The Geography Of Ancient Greece And Its Early Inhabitants
We have seen that the Oriental-world, so favored by nature, so rich
in fields, in flocks, and fruits, failed to realize the higher destiny of
man. In spite of all the advantages of nature, he was degraded by debasing
superstitions, and by the degeneracy which wealth and ease produced. He
was enslaved by vices and by despots. The Assyrian and Babylonian kingdom,
that "head of gold," as seen in Nebuchadnezzar's dream, became inferior
the "breast and arms of silver," as represented by the Persian Empire, and
this, in turn, became subject to the Grecian States, "the belly and the
thighs of brass." It is the nobler Hellenic race, with its original
genius, its enterprise, its stern and rugged nature, strengthened by toil,
and enterprise, and war, that we are now to contemplate. It is Greece--the
land of song, of art, of philosophy--the land of heroes and freemen, to
which we now turn our eyes--the most interesting, and the most famous of
the countries of antiquity.
Let us first survey that country in all its stern ruggedness and
picturesque beauty. It was small compared with Assyria or Persia. Its
original name was Hellas, designated by a little district of Thessaly,
which lay on the southeast verge of Europe, and extended in length from
the thirty-sixth to the fortieth degree of latitude. It contained, with
its islands, only twenty-one thousand two hundred and ninety square
miles--less than Portugal or Ireland, but its coasts exceeded the whole
Pyrenean peninsula. Hellas is itself a peninsula, bounded on the north by
the Cambunian and Ceraunian mountains, which separated it from Macedonia;
on the east by the AEgean Sea, (Archipelago), which separated it from Asia
Minor; on the south by the Cretan Sea, and on the west by the Ionian Sea.
The northern part of this country of the Hellenes is traversed by a
range of mountains, commencing at Acra Ceraunia, on the Adriatic, and
tending southeast above Dodona, in Epirus, till they join the Cambunian
mountains, near Mount Olympus, which run along the coast of the AEgean till
they terminate in the southeastern part of Thessaly, under the names of
Ossa, Pelion, and Tisaeus. The great range of Pindus enters Greece at the
sources of the Peneus, where it crosses the Cambunian mountains, and
extends at first south, and then east to the sea, nearly inclosing
Thessaly, and dividing it from the rest of Greece. After throwing out the
various spurs of Othrys, OEta, and Corax, it loses itself in those famous
haunts of the Muses--the heights of Parnassus and Helicon, in Phocis and
Boeotia, In the southern part of Greece are the mountains which intersect
the Peloponnesus in almost every part, the principal of which are Scollis,
Aroanii, and Taygetus. We can not enumerate the names of all these
mountains; it is enough to say that no part of Europe, except Switzerland,
is so covered with mountains as Greece, some of which attain the altitude
of perpetual snow. Only a small part of the country is level.
The rivers, again, are numerous, but more famous for associations
than for navigable importance. The Peneus which empties itself into the
AEgean, a little below Tempe; the Achelous, which flows into the Ionian
Sea; the Alpheus, flowing into the Ionian Sea; and the Eurotas, which
enters the Laconican Gulf, are among the most considerable. The lakes are
numerous, but not large. The coasts are lined by bays and promontories,
favorable to navigation in its infancy, and for fishing. The adjacent seas
are full of islands, memorable in Grecian history, some of which are of
Thus intersected in all parts with mountains, and deeply indented
by the sea, Greece was both mountainous and maritime. The mountains, the
rivers, the valleys, the sea, the islands contributed to make the people
enterprising and poetical, and as each State was divided from every other
State by mountains, or valleys, or gulfs, political liberty was
engendered. The difficulties of cultivating a barren soil on the highlands
inured the inhabitants to industry and economy, as in Scotland and New
England, while the configuration of the country strengthened the powers of
defense, and shut the people up from those invasions which have so often
subjugated a plain and level country. These natural divisions also kept
the States from political union, and fostered a principle of repulsion,
and led to an indefinite multiplication of self-governing towns, and to
great individuality of character.
Situated in the same parallels of latitude as Asia Minor, and the
south of Italy and Spain, Greece produced wheat, barley, flax, wine, oil,
in the earliest times. The cultivation of the vine and the olive was
peculiarly careful. Barley cakes were more eaten than wheaten. All
vegetables and fish were abundant and cheap. But little fresh meat was
eaten. Corn also was imported in considerable quantities by the maritime
States in exchange for figs, olives, and oil. The climate, clear and
beautiful to modern Europeans, was less genial than that of Asia Minor,
but more bracing and variable. It also varied in various sections.
These various sections, or provinces, or states, into which Greece was
divided, claim a short notice.
The largest and most northerly State was Epirus, containing four
thousand two hundred and sixty square miles, bounded on the north by
Macedonia, on the east by Thessaly, on the south by Acarnania, and on the
west by the Ionian Sea. Though mountainous, it was fertile, and produced
excellent cattle and horses. Of the interesting places of Epirus,
memorable in history, ranks first Dodona, celebrated for its oracle, the
most ancient in Greece, and only inferior to that of Delphi. It was
founded by the Pelasgi before the Trojan war and was dedicated to Jupiter.
The temple was surrounded by a grove of oak, but the oracles were latterly
delivered by the murmuring of fountains. On the west of Epirus is the
island of Corcyra (Corfu), famous for the shipwreck of Ulysses, and for
the gardens of Aleinous, and for having given rise to the Peloponnesian
war. Epirus is also distinguished as the country over which Pyrrhus ruled.
The Acheron, supposed to communicate with the infernal regions, was one of
West of Epirus was Thessaly, and next to it in size, containing
four thousand two hundred and sixty square miles. It was a plain inclosed
by mountains; next to Boeotia, the most fertile of all the States of
Greece, abounding in oil, wine, and corn, and yet one of the weakest and
most insignificant politically. The people were rich, but perfidious. The
river Peneus flowed through the entire extent of the country, and near its
mouth was the vale of Tempe, the most beautiful valley in Greece, guarded
by four strong fortresses.
At some distance from the mouth of the Peneus was Larissa, the city
of Achilles, and the general capital of the Pelasgi. At the southern
extremity of the lake Caelas, the largest in Thessaly, was Pherae, one of
the most ancient cities in Greece, and near it was the fountain of
Hyperia. In the southern part of Thessaly was Pharsalia, the battle-ground
between Caesar and Pompey, and near it was Pyrrha, formerly called Hellas,
where was the tomb of Hellen, son of Deucalion, whose descendants, AEolus,
Dorus and Ion, are said to have given name to the three nations, AEolians,
Dorians, and Ionians, Still further south, between the inaccessible cliffs
of Mount OEta and the marshes which skirt the Maliaeus Bay, were the
defiles of Thermopylae, where Leonidas and three hundred heroes died
defending the pass, against the army of Xerxes, and which in one place was
only twenty-five feet wide, so that, in so narrow a defile, the Spartans
were able to withstand for three days the whole power of Persia. In this
famous pass the Amphictyonic council met annually to deliberate on the
common affairs of all the States.
South of Epirus, on the Ionian Sea, and west of AEtolia, was
Acarnania, occupied by a barbarous people before the Pelasgi settled in
it. It had no historic fame, except as furnishing on its waters a place
for the decisive battle which Augustus gained over Antony, at Actium, and
for the islands on the coast, one of which, Ithaca, a rugged and
mountainous island, was the residence of Ulysses.
AEtolia, to the east of Acarnania, and south of Thessaly, and
separated from Achaia by the Corinthian Gulf, contained nine hundred and
thirty square miles. Its principal city was Thermon, considered
impregnable, at which were held splendid games and festivals. The AEtolians
were little known in the palmy days of Athens and Sparta, except as a
hardy race, but covetous and faithless.
Doris was a small tract to the east of AEtolia, inhabited by one of
the most ancient of the Greek tribes--the Dorians, called so from Dorus,
son of Deucalion, and originally inhabited that part of Thessaly in which
were the mountains of Olympus and Ossa. From this section they were driven
by the Cadmeans. Doris was the abode of the Heraclidae when exiled from the
Peloponnesus, and which was given to Hyllas, the son of Hercules, in
gratitude by AEgiminius, the king, who was reinstated by the hero in his
Locri Ozolae was another small State, south of Doris, from which it
is separated by the range of the Parnassus situated on the Corinthian
Gulf, the most important city of which was Salona, surrounded on all sides
by hills. Naupactus was also a considerable place, known in the Middle
Ages as Lepanto, where was fought one of the decisive naval battles of the
world, in which the Turks were defeated by the Venetians. It contained
three hundred and fifty square miles.
Phocis was directly to the east, bounded on the north by Doris and
the Locri Epicnemidii, and south by the Corinthian Gulf. This State
embraced six hundred and ten square miles. The Phocians are known in
history from the sacred or Phocian war, which broke out in 357 B.C., in
consequence of refusing to pay a fine imposed by the Amphictyonic council.
The Thebans and Locrians carried on this war successfully, joined by
Philip of Macedon, who thus paved the way for the sovereignty of Greece.
One among the most noted places was Crissa, famed for the Pythian games,
and Delphi, renowned for its oracle sacred to Apollo. The priestess,
Pythia, sat on a sacred tripod over the mouth of a cave, and pronounced
her oracles in verse or prose. Those who consulted her made rich presents,
from which Delphi became vastly enriched. Above Delphi towers Parnassus,
the highest mountain in central Greece, near whose summit was the supposed
residence of Deucalion.
Boeotia was the richest State in Greece, so far as fertility of soil
can make a State rich. It was bounded on the north by the territory of the
Locri, on the west by Phocis, on the south by Attica, and on the east by
the Euboean Sea. It contained about one thousand square miles. Its
inhabitants were famed for their stolidity, and yet it furnished Hesiod,
Pindar, Corinna, and Plutarch to the immortal catalogue of names. Its men,
if stupid, were brave, and its women were handsome. It was originally
inhabited by barbarous tribes, all connected with the Leleges. In its
southwestern part was the famous Helicon, famed as the seat of Apollo and
the Muses, and on the southern border was Mount Cithaeron, to the north of
which was Platea, where the Persians were defeated by the confederate
Greeks under Pausanias. Boeotia contained the largest lake in
Greece--Copaias, famed for eels. On the borders of this lake was Coronea,
where the Thebans were defeated by the Spartans. To the north of Coronea
was Chaeronea, where was fought the great battle with Philip, which
subverted the liberties of Greece. To the north of the river AEsopus, a
sluggish stream, was Thebes, the capital of Boeotia, founded by Cadmus,
whose great generals, Epaminondas and Pelopidas, made it, for a time, one
of the great powers of Greece.
The most famous province of Greece was Attica, bounded on the north
by the mountains Cithaeron and Parnes, on the west by the bay of Saronicus,
on the east by the Myrtoum Sea. It contained but seven hundred square
miles. It derived its name from Atthis, a daughter of Cranaus; but its
earliest name was Cecropia, from its king, Cecrops. It was divided, in the
time of Cecrops, into four tribes. On its western extremity, on the shores
of the Saronic Gulf, stood Eleusis, the scene of the Eleusinian mysteries,
the most famous of all the religious ceremonials of Greece, sacred to
Ceres, and celebrated every four years, and lasting for nine days.
Opposite to Eleusis was Salamis, the birthplace of Ajax, Teucer, and
Solon. There the Persian fleet of Xerxes was defeated by the Athenians.
The capital, Athens, founded by Cecrops, 1556 B.C., received its name from
the goddess Neith, an Egyptian deity, known by the Greeks as Athena, or
Minerva. Its population, in the time of Pericles, was one hundred and
twenty thousand. The southernmost point of Attica was Sunium, sacred to
Minerva; Marathon, the scene of the most brilliant victory which the
Athenians ever fought, was in the eastern part of Attica. To the southeast
of Athens was Mount Hymettus, celebrated for its flowers and honey.
Between Hymettus and Marathon was Mount Pentelicus, famed for its marbles.
Megaris, another small State, was at the west of Attica, between
the Corinthian and the Saronican gulfs. Its chief city, Megara, was a
considerable place, defended by two citadels on the hills above it. It was
celebrated as the seat of the Megaric school of philosophy, founded by
The largest of the Grecian States was the famous peninsula known as
the Peloponnesus, entirely surrounded by water, except the isthmus of
Corinth, four geographical miles wide. On the west was the Ionian Sea; on
the east the Saronic Gulf and the Myrtoum Sea; on the north the Corinthian
Gulf. It contained six thousand seven hundred and forty-five square miles.
It was divided into several States. It was said to be left by Hercules on
his death to the Heraclidae, which they, with the assistance of the
Dorians, ultimately succeeded in regaining, about eighty years after the
Of the six States into which the Peloponnesus was divided, Achaia was the
northernmost, and was celebrated for the Achaean league, composed of its
principal cities, as well us Corinth, Sicyon, Phlius, Arcadia, Argolis,
Laconia, Megaris, and other cities and States.
Southwest of Achaia was Elis, on the Ionian Sea, in which stood
Olympia, where the Olympic games were celebrated every four years,
instituted by Hercules.
Arcadia occupied the centre of the Peloponnesus, surrounded on all
sides by lofty mountains--a rich and pastoral country, producing fine
horses and asses. It was the favorite residence of Pan, the god of
shepherds, and its people were famed for their love of liberty and music.
Argolis was the eastern portion of the Peloponnesus, watered by the
Saronic Gulf, whose original inhabitants were Pelasgi. It boasted of the
cities of Argos and Mycenae, the former of which was the oldest city of
Greece. Agamemnon reigned at Mycenae, the most powerful of the kings of
Greece during the Trojan war.
Laconia, at the southeastern extremity of the peninsula, was the
largest and most important of the States of the Peloponnesus. It was
rugged and mountainous, but its people were brave and noble. Its largest
city, Sparta, for several generations controlled the fortune of Greece,
the most warlike of the Grecian cities.
Messenia was the southwestern part of the peninsula--mountainous,
but well watered, and abounding in pasture. It was early coveted by the
Lacedaemonians, inhabitants of Laconia, and was subjugated in a series of
famous wars, called the Messenian.
Such were the principal States of Greece. But in connection with these
were the islands in the seas which surrounded it, and these are nearly as
famous as the States on the main land.
The most important of these was Crete, at the southern extremity of
the AEgean Sea. It was the fabled birthplace of Jupiter. To the south of
Thrace were Thasos, remarkable for fertility, and for mines of gold and
silver; Samothrace, celebrated for the mysteries of Cybele; Imbros, sacred
to Ceres and Mercury. Lemnos, in latitude forty, equidistant from Mount
Athos and the Hellespont, rendered infamous by the massacre of all the
male inhabitants of the island by the women. The island of Euboea stretched
along the coast of Attica, Locris, and Boeotia, and was exceedingly
fertile, and from this island the Athenians drew large supplies of
corn--the largest island in the Archipelago, next to Crete. Its principal
city was Chalcis, one of the strongest in Greece.
To the southeast of Euboea are the Cyclades--a group of islands of
which Delos, Andros, Tenos, Myeonos, Naxos, Paros, Olearos, Siphnos,
Melos, and Syros, were the most important. All these islands are famous
for temples and the birthplace of celebrated men.
The islands called the Sporades lie to the south and east of the
Cyclades, among which are Amorgo, Ios, Sicinos, Thera, and Anaphe--some of
which are barren, and others favorable to the vine.
Besides these islands, which belong to the continent of Europe, are
those which belong to Asia--Tenedos, small but fertile; Lesbos, celebrated
for wine, the fourth in size of all the islands of the AEgean; Chios, also
famed for wine; Samos, famous for the worship of Juno, and the birthplace
of Pythagoras; Patmos, used as a place of banishment; Cos, the birthplace
of Apelles and Hippocrates, exceedingly fertile; and south of all, Rhodes,
the largest island of the AEgean, after Crete and Euboea. It was famous for
the brazen and colossal statue of the sun, seventy cubits high. Its people
were great navigators, and their maritime laws were ultimately adopted by
all the Greeks and Romans. It was also famous for its schools of art.
Such were the States and islands of Greece, mountainous, in many parts
sterile, but filled with a hardy, bold, and adventurous race, whose
exploits and arts were the glory of the ancient world.
The various tribes and nations all belonged to that branch of the
Indo-European race to which ethnographers have given the name of
Pelasgian. They were a people of savage manners, but sufficiently
civilised to till the earth, and build walled cities. Their religion was
polytheistic--a personification of the elemental powers and the heavenly
bodies. The Pelasgians occupied insulated points, but were generally
diffused throughout Greece; and they were probably a wandering people
before they settled in Greece. The Greek traditions about their migration
rests on no certain ground. Besides this race, concerning which we have no
authentic history, were the Leleges and Carians. But all of them were
barbarous, and have left no written records. Argos and Sicyon are said to
be Pelasgian cities, founded as far back as one thousand eight hundred and
fifty-six years before Christ. It is also thought that Oriental elements
entered into the early population of Greece. Cecrops imported into Attica
Egyptian arts. Cadmus, the Phoenician, colonized Boeotia, and introduced
weights and measures. Danaus, driven out of Egypt, gave his name to the
warlike Danai, and instructed the Pelasgian women of Argos in the mystic
rites of Demetus. Pelope is supposed to have passed from Asia into Greece,
with great treasures, and his descendants occupied the throne of Argos.
At a period before written history commences, the early inhabitants
of Greece, whatever may have been their origin, which is involved in
obscurity, were driven from their settlements by a warlike race, akin,
however, to the Pelasgians. These conquerors were the Hellenes, who were
believed to have issued from the district of Thessaly, north of Mount
Othrys. They gave their name ultimately to the whole country. Divided into
small settlements, they yet were bound together by language and customs,
and cherished the idea of national unity. There were four chief divisions
of this nation, the Dorians, AEolians, Achaeans, and Ionians, traditionally
supposed to be descended from the three sons of Hellen, the son of
Deucalion, Dorus, AEolus, and Xuthus, the last the father of Achaeus, and
Jon. So the Greek poets represented the origin of the Hellenes--a people
fond of adventure, and endowed by nature with vast capacities,
subsequently developed by education.
Of these four divisions of the Hellenic race, the AEolians spread
over northern Greece, and also occupied the western coast of the
Peloponnesus and the Ionian islands. It continued, to the latest times, to
occupy the greater part of Greece. The Achaeans were the most celebrated in
epic poetry, their name being used by Homer to denote all the Hellenic
tribes which fought at Troy. They were the dominant people of the
Peloponnesus, occupying the south and east, and the Arcadians the centre.
The Dorians and Ionians were of later celebrity; the former occupying a
small patch of territory on the slopes of Mount OEta, north of Delphi; the
latter living on a narrow slip of the country along the northern coast of
the Peloponnesus, and extending eastward into Attica.
The principal settlements of the AEolians lay around the Pagasaean
Gulf, and were blended with the Minyans, a race of Pelasgian adventurers
known in the Argonautic expedition, under AEolian leaders. In the north of
Boeotia arose the city of Orchomenus, whose treasures were compared by
Homer to those of the Egyptian Thebes. Another seat of the AEolians was
Ephyra, afterward known as Corinth, where the "wily Sisyphus" ruled. He
was the father of Phocus, who gave his name to Phocis. The descendants of
AEolus led also a colony to Elis, and another to Pylus. In general, the
AEolians sought maritime settlements in northern Greece, and the western
side of the Peloponnesus.
The Achaeans were the dominant race, in very early times, of the
south of Thessaly, and the eastern side of the Peloponnesus, whose chief
seats were Phthia, where Achilles reigned, and Argolis. Thirlwall seems to
think they were a Pelasgian, rather than an Hellenic people. The ancient
traditions represent the sons of Achaeus as migrating to Argos, where they
married the daughters of Danaus the king, but did not mount the throne.
The early fortunes of the Dorians are involved in great obscurity,
nor is there much that is satisfactory in the early history of any of the
Hellenic tribes. Our information is chiefly traditional, derived from the
poets. Dorus, the son of Deucalion, occupied the country over against
Peloponnesus, on the opposite side of the Corinthian Gulf, comprising
AEtolia, Phocis, and the Ozolian Locrians. Nor can the conquests of the
Dorians on the Peloponnesus be reconciled upon any other ground than that
they occupied a considerable tract of country.
The early history of the Ionians is still more obscure. Ion, the
son of Xuthus, is supposed to have led his followers from Thessaly to
Attica, and to have conquered the Pelasgians, or effected peaceable
settlements with them. Then follows a series of legends which have more
poetical than historical interest, but which will be briefly noticed in
the next chapter.