During the second millennium BC two civilizations flourished in the Aegean: the Minoan on the island of Crete, and the Mycenaean which originated in the Peloponnese. In this period, monumental architecture appeared for the first time in Greece, and there was a burgeoning of arts such as mural painting, jewellery, seal-engraving (glyptics), stone-carving, the working of faience and ivory, and painted pottery. Extensive trading networks were established and writing was adopted for bureaucratic purposes, initially in the form of the still un-deciphered Linear A script on Crete and subsequently of Linear B – a written form of the early Greek language – in mainland Greece and Crete.
The remarkable economic and artistic developments of both civilizations was based on a sophisticated administrative system focused on the palace. The palace was a large building complex of standard architectural type, with spacious storerooms, workshops, cult areas, open spaces for assembly and, of course, residential apartments for the ruler and his family. The palace served as the all-powerful hub of authority and control for Aegean societies in the second millennium BC.
The first Minoan palaces were built on Crete (Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, Zakros) during the twentieth century BC and were organized around a central court, possibly modeled after Near Eastern examples (e.g. Mari and Ebla in Syria). They were destroyed by earthquakes around 1700 BC and rebuilt with minor modifications to their plan. The “New Palace” period represents the zenith of Minoan Civilization: palatial centres enjoyed inordinate wealth, importing exotic raw materials and objects from overseas and promoting the high arts, while Cretan products and luxury goods travelled to the ports of the Eastern Mediterranean. In the Aegean, the influence of Minoan art and religion was so intense that many scholars speak of a “Minoan Thalassocracy".
However, the Minoan civilization was irreparably damaged by the consequences of an unexpected event, the catastrophic eruption of the Thera volcano around 1550 BC, or even earlier. The vacuum created was soon to be filled by the bearers of a kindred culture, the Mycenaeans, a civilization then budding in mainland Greece.
Evidence of the Mycenaean civilization (which was brought to light by Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s and named after the “gold-rich Mycenae” of the Homeric epics) goes back to the seventeenth century BC, and comes from the Grave Circles at Mycenae with their legendary wealthy burials, as well as from the slightly later “beehive” or tholos tombs in the Argolid and Messenia. Relations between the Mycenaeans and Crete were close, and Mycenaean art was directly influenced by Minoan culture. Soon after the destruction of the Minoan palaces, the Mycenaeans began to construct analogous administrative centres at Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos, Thebes, and elsewhere. However, the plan of Mycenaean palaces differed from their Minoan counterparts; the nucleus was now a megaron (main hall with an antechamber) instead of a central court. Moreover, they were usually located on hilltops protected by Cyclopean walls, reminiscent in this respect of the Hittite palaces in Asia Minor. The Mycenaeans, who apparently took over Knossos around 1450 BC, continued in the Minoan tradition, expanding their cultural and commercial influence in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as the Italian Peninsula during the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC.
In the late thirteenth or early twelfth century BC, widespread turmoil, possibly related to population movements in the wider Eastern Mediterranean basin, led to the collapse of the palatial societies, not only in the Aegean but also in the Near East. This brought to an end the glorious Late Bronze Age, although certain Minoan and Mycenaean traits in art and religion survived for another hundred years, until c. 1100 BC.
The collapse of the Mycenaean palatial system ushered in an era of instability and change in the Aegean region. Many skills seem to have been lost, among them writing, painting, stone-carving, and monumental architecture, while radical transformations are observed in burial customs, with the appearance of cremation of the dead. According to archaeological finds and literary evidence, population migrations took place in the early centuries of this period, including the famed “Dorian Invasion” to central Greece and the Peloponnese. Changes in warfare, due to the manufacture of iron weapons, undoubtedly played a role in these developments.
Although recent research has begun to overturn the impression of the so-called “Dark Ages", the general picture of the period, particularly the 11th and part of the 10th c. BC, is one of poverty, minimal trading contacts, and artistic expression limited to the strictly geometric decoration of vases, figurine modelling in clay and in cast bronze, and little gold jewellery. Nonetheless, it is in precisely this period that developments of seminal importance for Greek history took place, such as the consolidation of the population in the Aegean region, the Ionian colonization of the islands and the coasts of Asia Minor, the appearance of the political formation of the polis (city), and the founding of the first major sanctuaries.
From the 9th c. BC living conditions started to improve and the population increased. Art developed at a more rapid pace, while the old sea-routes began to be used again. Euboeans and Cycladic islanders led the way, followed by Athenians, Argives, Rhodians and Corinthians, engaging in trade in the Aegean region and in Cyprus, while Cypriot and Phoenician merchants transported their products to Aegean harbours and Crete. These constructive contacts provided the stimulus for the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet in Greece, in all probability by around 800 BC, since the earliest inscriptions in the Greek alphabetic script date from around 780-770 BC. Not long after, possibly in the early 7th c. BC, the Homeric epics were written down for the first time.
In the opening decades of the 8th c. BC two events of major historical importance took place. The first was the beginning of the colonization of the West (Pithekoussai, Central and South Italy, Sicily), destined to broaden the horizons of the Hellenic world beyond the bounds of the Aegean; the second was the inauguration of the Olympic Games in 776 BC, which signaled the evolution of the major sanctuaries (Olympia, Delphi, etc.) into religious, as well as political, centres of panhellenic impact.
In the Archaic period the city-state coalesced and the social hierarchy within it was radically transformed. Already from the 7th c. BC, the appearance of the phalanx of hoplites – the coordinated corps of foot-soldiers who fought in battle lines – challenged one of the nobles’ exclusive privileges (and sources of authority): the conduct of warfare. Moreover, the rapid growth of trade – particularly after the appearance of coinage around 600 BC – and the ongoing colonization, which brought the Greek cities initially into creative contact and subsequently into conflict with other Mediterranean powers (the Etruscans and the Carthaginians in the West, the Phoenicians and the Persians in the East), further shook the aristocratic structures of society. These developments prompted the large-scale legislative reforms of the period (of Lykourgos in Sparta, of Drakon and Solon in Athens, of Zaleukos and Charondas in cities of Magna Graecia, etc.), designed to balance the opposing forces and to grant political rights to a wider social demographic.
The transition to the new political reality was not always smooth and in many cases met with the forceful opposition of the aristocratic class. This was frequently manifested by the establishment of tyrannies during the 7th and 6th c. BC. In 510 BC the overthrow of one such regime in Athens prompted the reforms of Kleisthenes, who removed political power from the jurisdiction of the nobles and conceded it to elected bodies and the “deme,” thus opening the way for the democracy of the 5th c. BC.
Notwithstanding rivalries, the common language, religion, and traditions of the Greek city-states created a sense of shared identity, which was reinforced by the panhellenic religious festivals and games. This sense of Hellenic identity was cemented during the Persian Wars (490-480/79 BC), when the Greek cities joined forces in order to confront the threatening “barbarian” invasion. Another consequence of these wars, which marked the end of the Archaic period, was the demonstration of the perceived superiority of Greek political liberty over Oriental despotism, opening the way to a period of intense political activity and unmatched cultural achievements.
The Persian Wars brought forth a new political and military power in the Aegean, which was destined to set its seal on the entire 5th c. BC. Athens, exploiting the panhellenic prestige she had acquired in the struggle against the Persian foe, assumed a dominant role in the Delian League, the maritime coalition founded in 477 BC to continue martial operations against the Persians. At first, Athens was primus inter pares among the allies. But in 454 BC, when the League’s treasury was transferred from Delos to Athens, the old coalition began to take on the form of an Athenian hegemony. Henceforth, Athens had free rein in managing the League’s income and imposing political will on the allies, and often exercised brute force in doing so.
The wealth that Athens accrued from the appropriation of the League treasury and the exploitation of the new lodes of silver discovered in the mines at Lavrion in 483 BC, the development of an unofficial peace with the Persians in 449 BC, and the consolidation of the democratic regime all contributed to an unprecedented flowering of the arts, literature, and philosophy, which left their indelible marks on the history of Western civilization. Sculpture, painting, and tragic poetry attained unsurpassed levels of maturity and creativity. In architecture, the building programme of Pericles produced some of the most impressive temples of Antiquity, the culmination of which was the Parthenon. In philosophy, the freedom of thought and action fostered by the Democracy led to the postulation of advanced political theories, initially by the Sophist movement and later by Plato and Aristotle.
It was inevitable that the enormous political influence of Athens and her control of trade with both the eastern and the western Mediterranean would provoke a reaction from the other great power of the period, Sparta. After failed attempts to challenge the Athenian hegemony in the 450s and 440s BC, the Spartans declared war on Athens in 431 BC. The civil conflict known as the Peloponnesian War ended in 404 BC with the Spartans as the victors.
The democratic regime survived, but Athens lost much of her power. In this new order, not only victorious Sparta, but also other leading city-states such as Corinth and Thebes appeared on the political stage with demands. The first half of the 4th c. BC was a time of ongoing power struggles between these cities and hostilities over territory.
Meanwhile, a new military power was emerging in Macedonia, until then a distant province of the Hellenic world with archaic political structures based on monarchy. Philip II ascended the throne in 359 BC, and within one decade of campaigns (348-338 BC) succeeded in gaining control over the whole of mainland Greece, terminating the centuries-long independence of the Greek city-states. His son Alexander continued his work, but turned his sights upon Persia. From his ascension to power in 336 BC to his death in 323 BC, he managed to create a vast empire with inexhaustible natural resources, stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to what is now Afghanistan. These conquests were destined to change irrevocably the history of the ancient world.
The conquests of Alexander the Great had tremendous historical consequences. Apart from disseminating Greek culture as far as the western fringes of the Indian subcontinent, they also radically transformed political structures, not only in the Aegean but also in the entire eastern Mediterranean basin. After Alexander’s death, the vast empire was split into four large kingdoms: Egypt under the dynasty of the Ptolemies, Syria under the Seleucids, Asia Minor under the Attalids, and Macedonia under the Antigonids. The prevalence of the institution of monarchy was the death-knell for the city-state and shifted the fulcrum of historical developments to beyond the Aegean region, thus laying the foundations for the subsequent unification of the Mediterranean world. In the religious sphere there was a strong tendency toward syncretism, with the spread of oriental cults to the West and of Greek ones to the East; at the same time, monotheistic beliefs began to gain ground throughout the Hellenistic world.
Nonetheless, the countless political and military conflicts between the Hellenistic kingdoms (mainly Syria and Egypt) led to their gradual weakening, thus allowing Rome – which had won total control of the western Mediterranean already from the early second century BC – to lay serious claims over the eastern part as well. In 148 BC Macedonia was declared a Roman province and in 146 BC the Roman army sacked Corinth. In 133 BC Attalos III bequeathed the kingdom of Pergamon to Rome as a separate province. In 86 BC the Roman general Sulla captured and destroyed Athens, which had rebelled against the Romans during the First Mithridatic War. The Romans finally prevailed in 31 BC with Octavian’s victory in the naval battle of Actium and the annexation of Egypt, which marked the birth of the Roman Empire.
With the declaration of Octavian as Emperor Augustus in 27 BC, a new era dawned in which East and West were to coexist for the first time in history under a single and unifying administrative authority. Due to the conditions of security guaranteed by the Pax Romana, the first two centuries of the Roman Empire were a period of prosperity, flourishing trade, and fertile cultural interaction for the entire Mediterranean world.
Because of her illustrious past, Greece was a seminal cultural fount for the Roman Civilization, even though at a political level it was far from the centres of decision-making, having been parceled into provinces. Public works were undertaken in many Greek cities to improve the urban infrastructure (streets, bridges, aqueducts, bathhouses, theatres, odeums), and the sanctuaries were enriched with magnificent edifices. Some of the most important monuments in Greece, whether in places of worship or in settlements, were erected during the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Trajan and Hadrian, or with the financial support of the wealthy magnate Herodes Atticus.
The 3rd c. AD witnessed the incipient destabilization of the Roman Empire, under the pressure of domestic problems (demographic, social, and economic) as well as external threats on its northern and eastern frontiers. The gradual spread of Christianity contributed to this situation, especially in the eastern provinces and Greece, where Christian communities began to spring up immediately after Paul the Apostle’s journeys to the land between AD 49 and 56. The Christian uprisings, which were originally socially and ethnically motivated, affected even the capital of Rome, provoking merciless persecutions in the time of Nero and later in the reigns of Decius and Diocletian.
In the early 4th c. AD these developments led Emperor Constantine to make two significant decisions: to officially recognize the Christian religion in AD 313, and to transfer the capital of the empire in AD 330 to the site of the ancient Megarian colony of Byzantion, on the shores of the Bosporus. The founding of Constantinople (as the new capital was named) raised the curtain on a new age, in which the Graeco-Roman past was merged with the Christian present. In AD 393/4 Emperor Theodosius issued a decree prohibiting pagan cults, which brought the final desertion of the ancient sanctuaries. After the emperor's death in AD 395, the Roman Empire was split into an eastern and a western part, an event which was to play a major role in the subsequent history of Europe. The western part of the empire collapsed in AD 476 under the assault of the Vandals, while the eastern half continued to expand until the 6th c. AD, when it reached its maximum extent in the reign of Justinian. The decision of the Byzantine emperor in AD 529 to close down the philosophical schools in Athens was the final severance of ties with Classical Antiquity, and dealt a mortal blow to the concept of the ancient world.