Geography of Ancient Greece

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Few places show how geography impacts culture and development like ancient Greece. From its roots as a seafaring culture to the massive trading system built by its merchants, the landforms of Greece have long kept its people challenged by the mountainous terrain and focused on the sea.

Mountains, Mountains Everywhere!

If you were to land in the middle of Greece, the first topographic feature you'd notice is that it's one hilly country. Major landforms range from sloping hills in the east, suitable for growing grapes for wine and olives for oil, all the way to rocky outreaches in the north and west, such as Mount Olympus itself, the mythological home of the Greek gods. At just over 9,500 feet, Mount Olympus is almost as tall as Mount Hood in Oregon. On the western coast of Greece, we also find the Pindus Mountains.

While mountains dominate the northern and western reaches of Greece, the majority of ancient Greek settlements were located in the eastern and southern parts of the country. As you might expect, Greek's mountainous terrain has had a huge impact on the country's development and history.

Mount Olympus
Mount Olympus

Overview of Ancient Greek Geography

Located at the southern tip of the Balkan peninsula, Greece itself is surrounded by the sea. It is entirely composed of islands and peninsulas and surrounded by the Ionian, Adriatic and Aegean Seas. A peninsula is an area of land bounded on three sides by water. In ancient times, the peninsula of Attica extended like a pointed finger from the mainland, with its famous city of Athens at its tip. Halfway down Attica, the Isthmus of Corinth connects the rest of Greece with its largest peninsula, the Peloponnese, originally home to ancient cities like Olympia and Sparta. An isthmus is a slim strip bordered on two sides by water that connects two areas of land.

Off the coast of mainland Greece are a number of islands. Among the largest are Crete and Rhodes, but dozens of smaller islands can also be found in the Aegean Sea. With water separating many settlements, and mountains blocking most land routes, it comes as no surprise that the ancient Greek nation was very decentralized and developed into a number of city-states, rather than a single political entity.

A Topographical Map of Greece
Topographical Map of Greece

Agricultural Patterns

In other parts of the ancient world, civilizations had wide-ranging plains upon which to plant their crops. No such plains presented themselves in Greece. In the eastern part of Greece, sloping hills created ideal growing conditions for the grapes and olives used in oil and for wine. In Western Greece, the terrain was too mountainous to permit much in the way of agriculture. Needless to say, grapes and olives goods found their way into Greek cuisine as well as folklore - olive trees in particular played a major role in the founding of Athens. However, terrestrial concerns were secondary to the Greeks, as many of them earned their living from the sea, with fish and seafood making significant contributions to ancient Greek cuisine.

An Olive Orchard in Greece

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