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Geographical and Historical Introduction

This brief section is intended to serve as a jumping-off point for the Overview by providing a summary description of the physical environment of the Greek world and a very short sketch of the end of Mycenaean civilization, which had flourished in mainland Greece1 for several hundred years before the period following 1200 B.C., with which the main part of the Overview commences. The atlas in Perseus offers an alternative resource for understanding the landscape of Greece visually.

The Landscape

The Greek homeland lay in and around the Aegean Sea. This section of the Mediterranean Sea is dotted with numerous islands both large and small and flanked on the west by the land mass called the Balkan Peninsula, which today forms the territory of the modern nation of Greece, and flanked on the east by the coast of modern Turkey. Greeks also came to live in the western Mediterranean and on the coast of north Africa, and some of the most famous and prosperous of Greek cities were founded in southern Italy and on the island of Sicily (an area commonly referred to by the Latin name “Magna Graecia”).

The landscape of mainland Greece2 is dominated by mountains, many of which run in ranges along the Balkan Peninsula in a northwest-southeast orientation. A chain of rugged peaks also fences Greece from the northern Balkan peninsula and the region that was Macedonia3 in antiquity. Although none of the mountains wrinkling the landscape of the Greek mainland looms higher than 10,000 feet, their steep slopes were difficult to traverse and operated as barriers separating communities. Some regions, such as Thessaly4 in eastern central Greece, Messenia5 in southwestern Greece, the island of Crete6 southeast of the mainland, and the island of Sicily, had large plains, but much of Greek territory lacked such large-scale open areas. Settlements tended to spring up where there were pockets of arable land nestled among the mountains or along the coast where good harbors could be found. Greece's rivers were practically useless for trade and communication because most of them slowed to a trickle during the many months each year during which little or no rainfall occurred.

Natural Resources

The most plentiful natural resource of the mountains of mainland Greece was timber for building houses and ships, but deforestation7 may have already begun to occur in antiquity. In any case, Greeks eventually began to import timber from the regions north of them. Some deposits of metal ore were also scattered throughout Greek territory, as were clays suitable for making pottery and sculpture. Scattered quarries8 of fine stone such as marble provided material for special buildings and works of art. The uneven distribution of these resources meant that some areas and islands were considerably richer than others. The silver mines9 of Athens, for example, contributed greatly to that state's famous prosperity in the fifth century, its “Golden Age.”


Only about twenty to thirty percent of the total land area of Greece was arable. The scarcity of level terrain ruled out the raising of cattle and horses on any large scale in most areas; pigs10, sheep11, and goats12 were the common livestock. The domestic chicken13 had also been introduced into Greece from the Near East by the seventh century B.C. Farmers mostly grew barley14, the cereal staple of the Greek diet15, with wine grapes16 and olives as the other most important crops. Wine diluted with water was the most common beverage of Greeks and drunk by almost everyone. Olive oil17 furnished a main source of fat in the diet, as well as serving many other uses such as a cleaning agent for bathing and a base for perfumes.

The Highway of the Sea

The coastline of mainland Greece18 was so jagged that almost all its communities were within forty miles of the sea. Most Greeks, regardless of where they lived, never traveled very far from their home; what few long-distance travelers there were customarily went by sea. Overland transport was slow and expensive because rudimentary dirt paths served as the only roads in the predominantly mountainous terrain where most Greeks lived. Their proximity to the Mediterranean Sea allowed Greek entrepreneurs to use it as a highway for contact with one another and for potentially lucrative international trade with, in particular, Egypt and the Near East. But going to sea meant dangers from pirates19 and storms, and prevailing winds and fierce gales almost ruled out sailing in winter. Even in calm conditions sailors hugged the coast as much as possible and preferred to put in to shore at night for safety. As the eighth-century poet Hesiod commented, merchants needing to make a living took to the sea “because an income means life to poor mortals, but it is a terrible fate to die among the waves.”20


The climate of Greece is what meteorologists call “Mediterranean,” meaning intermittent heavy rain during a few winter months and hot, dry summers. Snow falls on the upper ranges of the mountains in Greece, but most Greek communities received little snow. Winters could be cold and blustery, however. Since the amount of annual precipitation was highly variable, farming was a precarious business of boom and bust, with drought and flood both to be feared. Like the modern residents of southern California, however, whose climate is also “Mediterranean,” the Greeks thought their climate the world's best21 despite its hazards. “The Greeks occupy a middle position [between hot and cold climates] and correspondingly enjoy both energy and intelligence,” said the fourth-century philosopher Aristotle, who believed climate controlled a people's political destiny22. “For this reason they retain their freedom and have the best of political institutions. In fact, if they could forge political unity among themselves, they could control the rest of the world.”

Earlier History

Speakers of Greek had lived at various locations23 on the mainland and islands of the Aegean for centuries upon centuries before the period that saw the beginnings of written Greek literature and thus the creation of the texts included in Perseus. The ancient Greeks never in any period of their history constituted a nation in the modern political sense because their independent communities never existed as a unified organization. Greeks identified with each other culturally24, however, because they spoke the same language and worshipped the same gods, although with local variations in both cases.

Mycenaean Civilization

Greek civilization of the second millennium B.C., known as Mycenaean after the famous archaeological site of Mycenae25 in the northeastern Peloponnese (the peninsula that constitutes southern Greece), lies outside the limits of the Overview, but perhaps some background information on it will be helpful. Mycenaean civilization was organized around large architectural complexes today referred to as “palaces.” These structures held many rooms, often elaborately decorated with wall paintings, and were outfitted with luxuries like bath tubs. The elite of Mycenaean society26 lived very well, in comfort and style.

Political power was held by monarchical rulers27 apparently controlling separate territories and never achieving unity among themselves. These potent and wealthy rulers controlled redistributive economies, in which agricultural products and other goods were brought into the palaces and then redistributed throughout the society on a predetermined scheme rather than through free markets. Writing, done in a syllabic script known today as Linear B, was used in Mycenaean society primarily to record the transactions of this process, and presumably only the scribes in charge of this record keeping knew how to write. Mycenaean society seems to have been hierarchical, with social differentiation among people marked by wealth, clothing, and titles. No written literature—prose or poetry—is attested for this period.

The End of Mycenaean Civilization

The power and prosperity of Mycenaean Greece were lost in a period of violent conflict28 around 1200 B.C. that encompassed not only Greece but also much of the eastern Mediterranean region of the Near East. The causes of this disaster are still obscure, but strife among the principal centers seems to have played a significant role in the undoing of Mycenaean Greece, as perhaps did also incursions by raiders from the sea. The damage done to Greek society by the dissolution of the redistributive economies of Mycenaean Greece after 1200 B.C. took centuries to repair. Only Athens seems to have escaped wholesale disaster. In fact, the later Athenians, of the fifth century B.C., prided themselves on their unique status among the peoples of classical Greece: “sprung from the soil”29 of their homeland (autochthonoi ), as they called themselves, they had not been forced to emigrate in the turmoil that engulfed the rest of Greece in the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C.

The nature of the Athenians' boast gives some indication of the sorry fate of many other Greeks at the start of the first millennium B.C. Uprooted from their homes, they wandered abroad in search of new territory to settle. The Ionian Greeks,30 who in later times inhabited the central coast of western Anatolia, dated their emigration from the mainland to this period. Luxuries of Mycenaean civilization like fine jewelry, knives inlaid with gold, and built-in bathtubs disappeared. To an outside observer, Greek society at the end of the Mycenaean Age might have seemed destined for irreversible economic and social decline, even oblivion. This prediction would have been false.

1 Thuc. 1.2.1

2 Thuc. 1.2.1

3 Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Macedonia

4 Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Thessaly

5 Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Messenia, Messenian Sites

6 Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Crete

7 Plat. Criti. 111c

8 Photos of quarries

Paus. 3.21.4, Thuc. 7.87.1, References to quarries, Marble sculpture

9 Photos of Laurion, Xen. Ways 4.1, Strab. 9.1.23, Hdt. 7.144.1, Aristot. Ath. Pol. 47.2, Hyp. 4.36, Other references to silver

10 Hom. Od. 14.72, References to pigs, References to swine, Pigs depicted on vases, Boars depicted on coins

11 Boston 34.79 [Vase], Xen. Mem. 2.7.13, References to sheep, Sheep depicted in sculpture, Sheep depicted on vases, Rams depicted on coins

12 Goats on coins


Hens on vases, Cocks on vases, Cocks on coins, References to chickens

14 Hes. WD 465, Dewing 380 [Coin], References to barley

15 Aristoph. Ach. 1097, Aristoph. Peace 1144

16 Hes. WD 570

Würzburg L 265 [Vase], Munich 2648 [Vase]

Wine depicted on vases, References to wine


London B 226 [Vase], Perseus Encyclopedia entry for olive, Baltimore, Hopkins BMA 41.134 [Vase], Parthenon West Pediment [Sculpture]

Olives depicted on vases, Olives depicted on coins, References to olives

18 Thuc. 1.2.1

19 Thuc. 1.5.1, Thuc. 1.8.1

20 Hes. WD 686, Hes. WD 646, Hom. Od. 1.182

21 Hdt. 1.142.1

22 Aristot. Pol. 7.1327b 20

23 Thuc. 1.2.1

24 Hdt. 8.144.2, Isoc. 4.50, Plat. Meno 82b

25 Mycenae [Site], Mycenaean sites, Mycenaean architecture, Late Bronze Age Vases

26 Thuc. 1.9.1

27 Hom. Il. 9.149

28 Thuc. 1.12.1

29 Eur. Ion 29, Isoc. 4.24, Isoc 12.124

30 Hdt. 1.146.1, Thuc. 1.12.4, Thuc. 7.57.4, Ionian Sites

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hide References (34 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (34):
    • Aristophanes, Peace, 1144
    • Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, 47.2
    • Aristotle, Politics, 7.1327b
    • Euripides, Ion, 29
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.142.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.146.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 7.144.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 8.144.2
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 465
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 570
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 646
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 686
    • Homer, Iliad, 9.149
    • Homer, Odyssey, 14.72
    • Homer, Odyssey, 1.182
    • Hyperides, In Defence of Euxenippus, 36
    • Isocrates, Panathenaicus, 124
    • Isocrates, Panegyricus, 24
    • Isocrates, Panegyricus, 50
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.21.4
    • Plato, Meno, 82b
    • Plato, Critias, 111c
    • Strabo, Geography, 9.1.23
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.12.1
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.12.4
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.2.1
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.5.1
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.8.1
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.9.1
    • Thucydides, Histories, 7.57.4
    • Thucydides, Histories, 7.87.1
    • Xenophon, Memorabilia, 2.7.13
    • Xenophon, Ways and Means, 4.1
    • Aristophanes, Acharnians, 1097
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