Ancient Greece: Where Western civilisation began
About 2,500 years ago, Greece was one of the most important places in the ancient world. The Greeks were great thinkers, warriors, writers, actors, athletes, artists, architects and politicians.
The Greeks called themselves 'Hellenes' and their land was 'Hellas'. The name ‘Greeks’ was given to the people of Greece later by the Romans. They lived in mainland Greece and the Greek islands, but also in colonies scattered around the Mediterranean Sea. There were Greeks in Italy, Sicily, Turkey, North Africa, and as far west as France.
They sailed the sea to trade and find new lands. The Greeks took their ideas with them and they started a way of life that's similar to the one we have today.
This is the Great Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. The Minoan civilisation grew rich on trade and they built glorious palaces decorated with beautiful wall paintings.
People have been living in Greece for over 40,000 years. The earliest settlers mostly lived a simple hunter-gatherer or farming lifestyle.
The Minoans were the first great Greek civilisation. They didn't live on mainland Greece but on the nearby island of Crete, between 2200BC and 1450BC. They were known as the Minoans after their legendary king, Minos.
After the Minoans came the Mycenaean civilisation, from mainland Greece. They were fine builders and traders, but they were also great soldiers. They famously fought in the battle of Troy. Homer, an important Greek writer, told stories of the Mycenaean age in his books the Iliad and the Odyssey.
After the Mycenaean age ended in about 1100BC, Greece entered a ‘Dark Age’. It is known as a dark age because nobody knows much about what happened - all written language and art disappeared.
How was Greece ruled?
There was never one country called ‘ancient Greece’. Instead, Greece was divided up into small 'city-states’, like Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Olympia.
Each city-state ruled itself. They had their own governments, laws and army. So, ancient Greeks living in Sparta considered themselves Spartan first, and Greek second.
Famously, the city-states didn’t get on very well and often fought each another. However, sometimes they joined together to fight against a bigger enemy, like the Persian Empire.
Only a very powerful ruler could control all Greece. One man did in the 300s BC. He was Alexander the Great, from Macedonia. Alexander led his army to conquer an empire that stretched as far as Afghanistan and India.
Reading: The Odyssey
Homer’s great story is retold. It charts the ten year epic voyage of Odysseus as he returns from the Trojan War to the island of Ithaca. On his journey he encounters all manner of perils, from the man-eating Cyclops and the evil sorceress Circe, to the deadly lure of the Sirens and the wrath of the sea-god Poseidon - capturing the terrors of Odysseus’s travels as well as the dangers faced by his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus at home.