Civilization in Greece first arose on Crete in the 3rd millennium BC , probably as a result of immigration from Asia Minor (now Turkey). The Minoan civilization (c.3000–c.1100 BC ), named after the legendary King Minos (which may have been a title rather than a name), was centered in the capital of Knossos. Civilization on the mainland, known as Helladic (c.2700–c.1100 BC ), probably originated from Crete. During the 2nd millennium BC , Greece was conquered by Indo-European invaders: first the Achaeans, then the Aeolians and Ionians, and finally the Dorians. The Greeks, who called themselves Hellenes after a tribe in Thessaly (they were called Greeks by the Romans after another tribe in northwestern Greece), adapted the native culture to their own peasant village traditions and developed the characteristic form of ancient Greek political organization, the city-state (polis). The resulting Mycenaean civilization (c.1600–c.1100 BC ), named after the dominant city-state of Mycenae, constituted the latter period of the Helladic civilization. The Mycenaeans destroyed Knossos about 1400 BC and, according to legend, the city of Troy in Asia Minor about 1200 BC . The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations both came to a relatively abrupt end about 1100 BC , possibly as a result of the Dorian invasion, but the foundations had already been laid for what was to become the basis of Western civilization. It was the Greeks who first tried democratic government; produced the world's first outstanding dramatists, poets, historians, philosophers, and orators; and made the first scientific study of medicine, zoology, botany, physics, geometry, and the social sciences.
In the 1st millennium BC , overpopulation forced the Greeks to emigrate and to colonize areas from Spain to Asia Minor. The Greeks derived their alphabet from the Phoenicians during the 8th century BC . By the 6th century BC , the two dominant city-states were Athens and Sparta. The 5th century BC , recognized as the golden age of Athenian culture, brought the defeat of the Persians by the Athenians in the Persian Wars (490–479 BC ) and the defeat of Athens and its allies by Sparta and its allies in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC ). The inability of Greeks to unite politically led to the annexation of their territories by Philip II of Macedon in 338 BC and by his son Alexander the Great. Through Alexander's ambition for world empire and his admiration of Greek learning, Greek civilization was spread to all his conquered lands. The death of Alexander in 323 BC , the breakup of his empire, and the lack of national feeling among the Greeks prepared the way for their conquest by Rome at the close of the Macedonian Wars in 146 BC . Greece was made a Roman province, but Athens remained a center of learning, and the Greek language and culture were widely influential in Rome, in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, and elsewhere. For this reason, the period between the death of Alexander and the beginning of the Roman Empire is known as the Hellenistic period.
When the Roman Empire was officially divided in AD 395, Greece, by this time Christianized, became part of the Eastern Roman Empire, which became known as the Byzantine Empire (so named from Byzantium, the former name of Constantinople, its capital), which lasted for more than a thousand years. During this period, Greek civilization continued to contribute to Byzantine art and culture.
The formal schism between Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism came in 1054, when Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius excommunicated each other. The continuity of Byzantine rule was broken by the fall of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Under the Latin Empire of the East, which lasted until 1261, Greece was divided into feudal fiefs, with the Duchy of Athens passing successively under French, Spanish, and Florentine rulers.
The Ottoman Turks, who conquered Constantinople in 1453 and the Greek peninsula by the end of the decade, gave the Greeks a large degree of local autonomy. Communal affairs were controlled by the Orthodox Church, and Greek merchants ranged throughout the world on their business ventures, but Greece itself was poverty-stricken. Following an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Turks in 1770—an uprising aided by Russia, as part of Catherine the Great's plan to replace Muslim with Orthodox Christian rule throughout the Near East—the Greeks, led by the archbishop of Patras, proclaimed a war of independence against the Turks on 25 March 1821. The revolution, which aroused much sympathy in Europe, succeeded only after Britain, France, and Russia decided to aid the Greeks in 1827. These three nations recognized Greek independence through the London Protocol of 1830, and the Ottomans accepted the terms later in the year.
The same three powers also found for Greece a king in the person of Otto I of Bavaria. But he was never popular and was overthrown in 1862, in favor of Prince William George of Denmark, who ruled as King George I until he was assassinated in 1913. During the second half of the 19th century and until after World War II, Greece gradually added islands and neighboring territories with Greek-speaking populations, including the Ionian Islands, ceded by the British in 1864; Thessaly, seized from Turkey in 1881; Macedonia, Crete, and some Aegean islands in 1913; and the Dodecanese Islands and Rhodes, ceded by Italy in 1947.
King Paul died on 6 March 1964 and was succeeded by his son Constantine. Meanwhile, a parliamentary crisis was brewing, as rightist and leftist elements struggled for control of the army, and the government sought to purge the military of political influence. On 21 April 1967, a successful coup d'etat was staged by a right-wing military junta; leftists were rounded up, press censorship was imposed, and political liberties were suspended. After an unsuccessful countercoup on 13 December 1967, King Constantine and the royal family fled to exile in Italy. Lt. Gen. George Zoetakis was named regent to act for the king, and Col. George Papadopoulos was made premier. A constitutional reform was approved by 92% of the voters in a plebiscite held under martial law on 29 September 1968. Under the new constitution, individual rights were held to be subordinate to the interests of the state, many powers of the king and legislature were transferred to the ruling junta, and the army was granted extended powers as overseer of civil order. The constitution outlawed membership in the Communist Party. US military aid to Greece, suspended after the 1967 coup, was restored by President Richard M. Nixon in September 1970.
For Greece, the first half of the 20th century was a period of wars and rivalries with Turkey; of republican rule under the Cretan patriot Eleutherios Venizelos; of occupation by Italy and Germany during World War II (in World War I, Greece had been neutral for three years and had then sided with the Allies); and of a five-year civil war (1944–49) between the government and the Communist-supported National Liberation Front, in which US aid under the Truman Doctrine played a significant role in defeating the insurgency. In September 1946, the Greeks voted back to the throne the twice-exiled George II (grandson of George I), who was succeeded upon his death in April 1947 by his brother Paul I. A new constitution took effect in 1952, the same year Greece joined NATO. For much of the decade, Greece backed demands by Greek Cypriots for enosis , or the union of Cyprus with Greece, but in 1959, the Greek, Turkish, and Cypriot governments agreed on a formula for an independent Cyprus, which became a reality in 1960.
Following an abortive naval mutiny in 1973, Greece was declared a republic by the surviving junta. Papadopoulos became president, only to be overthrown by a group of officers following the bloody repression of a student uprising. The complicity of the junta in a conspiracy by Greek army officers on Cyprus against the government of Archbishop Makarios precipitated the final fall from power of Greece's military rulers in July 1974, when the Turkish army intervened in Cyprus and overwhelmed the island's Greek contingent. Constantine Karamanlis, a former prime minister and moderate, returned from exile to form a civilian government that effectively ended eight years of dictatorial rule.
General elections were held on 17 November 1974, the first since 1964, and marked the recovery of democratic rule. In a referendum held on 8 December 1974, 69% of the electorate voted to end the monarchy and to declare Greece a parliamentary republic. On 7 June 1975, a democratic constitution was adopted by the new legislature, although 86 of the 300 members boycotted the session. Karamanlis became Greece's first prime minister under the new system, and on 19 June 1975, parliament elected Konstantinos Tsatsos as president.
Prime Minister Karamanlis, who had withdrawn Greece from NATO's military structure in 1974 to protest Turkey's invasion of Cyprus, resumed military cooperation with NATO in the fall of 1980 (a few months after he was elected president of Greece) and brought his nation into the EC effective 1 January 1981. With the victory of the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement (Panellinio Socialistikou Kinema—PASOK) in the elections of October 1981, Greece installed its first Socialist government. The new prime minister, Andreas Papandreou—the son of former Prime Minister George Papandreou and a man accused by rightists in 1967 of complicity in an abortive leftist military plot—had campaigned on a promise to take Greece out of the EC (although his government did not do so). In November 1982, he refused to allow Greek participation in NATO military exercises in the Aegean, which were then canceled. In January 1983, the government declared a general amnesty for the Communist exiles of the 1944–49 civil war.
In mid-1982, in an attempt to deal with the deepening economic crisis, the government created a ministry of national economy, which embraced industrial and commercial affairs. The proposed "radical socialization" of the economy, however, provoked widespread opposition, which limited it to the introduction of worker participation in supervisory councils; state control was imposed only on the pharmaceutical industry (in 1982), and of Greece's largest enterprises, only the Heracles Cement Co. was nationalized (in 1983). Relations with labor were strained as the government sought to balance worker demands that wages be indexed to inflation with the growing need for austerity; in late 1986, the government imposed a two-year wage freeze, which provoked widespread strikes and demonstrations.
In 1985, Prime Minister Papandreou unexpectedly withdrew his support for President Karamanlis's bid for a second five-year term and announced amendments to the constitution that would transfer powers from the president to the legislature and prime minister. Karamanlis resigned, and Papandreou proceeded with his proposed changes, calling an election in June and winning a mandate to follow through with them (parliament's approval was given in March 1986). Subsequently, however, the government began to lose power; the opposition made substantial gains in the 1986 local elections, and a 1987 scandal associated with Papandreou further weakened the government. In January 1988, Papandreou met with Turkish Premier Turgut Ozal in Switzerland; they agreed to work toward solving the problems between the two countries.
Two rounds of parliamentary elections were held in 1989; neither was conclusive. After the June vote, the center-conservative New Democracy (ND) party, with 146 of 300 seats, formed a government with left-wing parties and concentrated on investigating scandals of the Papandreou government, including those of the former prime minister himself. That government resigned in the fall, and new elections were held in November. The ND and PASOK both improved their totals and an all-party coalition was formed to address economic reform. That government, however, also failed. In April 1990 elections, the ND emerged victorious to lead the government.
In the balloting of 10 October 1993, PASOK won 171 seats to 110 for the ND and Papandreou was again elected prime minister, despite repeated scandals of both personal and political nature. In 1995, parliament appointed Konstandinos Stephanopoulos president. Voters appeared dissatisfied with ND's economic reforms while PASOK won support for its hard-line foreign policy demanding that the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia change its name. Many Greeks believe the name of the newly independent state implies territorial designs on the northern Greek region, which once formed part of historic Macedonia. In 1995, Papandreou became ill and was not able to adequately perform his duties. In January 1996, PASOK named Costas Simitis prime minister. In June of that year, Papandreou died at 77, ending the tumultuous political career of postwar Greece's most important—and controversial—politician.
In 1996, Simitis, facing strong resistance to austerity measures from labor and farmers, called on the president to dissolve parliament and hold early elections. Simitis had vowed not to call for a dissolution, but faced with mounting opposition to his austerity measures—taken to prepare the Greek economy for European monetary union in 1999—felt he needed a reinforced mandate. The election, held on 22 September 1996, returned PASOK and Simitis to power, giving them, in fact, a commanding majority in parliament.
The next four years were highlighted by continued Greek-Turkish tension, and Simitis's push for Greek entry into the monetary union. Relations with Turkey reached a new low in early 1999 when Turkey's most-wanted man, Kurdish terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan, was captured by the Turkish secret services in Nairobi, Kenya. Ocalan had sought refuge in the Greek embassy and was seized while en route to the airport, apparently on the way to an asylum-granting country in Africa. Ocalan's capture led to subsequent Turkish charges that the Greek state sponsored international terrorism.
The outbreak of the Kosovo war little over a month later also placed Greece in an awkward diplomatic position. Although the overwhelming majority of the Greek public opposed the war, the Simitis government maintained its ties to NATO and offered logistical—although not combat—support to its allies. Nevertheless, the popular anti-Western backlash remained for some months as evidenced by riots that accompanied President Bill Clinton's visit in November 1999.
Unexpectedly, relations with Turkey began a significant improvement in August 1999 following a devastating earthquake in Turkey that killed over 20,000 Turkish citizens. Greece was among the first countries to offer aid to its traditional foe. When a smaller earthquake struck Greece the following month, Turkey reciprocated the Greek gesture. In the aftermath of the tragedies, Greece and Turkey continued a dialogue that resulted in the signing of cooperation accords in the areas of commerce and the fight against terrorism. In addition, Greece's support of the decision of the December 1999 EU summit in Helsinki to place Turkey as a candidate for EU membership also helped to continue the thaw in Greece's relations with its eastern neighbor. When the EU in late 2002 announced Turkey would not be one of 10 new candidate countries invited to join the body as of 2004, Greece pressed the EU to set a date for the start of accession talks. Relations between the two countries have also warmed due to plans to build a natural gas pipeline connecting them. Following the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, however, Greece asserted its need to enhance and reorganize its defense forces, especially in Thrace and the Aegean islands, close to its border with Turkey.
Simitis's austerity measures also began to bear fruit as the country entered the euro zone on 1 January 2002. Greece's international standing received a boost with the decision of the International Olympic Committee to award the 2004 Summer Olympics to Greece. Economic and cultural achievements such as these along with the improvement in relations with Turkey may have proved decisive in giving PASOK the edge in the April 2000 elections.
Negotiations between the Greek and Turkish leaders in Cyprus were held in early 2003 to see if they could agree on a plan to unify the island prior to Cyprus signing an EU accession treaty on 16 April. The talks failed, and the internationally recognized Greek government of Cyprus signed the accession treaty. However, later that month, Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash opened the borders of northern Cyprus to Greeks, and by 15 May 2003, about 250,000 Greek Cypriots and 70,000 Turkish Cypriots—40% of the island's combined population—had visited each other's side.
Approximately 90% of Greece's population was opposed to the US-led war in Iraq that began on 19 March 2003. Prime Minister Costas Simitis indicated that by waging war, the United States and United Kingdom were undermining the EU. Yet he gave the coalition permission for use of Greece's airspace in launching strikes against Iraq.