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

considerable size.

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

its rivers.

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

dispossessed dominion.

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

Trojan war.

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.