Few cultures can lay claim to having an enormous influence in shaping the world of today. Language, political systems, human rights, and philosophy are amongst just a few of the things that the modern world has inherited from Ancient Greece. The great empires of the Romans, Byzantines, and the Ottomans all borrowed heavily from their Greek predecessors and this, in turn, has shaped many central aspects of human life today. Western culture, which has dominated global affairs over the last few centuries, can find its roots in Ancient Greece. Located at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia, the Greece of today is a far cry from that of its ancestors. Its contribution to society at large, however, continues to thrive.
Concurrent with the times of the pyramids of Giza and the ancient city of Babylon, the earliest known Greeks lived a peaceful existence free of conflict but advanced (for the time) in their way of living. A catastrophic volcanic eruption brought an end to this period of which we know very little. The inhabitants either perished or were forced to migrate to other parts of the Mediterranean, and this forced a sudden halt to the development of their society. The next few hundred years are seemingly lost to history, and are known aptly as the ‘Dark Ages’. It wouldn’t be till about 800 BC when the region would finally emerge from the darkness. The earliest form of the Greek alphabet would come to light, and this gave birth to a culture that would go on to dominate life in the region over the next many centuries. The migrants, who were now firmly placed in their newfound homes around the Mediterranean region, achieved a level of development that allowed them to expand their presence by colonising the surrounding areas. Suddenly prosperity was found, with its centre at the cities of Athens and Sparta. One final hurdle that the Ancient Greeks had to overcome was that of the Persian Empire to the East. Vast and powerful, the conquering forces of the Persians were expected to almost certainly gobble up the Greek infant empire, but in a heroic display of courage, the Spartans, who were soldiers by birth, held their ground and even managed to force a Persian retreat. Later examination of historical records reveals that the Spartans and their various cousins who formed the early Greek empire were advanced in their military organisation, which gave them the advantage in spite of being outnumbered. This struggle against the Persians gave rise to what is known as the ‘Golden Age of Athens’.
The riches of the collective region were held at the Parthenon in Acropolis in Athens, and this wealth was used to fund the security of the region against future potential attacks from the Persians. It was also acted as patronage to the arts and sciences and was essential to the development of philosophy, drama, and the great sculptures of the time. This was the period in which the likes of Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato lived. Greek society thrived, but Athens, in particular, enjoyed its new position as the centre of the region’s wealth. Naturally, this led to resentment from the neighbouring cities, and the Macedonians from the North, who had until then been regarded as barbarians, launched an attack on Athens led by Philip of Macedon and overthrew the existing establishment. Philip perished soon, however, and his son, Alexander the Great took over and achieved even more than his ambitious father. Not only did he defeat the Persians, but he continued on his crusade further East until he reached India. His victories led to the creation of the Hellenistic Empire, but constant warring within the region meant that the empire would not thrive. It would not be long before the Romans grew in strength and eventually gained control of the Greek territories. While it was the Romans who were in charge, Greek culture prevailed. The Romans learnt a lot from the remnants of Greek scripture and their general way of life, and these findings came to play a key role in the development of Roman life.
Once the Roman Empire collapsed, the Byzantine Empire rose. They too were deeply influenced by the Greek teachings, and the success of the Byzantines helped to prolong Greek culture well into the next millennium. By the 15th century, the Byzantine Empire gave way to the Ottomans, which meant that the Greeks would be under the constant rule for the better part of nearly two millenniums. Still, their culture survived.
The modern state of Greece is roughly around 200 years old. It finds its origins in the decline of the Ottoman Empire during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Greeks, while allowed to practice their Christian faith, were nonetheless considered to be of less importance than Muslims in the eyes of the Ottoman rulers. For more than a century, Greek culture was preserved primarily through the Orthodox Church, and as such Greek identity began to revolve around religion. Overthrowing the Ottomans would not be a realistic possibility for a long time. It was only during the latter half of the 18th century when the Ottomans began losing battles that the Greeks gained the confidence of becoming independent. The Greek diaspora, which found itself in countries like France, Spain, and Germany, became reacquainted with the Greece of ancient times. Records, teachings, and other cultural artefacts of the Greeks were accessible in non-Ottoman ruled countries and the diaspora having been exposed to them felt it was important that the rest of the Greek population also have access to the same. As a result, a period of intellectualism within the Ottoman Empire began wherein Greek people understood their history and a sense of pride grew amongst them. Simultaneously, the French Revolution was happening and this served as a source of inspiration for the Greeks. As the Ottoman Empire continued to decline, feelings of Greek nationalism grew.
It would not be until the early parts of the 19th century that a realistic push for independence would be possible. Even so, the Greeks knew that they would need the help of the new European powers of Britain, France, and Russia. Between 1821 and 1832, battles and negotiations between these various forces led to the formation of a Greek constitution. However, as the likes of Russia and Britain played such an important role in the formation of the Greek state, they continued to be central to the way the new country would be governed. They decided that Greece should have a monarchical system and as such installed the 17-year-old son of the King of Bavaria as the ruler of Greece. The period from 1832 onwards would see both internal and external struggles involving Greece, wherein the people sought to acquire complete self-rule while also attempting to reclaim the various islands that were still under Ottoman rule. A concept known as the ‘Great Idea’ became popular wherein the agenda was to reclaim the territories of the old Hellenistic Empire. Remarkably, the Greeks were quite successful in their campaign. The islands of Ionia, Crete, the regions of Thessaly, Macedonia, and a few other territories were all incorporated into the larger Greek nation. It would not be until 1947, more than a century after the first constitution was created, that Greece, as we know it today territorially, would be formed in its completion.
The Greeks fought on the side of the Allied forces during World War 1 and were thus victorious. The next three decades, however, would go on to be one of the worst periods in modern Greek history. The Great Depression had a terrible effect on the economy, and although the country valiantly fought off Mussolini’s Italian forces during the Second World War, they could not resist Hitler’s Nazis and were thus under Nazi occupation during the early 1940s. This period was marked by thousands of deaths due to starvation, executions, and war casualties, and it would not be until the end of the war where Greece would become independent again. Following the war, however, Greece joined NATO and the country’s economy began to properly develop.
The modern history of Greece, that is the period following the Second World War until now, has been relatively uneventful compared to various periods in the past. Political struggle within the country was a recurring issue with a right-wing group known as the Junta gaining power during the 1960s and 1970s. Human rights abuses along with widespread oppression were common, even though economic growth was rapid. It would not last, however, and during the mid-70s a counter coup led to the restoration of democracy in the country with elections taking place once again. A referendum was held where it was decided that the monarchy would be abolished, and as such the modern political form of Greece was established, along with an updated constitution.
The political struggle between the two main parties resulted in both groups attempting to win popular support by promising more welfare than their opponent.
During the 1970s and 1980s, laws were passed that would see the government become one of the most generous anywhere in the world. For example, government employees were granted a pension after 35 years of service, regardless of their age and could thus retire. This meant that an individual who began their career at the age of 21 could retire by the age of 56. Women were allowed to retire as early as 50 if they met certain conditions. Another law that was introduced was that of the 14 month salary. On top of the 12 months of pay that workers are normally entitled to, the government would pay employees an extra months salary at the end of the year to help with holiday expenses and received half a months salary during Easter for the same reason, and another half month’s pay for when they took a vacation. All these expenditures would create an unsustainable spending trajectory that the government simply could not adhere to in the long run.
If we take a look at Greece’s economy, we will find that the country as a whole does not produce very much. Its terrain makes agriculture possible only on a small percentage of the total landmass, and its manufacturing sector is quite small. Its shipping industry, however, is one of the oldest and currently one of the largest of any individual nation in the world. Given its position, surrounded by water bodies on three different sides, shipping has always been an important aspect of the Greek economy. Beyond this, however, the country’s primary source of income has been tourism. 80% of the Greek populace is employed in the services sector, with a large proportion working in tourism and hospitality. With such an economy, the kind of heaving spending that the government has undertaken is totally irrational. Until 2001, when it adopted the Euro as its currency, it at the very least had complete control over its monetary and fiscal policies. The Euro is regulated by the European Central Bank. This reality at first led to a prosperous outcome for the first half of the first decade of the new millennium. When the global financial crisis hit in 2007, all the years of extravagant spending, at both the individual and national levels, would come back to haunt the government.
The Sovereign Debt Crisis, as it is known, was essentially a result of the enormous debt-to-GDP ratio of the Greek economy. When creditors started demanding much higher yields from countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain, etc. (owing to their higher possibility of default) the true state of the fiscal deficit became apparent. Previous Greek governments had deliberately withheld information regarding the actual figures of the deficit, and once the crisis hit it came to light that the real number was more than twice of that of what was initially reported. This only further increased the yields on the bonds issued by the Greek government.
The yield is simply the amount of interest that a creditor is entitled to. When the yield goes up, the borrower must pay more. In this case, the yield went up by such an amount that the Greek government was forced into a period of austerity and had to cut back on most of its welfare programs. Even large financial aid packages from its richer neighbours could not prevent the decade long recession that the Greek economy was forced into. The Greek story is similar to what Turkey is experiencing now. The difference lies in the fact that Greece could never have realistically justified the amount of spending that it undertook. The Turkish at least have a small manufacturing sector that can be expanded upon, but the Greeks had no such plan in place to develop their economy. The problem has its roots in the political battles of the 1970s and 1980s, but at no point was there a course correction by subsequent governments.
The most recent figures show that the economy is finally beginning to grow after many consecutive years of negative growth rates. The worst may be behind the Greeks and after what is possibly the worst recovery of any nation following the 2007 Financial Crisis, one would imagine that the Greeks have learned their lesson and will exercise more caution with their future economic planning. The Sovereign Debt Crisis is nonetheless only a small part of this country’s long and proud history. Their contributions to the modern world can never be overlooked, and ultimately their achievements have helped progress society into what it is today.