The ancient history of Greece represents, in many ways, the birth of Europe as a center for the arts, architecture, sciences, and much more. Alive and well at famous landmarks visited by millions every year and carved in poetry, drama, and myth, the remnants of Classical Greece display its universal importance as a unique heritage, as well as a solid base for contemporary Greek culture.
The history of Greece must be one of the best-known in the world as its innovative city state, at its height over 2,000 years ago, set the stage for the development of the whole of Modern Europe. However, advanced civilization in the region didn’t begin with Classical Greece: it began in the Cycladic Islands, continued with the Minoan civilization on Crete, and migrated to the Peloponnese mainland at Mycenae in around 1900 BC. Writing was practiced via the yet-to-be-deciphered Minoan Linear A script and the Mycenaean Linear B, an early version of Classical Greek.
The cradle of Western civilization began forming around 600 BC, and flowered with dramatic advances in science, astronomy, philosophy, drama, art, and mathematics. In 508 BC, the first democratic government in the world was instituted in Athens, and great monuments and landmarks took shape in forms never seen before. Athens spread its tentacles across the Mediterranean coastlines and Asia Minor, although several Persian invasions from the north during the Greco-Persian Wars threatened its stability. Rising conflicts between the non-unified Greek states resulted in the Peloponnesian War between 431 and 404 BC, which weakened the Athenian Empire and cause it to lose its premier position in the region.
By 27 BC, Greece was in Roman hands. Christianity took hold early on although some regions remained pagan for another thousand years. Byzantine control began in the 9th century, followed by rule by the Franks in the 13th century. By the 15th century, the country was part of the Ottoman Empire and the Dark Ages had begun, although Venice mopped up a few islands. The Ottoman period was a harsh time for the Greek population although the invaders did not force Orthodox Christians to renounce their religion. The Greek War of Independence began in 1821 and saw fierce fighting, as well as involvement by Russia, England, and France until 1830, when the Greek state was finally recognized.
Conflict with fascist Italy in 1940 was the precursor to the WWII German invasion, and after liberation the country descended into a bitter civil war against its home-grown Communist movement which rumbled on for 20 years. In spite of the fighting, this was a time of rapid expansion for the Greek economy, with the help of the US Marshall Plan. Tourism soon became an important element of revenue, until an army coup in 1967 caused economic chaos and a sharp drop in revenue from trips due to off-putting instability.
The coup years ended in 1974, just as Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus. The first democratic election was held, and a referendum ensured the monarchy would not be restored. In 1981, Greece joined the European Community, later to become the European Union, and eventually became part of the Eurozone, a move which has caused major problems with its economy since the 2010 recession following the 2008 crash. Recent riots in Athens due to budget cut measures to deal with Greece’s debt have not yet spread outside area of the capital.
Greek culture in the present day is a glorious mix of great classical and maritime heritage, music and dance, myth and legend, and a lifestyle that has developed over centuries. Even the ultra-modern, urbanite Athenians are still Greek to the core, and in rural districts and less-touristy islands, the local lifestyle is as laid back as they were at the beginning of the century. Although Greece has been heavily influenced by other cultures, it should be noted that Western cultures were equally influenced by the Classical Greek period, especially in the fields of literature, art, and architecture.
The famous Greek folk dances are still an integral part of modern-day life here, as evidenced in tavernas across the country on weekends, when locals get up and dance for any opportunity. These dances originated in the Mycenaean era and were used in rituals on religious occasions as part of a belief that the gods were the first to have danced. Even the Greek language has its origins in the Mycenaean Linear B script, and Classical Greek became a foundation for several of the European languages including English.
Still an influence on Greek culture is the Katharevousa form of Modern Greek, set half way between the classical language and the everyday Demotiki speech. Dialects are spoken in remote areas on the mainland and in the islands, with many dating back centuries and showing little sign of dying out. Greek Orthodox Christianity’s joyful festivals are linked strongly with the culture here, as the religion is very important. Greeks are proud of their country’s amazing past and its heritage is celebrated in the modern day.
The family is at the heart of Greece’s social structure, and is always supportive of its members, with family relationships often carrying on in business. Invitations to Greek homes for a meal are common, and dining in someone’s home is an enjoyable experience where arriving late is no problem. Small gifts are customary to bring, and are generally reciprocated, and an offer to help with the clean up after the meal is appreciated.
Nowadays, Greece is at a crossroads between East and West, with its contemporary culture taking the best from its old traditions, religion, cuisine, language, and music, and blending it with selected influences from the 21st century. Any visitor who’s watched the movie, My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, will understand that, wherever in the world there are Greeks, they will find a way to preserve their ethnicity and unique culture in the same way as it’s being treasured in their home country.