From ancient times until early days

During the Bronze Age (3000-1200 BC) the powerful Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean maritime civilisations flourished. According to Homer, this was a time of violence and wars based on trade rivalries, although it is thought that Minoan culture was generally peaceful and harmonious. By the 11th century BC the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures had collapsed, due to changing patterns of trade and a Dorian invasion from the north, and a ‘dark age’ ensued.

By 800 BC Greece was undergoing a cultural and military revival, with the evolution of city-states, the most powerful of which were Athens and Sparta. Greater Greece was created, with southern Italy as an important component. This period was followed by an era of great prosperity known as the classical (or golden) age. During this time, Pericles commissioned the Parthenon, Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King, Socrates taught young Athenians the rigours of logic, and a tradition of democracy (literally, ‘control by the people’) was ushered in. The classical age came to an end with the Peloponnesian Wars (431-404 AD) in which the militaristic Spartans defeated the Athenians.

While embroiled in the Peloponnesian Wars, the Spartans failed to notice the expansion of Philip of Macedon’s kingdom in the north, which enabled him to easily conquer the war-weary city-states. Philip’s ambitions were surpassed by his son Alexander the Great, who marched into Asia Minor, Egypt (where he was proclaimed pharaoh and founded the city of Alexandria), Persia and parts of what are now Afghanistan and India. The reign of the Macedonian empire, which lasted in the form of three dynasties after Alexander’s death at the age of 33, is known as the Hellenistic period, due to the merging of Greek ideas and culture with the other proud cultures of antiquity, creating a new cosmopolitan tradition.

From 205 BC there were Roman incursions into Greece, and by 146 BC Greece and Macedonia had become Roman provinces. After the subdivision of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western empires in 395 AD, Greece became part of the illustrious Byzantine Empire. By the 12th century, the Crusades were in full flight and Byzantine power was much reduced by invasions by Venetians, Catalans, Genoese, Franks and Normans.

In 1453 the Turks captured the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, and by 1500 almost all of Greece had also fallen under Turkish control. The lands of present-day Greece became a rural backwater, with many merchants, intellectuals and artists exiled in central Europe. It was traditional village life and Orthodox religion that held together the notion of Greekness. A cultural revival in the late 18th century precipitated the War of Independence (1821-32), during which aristocratic young philhellenes such as Byron, Shelley and Goethe supported the Greeks in their battle against the Turks. The independence movement lacked unity, however, and in 1827 Russia, France and Britain decided to intervene. After independence, the European powers decided Greece should become a monarchy, with a non-Greek ruler to frustrate Greek power struggles, and installed Otto of Bavaria as king in 1833. The monarchy, with an assortment of kings at the helm, held on despite popular opposition until well into the 20th century, although George I established a new constitution in 1864 that returned democracy and pushed the king into a largely ceremonial role.

During WWI, Greek troops fought on the Allied side and occupied Thrace. After the war, Prime Minister Venizelos sent forces to ‘liberate’ the Turkish territory of Smyrna (present-day Izmir), which had a large Greek population. The army was repulsed by Ataturk’s troops and many Greek residents were slaughtered. This led to a brutal population exchange between the two countries in 1923, the resultant population increase (1,300,000 Christian refugees) straining Greece’s already weak economy. Shanty towns spilled from urban centres, unions were formed among the urban refugee population and by 1936 the Communist Party had widespread popular support.

In 1936 General Metaxas was appointed as prime minister by the king and quickly established a fascist dictatorship. Although Metaxas had created a Greek version of the Third Reich, he was opposed to German or Italian domination and refused to allow Italian troops to traverse Greece in 1940. Despite Allied help, Greece fell to Germany in 1941, leading to carnage and mass starvation. Resistance movements sprang up and polarised into royalist and communist factions, and a bloody civil war resulted, lasting until 1949, when the royalists claimed victory. During the civil war, America, inspired by the Truman Doctrine, gave large sums of money to the anticommunist government, and implemented the Certificate of Political Reliability, which remained valid until 1962. This document declared that the wearer did not hold left-wing sympathies; without it Greeks could not vote and found it almost impossible to get work.

Fearing a resurgence of the left, a group of army colonels staged a coup d’etat in 1967, said by Andreas Papandreou to be ‘the first successful CIA military putsch on the European continent’. The junta distinguished itself by inflicting appalling brutality, repression and political incompetence upon the people. In 1974 the colonels attempted to assassinate Cyprus’ leader, Archbishop Makarios, leading to Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Northern Cyprus. This is still a volatile issue for the Greeks, and tensions with Turkey are easily inflamed.

In 1981 Greece entered the European Community (now the EU), and Andreas Papandreou’s socialist party (PASOK) won elections. PASOK promised removal of US air bases and withdrawal from NATO, but these promises were never fulfilled. Women’s issues fared better, though, with the abolition of the dowry system and legalisation of abortion. In the end, scandals got the better of Papandreou and his government was replaced by an unlikely coalition of conservatives and communists in 1989. Elections in 1990 brought the conservatives to power with a majority of only two seats, and intent on redressing the country’s economic problems, the government imposed unpopular and severe austerity measures. A general election in 1993 returned the ageing, ailing Papandreou and PASOK to power.

Kostas Simitis was appointed prime minister in early 1996 when it became clear that Papandreou’s time was drawing nigh – Greece’s elder statesman died mid-1996. Simitis was re-elected by the skin of his teeth in April 2000, with a victory margin of one percentage point. Since receiving a fresh mandate, he has pledged to forge better relations with Turkey and to carry out economic reforms that will secure Greece a place in the European Monetary Union.