Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The mountains and the sea

The Greek World was the area where the Greek language was spoken. Most Greeks (Hellenes) lived in mainland Greece (Hellas), but small Greek communities were established outside Greece on the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Sicily, and southern Italy. All these were places that could be reached by sea.


Mount Olympus

Greece is dominated by the mountains and the sea. The highest mountain is Mount Olympus in the north. These mountains made communication difficult, especially, and were one of the factors leading to the establishment of small, independent settlements where autarkeia (self-determination) was prized. There are few cultivatable plains on the west, and most settlements developed in the comparatively roomy eastern plain. A settlement and its surrounding territory was called a polis. The largest of these poleis was Athens.

It was difficult to use rivers for navigation (they dried up in summer, and flooded in winter). The main means of communication was by sea.

The coastline of Greece is heavily indented, and no point of the Greek mainland is more than 60km from the sea. The sea therefore provided the waterways. But sailing was dangerous, as the many islands off the coast created dangerous currents. The compass had not been invented and sailors had to steer by the stars and the islands. Sailing was mainly confined to the summer when the winds in the Aegean are regular and steady.

The sea figures in Greek literature. Homer's Odyssey tells the story of the voyages of Odysseus on his journey from Troy to his native island of Ithaca. The poet, Hesiod, included a section on sailing in his poem of instruction for farmers. It was impossible for the Greeks to ignore the sea. In the Phaedo Plato states: 
‘We live around the sea like frogs live around a pond. 

Greece is cut off from the rest of Europe by the mountains to the north. It is in many ways a distinct entity, centring on the Aegean basin. This is one of the reasons why the east and south of Greece are more important than the north and the west. To the west of Greece is the Ionian Sea. Two great arms of the sea, the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf meet to create the Isthmus of Corinth, which connects the southern peninsula of the Peloponnese to the rest of Greece.


Most of southern Greece enjoys a Mediterranean climate - winter rains and summer droughts. Athens and the south east have a higher summer temperature, and three months or more (mid-June to mid-September) of no rain except an occasional storm. During the summer the vegetation largely dries up. 

During July and August the weather in the Aegean is dominated by a regular wind blowing from the north-east, the 'Etesian' wind, discourages trees.

In October the serious rain usually begins, and reaches its maximum in December. Even then, the weather is only moderately cold at sea-level, with snow seldom lasting more than a couple of hours on the Plain of Attica. Spring begins in April, and the vegetation grows quickly. Western Greece is wetter, and mountain Greece is much cooler. The climate has had a profound effect on Greek life, making it very sociable. People did not have to go indoors for their leisure pursuits. Speaking was more important that private reading.


With so much of Greece covered by rugged mountains and with shallow soils, too much rain in winter and too little in summer, only a third of the area is suitable for cultivation.The southern storms which affect Greece can be very destructive and make agriculture difficult. Soil erosion is a constant problem and much arable land has been lost.

From ancient times, timber has been felled in Greece, making replanting difficult. Goats have prevented the growth of trees. Terracing has been adopted for thousands of years to increase the area of cultivatable land, but the fundamental problem of lack of productivity could not be solved.

Nevertheless, farming was the main activity of ancient Greece, and the year was dominated by the agricultural pattern. September (vintage); October (ploughing and sowing); November (gathering of olives); May (grain harvest). On festive occasions, animals were offered to the gods for sacrifice, but the meat was eaten by the worshippers.

Agriculture was primitive. Ox-drawn ploughs were used. Sowing was done entirely by hand, reaping with a sickle. Oxen were used in threshing to tread out the grain. Goats supplied milk and cheese. Sheep were kept mainly for wool.

The main crops were the 'Mediterranean triad' - barley, vines and olives. Olive oil took the place of butter. The olive was one of the few crops that could be exported. The staple diet was bread, olives, milk, with fruit in season and honey to provide sugar. Meat was for feast days and special occasions. Fish was eaten more frequently. Wine was drunk diluted.

The god of wine was Dionysus. 

Dionysus, the god of wine: Roman copy
now in the Louvre

The goddess, Demeter, was honoured for teaching agriculture to men. 

Raw materials

The three major natural resources were building stone, clay and timber. Building stone was mainly limestone. Clay was used in the production of baked pottery, roof tiles, figurines and (most of all) sun-dried bricks. Timber was used in the construction of houses, but Athens had to import Macedonian or Thracian timber for ship-building. Most metals had to be imported. Greece was always short of metal.

Travel and communications

Because the roads were bad and the terrain difficult, travel was arduous. Most people stayed near to home. Individuals either walked or travelled by cart. Only the wealthy were able to use light, manoeuvrable chariots. Ox carts could only be used on the plains.


Attica is a largely triangular peninsula, an area of c 2500 sq km. 2 sides bordered by sea, with a third cut off by the Parnes Mountains.


Compared with the rest of Greece, Attica was rich in raw materials: marble, limestone, silver (provided the money for the building of the Athenian navy), lead. The soil was dry and shallow, making it most suited for olive cultivation. Grain had to be imported.

The Temple of Poseidon at Sounion,
the southernmost
tip of Attica

Between 600 and 300 Attica was an independent state, with Athens as its urban centre. Outside the city were famers and small villages. The towns were Eleusis (worship of Demeter), Akharai (charcoal-burning) Thorikos (an industrialised town, near the mines of Laurium), Piraeus (harbour and trading). By the middle of the 5th century, Piraeus was linked to Athens by the Long Walls. It was the largest and best-protected harbour in Greece. The city had a very mixed population, not all of it Athenian. 

The topography of Athens

The Acropolis of Athens

Athens lies on a plain enclosed by hills on three sides but open to the sea on the south. The settlement developed round a precipitous rocky limestone outcrop, the Acropolis, five hundred feet above the city. Smaller nearby hills are the Areopagus, the Pnyx and the Hill of the Nymphs. Two seasonal rivers, the Kephisos and the Ilisos, flow near the Acropolis. 

In the fifth century BCE Athens became the most powerful state in Greece and one of the most influential in the history of the world.