Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > European history > Ancient Greece
- See also: European history
Ancient Greece or Classical Greece was a civilization which emerged around the 8th century BC, and was annexed by the Roman Empire in the second century BC. Ancient Greece is remembered for its architecture, philosophy and other ideas, which became the foundation of modern Europe. The Olympic Games are originally an ancient Greek tradition.
- See Prehistoric Europe for background.
Classical Greece was not the first civilization around the Aegean Sea. Since the 27th century BC, the Minoan culture had flourished on Crete, until displaced by the Mycenaeans around the 16th century BC. However, there are no surviving historical records from these societies.
The first written records from the Greek city-states, poleis, date to the 9th century BC. The period of the 5th and 4th centuries are today known as Classical Greece. During this period, the Greeks defended themselves against the mighty Persian Empire in a series of wars which became legendary in Western culture. Greece later entered a golden age for philosophy, drama, and science. Through colonization and conquest, Greek language and culture came to stretch far beyond the territory of modern Greece, with especially strong footprints in Sicily and across Asia Minor (today, the Asian part of Turkey). In Ancient Greece's apogee, the dominant cities of Greece were Athens and Sparta, which often were at war against each other.
Starting with the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, the Greek culture spread as far east as modern-day Afghanistan, and Egypt (see Ancient Egypt) was ruled for three centuries by the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty, which was founded by one of Alexander's generals. This late bloom of Greek culture, which was later partially supplanted by the Roman Empire, is known as the Hellenic era.
According to the Biblical book of Acts, the Apostle Paul traveled to the region in the 1st century AD and brought Christianity to the area.
Some elements of Greek culture endured for centuries after the last Greek polity had disappeared. For instance Coptic, the language that Ancient Egyptian evolved into, was written in Greek-derived letters until it died out in the 17th century. Other examples include Greek authors and philosophers, such as Homer and Socrates, that were and are still widely read among a certain subset of Europeans. Greek terms have entered the general lexicon of many European languages including English, mostly relating to things the Greeks were known for (theatre, politics, democracy) or scientific terms. Sometimes Greek and Latin terms have been mixed, such as in the case of "automobile" which derives from Greek "autos" (~self) and Latin "mobilis" (~movable, moving). For these reasons and the fact that the Christian New Testament was written in Ancient Greek, Ancient Greek is still taught in many secondary schools and universities throughout Europe.
Although in modern times the Greek alphabet itself is only used to write Greek (and the individual letters as symbols in maths and science), the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets that are used by many other European languages were originally derived from the Greek alphabet. The very word "alphabet" is also derived from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha and beta) and its importance in being the first known phonetic script, a script to encode all vowel and consonant sounds (as opposed to other scripts that only encoded consonants or had ideographic and/or syllabic aspects), cannot be overstated.
The Byzantine Empire survived as a bastion of Greek heritage until it fell in 1453. Some Byzantine scholars moved west, and contributed to the Italian Renaissance. From the 17th century, the Grand Tour became a customary voyage where north Europeans visited the Greek ruins in southern Italy. Over time, tourism expanded to Greece proper.
Greece became independent from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s, adopting a monarchical constitution largely on the urging of the Great Powers of Europe, and initially enthroning a Bavarian Wittelsbach prince, hence the – still used – blue and white colors of the Greek flag.
- 1 Athens (Attica). One of the most important poleis in Ancient Greece, Athens was a naval power and a center of learning and philosophy. While it was eventually surpassed militarily by Sparta and Thebes, its immense wealth meant that some of its classical architecture is still standing. Due in part to its history Athens later became the capital of modern Greece.
- 2 Argos (Peloponnese). Major stronghold during the Mycenaean era, this city may be older than Mycenae itself. In classical times was a powerful rival of Sparta for dominance over the Peloponnese. Nowadays, there are still several interesting remains, among them a ruined temple to goddess Hera.
- 3 Arta (Epirus). Historic capital of Epirus, famously associated with King Pyrrhus, opponent of the Roman Republic, after whom the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" was coined. There's an extensive archeological site, with ancient walls, the ruins of a temple of Apollo, a small theatre, among other things.
- 4 Corinth (Peloponnese). One of the largest and most important cities of Classical Greece, with a population of 90,000 in 400 BC. In classical times and earlier, Corinth had a temple of Aphrodite and rivaled Athens and Thebes in wealth.
- 5 Delphi (Sterea Hellada). Famously nested on a shoulder of Mount Parnassus, Delphi was believed to be determined by Zeus when he sought to find the omphalos (navel) of his "Grandmother Earth" (Ge, Gaea, or Gaia). Site of the Apollo cult, oracle, and eternal flame.
- 6 Dodona (about 6 km southwest of Ioannina, Epirus). The oldest recorded Hellenic oracle. There's a well preserved theater, built by King Pyrrhus, a must-see, which hosts theatrical performances.
- 7 Larissa (Thessaly). Historic Thessalian capital; the name means "stronghold" in ancient Greek. One of the oldest settlements in Greece, with artifacts uncovered dating at least the Neolithic period (6000 BC) and two ancient theaters, one Greek, the other Roman.
- 8 Mount Olympos (Thessaly). The highest mountain in Greece (2917 m), the abode of the Gods.
- 9 Marathon (Attica). Site of the famous battle against the Persians, 490 BC, and starting point of the First modern Olympiad's eponymous foot race, 1896.
- 10 Mycenae (Peloponnese). Royal seat of Agamemnon, High King of the Greeks and undisputed leader of the anti-Trojan coalition, according to the Iliad. Its prominence from about 1600 BC to about 1100 BC was such that it lends its name to this period of Greek history, habitually referred to as "Mycenaean". Its acropolis, continuously inhabited from the Early Neolithic onwards, in Roman times had already become a tourist attraction.
- 11 Nafplio (Peloponnese). Said to have been founded by and named after the Argonaut Nauplios, father of Palamidis who fought in the Trojan War, this town is a good base to head out to the numerous archeological sites surrounding it. UNESCO World Heritage sites Epidaurus with its gorgeous theater, Tiryns the Mighty-Walled (Homer's words), and Mycenae are just some of them.
- 12 Olympia (Peloponnese). Site of the original Olympic Games and the Temple of Zeus. Hosted the shot put event in the 2004 Olympic Games - the very first time women athletes competed in the venue.
- 13 Piraeus (Attica). Athenian harbor from time immemorial, still is the Greek capital's chief point of entry and exit by sea. There's a nice archeological museum here.
- 14 Pella (Central Macedonia). Alexander the Great's Macedonian capital and birthplace. In 168 BC, it was sacked by the Romans, and its treasury transported to Rome. Nowadays it's a rich archeological site.
- 15 Pylos (Peloponnese). The "Sandy Pylos" mentioned very often in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, home to King Nestor, eldest of Agamemnon's advisers. The remains of the so-called "Palace of Nestor" have been excavated nearby.
- 16 Sparta (Peloponnese). Even contemporaries agreed, that Athens would be perceived to have been much more important than Sparta. This is mostly because the Spartan society was very militaristic and invested in war rather than monuments or temples. A famous quote sums up the Spartan attitude towards building, even if for war: "Sparta has no walls. The Spartans are the wall of Sparta"
- 17 Thebes (Central Greece). From time immemorial, this city is featured in an abundant mass of legends which rival the myths of Troy. In Classical times, it was largest city of the ancient region of Boeotia, the leader of the Boeotian confederacy, and a major rival of Athens. It sided with the Persians during the 480 BC invasion, and formed a firm alliance with Sparta during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC). The modern city contains an archaeological museum, the remains of the Cadmea pre-Mycenaean citadel, and scattered ancient remains.
- 18 Thermopylae (Central Greece). The battlefield where King Leonidas and his 300 Lacedaemonians made their stand against the Persian army, immortalized in song, prose, comics and movies, in 480 BC. Today it's bisected by a highway, and right beside it, are the Spartans' burial mound, with a plaque containing the famous epitaph by Simonides: Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι. ("Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.") and a statue of Leonidas, under which an inscription reads laconically: Μολὼν λαβέ ("Come and take them!" — his answer to Xerxes' demand that the Greeks give up their weapons).
- 19 Volos (Thessaly). Identified with Iolkos, the alleged birthplace of mythical hero Jason, leader of the Argonauts. Features several archeological sites nearby.
- 20 Aegina. The famous Aegina Treasure (between 1700 and 1500 BC), now in the British Museum, came from this island. There stand the remains of three Greek temples.
- 21 Corfu (Corcyra, Korkyra). An island bound up with the history of Greece from the beginnings of Greek mythology. Famous sights, like the cave where Jason and Medea were married (Argonautica), or the beach where Ulysses met Nausicaa (Odyssey), remain very popular tourist attractions.
- 22 Delos. This island, the alleged birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, was already a holy sanctuary for a millennium before the establishment of this piece of Olympian Greek mythology; a very significant archaeological site.
- 23 Heraklion (Crete). Known in ancient times as Knossos; the ceremonial and political centre of the Minoan civilization and culture (3650 to 1400 BC).
- 24 Kos. Famously associated with native-born physician Hippocrates of Kos, the "Father of Western Medicine". Major historic attractions include the Asklepeion sanctuary, where he most probably studied, and the Platanus tree under which he taught his pupils the art of medicine.
- 25 Lindos (Rhodes). Beautiful hilltop town with a nice acropolis archeological site.
- 26 Mytilene (Lesbos). The historic capital of Lesbos island was briefly the home of master philosopher Aristotle. The island was also the home of Sappho, who is famous for her poetry with homoerotic features, which gave rise to the term 'lesbian' after the island's name. Nowadays, there is more than one archeological museum worth visiting.
- 27 Naxos. Herodotus describes Naxos circa 500 BC as the most prosperous of all the Greek islands. According to Greek mythology, the young Zeus was raised in Mt. Zas's cave. Besides some nice ruined temples to Apollo and Demeter, the island is considered as perfect for windsurfing, as well as kitesurfing.
- 28 Samos. Birthplace of Pythagoras, the famous mathematician. Features the remains of a once-famous sanctuary to goddess Hera.
- 29 Samothrace. Site of the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, the centre of a mystery cult that rivaled Delos and Delphi. Here was unearthed the Victory of Samothrace statue, a highlight of the Louvre.
- 30 Agrigento (Sicily). Site of the ancient Greek city of Akragas (Ἀκράγας), famous for its seven monumental Greek temples in the Doric style, constructed during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. Now excavated and partially restored, they constitute some of the largest and best-preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece itself.
- 31 Brindisi (Apulia). Allegedly founded by King Diomedes of Argos, after he lost his route back home from the siege of Troy. Its name comes from the Greek Brentesion (Βρεντήσιον) meaning "deer's head", which refers to the shape of its natural harbor. Some columns, most likely from the Roman period, still stand.
- 32 Cumae (Campania). Kumai (Κύμαι) was the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, founded by settlers from Euboea, allegedly led by the legendary gadget-maker Daedalus, in the 8th century BC. It's most famous as the seat of the Cumaean Sibyl, a priestess of Apollo with prophetic powers, very respected and consulted among the Romans. Her sanctuary is open to visitors.
- 33 Erice (Sicily). Ancient Eryx (Eρυξ) is today a gorgeous hilltop destination, where less than 500 people live close to a mediaeval fortification ("Venus Castle", built on the foundations of a temple to Aphrodite) on top of the 715 m high Mount Eryx. Local tradition places the lair of cyclops Polyphemus, Ulysses' foe in the Odyssey, on the side of this mountain. The town itself has wonderful views. There's a cable car that comes up from Trapani to the hilltop.
- 34 Gela (Sicily). founded around 688 BC by colonists from Rhodes and Crete; playwright Aeschylos, the "father of tragedy", died in this city in 456 BC.
- 35 Paestum (Campania). Widely considered to have the best and most extensive ancient Greek relics in the former Magna Graecia.
- 36 Reggio di Calabria (Calabria). A Greek colony at first, under the name Rhégion (Ῥήγιον, "Cape of the King"), Reggio is home to the National Archaeological Museum of Magna Græcia, one of the most important archaeological museums of Italy.
- 37 Segesta (Sicily). Said to have been founded by Trojan refugees, welcomed by the Elymians, right after the end of the Trojan War, Segesta is home to a beautiful Greek theater and an unusually well preserved Doric temple.
- 38 Selinunte (Sicily). Its Greek name was Selinous (Σελινοῦς). Features an extensive acropolis archeological site with several temples, one of which has been reconstructed.
- 39 Syracuse (Sicily). Famously besieged by an Athenian expedition (415-413 BC) during the Peloponnesian War. The siege was a failure and spelled the doom of the Athenian hegemony over the Greek world. It's also the birthplace of Archimedes, the famous philosopher and mathematician.
- 40 Taranto (Apulia). Taras (Τάρας) was founded as a Spartan colony. The modern city has been built over the Greek city; a few ruins remain, including part of the city wall, two temple columns dating to the 6th century BC, and tombs.
- 41 Trapani (Sicily). Founded as early as the 13th century BC, as Drepanon (Δρέπανον), by the same Greeks who called themselves the Elymian people and also founded Erice and Segesta. Recent scholarship formulates the hypothesis that princess Nausicaa, a highlighted character of the Odyssey, is the real author of the epic poem, and was born and raised in Drepanon - refer to Homeric translator Samuel Butler's The Authoress of the Odyssey and novelist Robert Graves' Homer's Daughter for further details.
- 42 Aphrodisias (Southern Aegean). Site of the Temple of Aphrodite. Now it's one of the best preserved ancient cities in Turkey, and without the usual crowds of Ephesus.
- 43 Assos (Northern Aegean). The Doric order columns of the hilltop Temple of Athena here are the only one of this type on the Asian mainland. Assos was also the site of the academy established by philosopher Aristotle.
- 44 Bergama (Northern Aegean). The UNESCO-listed Pergamon was once the capital of the Kingdom of Pergamon, ruled by a Hellenistic dynasty and held sway over most of western Anatolia. The ruins of Pergamon are among the most popular archaeological sites in Turkey, and there is much to see in two separate areas — although the impressive altar was taken to Germany in the late 19th century, and is now in display in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
- 45 Çavdarhisar (Central Anatolia). Features the impressive ruins of Aizanoi, site of the awesome Temple of Zeus.
- 46 Didyma (Southern Aegean). The sanctuary of the then great city of Miletus was once the site of an oracle that was as renowned as that of Delphi. Go there to see the ruins of the colossal Temple of Apollon, adorned with much ancient Greek art.
- 47 Ephesus (Central Aegean). A famous and prosperous polis in Classical times, birthplace of philosopher Heraclitus, now a large world heritage-listed archeological site and one of Turkey's major tourist attractions.
- 48 Foça (Central Aegean). Phocaea was the home of the sailors who ploughed the waves in the far-flung areas of the Western Mediterranean, founding a number of colonies along the coasts of Iberia, Italy, and France, Marseille being one of them. Some believe the offshore islands were the domain of the Sirens, beautiful sea fairies who doomed the sailors to death, found in Homer's Odyssey along with other Greek stories. Nowadays only scant ruins of Phocaea exist on a hillside some distance away from the modern town, but the cobbled streets of Foça are lined by Greek civic architecture of the 19th century throughout the town.
- 49 Gülpınar (north of Babakale, Northern Aegean). The site of the lonely ruins of the Temple of Apollon Smintheion, the major sacred site of the Troad Peninsula extending south of Troy.
- 50 Izmir (Central Aegean). Ancient Smyrna has always been famous as the birthplace of Homer, thought to have lived here around the 8th century BC. Its agora (central market place) is now an open-air museum.
- 51 Knidos (Southern Aegean). This was the site of the Aphrodite of Knidos, a statue depicting a nude goddess of love created in the 4th century BC, which became so famous that it sparked one of the earliest forms of tourism in the classical world. Nowadays Knidos doesn't have as many visitors, as it lies at the end of a remote peninsula and had its statue long since lost to oblivion.
- 52 Miletus (Southern Aegean). Considered to be the largest and the wealthiest of the Greek cities prior to the Persian invasion of the 6th century BC, Miletus is also the birthplace of mathematician and philosopher Thales.
- 53 Phaselis (south of Kemer, Lycia). Once the major harbor of the region, the ruins of Phaselis overgrown by a pine forest are now the destination of many daily cruises departing from the nearby resort towns.
- 54 Priene (Southern Aegean). The earliest city built on a grid plan, Priene was once a major harbor on the Ionian coast. Its hillside ruins now overlook a fertile plain, formed by the silting up of its harbor by the Meander River in the meantime.
- 55 Sinop (Black Sea Turkey). Σινώπη (Sinōpē), where an important stopover on the Argonauts' journey to Colchis took place, is also the birthplace of seminal philosopher Diogenes the Cynic.
- 56 Trabzon (Black Sea Turkey). Τραπεζοῦς (Trapezous) was the first Greek city reached by Xenophon and the Ten Thousand mercenaries, when fighting their way out of Persia, as described in the Anabasis.
- 57 Troy (Southern Marmara). The scenery of all the action contained in Homer's Iliad.
- 58 Beglik Tash (7 km north of Primorsko). A Thracian megalithic sanctuary used for more than a millennium, from 14th century BC to the 4th century AD.
- 59 Burgas (Bulgarian Black Sea Coast). The present city's territory features the Aquae Calidae hot springs, already used in the Neolithic between the 6th and 5th millennium BC. In the 4th century BC, Philip II of Macedon conquered the region and, according to legend, he was a frequent guest here.
- 60 Nesebar (Bulgarian Black Sea Coast). Founded as a Greek colony, the ancient city of Mesembria was located on a former island, which has sunk under water. However, some remains from the Hellenistic period are extant, including the acropolis, a temple of Apollo, a market place, and a fortification wall, which can still be seen on the north side of the peninsula.
- 61 Plovdiv (Upper Thracian Plain). Ancient Philippopolis was the historic capital of Thracia. Several ruins can be seen in or near the downtown area, including an aqueduct and a very well preserved theater.
- 62 Sozopol (Bulgarian Black Sea Coast). Anciently known as Apollonia Pontica (that is, "Apollonia on the Black Sea", the ancient Pontus Euxinus) and Apollonia Magna ("Great Apollonia"), founded in the 7th century BC by colonists from Miletus. A part of the ancient seaside fortifications, including a gate, have been preserved, along with an amphitheater.
- 63 Varna (Bulgarian Black Sea Coast). Started to exist as a Greek colony named Odessos (Ὀδησσός). Home to the remains of a large bathing complex, and an archeological museum.
- 64 Constanța (Northern Dobruja). Originally a Greek colony, named Tomis.
- 65 Mangalia (Northern Dobruja). Started to exist as a Greek colony named Callatis in the 6th century BC. Today, it's a rich archeological site, with ruins of the original Callatis citadel and an archeological museum.
- 66 Chersonesus Taurica ("Taurica" stands for the Crimean Peninsula) (Sevastopol, about 3 km from the city centre). Χερσόνησος was founded by settlers from Heraclea Pontica in Bithynia in the 6th century BC. On the site are various Byzantine basilicas, including a famous one with marble columns. It's listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 67 Feodosiya. Founded as Theodosia (Θεοδοσία) by Greek colonists from Miletos in the 6th century BC. It was destroyed by the Huns in the 4th century AD. In the late 13th century, the city was purchased from the ruling Golden Horde by the Republic of Genoa; the present city's main historic attractions date from this period.
- 68 Kerch. Greek colonists from Miletos founded Panticapaeum (Παντικάπαιον) in the 7th century BC. Panticapaeum subdued nearby cities and by 480 BC became a capital of the Kingdom of Bosporus. Later, during the rule of Mithradates VI Eupator, Panticapaeum for a short period of time became the capital of the much more powerful and extensive Kingdom of Pontus. Its archeological site features ruins from the 5th century BC up to the 3rd century AD.
- 69 Yevpatoria. An ancient city with more that 2500 years of history, named after King Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus; the first recorded settlement in the area, called Kerkinitis (Κερκινίτις), was built by Greek colonists around 500 BC.
- 70 Batumi. This was the Greek colony of Bathys in the land of Colchis, the final destination of Jason and his Argonauts in their pursuit of the "Golden Fleece" around Pontos Axeinos, "the inhospitable sea". While not much remains of Bathys, in 2007 the city has erected a large statue in honour of Medea, mythical Colchian princess and the wife of Jason, depicting her while holding what appears to be the Golden Fleece.
- 71 Kutaisi. Identified as Aea, King Aeëtes' capital in Colchis, from whence the Golden Fleece was seized. Nearby, the so-called Prometheus's Cave is reported to have amazing stalactites.
- 72 Paphos. Renowned in antiquity as the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. A few miles outside the city, the rock of Aphrodite (Petra tou Romiou, "Stone of the Greek") emerges from the sea. According to legend, Aphrodite rose from the waves in this strikingly beautiful spot.
- 73 Alexandria. Egyptian capital until the Islamic conquest, the best known of several towns founded by and named for Alexander the Great, nicknamed by him "my window on Greece". A center of learning in antiquity as well as the seat of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
- 74 Cyrene. Ancient Cyrene was the oldest, largest and the most important of the five Greek cities ("pentapolis") of the greater Cyrenaica region. Prospered with the trade of its rich agricultural products, the city became one of the most influential centres of ancient Greek culture and art, gave rise to the hedonistic "Cyrenaics" movement, and was nicknamed the "Athens of Africa". Ruins of several temples dedicated to the Greek gods dot the site.