Who Were The Ancient Greeks?

From Will Durant’s Heroes of History, abbreviated from his Story of Civilization volume 2, The Life of Greece. Read more WillDurant.com

Who were the ancient Greeks and whence did they come? They came from all directions: from western Asia, from the islands of the Aegean Sea, from Crete, Egypt, and the Balkans, some even from “Scythia” – ie, southern Russia. They pastured flocks, tilled the earth, traded, built villages and towns, fought wars, and submitted to chieftains or kings like Agamemnon of Mycenae and Codrus of Athens.

The Mycenaeans probably derived their civilization from Crete and Egypt, while the settlements of eastern Greece seem to have imported their cultural elements from western Asia and the Aegean isles. The mating of Asiatic and Cretan subtlety and Egyptian refinements with the barbaric vigor of the tribes that had come down into Hellas from the North seems to have set the biological basis of “the glory that was Greece.”

More important that that cross-fertilization was the astonishing spread and development of the Greeks throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, from the Byzantium that became Constantinople to those “Pillars of Hercules“ that became Gibraltar.

Whether in flight from Dorian or other invasions, or to relieve their own crowding growth, the Greeks, in the six centuries between Agamemnon and Pericles, sent their adventurous surplus from Attica and the Peloponnesus to establish Greek colonies as far north as the Crimea, where Orestes found Iphigenia; as far east as Colchis, at the far end of the Black Sea, where Jason found Medea and the golden Fleece; along the southern shores of the Black Sea and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

Along that famous coastline, or near it, the Greeks, before they made Athens famous, developed a string of twelve cities which came to be called the Dodecapolis of Ionia; these twelve contributed almost as much to Greek history as the cities of Attica.

At Teos the poet Anacreon, 570 B.C., sang of inspiring wines and ambidextrous love. At Miletus, 00 B.C., Thales established the first school of Greek philosophy, and powerfully advanced Greek geometry and astronomy.

Rounding the toe of Italy, we pass between Italy and Sicily; these “Straits of Messina are probably the “Scylla and Charybdis“ of Homer’s Odyssey. Soon we reach Velia, the ancient Elea, where Parmenides and one of many Zenos, about 445 B.C., founded a famous school of philosophy and puzzlement.

The north to Pesto, known to its Greek founders as Poseidonia, and to the Romans as Paestum; there, 600 years B.C., the Greeks built temples still bravely beautiful in their ruins. Further north the Greeks founded Neapolis – “New City” – which we call Naples.

“¦[W]e can fly in an hour to Sicily, where the insatiable Greeks built cities at Syracuse, Messina, Catana, Gela, and Acragas. At Syracuse, Archimedes was born (287 B.C.), greatest of Greek mathematicians, so in love with levers that, her felt, with one of them and a foot of land to stand on, he could move the earth.

At Acragas, now Girgenti, on Sicily’s southwestern shore, the prosperous colony raised to the goddess Concord a temple that still survives after twenty-three hundred years of war and politics. There Empedocles was born, about the year of Marathon; and perhaps it was there, and not in Etna’s crater, that he died.

Turning north, the Greek merchants built towns at Antipolis (Antibes), Nikaia (Nice), Monoccus (Monaco), and Massilia (Marseilles).

Sailing still further westward, they built castles in Spain, as at Ampurias and Managa (near Malaga). Then, perhaps frightened by winds form the Atlantic, they turned back to their motherlands and enriched them with the proceedings of their conquests and trade.


Aristotle described the constitutional history of 158 Greek city-states, but there were many more. Each contributed, in commerce industry, science, philosophy, literature, or art, to what we should mean by “ancient Greece.”

In the colonies, as well as on the mainland, were born Greek poetry and prose, mathematics and metaphysics. Without those colonial tentacles, Greek civilization, the most precious product in our secular heritage, might never have been.


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