Who were the ancient Greeks?

About 2,500 years ago, Greece was one of the most important places in the ancient world. The Greeks were great thinkers, warriors, writers, actors, athletes, artists, architects and politicians.

The Greeks called themselves Hellenes and their land was Hellas. The name ‘Greeks’ was given to the people of Greece later by the Romans. They lived in mainland Greece and the Greek islands, but also in colonies scattered around the Mediterranean Sea. There were Greeks in Italy, Sicily, Turkey, North Africa, and as far west as France.

They sailed the sea to trade and find new lands. The Greeks took their ideas with them and they started a way of life that's similar to the one we have today.

The early history of ancient Greece

People have been living in Greece for over 40,000 years. The earliest settlers mostly lived a simple hunter-gatherer or farming lifestyle.

The Minoans were the first great Greek civilisation. They didn't live on mainland Greece but on the nearby island of Crete, between 2200BC and 1450BC. They were known as the Minoans after their legendary king, Minos.

After the Minoans came the Mycenaean civilisation, from mainland Greece. They were fine builders and traders, but they were also great soldiers. They famously fought in the battle of Troy. Homer, an important Greek writer, told stories of the Mycenaean age in his books The Iliad and The Odyssey.

After the Mycenaean age ended in about 1100BC, Greece entered a Dark Age. It is known as a dark age because nobody knows much about what happened - all written language and art disappeared.

The Palace of Knossos.
This is the Great Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. The Minoan civilisation grew rich on trade and they built glorious palaces decorated with beautiful wall paintings.

After the Dark Age

In 800BC, almost 300 years after the Dark Age began, Greek civilisation slowly emerged again.

The Greeks started trading more with the outside world, they held the first Olympic Games and they fought off the invading Persian army. This period is known by historians as the Archaic period of Greek history. During this time many of the cities in Greece were ruled by a king-like figure.

Around 480BC Greece entered a golden age which lasted for 200 years. The people built fantastic temples, made scientific discoveries, wrote plays and founded the first proper democracy. Historians call this Classical Greece.

The final period of Greek history is known as the Hellenistic period. This lasted from 323BC to 30BC, when the Romans took control of Greece. The Romans didn't destroy Greek life, though. They respected the Greeks and copied many things about their culture, including their buildings, beliefs and clothes.

The Parthenon on top of the Acropolis.
The Parthenon temple was built for the Greek goddess Athena. It sits on top of a hill called the Acropolis and looks out over the city of Athens.

Click on the map to find out about some of the cities of ancient Greece

How was Greece ruled?

There was never one country called ‘ancient Greece’. Instead, Greece was divided up into small city-states, like Athens, Sparta, Corinth and Olympia.

Each city-state ruled itself. They had their own governments, laws and army. So, ancient Greeks living in Sparta considered themselves Spartan first, and Greek second.

Famously, the city-states didn’t get on very well and often fought each another. However, sometimes they joined together to fight against a bigger enemy, like the Persian Empire.

Only a very powerful ruler could control all Greece. One man did in the 300s BC. He was Alexander the Great, from Macedonia. Alexander led his army to conquer an empire that stretched as far as Afghanistan and India.

Alexander the Great survaying hte Greek landscape.
Alexander the Great founded over 70 cities and created an empire that stretched across three continents, covering 2 million square miles.
An establishing shot of Warriors, Gods and heroes in the setting of Ancient Greece.