remained an important cultural centre until 529, when Emperor Justinian forbade the teaching of classical philosophy in favour of Christian theology, then seen as the supreme form of all intellectual endeavour.

In 747 the population of the Peloponnese was decimated by an outbreak of bubonic plague that spread from the port of Monemvasia. The Byzantines encouraged an influx of Slavic peoples to repopulate the area, and to this day many villages in the Peloponnese carry names of Slavic origin.

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The crusades

It is ironic that the demise of the Byzantine Empire was accelerated not by invasions of infidels from the east, nor barbarians from the north, but by fellow Christians from the west – the Frankish crusaders.

The stated mission of the crusades was to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslims, but in reality they were driven as much by greed as by religious fervour. The first three crusades passed by without affecting the area, but the leaders of the fourth crusade decided that Constantinople presented richer pickings than Jerusalem and struck a deal with Venice.

Constantinople was sacked in 1204 and much of the Byzantine Empire was partitioned into feudal states 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 acquired all the key Greek ports, including the island of Crete, and became the wealthiest and most powerful traders in the Mediterranean.

Despite this sorry state of affairs, Byzantium was not yet dead. In 1259 the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologos recaptured the Peloponnese and made the city of Mystras his headquarters. Many eminent Byzantine artists, architects, intellectuals and philosophers converged on the city for a final burst of Byzantine creativity. Michael VIII managed to reclaim Constantinople in 1261, but by this time Byzantium was a shadow of its former self.

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The Ottoman Empire

Constantinople was soon facing a much greater threat from the east. The Seljuk Turks, a tribe from central Asia, had first appeared on the eastern fringes of the empire in the middle of the 11th century. They established themselves on the Anatolian plain by defeating a Byzantine army at Manzikert in 1071. The threat looked to have been contained, especially when the Seljuks were themselves overrun by the Mongols. By the time Mongol power began to wane, the Seljuks had been supplanted as the dominant Turkish tribe by the Ottomans – the followers of Osman, who ruled from 1289 to 1326. The Muslim Ottomans began to rapidly expand the areas under their control and by the mid-15th century were harassing the Byzantine Empire on all sides. In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turks and once more Greece became a battleground, this time fought over by the Turks and Venetians. Eventually, with the exception of the Ionian Islands, Greece became part of the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman power reached its zenith under Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, who ruled between 1520 and 1566, during which time he expanded his empire through the Balkans and Hungary to the very gates of Vienna. His successor, Selim the Sot, added Cyprus to their dominions in 1570, but his death in 1574 marked the end of serious territorial expansion.

Although they captured Crete in 1669 after a 25-year campaign, and briefly threatened Vienna once more in 1683, the ineffectual sultans that followed in the late 16th and 17th centuries saw the empire go into steady decline. Venice expelled the Turks from the Peloponnese in a three-year campaign (1684–87) that saw Venetian troops advance as far as Athens. The Parthenon was badly damaged when a Venetian cannonball struck Turkish gunpowder stored inside. Turkish rule was restored in 1715, but it never regained its former authority.

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Russian involvement

Russia’s link with Greece goes back to Byzantine times, when the Russians had been converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries. When Constantinople fell to the Turks, the metropolitan (head) of the Russian Church declared Moscow the ‘third Rome’, the true heir of Christianity, and campaigned for the liberation of its fellow Christians in the south.

By the time Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia in 1762, both Venice and the Ottoman Empire were weak. She sent Russian agents to foment rebellion, first in the Peloponnese in 1770 and then in Epiros in 1786. Both insurrections were crushed ruthlessly – the latter by Ali Pasha, the governor of Ioannina, who proceeded to set up his own power base in defiance of the sultan.

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Independence parties

In the 1770s and 1780s Catherine forcibly dislodged the Turks from the Black Sea coast and created a number of towns in the region, which she gave Ancient Greek or Byzantine names. She offered Greeks financial incentives and free land to settle the region, and many took up her offer.

One of the new towns was called Odessa, and it was there in 1814 that businessmen Athanasios Tsakalof, Emmanuel Xanthos and Nikolaos Skoufas founded the first Greek independence party, the Filiki Eteria (Friendly Society). The message of the society spread quickly and branches opened throughout Greece. The leaders in Odessa believed that armed force was the only effective means of liberation, and made generous financial contributions to the freedom fighters.

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The war of independence

Ali Pasha’s private rebellion against the sultan in 1820 gave the Greeks the opportunity they had been waiting for. On 25 March 1821, Bishop Germanos of Patra signalled the beginning of the War of Independence when he hoisted the Greek flag at the monastery of Agia Lavra in the Peloponnese. Uprisings broke out almost simultaneously across most of Greece and the occupied islands, with the Greeks making big early gains. The fighting was savage and atrocities were committed on both sides; in the Peloponnese 12,000 Turkish inhabitants were butchered 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 fighting escalated, and within a year the Greeks had captured the fortresses of Monemvasia, Navarino (modern Pylos) and Nafplio in the Peloponnese, and Messolongi, Athens and Thebes. Greek independence was proclaimed at Epidavros on 13 January 1822.

The struggle, however, was far from over. Leaders who had been united against the Turks now turned against each other and disagreements twice escalated into civil war (1824 and 1825), as a result of regional differences over national governance. The sultan took advantage of this and called in Egyptian reinforcements. By 1827 the Turks had recaptured most of the Peloponnese as well as Messolongi and Athens. The Western powers then intervened and a combined Russian, French and British fleet destroyed the Turkish-Egyptian fleet in the Bay of Navarino in October 1827. Sultan Mahmud II defied the odds 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.

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Birth of the Greek nation

The Greeks, meanwhile, had been busy organising the independent state they had proclaimed several years earlier. In April 1827 they elected Ioannis Kapodistrias, a Corfiot who had been the foreign minister of Russian Tsar Alexander I, as their first president. Nafplio, in the Peloponnese, was chosen as the capital.

While he was good at enlisting foreign support, his autocratic manner at home was unacceptable to many of the leaders of the War of Independence, particularly the Maniot chieftains who had always been a law unto themselves, and Kapodistrias was assassinated in 1831.

Amid the ensuing anarchy, Britain, France and Russia again intervened and declared that Greece should become a monarchy. They decided that the throne should be given to a non-Greek so as not to favour one Greek faction, and selected 17-year-old Prince Otto of Bavaria, who arrived in Nafplio in January 1833. The new kingdom (established by the London Convention of 1832) consisted of the Peloponnese, Sterea Ellada, the Cyclades and the Sporades.

King Otto (as his name became) got up the noses of the Greek people from the moment he set foot on their land. He arrived with a bunch of upper-class Bavarian cronies, to whom he gave the most prestigious official posts, and he was just as autocratic as Kapodistrias. Otto moved the capital to Athens in 1834.

Patience with his rule ran out in 1843, when the War of Independence leaders led demonstrations in the capital, calling for a constitution. Otto mustered up a National Assembly, which drafted a constitution calling for parliamentary government, consisting of a lower house and a senate. Otto’s cronies were whisked out of power and replaced by War of Independence freedom fighters.

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The great idea

By the end of the 1850s, most of the stalwarts from the War of Independence had been replaced by a new breed of university graduates (Athens University had been founded in 1837). In 1862 they staged a bloodless revolution and deposed Otto. They weren’t quite able to set their own agenda, however, because in the same year Britain returned the Ionian Islands (a British protectorate since 1815) to Greece, and amid the general euphoria the British were able to ease young Prince William of Denmark onto the throne. He became King George I and the Greek monarchy has retained its Danish links ever since.

His 50-year reign brought stability to the troubled country, beginning with a new constitution in 1864 that established the power of ­democratically elected representatives. An uprising in Crete against Turkish rule was suppressed by the sultan in 1866–68, but in 1881 Greece acquired Thessaly and part of Epiros as the result of another Russo-Turkish war. And for many, the staging of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 marked a coming of age for the Greek nation.

In 1897 there was another uprising in Crete, and the hot-headed Prime Minister Theodoros Deligiannis responded by declaring war on Turkey. A Greek attempt to invade Turkey in the north proved disastrous – it was only through the intervention of the great powers that the Turkish army was prevented from taking Athens.

Crete was placed under international administration. The day-to-day government of the island was gradually handed over to Greeks, and in 1905 the president of the Cretan assembly, Eleftherios Venizelos, announced Crete’s union (enosis) with Greece, although this was not recognised by international law until 1913. Venizelos went on to become prime minister of Greece in 1910 and was the country’s leading politician until his republican sympathies brought about his downfall in 1935.

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The Balkan wars

Although the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes at the beginning of the 20th century, it was still clinging onto Macedonia. This was a prize sought by the newly formed Balkan countries of Serbia and Bulgaria, as well as by Greece, and led to the outbreak of the Balkan Wars. The first, in 1912, pitted all three against the Turks; the second, in 1913, pitted Serbia and Greece against Bulgaria. The outcome was the Treaty of Bucharest (August 1913), which greatly expanded Greek territory by adding to it the southern part of Macedonia, part of Thrace, another chunk of Epiros, and the Northeastern Aegean Islands, as well as recognising the union with Crete.

In March 1913 King George was assassinated by a lunatic and his son Constantine became king.

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WWI & Smyrna

King Constantine, who was married to the sister of the German emperor, insisted that Greece remain neutral when WWI broke out in August 1914. As the war dragged on, the Allies (Britain, France and Russia) put increasing pressure on Greece to join forces with them against Germany and Turkey, promising land in Asia Minor in return. Prime Minister Venizelos favoured the Allied cause, placing him at loggerheads with the king, who finally left Greece in June 1917 and was replaced by his second-born son, Alexander, who was more amenable to the Allies.

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. Veni­zelos took matters into his own hands and, with Allied acquiescence, landed troops in Smyrna (present-day İzmir) in May 1919, under the guise of protecting the half a million Greeks living in the city. With a firm hold in Asia Minor, Venizelos ordered his troops onto the offensive again in October 1920.

By September 1921 the Greeks had advanced as far as Ankara, where they were halted by Turkish forces commanded by Mustafa Kemal (later to become Atatürk). Kemal routed the Greeks with a massive offensive the following spring. Smyrna fell and many of the Greek inhabitants were massacred. Mustafa Kemal was now a Turkish national hero, the sultanate was abolished and Turkey became a republic under his rule.

The outcome of these hostilities was the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923. This gave eastern Thrace and the islands of Imvros and Tenedos to Turkey, 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 hardship for the individuals concerned. Many Greeks abandoned a privileged life in Asia Minor for one of extreme poverty in Greek shantytowns in Athens.

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The republic of 1924–35

The arrival of the Greek refugees from Turkey coincided with, and compounded, a period of political instability unprecedented even by Greek standards. In October 1920 King Alexander died from a monkey bite and his father Constantine was restored to the throne. Constantine identified himself too closely with the war against Turkey and abdicated again after the fall of Smyrna. He was replaced by his first son, George II, who was no match for the group of army officers who seized power after the war. A republic was proclaimed in March 1924 amid a series of coups and counter-coups.

A measure of stability was attained with Venizelos’ return to power in 1928. He pursued a policy of economic and educational reform, but progress was inhibited by the Great Depression. His antiroyalist Liberal Party began to face a growing challenge from the monarchist Popular Party, culminating in defeat at the polls in March 1933. The new government was preparing for the restoration of the monarchy when Venizelos and his supporters staged an unsuccessful coup in March 1935. Venizelos was exiled to Paris, where he died a year later. In November 1935 King George II was restored to the throne by a rigged plebiscite and he installed the right-wing General Ioannis Metaxas as prime minister. Nine months later, Metaxas assumed dictatorial powers with the king’s consent, under the pretext of preventing a communist-inspired republican coup.

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Metaxas’ grandiose vision was to create a Third Greek Civilisation, based on its glorious ancient and Byzantine past, but what he actually created was more like a Greek version of the Third Reich. He exiled or imprisoned opponents, banned trade unions and the KKE (Kommounistiko Komma Elladas, the Greek Communist Party), imposed press censorship, and created a secret police force and fascist-style youth movement. Metaxas is best known, however, for his reply of ohi (no) to Mussolini’s request to allow Italians to traverse Greece at the beginning of WWII, thus maintaining Greece’s policy of strict neutrality. The Italians invaded Greece, but were driven back into Albania.

A prerequisite of Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union was a secure southern flank in the Balkans. The British, realising this, asked Metaxas if they could land troops in Greece. He gave the same reply as he had given the Italians, but then died suddenly in January 1941. The king replaced him with the more timid Alexandros Koryzis, who agreed to British forces landing in Greece. He committed suicide when German troops invaded Greece on 6 April 1941. The defending Greek, British, Australian and New Zealand troops were seriously outnumbered, and the whole country was under Nazi occupation within a month. The civilian population suffered appallingly during the occupation, many dying of starvation. The Nazis rounded up more than half the Jewish population and transported them to death camps.

Numerous resistance movements sprang up. The dominant three were ELAS (Ellinikos Laïkos Apeleftherotikos Stratos), EAM (Ethnikon Apeleftherotikon Metopon) and the EDES (Ethnikos Dimokratikos Ellinikos Syndesmos). Although ELAS was founded by communists, not all of its members were left wing, whereas EAM consisted of Stalinist KKE members who had lived in Moscow in the 1930s and harboured ambitions of establishing a postwar communist Greece. EDES consisted of right-wing and monarchist resistance fighters. These groups fought one another with as much venom as they fought the Germans.

The Germans were pushed out of Greece in October 1944, but the communist and monarchist resistance groups continued to fight one another.

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Civil war

On 3 December 1944 the police fired on a communist demonstration in Syntagma Square in Athens. The ensuing six weeks of fighting between the left and the right, known as the Dekemvriana (events of December), were the first round of the Greek Civil War, and only the intervention of British troops prevented an ELAS-EAM victory. An election held in March 1946, and boycotted by the communists, was won by the royalists, and a rigged plebiscite put George II back on the throne.

In October the left-wing Democratic Army of Greece (DSE) was formed to resume the fight against the monarchy and its British supporters. Under the leadership of Markos Vafiadis, the DSE swiftly occupied a large swathe of land along Greece’s northern border with Albania and Yugoslavia.

By 1947 the US had replaced Britain as Greece’s ‘minder’ and the civil war had developed into a setting for the new Cold War. Communism was declared illegal and the government introduced its notorious Certificate of Political Reliability, which remained valid until 1962 and without which Greeks couldn’t vote and found it almost impossible to get work.

US aid did little to improve the situation on the ground. The DSE continued to be supplied from the north (by Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and indirectly by the Soviets through the Balkan states), and by the end of 1947 large chunks of the mainland were under its control, as well as parts of the islands of Crete, Chios and Lesvos. It was unable, though, to capture the major town it needed as a base for a rival government.

The tide began to turn the government’s way early in 1949 when the DSE was forced out of the Peloponnese by the central government forces, but the fighting dragged on in the mountains of Epiros until October 1949, when Yugoslavia fell out with the Soviet Union and cut the DSE’s supply lines.

The war left the country in an almighty mess, both politically and economically. More Greeks had been killed in three years of bitter civil war than in WWII, and a quarter of a million people were homeless.

The sense of despair became the trigger for a mass exodus. Almost a million Greeks headed off in search of a better life elsewhere, primarily to countries like Australia, Canada and the USA. Villages – whole islands even – were abandoned as people gambled on a new start in cities like Melbourne, New York and Chicago. While some have drifted back, most have stayed away.

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Reconstruction & the Cyprus issue

After a series of unworkable coalitions, the electoral system was changed to majority voting in 1952 – which excluded the communists from future governments. The next election was a victory for the right-wing Ellinikos Synagermos (Greek Rally) party, led by General Papagos, who had been a field marshal during the civil war. General Papagos remained in power until his death in 1955, when he was replaced by Konstandinos Karamanlis.

Greece joined NATO in 1952 and in 1953 the US was granted the right to operate sovereign bases. Intent on maintaining a right-wing government, the US gave generous aid and even more generous military support.

Cyprus took centre stage in Greece’s foreign affairs from 1961 and has remained close to it to this day. Since the 1930s Greek Cypriots (four-fifths of the island’s population) had demanded union with Greece, while Turkey had maintained its claim to the island ever since it became a British protectorate in 1878 (it became a British crown colony in 1925).

Greek public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of union, a notion that was strongly opposed by Britain and the US on strategic grounds. In 1956 the right-wing Greek Cypriot EOKA (National Organisation of Cypriot Freedom Fighters) took up arms against the British. In 1959 after much hard bargaining, Britain, Greece and Turkey finally agreed on a compromise solution whereby Cyprus would become an independent republic the following August, with Greek Cypriot Archbishop Makarios as president and a Turk, Faisal Kükük, as vice president. The changes did little to appease either side. EOKA resolved to keep fighting, while Turkish Cypriots clamoured for partition of the island.

Back in Greece, Georgos Papandreou, a former Venizelos supporter, founded the broadly based EK (Centre Union) in 1958, but elections in 1961 returned the ERE (National Radical Union), Karamanlis’ new name for Greek Rally, to power for the third time in succession. Papandreou accused the ERE of ballot rigging, and the political turmoil that followed culminated in the murder, in May 1963, of Grigorios Lambrakis, the deputy of the communist EDA (Union of the Democratic Left). All this proved too much for Karamanlis, who resigned and left the country.

The EK finally came to power in February 1964 and Papandreou 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.

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The colonels’ coup

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 Pattakos staged a coup on 21 April 1967. King Constantine tried an unsuccessful counter-coup in December, after which he fled the country. A military junta was established with Papadopoulos as prime minister.

The colonels imposed martial law, abolished all political parties, banned trade unions, imposed censorship and imprisoned, tortured and exiled thousands of Greeks who opposed them. In June 1972 Papadopoulos declared Greece a republic and appointed himself president.

In November 1973 students began a sit-in at Athens Polytechnic in protest against the junta. On 17 November tanks stormed the building, injuring many and killing at least 20. On 25 November Papadopoulos was deposed by the thuggish Brigadier Ioannidis, head of the military security police.

In July 1974, desperate for a foreign policy success to bolster the regime’s standing, Ioannidis hatched a wild scheme to assassinate President Makarios and unite Cyprus with Greece. The scheme went disastrously wrong after Maka­rios got wind of the plan and escaped. The junta installed Nikos Sampson, a former EOKA leader, as president and Turkey reacted by invading the island.

The junta quickly removed Sampson and threw in the towel, but the Turks continued to advance until they occupied the northern third of the island, forcing almost 200,000 Greek Cypriots to flee their homes for the safety of the south.

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After the colonels

The army now called Karamanlis back from Paris and his New Democracy (ND) party scored a big win at elections held in November 1974. The ban on communist parties was then lifted, Andreas Papandreou (son of Georgos) formed PASOK (the Panhellenic Socialist Union) and a plebiscite voted 69% against the restoration of the monarchy.

New Democracy won again in 1977, but Karamanlis’ personal popularity began to decline. One of his biggest achievements was to engineer Greece’s entry into the European Community (now the European Union). On 1 January 1981 Greece became the 10th member of the EC.

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The socialist 1980s

Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK party won the election of October 1981 with 48% of the vote, giving Greece its first socialist government. PASOK came to power with an ambitious social programme and a promise to close US air bases and withdraw from NATO.

After seven years in government, these promises remained unfulfilled (although the US military presence was reduced); unemployment was high and reforms in education and welfare had been limited. Women’s issues fared better, though: the dowry system was abolished, abortion legalised, and civil marriage and divorce were implemented. The crunch came in 1988 when Papandreou’s love affair with air hostess Dimitra Liani (whom he subsequently married) hit the headlines, and PASOK became embroiled in a financial scandal involving the Bank of Crete.

In July 1989 an unlikely coalition of conservatives and communists took over to implement a katharsis (campaign of purification) to investigate the scandal. In September it ruled that Papandreou and four of his ministers be tried for embezzlement, telephone tapping and illegal grain sales. Papandreou’s trial ended in January 1992 with his acquittal on all counts.

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The 1990s

An election in 1990 brought the ND back to power with Konstandinos Mitsotakis as prime minister. Intent on redressing 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 made against the government and it was claimed that Cretan-born Mitsotakis had a secret collection of Minoan art. Allegations of government telephone tapping followed, and by mid-1993 Mitsotakis supporters began to cut their losses, abandoning the ND for the new Political Spring party. The ND lost its parliamentary majority and an early election was held in October, which returned Andreas Papandreou’s PASOK party with a handsome majority.

Papandreou’s final spell at the helm was dominated by speculation about his health. He was finally forced to step down in early 1996 and his death on 26 June marked the end of an era in Greek politics.

Papandreou’s departure produced a dramatic change of direction for PASOK, with the party abandoning his left-leaning politics and electing experienced economist and lawyer Costas Simitis as the new prime minister. On the strength of his reputation as the Mr Clean of Greek politics, Simitis romped to a comfortable majority at a snap poll called in October 1996.

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Greece in the 21st century

With the turn of the millennium the Simitis government focused almost exclusively on the push for further integration with Europe. This meant, in general terms, more tax reform and austerity measures. His success in the face of constant protest nonetheless earned Simitis a mandate for another four years in April 2000. The goal of admission to the euro club was achieved at the beginning of 2001 and Greece adopted the euro as its currency in March 2002.

In April 2004 the Greek populace, perhaps tired of a long run of socialist policies, turned once more to the right and elected New Democracy leader Konstandinos Karamanlis as prime minister. This may have been a blessing in disguise for the socialists as they had been chiefly responsible for the preparation of the then-upcoming 2004 Olympic Games, which had for some time been dogged by delays and technical problems.

Before the staging of the Olympic Games, Greece’s sporting prowess had an unexpected shot in the arm when, against all odds, it won the European Football Championship (Euro 2004) in Portugal, giving Greeks the world over an enormous boost of pride. As it happened the August Olympic Games were, by all accounts, a resounding success and the Greeks put on a well-organised – if poorly attended – summer spectacle. The cost of the 2004 Olympics will inevitably take many years to pay off, as the eventual cost of the games far exceeded the original budget. Further national kudos was gleaned when Greece – again against the odds – won the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest, with an English song sung by a Swedish-Greek diva called Elena Paparizou. Greeks the world over were again ecstatic.

Greece’s relations with its neighbours – particularly Turkey – have become perceptibly warmer. Konstandinos Karamanlis made particular efforts to chip away at the occasional frost with Greece’s eastern neighbour and the efforts seem to have paid off, with little to report on the brinkmanship front – a trend that all too often in the past had caused sabres to be rattled between the two military forces.

Greece by 2005 was a developed yet still-maturing EU nation with a rising standard of living that was counterbalanced to some degree by a rising cost of living. A consumer credit squeeze began to take its toll as more and more middle- to low-income earners succumbed to a ballooning credit debt. Car and even house repossessions became common, a stark contrast to previous years in which Greeks had traditionally shunned credit. Tourism grew unabated despite rising costs, and in the long hot summer of 2007, forest fires throughout the western Peloponnese, Epiros and Evia caused untold damage to the nation’s flora and fauna.

The years since have been challenging, and Greece in 2012 is in a fight for its economic future. While Greek spirit - and the value of tourism to its well-being - remains undimmed, the country's recent economic problems have brought unwanted attention from the world's media and unwelcome and unwarranted stereotypes. A succession of bail-out packages from European Union coffers, delivered at a cost of successive governments and huge pressure on the lives of hardworking everyday Greeks, have kept the country in the Euro. The road to recovery is long, but Greece has faced great troubles before, and recovered before.

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