Greece Historical Setting
Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies
Fresco representation of a priest-king in a Minoan palace at Knossos
THE BURDEN OF HISTORY lies heavily on Greece. In the early 1990s, as new subway tunnels were being excavated under Athens, Greece's museums were being filled to overflowing with the material remains of the past: remnants of houses from the Turkokratia (the era of Ottoman rule); coins and shops from the period of the Byzantine Empire; pottery remains from the Greek workshops that flourished during the Roman Empire; and graves, shrines, and houses from the classical period when Athens stood at the head of its own empire. The glories of ancient Greece and the splendor of the Christian Byzantine Empire give the modern Greeks a proud and rich heritage. The resilience and durability of Greek culture and traditions through times of turmoil provide a strong sense of cultural destiny. These elements also pose a considerable challenge to Greeks of the present: to live up to the legacies of the past. Much of the history of the modern state of Greece has witnessed a playing out of these contradictory forces.
An important theme in Greek history is the multiple identities of its civilization. Greece is both a Mediterranean country and a Balkan country. And, throughout its history, Greece has been a part of both the Near East and Western Europe. During the Bronze Age and again at the time of the Greek Renaissance of the eighth century B.C., Greece and the Near East were closely connected. The empire of Alexander the Great of Macedonia brought under Greek dominion a vast expanse of territory from the Balkans to the Indus. The Byzantine Empire, with its heart in Constantinople, bridged the continents of Europe and Asia. Greece's history is also closely intertwined with that of Europe and has been since Greek colonists settled the shores of Italy and Spain and Greek traders brought their wares to Celtic France in the seventh century B.C.
A second theme is the influence of the Greek diaspora. From the sixth century B.C., when Greeks settled over an expanse from the Caucasus to Gibraltar, until the dispersal of hundreds of thousands of Greeks to Australia and Canada during the 1950s and 1960s, Greeks have been on the move. The experience of the diaspora has been and continues to be a defining element in the development of Greece and Greek society.
The third major theme is the role of foreign dependence. Until 1832, the Greek nation had never existed as a single state. In antiquity, hundreds of states were inhabited by Greeks, so the Greek national identity transcended any one state. For much of their history, Greeks have been part of large, multiethnic states. Whether under the suzerainty of the emperors of Rome or the dominion of the Ottoman Empire (see Glossary), much of Greek history can only be understood in the context of foreign rule. In more recent times, the fortunes of Greece have been linked in integral ways to the struggles of the Great Powers in the nineteenth century and the polarizing diplomacy of the late twentieth-century Cold War. The history of Greece and the Greek people, then, is bound up with forces and developments on a scale larger than just southeastern Europe. To understand the history of Greece, one has to examine this complex interplay between indigenous development and foreign influences.
Data as of December 1994
NOTE: The information regarding Greece on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Greece Historical Setting information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Greece Historical Setting should be addressed to the Library of Congress.