Ancient History/Greece

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Introduction - Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece has left an indelible mark on European history. The foundations of democracy, philosophy, theater and science can be traced back through thousands of years of European history to the warring city states of Ancient Greece. This fractious period of expansion and contraction gave rise to an explosion of creativity and invention throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean. Out of the mist shrouded mythological Bronze Age of Homer and Hesiod arose a new way of thinking about mankind's relationship to the physical and metaphysical world. This brief dawn of Ancient Greece would soon be eclipsed by the rise of Rome who after conquering the Greeks were themselves conquered by the culture of the Hellenes.

Map of Greece

Chapter 1 - The Minoans 3000-1100 BCE

Minoan culture has given us the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. That everyone knows the Athenian hero, Theseus, defeated the monstrous Minotaur in the labyrinth of King Minos is testament to the effectiveness of myth as a cultural medium. The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is set on Crete which is the largest island in the Aegean at the apex of the sea routes to Asia Minor and Greece. The visible ruins of the great palaces had left only a trace of Minoan power and wealth. It would take the investigations of Sir Arthur Evans before the world discovered the true extent of Minoan civilization. The labyrinth of rooms at the Place of Knossos and the fresco of a young man somersaulting over an unfettered bull gives credence to Sir Arthur Evans decision to name this civilization after King Minos.

A Minoan vase

Chapter 2 - The Mycenaeans 1600-1100 BCE

Heinrich Schliemann held in his hands a gold burial mask and declared to the world "I have looked on the face of Agamemnon". The German industrialist had already uncovered the city of Troy and now believed he held the death mask of that city's destroyer, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, who had been elected by the Greeks to lead their thousand ships to the Trojan shores of King Priam. The wife of Agamemnon's brother Menelaus, Helen of Sparta, had eloped with Paris, a son of King Priam. Agamemnon called upon the greatest Greek warriors to follow him to Troy to avenge his brother. They would come from all over Greece to honour their oaths of allegiance. Achilles from Argos, Ajax from Salamis and Odysseus from Ithaca. This is the Bronze Age of Homer when heroes duel for spear-won honour.

Funeral mask of Agamemnon

Chapter 3 - The Greek Dark Ages 1100-750 BCE

Three hundred years before Homer wrote the Illiad the Mycenaean world of Agamemnon was set on fire signalling the end of peace and stability. The wide-scale destruction of Greek coastal and island settlements over the following centuries is evidence of sustained conflict. Some Greek cities were rebuilt others abandoned as the population moved inland. To the Greeks whose main economic resource, today as then, is sea-trade the unstable conditions could only lead to economic and cultural decline. This contraction is visible in the parochial geometric pottery and the lacunae in monuments and sculptures. Towards the end of the Dark Ages a poet named Homer recorded the dynamic oral history of the Greeks. By shining a light on the precedents of Greek culture and civilization Homer consigned the Dark Ages to the past heralding the new way forward.

Dorian hoplite

Chapter 4 - Classical Greece 750-336 BCE

We live in the Digital Age. This simple descriptor marks the present but we do not know if the future will agree with our nomenclature. Epochs are given titles retrospectively because their characteristics in a few words present to the mind the salient focus of a multifaceted cultural process. We judge an epoch to have ended when the conditions that created it show the evidence of decline in these characteristics and presents itself to us as the past. Mozart is a called a Classical composer not because his compositions were rooted in the paeans of Ancient Greece but because his music reminds us of the distinctive characteristics of the art and architecture of Classical Greece - proportion, beauty, form, refinement, and order. The summation in words not of the violence of change but of the ideas, art, architecture and literature that proved resistant to destruction.

The Parthenon

Chapter 5 - The Hellenistic Period 336-146 BCE

Macedonia is a region of Northern Greece. The city states of Athens and Sparta regarding the Macedonians as Hellenes observed with interest the Macedonian aristocracy and their constant internal machinations. Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, would continue the legacy of his own father to subdue and unite the feuding Macedonian aristocracy but the fierce spirit of Macedonian court life exerted itself with his assassination at a wedding. Alexander immediately became King and consolidated his power with the subjugation of his rivals. He was twenty years old and during the next twelve years established Macedonian control over Asia Minor and North Africa. Alexander the Great died at the age of thirty-two in Babylon and his empire was divided amongst his generals.

Alexander the Great

Chapter 6 - Greek Culture

The culture of Greece profoundly affected the Romans to the point of imitation and demanded of the early Christian Popes the theological incorporation of pagan philosophy. Arab scholars preserved the Hellenistic Almagest of Ptolemy during the seven hundred years of its loss to Europe and Italian composers of the Renaissance in an attempt to recreate the choral plays of Ancient Greece invented a new musical form called Opera. Medieval pupils read the Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice and Aristotle's Physics would not be superseded in school textbooks until the scientific breakthroughs of Galileo and Newton. The epithet Glory of Greece is a fitting acknowledgement for the achievements of Hellenic culture.

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