About 3000 B. C., when the Pharaohs ruled Egypt and Babylon was the home of mighty kings, bands of sailors set out from Asia Minor. They followed a little chain of islands that led northward across the unexplored sea that, centuries later, would be called the Mediterranean. If the islands had not been there, the sailors would never have dared to sail so far from home. Asia, the only world they knew, stopped at the eastern store of the sea.
Some of the men were afraid that they might suddenly reach the end of the world and drop over it into nothing, but their captains ordered them to sail on. Their own countries were becoming crowded and it was important to find new lands. So long as another island lay ahead of them, it seemed safe to go on. At last, their ships did indeed come to the end of the sea — but it was not the edge of the world. The sailors sighted a new mainland. It was the mountainous peninsula that would be given the name of Greece.
It was a strange and silent country of white stone peaks that disappeared into the clouds. Its thick forests of oaks and pines ran down to an oddly ragged coastline. The mountains, too, were jagged, as though an angry giant had smashed them.
Gods and Giants
Years later, the people of Greece told a story about evil giants who fought a great battle with the gods to see which of them would rule the earth. The giants were defeated and the gods locked them forever in a cave far under the ground, but the giants lived on, the storytellers said. When their anger took hold of them, they beat against the roof of their prison and the earth shook. Land slid down the hillsides into the sea and fire exploded from the mountain tops. The story was partly true, for Greece was a place of volcanoes and earthquakes. The peninsula’s mountain ranges were twisted and broken, but the fields along the lower slopes of the mountains were rich and the ragged coastline provided many fine and sheltered harbours.
Before long, people from Asia Minor began to settle in Greece. At first there were few of them, but they kept coming for nearly a thousand years. The new country seemed to welcome them. It gave them long months of sunshine to ripen their crops. The little valleys, like pockets between the mountains, were good, safe places for building towns. The settler planted olive trees on the slopes and set out grapevines in the fields. The forests rang with the sound of their bronze axes as they cut down trees to make frameworks for houses. Gradually the people forgot their old homes. They no longer thought of themselves as Asians. They were now called the Shore People, for they seldom went far from the shore or the southern part of the peninsula.
Inland and to the north, Greece was just as it had been when the sailors had discovered it. Only the wind in the green darkness of the forests and the sea slapping against the rocks broke the stillness, but beyond the silent mountains lay the vast continent of Europe, where things were far from quiet. Like a giant who had awakened from sleep, the great continent was restless and beginning to look around. However, Europe was a wilderness, while Asia already had cities and powerful kingdoms. The Asians lived together in towns. They had learned how to plant and harvest crops on their sunny plains. They could read, write and they understood arithmetic. They used money in their trading.
The Europeans knew none of these things. They were barbaric warriors, who lived with the wild beasts they hunted with their spears. Europe had harsh winters and nature was an enemy. Food was scarce. A man, like an animal had to be a fighter to live. He and the other men of his family – his sons and brothers and cousins – banded together in packs like wolves. They roamed the hills and swept down on other family tribes, killing them for a hunting ground or a place which gave some shelter against the cold. Their clothes were the skins of animals. Their houses, when they had them, were huts made of sticks and mud. Usually though, they were on the move, searching for food, fighting the tribes they met along the trail, always wandering. Some of them turned south toward Spain, Italy and Greece, the three fingers of Europe which reached into the Mediterranean. Steep mountains guarded the northern ends of the peninsulas, discouraging the wanderers from going further. In time, the tribesmen discovered passes through the mountains. With their bronze swords, they fought their way down the peninsulas. In Spain and Italy they built huts and lived as they had always done. In Greece, they came upon the shore People. For the first time, the men of the East and the men of the West met face to face and the Europeans learned about the Asian world of cities.
A New Nation
More tribesmen came from the mountains from Europe. They were savage fighters who had horses, which the Asians had never seen before. They took the northern mainland of Greece, then moved south to the Peloponnesus. The Peloponnesus was a large mass of land which the earthquakes had almost separated from the rest of Greece. Only the Isthmus, a narrow strip of land, connected it to the mainland. Except for the Isthmus, it would have been an island. The tribesmen claimed the Peloponnesus as their own, but they did not kill off the shore people. Instead, they kept them to be their farmers and craftsmen, taught them their language and gradually took them into their family tribes. A new nation of men was born – the Greeks.
The world was never the same after that! When the two kinds of people, whose ways were so different, came together, something happened. It was like a flint struck against granite to make fire. The fire of the Greeks burned with ideas in philosophy and science and art. In centuries to come they wrote plays and poetry and designed the most beautiful buildings the world had seen. They thought about freedom and democracy and acted on these thoughts. From one little peninsula, the fire of the Greeks spread to all of Europe and then to the Americas.
The beginning was slow and the Greeks first years were hard. They were years of learning to live in a new land and to grow strange crops; years of learning to build cities and to live together peacefully; years of fighting off new invaders were too strong. Most of all, they were years in which the Greeks learned about the sea.
When the tribesmen first came from Europe, they knew nothing about sailing. Greece soon turned them into seamen, for the sea was the highway of the ancient world. It led the Greeks to the crops and markets of other lands, to the gold and wisdom of the cities of the East and it led them to war, for they were new comers and they had to fight the people who had already setup trade routes. The strongest of these people, the men whom the Greeks met first in trade and battle, were the sea-warriors of Crete.