Of the Indo-European tribes of European origin, the Greeks were foremost as regards both the period at which they developed an advanced culture and their importance in further evolution. The Greeks emerged in the course of the 2nd millennium bce through the superimposition of a branch of the Indo-Europeans on the population of the Mediterranean region during the great migrations of nations that started in the region of the lower Danube. From 1800 bce onward the first early Greeks reached their later areas of settlement between the Ionian and the Aegean seas. The fusion of these earliest Greek-speaking people with their predecessors produced the civilization known as Mycenaean. They penetrated to the sea into the Aegean region and via Crete (approximately 1400 bce) reached Rhodes and even Cyprus and the shores of Anatolia. From 1200 bce onward the Dorians followed from Epirus. They occupied principally parts of the Peloponnese (Sparta and Argolis) and also Crete. Their migration was followed by the Dark Ages—two centuries of chaotic movements of tribes in Greece—at the end of which (c. 900 bce) the distribution of the Greek mainland among the various tribes was on the whole completed.
From about 800 bce there was a further Greek expansion through the founding of colonies overseas. The coasts and islands of Anatolia were occupied from south to north by the Dorians, Ionians, and Aeolians, respectively. In addition, individual colonies were strung out around the shores of the Black Sea in the north and across the eastern Mediterranean to Naukratis on the Nile delta and in Cyrenaica and also in the western Mediterranean in Sicily, lower Italy, and Massalia (Marseille). Thus, the Hellenes, as they called themselves thereafter, came into contact on all sides with the old, advanced cultures of the Middle East and transmitted many features of these cultures to western Europe. This, along with the Greeks’ own achievements, laid the foundations of European civilization.
The position and nature of the country exercised a decisive influence in the evolution of Greek civilization. The proximity of the sea tempted the Greeks to range far and wide exploring it, but the fact of their living on islands or on peninsulas or in valleys separated by mountains on the mainland confined the formation of states to small areas not easily accessible from other parts. This fateful individualism in political development was also a reflection of the Hellenic temperament. Though it prevented Greece from becoming a single unified nation that could rival the strength of the Middle Eastern monarchies, it led to the evolution of the city-state. This was not merely a complex social and economic structure and a centre for crafts and for trade with distant regions; above all it was a tightly knit, self-governing political and religious community whose citizens were prepared to make any sacrifice to maintain their freedom. Colonies, too, started from individual cities and took the form of independent city-states. Fusions of power occurred in the shape of leagues of cities, such as the Peloponnesian League, the Delian League, and the Boeotian League. The efficacy of these leagues depended chiefly upon the hegemony of a leading city (Sparta, Athens, or Thebes), but the desire for self-determination of the others could never be permanently suppressed, and the leagues broke up again and again.
The Hellenes, however, always felt themselves to be one people. They were conscious of a common character and a common language, and they practiced only one religion. Furthermore, the great athletic contests and artistic competitions had a continually renewed unifying effect. The Hellenes possessed a keen intellect, capable of abstraction, and at the same time a supple imagination. They developed, in the form of the belief in the unity of body and soul, a serene, sensuous conception of the world. Their gods were connected only loosely by a theogony that took shape gradually; in the Greek religion there was neither revelation nor dogma to oppose the spirit of inquiry.
The Hellenes benefited greatly from the knowledge and achievement of other countries as regards astronomy, chronology, and mathematics, but it was through their own native abilities that they made their greatest achievements, in becoming the founders of European philosophy and science. Their achievement in representative art and in architecture was no less fundamental. Their striving for an ideal, naturalistic rendering found its fulfillment in the representation of the human body in sculpture in the round. Another considerable achievement was the development of the pillared temple to a greater degree of harmony. In poetry the genius of the Hellenes created both form and content, which have remained a constant source of inspiration in European literature.
The strong political sense of the Greeks produced a variety of systems of government from which their theory of political science abstracted types of constitution that are still in use. On the whole, political development in Greece followed a pattern: first the rule of kings, found as early as the period of Mycenaean civilization; then a feudal period, the oligarchy of noble landowners; and, finally, varying degrees of democracy. Frequently there were periods when individuals seized power in the cities and ruled as tyrants. The tendency for ever-wider sections of the community to participate in the life of the state brought into being the free democratic citizens, but the institution of slavery, upon which Greek society and the Greek economy rested, was untouched by this.
In spite of continual internal disputes, the Greeks succeeded in warding off the threat of Asian despotism. The advance of the Persians into Europe failed (490 and 480–79 bce) because of the resistance of the Greeks and in particular of the Athenians. The 5th century bce saw the highest development of Greek civilization. The Classical period of Athens and its great accomplishments left a lasting impression, but the political cleavages, particularly the struggle between Athens and Sparta, increasingly reduced the political strength of the Greeks. Not until they were conquered by the Macedonians did the Greeks attain a new importance as the cultural leaven of the Hellenistic empires of Alexander the Great and his successors. A new system of colonization spread as far as the Indus city-communities fashioned after the Greek prototype, and Greek education and language came to be of consequence in the world at large.
Greece again asserted its independence through the formation of the Achaean League, which was finally defeated by the Romans in 146 bce. The spirit of Greek civilization subsequently exercised a great influence upon Rome. Greek culture became one of the principal components of Roman imperial culture and together with it spread throughout Europe. When Christian teaching appeared in the Middle East, the Greek world of ideas exercised a decisive influence upon its spiritual evolution. From the time of the partition of the Roman Empire, leadership in the Eastern Empire fell to the Greeks. Their language became the language of the state, and its usage spread to the Balkans. The Byzantine Empire, of which Greece was the core, protected Europe against potential invaders from Anatolia until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. (The main treatment of the Byzantine Empire from about 330 to about 1453 is given in the article Byzantine Empire.)
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