On the island of Crete, the first civilization in European history - the Minoan - has been flourishing since around 2000 BC. This is centred on some of the most sophisticated palace-complexes in the world at that time, distributed across the island. Of these, Knossos is the largest and most elaborate. Minoan Crete is a well-developed state with trading contacts throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
On the mainland of Greece and throughout the Aegean sea, another civilization, the Mycenaen, also flourishes. This consists of many small kingdoms, at Mycenae, Troy and other places famous in the epics of later Greeks, and ruled by warrior lords in their thick-walled palaces.
The Hittite empire in Asia Minor is one of the leading powers of the ageclick to view Turkey 1500BC
The past few centuries have been tumultous ones for the inhabitants of Greece and the Aegean. The Minoan civilization of Crete came to an abrupt end about 1400 BC. The Mycenaean world continued to flourish, however, and southern Greece was the centre of a trade network which dominated the eastern Mediterranean. Mycenaean colonies appeared in southern Italy, Sicily, Asia Minor, and as far as Egypt and Palestine.
After 1200 BC, however, this civilization too fell into rapid decline, a process almost certainly connected to the movement of peoples from central Europe. Evidence of writing and other features of a more complex society vanished at this time. Thus ended the first ancient European civilizations. Greece is now home to small-scale, illiterate tribal societies.
About now, however, the islands and coasts of Greece and the Aegean are starting to be visited by Phoenician merchants, from Syria. Through their influence, the Greeks will be reintroduced to literate civilization during the coming centuries.
Read the full history of Ancient Greece
The Hittite empire has suffered catastrophe at the hands of barbarian invadersclick to view Turkey 1000BC
The region of Greece and the Aegean Sea is fragmented into steep mountains and valleys, as well as many small islands. Over the past centuries this has caused the populations here to form several hundred tiny city-states. The mountainous nature of the landscape has encouraged coastal Greek states to look out to sea. Many have sent out overseas colonies, so that Greek culture is now spread far and wide across the Mediterranean basin.
In the centuries after 1000 BC, contact with Phoenician traders from Syria led to the introduction of the alphabet, amongst other things.
By this period, most Greek city-states have a republican form of government. Political life in these states is often unstable, but they allow a degree of freedom unknown in other lands. This has given rise to the dramatic intellectual achievements of Greek civilization. Some of these states have become the first democracies in world history; the largest is Athens, soon to be one of the most famous centres of culture in the ancient world.
The years after 500 BC saw the Greek city-states, under the leadership of Athens and Sparta, see off an attempt by the mighty Persian Empire to conquer them. This struggle opened two centuries in which the Greek city-states reached their brilliant cultural peak, culminating in the philosophical achievements of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These would lay much of the foundations for two thousand years of European thought. The cultural brilliance was accompanied by unceasing warfare, however, when led to the Greek city-states being eclipsed by new, larger powers.
To the north of Greece, the kingdom of Macedonia rose to prominence under Philip II (reigned 359-336 BC) and even more so under his son, Alexander the Great (reigned 336-323 BC), under whom it briefly controlled one of the largest empires the world has yet seen. Since then Macedonia has played its part as one of the leading kingdoms of the region, along with Egypt and Syria. These kingdoms now overshadow the many small city-states of Greece.
The Greek city-states and the kingdom of Macedon were no match for the rising power of Rome, and by 146 BC, after a series of wars, the Romans were in complete control of the region. The Roman occupation culminated in the destruction of the famous city of Corinth, since been resurrected as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar. Roman governors now rule these provinces, but the Greek cities continue to elect own magistrates and run their own affairs. The late Roman Republic saw a degree of oppression and misrule by several Roman governors, but now, under the firm rule of Augustus, the people of Greece know peace and good governance.
When the Romans annexed Macedonia and Greece, in 146 BC, they gave the Thracians their own kingdom. Since then the Romans have had to get involved in the power struggles within the Thracian royal family from time to time, and will eventually be forced to annex the kingdom entirely.
Under the Roman empire, Athens has continued to enjoy the prestige based on its magnificent cultural heritage, and is a university town to which young men flock from Rome and other parts of the empire for further education. As a whole, however, the province of Achaia has experienced economic decline over the past two centuries, possibly due to the degrading of the soil that has been a continual and gradual process over the centuries.
The Balkan provinces of the Roman empire are ruled from Constantinople, subject to the effective rule of the eastern Roman emperors. They have therefore been spared much of the turmoil visited upon the western provinces. They certainly have not escaped completely - from time to time over the past three centuries armies of Visigoths and others have roamed to and fro across them. Nevertheless, the provinces have been spared the worst of the upheavals, and provincial life remains largely intact. Ancient cities continue to thrive, remaining centres of Roman-Greek civilization.
Many of these cities are also now seats of Christian bishops, which in the eastern Roman empire is firmly under the control of the emperors in Constantinople. There is not that separation between secular and spiritual authority that is becoming increasingly marked in the west, where many Roman Christians find themselves under the rule of Arian Germans. Although they still regard themselves very much as members of the same faith, the eastern and western branches of the Church are already beginning to diverge.
The Middle East is divided between the Eastern Roman empire and the Persian empireclick to view Middle East 500AD
The cities of Asia Minor remain prosperous centres of classical civilizationclick to view Turkey 500AD
In Italy, Roman admininstration and society remains largely intact under the rule of the Ostrogothsclick to view Italy 500AD
The Balkans remained under Roman (or, as we should now call it, Byzantine) rule until the time of the emperor Heraclius (610-641). At that time, a massive invasion, led by the Avar people from central Asia but composed mostly of their Slav allies, swept down to the very walls of Constantinople itself. Like so many other invaders, they failed to capture the great city, and were defeated by Heraclius. However, the Byzantines have been unable to reimpose their authority upon their old Balkan territories, except near the coast. In the meantime, the earlier populations have been swamped by Slav tribes, and city life has vanished from much of the region.
In the 7th century a new people, the Bulgars, arrived from central Asia and established themselves just north of the Carpathian mountains, conquering the Slav tribes living there. They defeated a Byzantine army sent against them and were then recognized as a separate kingdom by the Byzantine emperor (681). Thereafter the Bulgars and Byzantines have been involved in continual hostilities, with the Byzantines normally getting the upper hand.
In Italy, long wars have caused massive destruction, and the peninsula is now divided between the Lombards and Byzantinesclick to view Italy 750AD
The Middle East has been conquered by Arab armies in the name of a major new religion, Islam; these have created a vast empire called the "Caliphate"click to view Middle East 750AD
Another steppe people, the Avars, have dominated this region, and the Slavs have spread into lands previously inhabited by German tribes.click to view Central Europe 750AD
Much of Asia Minor has been devastated by continuous warfareclick to view Turkey 750AD
Byzantine forces have been able to gradually regain control over much of the territory lost to them by the Avar invasion of the 7th century, but they have faced another threat in the form of the Bulgars. In the 9th century a succession of Bulgar kings, having converted their people to Christianity, expanded their territory dramatically. However, more recently, internal instability and external attacks, from Magyars, Pechenegs, Byzantines and Russians, have weakend them.
Caught up in the struggle between the Bulgars and the Byzantines, two Slav groups, the Serbs and the Croats, have both established independent principalities. The Croats have accepted the Catholic Church, and therefore looks westwards towards the Holy Roman Empire for political and spiritual aid. The Serbians adhere to the Orthodox Church, and look to the Byzantines for support.
The Islamic Caliphate has begun to break up, but the religion of Islam continues to expand, both in the Middle East and beyondclick to view Middle East 979AD
Central Europe has experienced great upheavals with the coming of the Magyarsclick to view East Central Europe 979AD
Italy has become fragmented amongst several different statesclick to view Italy 979AD
Asia Minor is the main recruiting ground for the army of the Byzantine empireclick to view Turkey 979AD
The struggle between the Byzantines and the Bulgars continued. However, the Byzantines, under their emperor Basil II, won a crushing victory at the battle of Belasitsa (1014), which led to the Byzantine conquest of Bulgaria and its absorption into their empire. In 1185 the Bulgars won their independence again. Then in 1204, the Byzantines suffered a catastrophe as the Christian soldiers of the Fourth Crusade sacked the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, and installed one of their leaders there as emperor.
The Slav states of Croatia and Serbia have had varying fortunes. Croatia has become politically absorbed into Hungary, though the Croats retain their distinctive national laws and institutions, while Serbia has expanded greatly and is a strong, well-organized militaristic state.
Powerful nations are emerging in Central Europeclick to view East Central Europe 1215AD
In Italy, the northern cities, above all Venice, are growing in wealth and power, while in the south Norman adventurers have created one of the most amazing kingdoms of the Middle Agesclick to view Italy 1215AD
The Turkish sultanate of Rum now rules in Asia Minorclick to view Turkey 1215AD
The Islamic states of the Middle East are successfully fighting off the attacks of the European crusadersclick to view Middle East 1215AD
The northern Balkans were ravaged by the Mongols in the mid-13th century, with Hungary and Bulgaria being particularly hard hit. Then, in the 14th century, the Muslim power of the Ottoman Turks began spreading through the region.
The Byzantines, who had regained their capital of Constantinople and partially restored their empire in the late 13th century, were the first to feel the Ottoman onslaught. Although they retained Constantinople, they lost much territory to the Ottomans, who then turned north and conquered the Bulgarians and the Serbs. In this year, 1453, the Ottomans succeed in capturing Constantinople. They now pose an even graver threat to the independence of the remaining Christian states in the Balkans, and beyond.
The Middle East has been ruled by a succession of conquerors from central Asia, most famously the Mongolsclick to view Middle East 1453AD
The Ottoman empire captures the great city of Constantinopleclick to view Turkey 1453AD
The union of Poles and Lithuanians under one crown creates a huge dual kingdomclick to view East Central Europe 1453AD
In Italy, the Italian Renaissance is in full swingclick to view Italy 1453AD
After their capture of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Turks progressively swallowed up all the Balkan lands and much of central Europe. The Christian population is allowed to practice its own religion in peace – except that, periodically, selected children are taken away to be converted to Islam and trained as Janissaries, the elite corps of the Ottoman army.
Two areas are different from the rest. In Bosnia, a large part of the population has converted to Islam. This is probably due to the presence of the cities of Sarajevo and Mostar, which soon become virtually Muslim colonies, though both Catholic and Orthodox Christians continue to have a strong presence there. In Albania, fierce resistance to Ottoman rule led to the Ottomans settling thousands of Turkish soldiers, and their families, there.
Incessant conflict between the Italian states has led to the Peninsula coming under Spanish dominationclick to view Italy 1648AD
Much of Central Europe is threatened by the Ottoman Turksclick to view East Central Europe 1648AD
The Ottoman empire now dominates most of the Middle eastclick to view Middle East 1648AD
Asia Minor is the centre of the Ottoman empire, one of the great empires of world historyclick to view Turkey 1648AD
The Ottoman empire made two attempts to capture Vienna, the Hapsburg capital, in 1529 and 1683, but both failed. The latter seige was followed by the Ottoman frontier being rolled back by Austria and her allies.
The Ottomans were able to stabilize the front and, later in the 18th century, to regain some territory. However, the Ottomans have also had to contend with a Russian hostility, and by the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca (1774), Russia has won the right to protect the interests of the Orthodox population within the Ottoman empire.
The Middle East experiences political weakness in both the Ottoman empire and Iranclick to view Middle East 1789AD
Much of Central Europe is now divided between Austria and Prussiaclick to view East Central Europe 1789AD
Italy has become a magnet for European aristocrats visiting it on the "Grand Tour"click to view Italy 1789AD
The Ottoman government has been weakened, both internally and externallyclick to view Turkey 1789AD
In the Balkans, the people have been increasingly agitating for national liberation. In Serbia, a rebellion in 1815 succeeded in driving the Turks from much of the north. Under the threat of renewed Russian intervention, the Turks granted the rebels a semi-autonomous principality.
Further south, in Greece, an uprising broke out in 1821. A wave of sympathy for the Greeks swept through Europe and Russia, France and Britain sending support. The ensuing war ended in Greek independence and confirmed the autonomy of Serbia.
Some Middle Eastern governments are taking steps to modernize their countriesclick to view Middle East 1837AD
The movement for Italian independence and unity is growingclick to view Italy 1837AD
The Ottoman government has embarked on a remarkable programme of modernizationclick to view Turkey 1837AD
All of Central Europe is now divided between Russia, Austria and Prussiaclick to view East Central Europe 1837AD
In the Balkans, the increasing weakness of the Ottoman empire has been drawing the European powers into the region, even more than before. This, however, has exposed tensions between them. Each wishes to benefit as much as possible from the situation, but is increasingly suspicious of the others’ motives.
These tensions helped lead to the Crimean War (1854-6) between Britain, France and Turkey, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other. Russia came off worst, and was forced to give up the right to protect Christians within the Ottoman empire, as well as some territory, which reverted back to the Ottomans.
The Ottoman empire has tightened its grip on much of the Middle Eastclick to view Middle East 1871AD
Central Europe is divided between the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German empiresclick to view East Central Europe 1871AD
After many difficulties Italy has become a united countryclick to view Italy 1871AD
The Ottoman empire is continuing to modernize itselfclick to view Turkey 1871AD
The Treaty of Berlin (1878), signed by the leading powers of Europe, recognized the full independence from the Turks of Serbia and Romania, and guaranteed self-government for Bulgaria within the Ottoman empire. Bosnia, whilst theoretically remaining a part of the Ottoman empire, was to be administered by Austria-Hungary. The Austro-Hungarian occupation would leave a lingering thirst for independence.
Bulgaria was given complete independence from Turkey in 1908. In 1912-13 Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece drove the Ottomans out of most of their European territories in the First Balkan War - but then fought over the division of the conquered Ottoman territories in the Second Balkan War (1913-14 - this allowed the Ottomans to reclaim some of their lost territory). In all this upheaval Albania declared its independence.
The British and French are increasingly active in the Middle Eastclick to view Middle East 1914AD
The Ottoman sultans have maintained the modernizing policies of their predecessorsclick to view Turkey 1914AD
Central Europe remains divided between the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German empiresclick to view East Central Europe 1914AD
Despite weak government, Italy has an expanding industrial economyclick to view Italy 1914AD
The aftermath of World War 1 saw the map of the Balkans re-drawn. Most notably, Serbia, plus the South Slav territories of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, were united to form the kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later called Yugoslavia. Because of the inability of the various national groups to work together, the king, Alexander I, established a dictatorship (1929).
The period of World War 2 saw all the countries of the region occupied by the Axis powers. Communist-led resistance movements sprang up, and, aided by the incoming Soviet forces, won control of most of the countries after the war. Bulgaria and Romania became members of the Warsaw Pact in 1955, whilst Albania and Yugoslavia, under its president Josip Tito, retained a much more independent stance. Greece is the only Balkan country not to have fallen under communist sway. Greece is a constitutional monarchy, and a member of NATO.
The Cold War has had a major impact on the Middle Eastclick to view Middle East 1960AD
The Republic of Turkey was founded by Kemal Ataturkclick to view Turkey 1960AD
Eastern-central Europe is divided amongst several countries, most now under Soviet controlclick to view East Central Europe 1960AD
After the defeat of Mussolini in World War 2, Italy has become a leading member of the European Communityclick to view Italy 1960AD
In Yugoslavia, the death of Tito (1980) gravely weakened communist rule, and the waves of liberation washing over other parts of the communist world in the late 80's and early 90's led to the dissolution of the country. Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Macedonia, all became separate states. So too did Bosnia, which quickly descended into civil war between the different religious groups. This drew in Serbia and Croatia on opposite sides, and eventually, when fighting flared up in Kosovo, NATO stepped in with a bombing campaign (1998). Since then, although plenty of tensions remained in the region, full-scale war has been avoided.
The other countries of the Balkans threw off their communist regimes in 1989 and the following years; all have gradually moved towards becoming multi-party democracies. They have all experienced economic hardship, but over time things have improved.
Arab-Israeli hostility has dominated Middle Eastern politicsclick to view Middle East 2005AD
Turkey is a stable and prosperous democratic republicclick to view Turkey 2005AD
All countries of East-central Europe are members of the EUclick to view East Central Europe 2005AD
Despite a series of weak governments Italy has had a thriving economyclick to view Italy 2005AD
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