The Aegean World

Essential Question(s): what impact did geography and city-states have on ancient Greek civilization?

Background Knowledge: In much of the ancient world, civilizations developed in great rivers valleys.  But there were no large rivers in Greece.  Instead, Greek civilization developed on the dry, rocky lands surrounding the Aegean Sea.  In this reading, you will learn how geography helped shaped Greek Civilization.

The Geography of Greece

The land of Greece is small.  But it has produced kings who conquered many lands and ideas that reached around the world.  In fact, ancient Greek culture played a major part in the growth of western civilization.  Western civilization is the civilization that began around the eastern Mediterranean in ancient times and grew to include the modern cultures of Europe and the Americas.  Many words and ideas we use today can be traced to ancient Greek-speaking peoples.  Ancient Greece was not a single country.  It was a region where people who spoke an early form of the Greek language settled about 2000 B.C.  Greece’s geography had important effects on how those people lived.  Most of Greece consists of a large peninsula that juts into the Mediterranean Sea.  A peninsula is a body of land surrounded on three sides by water.  The Greek Peninsula sits between Europe, Africa, and Asia.  This location has made it a crossroads for people and commerce since ancient times.  For centuries, travelers and traders passing through or near Greece have exchanged goods, ideas, and customs.


Surrounded by Seas: Greece is bordered by three bodies of water.  To the east lies an arm of the Mediterranean known as the Aegean Sea.  Beyond the Aegean Sea is western Asia.  In ancient times, the empire of Persia controlled much of the land across the Aegean Sea from Greece.

To the west of Greece is the Ionian Sea.  This arm of the Mediterranean lies between Greece and the Italian Peninsula.  To the south lie the open waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the coast of North Africa.

The seas surrounding Greece contain hundreds of small islands.  Seagoing peoples have occupied these islands for thousands of years.  The largest Greek island, Crete, lies off the southern tip of the Greek Peninsula.

The first civilization to appear in Europe emerged on the island of Crete.  It is known has the Minoan civilization, named after King Minos, described in later Greek legends.  The Minoans built great stone palaces on Crete.  They traded goods with other people on the Greek Peninsula, with Egypt, and with other Mediterranean lands.  Although the Minoans did not speak Greek, they influenced the culture and legends of early Greece.  Then, in early 1400sB.C, their palaces were destroyed and their civilization vanished.  No one is quite sure why.  Natural disasters such as earthquakes or a volcano may have played a part.


A rugged Land:  The Greek Peninsula has a rugged or rough and rocky coastline.  Many large bays cut into the Greek mainland.  The mainland is the part of a country that is attached to a continent, as compared to its offshore islands.  A number of peninsulas also extend from the Greek mainland.  The largest of these is the Peloponnesian Peninsula in southern Greece.  This mountainous block of land is linked to the main part of Greece by an isthmus.  An isthmus is a narrow strip of land that connects two larger bodies of land. 

In ancient times, Greece also included the coastline along the eastern edge of the Aegean Sea, in what is now Turkey.  This coastal region of Southwest Asia was called Ionia.  The Greek landscape is rugged.  Most of the land is covered with mountains.  The people of ancient Greece believed that the highest one, Mount Olympus, was the home of their gods.  The rest of Greece is made up of narrow valleys and small plains.

The effects of Geography:

The geographic features of Greece played an important role in the development of Greek culture.  Mountains, seas, and climate were factors that shaped the way ancient Greeks lived.

The influence of landscape:

The landscape of Greece had a major effect on agriculture.  The mountains were good for grazing sheep and goats, but they were too steep and rocky for farming.  Fertile land was limited to lowland valleys and plains.  Less than one quarter of the land could be used for farming.  The lack of level farmland in Greece meant that the people of ancient Greece could not produce large amounts of grain.

The mountains also had another important effect-they separated Greek settlements from one another.  Most Greek towns were isolated in deep valleys.  Narrow paths crossed the mountains.  But it might take days to travel between towns. This made it difficult to unite Greece into a single country.

Although food production in Greece was limited by the lack of farmland, Greece did have another key resource: the sea.  Most towns in Greece were less than 60 miles from the sea.  Many were much closer.  This access to the sea enabled the Greeks to engaged in fishing and trade.  The sea provided an important food source.  It also served as a highway for trade and transportation.

Geographic barriers, along with small grain crops, kept the Greeks from building one unified country.  Instead, they remained in small, independent communities.

A mild climate:

The climate of the Greek Peninsula was another factor in its development.  Greece has a Mediterranean climate.  This is a climate that features mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers.  Greek farmers faced the risk of too much rain or flooding in the winter.  They also had to cope with long, hot summers with little or no rain.

Greece’s Mediterranean climate made it difficult for Greek farmers to grow shallow-rooted crops such as grains, which need frequent watering.  However, it was ideal for growing deep-rooted plants such as olive tees and grape vines.  Olive oil and wine became important trade goods.

The Greek believed that their mild, dry climate made them superior to other peoples.  One Greek philosopher wrote that “The Greeks occupy a middle position [between hot and cold climates] and … enjoy both energy and intelligence. “ whether their climate made the Greeks smarter than other peoples is doubtful.  However, they did succeed in building a great civilization in a land with limited resources.

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