Greece – General Aspects

Within its confined political boundaries, to the south of the Gulfs of Arta and Volo, is a country of about nineteen thousand square miles, or at most equal to the ten-thousandth part of the earth’s surface. Within the vast empire of Russia there are many districts more extensive than the whole of Greece, but there is nothing which distinguishes these from other districts which surround them, and their names call forth no idea in our mind. The little country of the Hellenes, however, so insignificant upon our maps—how many memories does it not awaken ! In no other part of the world had man attained a degree of civilisation equally harmonious in. all respects, or more favourable to individual development. Even now, though carried along within an historical cycle far more vast than that of the Greeks, we should do well to look back frequently in order to contemplate those small nations, who are still our masters in the arts, and first initiated us into science. The city which was the ” school of Greece” still remains the school of the entire world ; and after twenty centuries of decay, like some of those extinct stars whose luminous rays yet reach the earth, still continues to enlighten us.

The considerable part played by the people of Greece during many ages must undoubtedly be ascribed to the geographieal position of their country. Othcr tribes having the same origin, but inhabiting countries less happily situated—such, for instance, as the Pelasgians of Illyria, who are believed to be the ancestors of the Albanians—have never risen above a state of barbarism, whilst the Hellenes placed themselves at the head of civilised nations, and opened fresh paths to their enterprise. If Greece had remained for ever what it was during thc tertiary geological epoch–a vast plain attached to the deserts of Libya, and run over by lions and the rhinoceros—would it have become the native country of a Phidias, an AEschylus, or a. Demosthenes? Certainly not. It would have shared the fate of Africa. and, far from taking the initiative in civilisation, would have waited for an impulse to be given. to it from beyond.

Greece, a sub-peninsula of the peninsula of the Balkans, was even more completely protected by transverse mountain barriers in the north than was Thracia or Macedonia. Greek culture was thus able to develop itself without fear of being stifled at its birth by successive invasions of barbarians. Mounts Olympus, Pelion, and Ossa, towards the north and east of Thessaly, constituted the first line of formidable obstacles towards Macedonia. A second barrier, the steep range of the Othrys, runs along whit is the present political boundary of Greece. To the south of the Gulf of Lamia a fresh obstacle awaits us, for the range of the (Eta closes the passage, and there is but the narrow pass of the Thermopylae between it and the sea. having crossed the mountains of the Loeri and descended into the basin of Thebae, there still remain to be crossed the Parues or the spurs of the Cithaeron before we reach the plains of Attica. The “isthmus” beyond these is again defended by transverse barriers, outlying ramparts, as it were, of the mountain citadel of the Peloponnesus, that acropolis of all Greece. Hellas has frequently been compared to a series of chambers, the doors of which were strongly bolted ; it was difficult to get in, but more difficult to get out again, owing to their stout defenders. Michelet likens Greece to a trap having three compartments. You entered, and found yourself taken first in Macedonia, then in Thessaly, then between the Thermopylae and the isthmus. But the difficulties increase beyond the isthmus, and Lacedsemonia remained impregnable for a long time.

At an epoch when the navigation even of a land-locked sea like the AEgean was attended with danger, Greece found herself sufficiently protected against the invasions of oriental nations ; but, at the same time, no other country held out such inducements to the pacific expeditions of merchants. Gulfs and harbours facilitated access to her AEgean coasts, and the numerous outlying islands were available as stations or as places of refuge. Greece, therefore, was favourably placed for entering into commercial intercourse with the more highly civilised peoples who dwelt on the opposite coasts of Asia Minor. The colonists and voyagers of Eastern Ionia not only supplied their Achaean and Pelasgian kinsmen with foreign commodities and merchandise, but the also imparted to them the myths, the poetry, the sciences, and the arts of their native county. Indeed, the geographical configuration of Greece points towards the east, whence she has received her first enlightenment. Her peninsulas and outlying islands extend in that direction ; the harbours on her eastern coasts are most commodious, and afford the best shelter; and the mountain-surrounded plains there offer the best sites for populous cities. Greece, at the same time, does not share the disadvantage of Turkey, which is almost cut off from the western world by a mountain region difficult to cross. The Ionian Sea, to the west of the Peloponnesus, it is true, is, comparatively speaking, a desert ; hut farther north the Gulf of Corinth almost cuts in two the Greek peninsula, and the sight of the distant mountains of Italy, which are visible from the Ionian Islands, must have incited to an exploration of the western seas. The Acarnanians, who knew how to build vaults long before the Romans, were thus brought early into contact with the Italians, to whom they imparted their knowledge, and at a subsequent period the Greeks became the civilisers of the whole western world of the Mediterranean.

The most distinctive feature of Hellas, as far as concerns the relief of the ground, consists in the large number of small basins, separated one from the other by rocks or mountain ramparts. The features of the ground thus favoured the division of the Greek people into a multitude of independent republics. Every town had its river, its amphitheatre of hills or mountains, its acropolis, its fields, pastures, and forests, and nearly all of them had, likewise, access to the sea. All the elements required by a free community were thus to be found within each of these small districts, and the neighbourhood of other towns, equally favoured, kept alive perpetual emulation, too frequently degenerating into strife and battle. The islands of the AEgean Sea, likewise, had constituted themselves into miniature republics. Local institutions thus developed themselves freely, and even the smallest island of the Archipelago has its great representatives in history.

But whilst there thus exists the greatest diversity, owing to the configuration of the ground and the multitude of islands, the sea acts as a binding element, washes every coast, and penetrates far inland. These gulfs and numerous harbours have made the maritime inhabitants of Greece a nation of sailors—amphibiae, as Strabo called them. From the most remote times the passion for travel has always been strong amongst them. When the inhabitants of a town grew too numerous to support themselves upon the produce of their land, they swarmed out like bees, explored the coasts of the Mediterranean, and, when they had found a site which recalled their native home, they built themselves a new city. It was thus Greek cities arose in hundreds of places, from the Maeotis Palus to beyond the columns of Hercules—from Tarais and Panticapteum to Gades and Tingis, the modern Tangier. Thanks to those numerous colonies, some of them more powerful and renowned than the mother towns which gave birth to them, the veritable Greece, the Greece of science and art and republican independence, in the end overflowed its ancient cradle, and sporadically occupied the whole circumference of the Mediterranean. The Greeks held the saine position relatively to the world of the ancients which is occupied at the present time by the Anglo-Saxons with reference to the entire earth. There exists, indeed, a remarkable analogy between Greece, with its archipelago, and the British Islands, at the other extremity of the continent. Similar geographical advantages have brought about similar results, as far as commerce is concerned, and between the wean and the British seas time and space have effected a sort of harmony.

The admiration with which travellers behold Greece is due, above all, to the memories attaching to every one of its ruins, to the smallest amongst its rivulets, and the most insignificant rock in its seas. Scenery in Provence or Spain, though it may surpass in grace or boldness of outline anything to be seen in Greece, is appreciated only by a few. The mass go past it without emotion, for names like Marathon, Leuctra, or Plataeae are not connected with it, and the rustle of bygone ages is not heard. But even if glorious memories were not associated with the coasts of Greece, their beauty would nevertheless entitle them to our admiration. In the gulf of Athens or of Argos the artist is charmed not only with the azure blue of the waters, the transparency of the sky, the ever-changing perspective along the shores, and the boldness of the promontories, but also with the pure and graceful profile of the mountains, which consist of layers of limestone or of marble. We almost fancy we look upon architectural piles ; and the temples with which many a summit is adorned appear to epitomize them.

It is verdure and the sparkling water of rivulets which we miss most on the shores of Greece. Nearly all the mountains near the coast have been despoiled of their large trees. There remain only bushes, mastic, strawberry, and juniper trees, and evergreen oaks ; even the carpet of odoriferous herbs which clothes the declivities, and upon which the goat browses, has in many instances been reduced to a few miserable patches. Torrents of rain have carried away the mould, and the naked rock appears on the surface. From a distance we only sec greyish declivities, dotted here and there with a few wretched shrubs. Even in the days of Strabo most mountains along the coasts had been robbed of their forests, and one of our modern authors says that ” Greece is a skeleton only of what it used to be ! ” By a sort of irony, geographical names derived from trees abound throughout Hellas and Turkey : Carye is the ” town of walnut-trees,” Valanidia that of the Valonia oaks, Kyparissi that of cypresses, Platanos or Platafiiki that of plane-trees. Everywhere we meet with localities whose appellation is justified by nothing. Forests at the present day are confined almost entirely to the interior and to the Ionian coast. The (Eta Mountains, some of the mountains of AEtolia, the hills of Acarnania, and Arcadia, Elis, Triphylia, and the slopes of the Taygetus, in the Peloponnesus, still retain their forests. And it is only in these forest districts, visited solely by herdsmen, that savage animals, such as the wolf, the fox, and the jackal, are now met with. The chamois, it is said, still haunts the recesses of the Pindus and (Eta Mountains ; but the wild boar of the Erymanthus, which must have been a distinct species if we are to judge by antique sculptures, exists no more in Greece, and the lion, still mentioned by Aristotle, has not been seen for two thousand years. Amongst the smaller animals there is a turtle, common in some parts of the Peloponnesus, which the natives look upon with the same aversion as do many western nations upon the toad and the salamander.

Greece is a small country, but the variety of its climate is nevertheless great. Striking differences in the climate of different localities are produced by the contrasts between mountains and plains, woodlands and sterile valleys, coasts having a northern or southern aspect. But even leaving out of sight these local differences, it may safely be asserted that the varieties of climate which we meet with in traversing Greece from north to south are searcely exceeded in any other region. The mountains of AEtolia, in the north, whose slopes are covered with beech-trees, remind us of the temperate zone of Europe, whilst the peninsulas and islands towards the east and south, with their thickets of fig and olive trees, their plantations of oranges and lemons, their aloe hedges and rare palm-trees, belong to the sub-tropical zone. But even neighbouring districts occasionally differ strikingly as regards climate. In the ancient lake basin of Boeotia the winters are cold, the summers scorching, whilst the temperature of the eastern shore of Euboea is equable, owing to the moderating influence of sea breezes. Within a narrow compass Greece presents us with the climates of a large portion of the earth, and there can be no doubt that this diversity of climate, and the contrasts of every kind springing from it, must have favourably influenced the intellectual development of the Hellenes. A spirit of inquiry was called forth amongst them which reacted upon their commercial tastes and industrial proclivities.

The diversity of the climate of the land, however, is compensated for, in Greece, by a uniformity in the climate of the maritime districts. As in a mountain valley, the winds of the AEgean Sea blow alternately in contrary directions. During nearly the whole of summer the atmospheric currents of Eastern Europe are attracted towards the African deserts. The winds from the north of the Archipelago and Macedonia then speed the navigator on his voyage to the south, and on many occasions the conquering tribes of the northern shores of that sea have availed themselves of them in their improvised attacks upon the inhabitants of the more southern districts of Asia Minor and of Greece. These regular northerly currents, known as etesian or annual winds, cease on the termination of the hot season, when the sun stands above the southern tropic. They are, moreover, interrupted every night, when the cool sea air is attracted by the heated surface of the land. When the sun has set the wind gradually subsides ; there is a calm, lasting a few moments ; and then the air begins to move in an inverse direction–” the land begins to blow,” as the sailors say Nor is this regular wind without its counter-current, known as the embates, or propitious south-easterly breeze of which the poets sing. General winds and breezes, moreover, are deflected from their original directions in consequenee of the configuration of the coast and the direction of mountain chains. The Gulf of Corinth, for instance, is shut in by high mountains on the north and the south, and the winds alternately enter it from the east or west—a phenomenon likened by Strabo to the breathing of an animal.

The rains, like the winds, deviate in many places from the average, and whilst the water pours down into some mountain valleys as into a funnel, elsewhere the clouds drift past without parting with a drop of their humid burden. Contrasts in the amount of precipitation are thus added to those resulting from differences of configuration and variety of climate. As a rule, rain is more abundant on the western shores of Greece than on the eastern, and this filet accounts for the smiling aspect of the hills of Elis, as compared with the barren declivities of Argolis and Attiea. Thunder-storms, driven before the winds of the Mediterranean, likewise recur with greater regularity in the western portion of the peninsula. In Elis and Acarnania the roll of thunder may be heard in spring daily. for w hole weeks, in the afternoon. No sites more apposite could have been found for temples dedicated to Jupiter, the god of lightning.

The ancient inhabitants of the Cyclades, and probably, also, those of the coasts of Hellas and Asia Minor, had already attained a considerable amount of culture long before the commencement of our historical records. This has been proved by excavations made in the volcanic ashes of Santorin and Therasia. At the time their houses were buried beneath the ashes, the Santoriniotes had begun to pass from the age of stone into that of copper. They knew how to build arches of stone and mortar, they manufactured lime, used weights made of blocks of lava, wove cloth, made pottery, dyed their stuffs, and ornamented their houses with frescoes; they cultivated barley, peas, and lentils, and had begun to trade with distant countries.

We do not know whether these men were of the same race as the Hellenes ; but thus much is certain—that at the earliest dawn of history the islands and coasts of the AEgean Sea were peopled by various families of Greeks, whilst the interior of the country and the western shores of the peninsula were inhabited by Pelasgians. These Pelasgians, moreover, were of the same stock as the Greeks, and they spoke a language derived from the same source as the dialects of the Hellenes. Both were Aryans, and, unless natives of the soil, they must have immigrated into Greece from Asia Minor by crossing the Hellespont, or by way of the islands of the Archipelago. The Pelasgians, according to tradition, sprang from Mount Lycaeus, in the centre of the Peloponnesus ; they boasted of being ” autochthons,” ” men of the black soil,” ” children of oaks,” or ” men born before the moon.” All around them lived tribes of kindred origin, such as the AEolians and the Leleges, and these were afterwards joined by Ionians and Achaeans. The Ionians, who, in a subsequent age, exercised so great an influence over the destinies of the world, only occupied the peninsula of Attica and the neighbouring Euboea. The Achaeans for a long time enjoyed a preponderance, and in the end the Greek clans collectively became known l’y that name. Later on, when the Dorians had crossed the Gulf of Corinth where it is narrowest, and established themselves as conquerors in the Peloponnesus, the Amphictyons, or national councils, sitting alternately at Therinopylae and Delphi, conferred the name of Hellenes, which was that of a small tribe in Thessaly and Phthiotis, upon all the inhabitants of the peninsula and the islands. The name of Greek, which signifies, perhaps, “mountaineer,” “ancient,” or “sou of the soil,” gradually spread amongst the nation, and in the end became general. The Ionians of Asia Minor, and the Carians of the Sporades, emulated the Phoenicians by trading from port to port amongst these half-savage tribes, and, like bees which convey the fecundating pollen from flower to flower, they carried the civilisation of Egypt and the East from tribe to tribe.

Phoenician merchants and Roman conquerors scarcely modified the elements composing the population of Hellas, but during the age of migrations barbarians in large numbers penetrated into Greece. For more than two centuries did the Avares maintain themselves in the Peloponnesus. Then came the Slays, aided, on more than one occasion, by the plague in depopulating the country. Greece became a Slavonia, and a Slavonian language, probably Servian, was universally spoken, as is proved by the majority of geographical names. The superstitious and legends of the modern Greeks, as has been remarked by many authors, are not simply a heritage derived from the ancient Hellenes, but have become enriched by phantoms and vampires of Slav invention. The dress of the Greeks, too, is a legacy of their northern conquerors. But, in spite of this, the polished language of the IIellenes has regained by degrees its ancient preponderance, and the race has so thoroughly amalgamated these foreign immigrants, that it is impossible now to trace any Servian elements in the population. But hardly had Hellas escaped the danger of becoming Slav when it was threatened with becoming Albanian. This occurred during the dominion of Venice. As recently as the commencement of the present century Albanian was the dominant language of Elis, Argos, Boeotia, and Attica, and even at the present day a hundred thousand supposed Hellenes still speak it. The actual population of Greece is, therefore, a very mixed one, but it is difficult to say in what proportions these Hellenic, Slav, and Albanian elements have combined. The Mainotes, or Maniotes. of the peninsula terminating in Cape Matapan, are generally supposed to be the Greeks of the purest blood. They themselves claim to be the descendants of the ancient Spartans, and amongst their strongholds they still point out one which belonged to ” Signor Lycurgus.” Their Councils of Elders have preserved from immemorial times, and down to the war of independence, the title of Senate of Lacedaemonia. Every Mainote professes to love unto death ” Liberty, the highest of all goods, inherited from our Spartan ancestors.” Nevertheless, a good many localities in Maina bear names derived from the Servian, and these prove, at all events, that the Slays resided in the country for a considerable time. The Mainotes practise the rendetta, as if they were Montenegrins. But is not this a common custom amongst all uncivilised nations ?

However this may be, in spite of invasions and intermixture with other races, the Greeks of to-day agree in most points with the Greeks of the past. Above all things, they have preserved their language, and it is truly matter for surprise that the vulgar Greek, though derived from a rural dialect, should differ so slightly only from the literary language. The differences, analogous to what may be observed w ith respect to the languages derived from the Latin, are restricted almost to two points, viz. the contraction of non-accentuated syllables and the use of auxiliary verbs. It was, therefore, easy for the modern Greeks to purify their language from barbarisms and foreign terms, and to restore it gradually to what it was in the time of Thucydides. Nor has the race changed much in its physical features, for in most districts of modern Greece the ancient types may yet be recognised. The Boeotian is still distinguished by that heavy gait which made him an object of ridicule amongst the other Greeks ; the Athenian youth possesses the suppleness, grace of movement and bearing which we admire so much in the horsemen sculptured on the friezes of the Parthenon the Spartan women have preserved that haughty and vigorous beauty which constituted the charm of the virgins of Doris. As regards morals, the descent of the modern Hellenes is equally evident. Like their ancestors, they are fond of change, and inquisitive ; as the descendants of- free citizens, they have preserved a feeling of equality; and, still infatuated with dialectics, they hold forth at all times as if they were in the ancient market-place, or Agora. They frequently stoop to flattery : like the ancient Greeks, too, they are apt to rate intellectual merit aboi e purity of morals.

Like sage Ulysses of the Homeric poem, they well know how to lie and cheat with grace ; and the truthful Acarnanian and the Mainote, who are ” slow to promise, but sure to keep,” are looked upon as rural oddities. Another trait in the character of the modern and ancient Greeks, and one which distinguishes them from all other Europeans, is this—that they do not allow themselves to be carried away by passion, except in the cause of patriotism. The Greek is a stranger to melancholy : he loves life, and is determined to enjoy it. In battle he may throw it away, but suicide is a species of death unknown amongst the modern Greeks, and the more unhappy they are, the more they cling to existence. They are very seldom afflicted with insanity.

In spite of the diverse elements which compose it, the Greek nationality is one of the most homogeneous in Europe. The Albanians, of Pelasgian descent like the Greeks, do not cede to the latter in patriotism ; and it was they—the 6uliotes, Hydriotcs, Spezziotes—who fought most valiantly for national independence. The eight hundred families of Romanian or Ilutzo-W allachianZiuzares who pasture their herds in the hills of Acarnania and Atulia, and arc known as Iïara-Gunis, or ” black cloaks,” speak the two languages, and sometimes marry Greek girls, though they never give their own daughters in marriage to the Greeks. Haughty and free, they are not sufficiently numerous to be of any great importance. To foreigners the Greeks are rather intolerant, and they take no pains to render their stay amongst them agreeable. The Turks—who were numerous formerly in certain parts of the Peloponuesus, in Bceotia, and in the island of Euboea, and whose presence recalled an unhappy period of servitude—have fled to a man, and only the fez, the narghile, and the slippers remind us of their former presence. The Jews, though met with in every town of the Fast, whether Slav or Mussulman, dare hardly enter the presence of’ the Greeks, who are, moreover, their most redoubtable rivals in matters of finance : they are to be found only in the Ionian Islands, where they managed to get a footing during the British Protectorate. In this same Archipelago we likewise meet with the descendants of the ancient Venetian colonists, and with emigrants from all parts of Italy. French and Italian families still form a distinct element of the population of Naxos, Santorin, and Syra. As to the Maltese porters and gardeners at Athens and Corfu, they continue for the most part in subordinate positions, and never associate with the Greeks.

The homogeneous character of the population of Greece does not admit of that country being divided into ethnological provinces, like Turkey or Austro-Hungary, but it consists geographically of four distinct portions. These are (1), continental Hellas, known since the Turkish invasion as Rumelia, in remembrance of the ” Roman ” empire of Byzantium ; (2), the ancient Peloponnesus, now called the Morea, perhaps a transposition of the word ” Romea,” or from a Slav word signifying ” sea coast,” and applied formerly to Elis ; (3), the islands of the AEgean Sea ; (4), the Ionian Islands. In describing the various portions of Greece we shall make use, in preference, of the ancient names of mountains, rivers, and towns ; for the Hellenes of our own day, proud of the glories of the past, are endeavouring gradually to get rid of names of Slav or Italian origin, which still figure upon the maps of their country.