According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The Greeks have often been described as “independent-minded” and there seems no doubt that geography played a major role in shaping that character. It was the mountains and the sea that molded Greece and Greeks into what they were. Mountains in Greece don't soar to the heights of other mountain ranges such as the Andes, Rockies, Alps or Himalayas-but they are extensive. In fact, about 80 percent of Greece is covered with mountains with the result that most settlements were less than 10 miles from a mountain. These mountain ranges isolated regions from each other more effectively than fences because what they lack in height they make up with steepness and ruggedness preventing or discouraging overland travel and communication.” [Source: Canadian Museum of History ]

No maps drawn up by the ancient Greeks have survived. According to a description by Herodotus, the known world in Greek times was drawn as a neat parallelogram with the Danube and the Nile as the boundaries. The "equator" was a diagonal line running through the middle of the map. Asia Minor was described as having an ideal climate because it was intersected by the equator and it was "midway between the extreme points of the summer and winter rising and settings of the sun." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

In the octagonal Tower of the Winds in Athens (second century B.C.) the four cardinal direction are depicted by winds as are the four in-between directions (northeast, southwest, etc.). Certain myths and symbols are attached with each one. The puffy cheeked faces of blowing winds that we see on many old maps dates back to the Greeks. All the Greek winds had names and after time these names became synonymous with the direction from which the came. This set the precedent as to why we determine direction from where it comes from rather than where it goes.∞

Aristotle suggested in the 3rd century B.C. that the world was a sphere based on the shadow cast on the moon during an eclipse. Miletus and Thales proposed in 585 B.C. that the Earth was a disk that floated on water. Anaximader envisioned it as cylinder crowned by a disk of inhabited land while Anazimenes suggested it was a rectangle floating on compressed air. The Pythagoreans and Plato believed the world was a sphere based on their belief that the sphere was the most perfect shape. Aristarchus (310-230 B.C.) measured the Earth’s tilt on its axis and proposed the Earth’s orbits the sun.

Websites on Ancient Greece and Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity ; Forum Romanum ; “Outlines of Roman History”; “The Private Life of the Romans”|; BBC Ancient Rome; The Roman Empire in the 1st Century; The Internet Classics Archive ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame / ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History


Claudius Ptolemaeus
Occupying the southernmost tip of Europe and bordered by Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria to the north, Turkey and the Aegean Sea to the east, the Ionian Sea to the west, and the Mediterranean Sea to the south, modern Greece covers an area of 51,182 square miles (about the size of Alabama). Ionian Sea and Aegean Sea are branches of the Mediterranean Sea. The Ionian Sea is south of the Adriatic Sea between Italy and Croatia and Albania.

About 23 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the U.S.) and most this agriculture land consist of olive groves and vineyards in places that aren't mountainous. About 40 percent of Greece is covered by pasture land and only two percent by forests and woods.

Greece is a mountainous peninsular country with many islands. Mountains cover about 80 percent of Greece, with largest mountains in the northern part of the country. The coastline is full of gulfs and inlets and is one of the longest in Europe.

Greece is broken up into six major regions-1) Thrace, Macedonia, Thessaly, Epirus in the north; 2), central Greece, including Thessaly; 4) the Peloponnesus; and 4) and the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea to the east and the Ionian Sea in the west. The mountainous northern part of Greece is considered part of the Balkans. Thrace, formerly part of Turkey, and Macedonia are south of Bulgaria on the eastern Greek panhandle. Epirus is south of Albania.

The highest mountain in Greece and the legendary home of the Greek gods, 9,570-foot-high Mt. Olympus, and the famous monasteries of Metora are located in Thessaly. Athens is positioned at the southern end of Central Greece. The Peloponnesus, where Sparta and Corinth are located, is to the west of Athens and seems as if it should be a big island.

The Greek Islands cover 8,919 square miles, making up about 20 percent of the country. Of the 2000 or so islands, 169 are inhabited. Most of these islands are mountainous, dry and rugged. Crete even has snow-capped peaks. The Greek islands are also divided into several groups. The Ionian Islands, including Corfu and Ithaca (Ulysses home island), are located off the western coast of Greece not too far from Albania.

Most of the Greek islands, including Myconos, Lesbos, Patmos and Santorini, are located in the Aegean sea. Some of the Aegean is plants, such as Rhodes and Cos, are so close to the Anatolian peninsula they seem as if they should be part of Turkey not Greece. The Cyclades begin just south of Athens and include Mykonos and Santorini. Rhodes is part of the Dodecanese islands off the southwest coast of Turkey; Lesbos is part of the Northeast Aegean Islands off the northwest coast of Turkey; and the Sporades are small group off the southeastern coast of the Greek mainland. The only two islands which aren't part of a group are Euboea, near the Sporades, and Crete, the largest and southern most Greek island which is just as close to Egypt as it is to Athens.

Earth of the later Greeks

There aren't too many forests in Greece especially on the islands. On thing about old civilizations is that they chop down an awful lot of trees, which in Greece have a hard time growing back in the strong sun. Hence most of the mountainous are rocky (first the trees go, then dirt soon follows) and ate covered in grass.None of Greece's rivers, which include the Axious, the Srymon and the Evros, are navigable. The Evros forms the frontier between modern Greece and Turkey.

See Separate Article ATHENS IN ANTIQUITY

Greece and the Sea

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “No matter where people settled in Greece, they were rarely more than 50 miles from the sea. The philosopher Plato noted that the Greeks lived around the sea “like frogs around a pond. ” A deeply indented coastline held between its rocky fingers a sea that could vary from tranquil to turbulent depending on the season and the weather. Most Greek mariners had experienced firsthand the sea's treacherous currents and diabolical whirlpools. [Source: Canadian Museum of History *|*]

“During the summer months the sea tended to be peaceful. Being an inland body of water the Mediterranean Sea has almost no tides- less than a meter between high and low tides. It has little plankton (that's why its waters are so clear), which means that it doesn't support the extent and variety of sea life seen elsewhere but certainly enough to be both an important and welcome source of food. *|*

“Surrounded by water, the Greeks nevertheless faced a shortage of fresh water. Compared to many countries, there is a real scarcity of rivers and these often dry up to a trickle in the hot summer months. (Summer temperatures, because of the cloudless skies, are often hotter than in the Tropics.) The lack of rivers is offset somewhat by a plentiful supply of fresh water springs. These were precious and life giving and it is not surprising that they were considered to be sacred sites.” *|*

Eratosthenes, Longitude, Latitude and Measuring the World

Eratosthenes was a Ptolemaic Greek scientist, librarian, theater critic and a famous scholar at the Alexandrian library. He was the first man to divide the Earth into northern and southern hemispheres. He also devised a system of north-south and east-west lines. Hipparcus extended these lines around the whole world, and said that by simply knowing the coordinates, any place on earth could be located.

Eratosthenes also came up with the word "degree" and the idea of dividing the Earth into 360 meridians that were a 70 miles apart at the equator (calculations which are more or less true today). Ptolemy, the author of Geography , applied the grid system to cartography and divided Hipparcus's degrees into "minutes" and "seconds." The early Greek system of longitude and latitude worked better on a flat world than a spherical one. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

Eratosthenes made the first calculation of the circumference of the Earth. During the summer solstice, he had heard, sunlight penetrated to bottom of well in the town of the Syene (modern Aswan). This meant the sun was directly overhead there on that date. He didn't know this at the time but this also meant that Syene was located on the imaginary line we now call the Tropic of Cancer.

World of Ptolemy as shown by Johannes de Armsshein of Ulm (1482)

On the the summer solstice on June 21st, 240 B.C., without leaving the Alexandria library grounds where he worked, Eratosthenes measured the shadow cast by a column at noon and worked out the angle of its shadow was 7½ degrees. He knew that Syene was about 500 miles away from Alexandria and that 7½̊ was about one fiftieth of a circle. More or less by multiplying the distance between the two cities (500 miles) by 50 (the 50 segments in a circle) he calculated the Earth had a circumference of 25,200 miles, only 340 miles longer than the true figure of 24,860 miles. Eratosthenes also calculated the distance of the Earth to the sun was 92 million miles, also an astonishingly close number.

Ptolemy, Geography and the Earth at the Center of the Universe

Claudius Ptolemaeus, Ptolemy for short, was a Greco-Roman astronomer who combined centuries of Greek learning with 14 years of observations of the stars and planets to produce Geography (A.D. 141), which declared that the Earth was at the center of the universe and used this theory to explain and predict the positions of stars and planets. Ptolemy is regarded as the father of modern geography. He also wrote about music, optics, kings, chronology and astrology, but he is remembered most for his assertion the Earth was the center of the universe.

Ptolemy wrote "Geography looks at the position rather than quality, noting the relation of distances everywhere, and emulating the art of painting only in some of its major description.” Ptolemy's system of latitude and longitude used lines that were a uniform distance apart and were represented with curved lines to compensate for the spherical shape of the Earth. The first longitude were not equally spaced apart like those today; they ran through well known places like Alexandria, Rhodes, the Pillars of Hercules and the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Ptolemy improved this system. However he grossly underestimated the circumference of the Earth. He declared it to be 18,000 miles (as opposed to the true figure of about 24,586 miles)

Ptolemy may have also been the one who invented the words "longitude" and "latitude." The principals he laid out in Geography were the basis for the knowledge of geography, maps and atlases in Europe until the 17th century. Barthalamule Dias and Vasco de Gama had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope of southern Africa maps based on Ptolemy's view of the world showed the Indian Ocean to be as land bound as the Mediterranean Sea. His erroneous calculation of the circumference of the Earth was one reason why Columbus decided to sail of to India across the Atlantic (based on Ptolemy's calculations Columbus thought that Asia was closer than it is really was).∞

Map Athenian Empire 431 BC

Ptolemy's system endured for more than 1,400 years (until Copernicus), partly because the Roman Catholic Church liked "the human-centered view of the world." Ptolemy was ignored during the Middle Ages and many says his revival in the Renaissance is once of the forces that spurred thinking about man’s place in the world and the universe. Even though the Greeks had figured out the Earth was round, the Christians put forth the idea that seas were probably unnavigable, and if they were navigable, one should not venture too close to paradise which was not to far away. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin,∞]

Strabo: the Geography

Strabo wrote in “Geographia” (c. A.D. 20): “Now I shall tell what part of the land and sea I have myself visited and concerning what part I have trusted to accounts given by others by word of mouth or in writing. I have travelled westward from Armenia as far as the regions of Tyrrhenia opposite Sardinia, and southward from the Euxine Sea as far as the frontiers of Ethiopia. And you could not find another person among the writers on geography who has travelled over much more of the distances just mentioned than I; indeed, those who have travelled more than I in the western regions have not covered as much ground in the east, and those who have travelled more in the eastern countries are behind me in the western; and the same holds true in regard to the regions towards the south and north. However, the greater part of our material both they and I receive by hearsay and then form our ideas. . . . And he who claims that only those have knowledge who have actually seen abolishes the criterion of the sense of hearing, though this sense is much more important than sight for the purposes of science. [Source: Strabo, “Geography of Strabo,” 8 volumes, translated by Horace L. Jones, (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1917), vol. 1, pp. 451-2]

“In particular the writers of the present time can give a better account of the Britons, the Germans, the peoples both north and south of the Ister, the Getans, the Tyregetans, the Bastarnians, and, furthermore, the peoples in the regions of the Caucasus, such as the Albanians and the Iberians. Information has been given us also concerning Hyrcania and Bactriana by the writers of Parthian histories, in which they marked off those countries more definitely than many other writers. . . .

Explorers and Ancient Greece

A Carthaginian navigator named Hanno explored the west coast of Africa between 500 and 450 B.C. It is not known how far he got. The Greek geographer Pythea visited Britain around 300 B.C.

Alexander the Great spread knowledge of the Western world as far east as India. The Crete mariner named Nearchus, who had joined Alexander the Great, sailed from the Indus River back to the Middle East in 325-324 B.C.

A Greek named Eudoxus made on of the first voyages between Egypt and India. Around 120 B.C., he sailed across the Arabian Sea and down the east coast of Africa. By A.D. 100, Greek and Roman mariners were sailing east of India.

, See Egyptians


The Peloponnese is rugged peninsula that begins about 75 miles west of Athens. On a map it looks more like an island that an peninsula and only a small narrow isthmus connects it to the mainland. The interior is mountainous and the isolated villages found there have changed little since the Middle Ages. The protected waters along the flat northern coast are quite calm while seas of the rocky southwestern coast are more rough.

The coastline found on the rest of the peninsula is a mixture of harbors, beaches and hills. Between the mountains and the coast are gentle hills and valleys dotted with orange orchards, vineyards, olive groves and fields of vegetables and grain.


Pausanias wrote in “Description of Greece”, Book II: Cornith: “The Corinthian land is a portion of the Argive, and is named after Corinthus. That Corinthus was a son of Zeus I have never known anybody say seriously except the majority of the Corinthians. Eumelus, the son of Amphilytus,1 of the family called Bacchidae, who is said to have composed the epic poem, says in his Corinthian History (if indeed the history be his) that Ephyra, the daughter of Oceanus, dwelt first in this land; that afterwards Marathon, the son of Epopeus, the son of Aloeus, the son of Helius (Sun), fleeing from the lawless violence of his father migrated to the sea coast of Attica; that on the death of Epopeus he came to Peloponnesus, divided his kingdom among his sons, and returned to Attica; and that Asopia was renamed after Sicyon, and Ephyraea after Corinthus. [Source: Pausanias, “Description of Greece,” with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D. in 4 Volumes. Volume 1.Attica and Cornith, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918]

“Corinth is no longer inhabited by any of the old Corinthians, but by colonists sent out by the Romans. This change is due to the Achaean League.1 The Corinthians, being members of it, joined in the war against the Romans, which Critolaus, when appointed general of the Achaeans, brought about by persuading to revolt both the Achaeans and the majority of the Greeks outside the Peloponnesus. When the Romans won the war, they carried out a general disarmament of the Greeks2 and dismantled the walls of such cities as were fortified. Corinth was laid waste by Mummius, who at that time commanded the Romans in the field, and it is said that it was afterwards refounded by Caesar,3 who was the author of the present constitution of Rome. Carthage, too, they say, was refounded in his reign.

In the Corinthian territory is also the place called Cromyon from Cromus the son of Poseidon. Here they say that Phaea was bred; overcoming this sow was one of the traditional achievements of Theseus. Farther on the pine still grew by the shore at the time of my visit, and there was an altar of Melicertes. At this place, they say, the boy was brought ashore by a dolphin; Sisyphus found him lying and gave him burial on the Isthmus, establishing the Isthmian games in his honor.

“At the beginning of the Isthmus is the place where the brigand Sinis used to take hold of pine trees and draw them down. All those whom he overcame in fight he used to tie to the trees, and then allow them to swing up again. Thereupon each of the pines used to drag to itself the bound man, and as the bond gave way in neither direction but was stretched equally in both, he was torn in two. This was the way in which Sinis himself was slain by Theseus. For Theseus rid of evildoers the road from Troezen to Athens, killing those whom I have enumerated and, in sacred Epidaurus, Periphetes, thought to be the son of Hephaestus, who used to fight with a bronze club.

“The Corinthian Isthmus stretches on the one hand to the sea at Cenchreae, and on the other to the sea at Lechaeum. For this is what makes the region to the south mainland. He who tried to make the Peloponnesus an island gave up before digging through the Isthmus. Where they began to dig is still to be seen, but into the rock they did not advance at all. So it still is mainland as its nature is to be. Alexander the son of Philip wished to dig through Mimas, and his attempt to do this was his only unsuccessful project. The Cnidians began to dig through their isthmus, but the Pythian priestess stopped them. So difficult it is for man to alter by violence what Heaven has made.

Colonies of Greece in 500 BC

Greek Islands

The Cyclades are a group of 56 inhabited islands that fan out in a southeast direction from Athens towards Crete. Named after the roughly circular shapes formed by the islands, the Cyclades are all beautiful, they all have nice beaches and they all are surrounded by turquoise blue water that is delightful to swim. It is impossible to cover all the islands but we'll try to cover the major ones for you. Milos (9 hours by ferry from Piraeus) has a history that spans 5000 years. Among the treasures unearthed there was the Venus de Milo.

The Aegean Sea is located between Turkey and Greece. The Dodecanese Islands are a group of islands that are located in the southeast Aegean, surprisingly close to Turkey. Rhodes, the main island in the group, is only an hour ferry ride from Turkey (compared to 22 from Athens).. Most of Dodecanese Islands don't have much vegetation. There are hardly any trees and sometimes more rocks than grass. But don't let this discourage you they are still beautiful islands and all of them have nice beaches so I won't even bother to say it for each individual island.

Rhodes (18-24 hours from Pireaus) is the largest island in the Dodecanese and was the former home of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is surprisingly lush for a Greek island. Karpathos (7½ hours from Rhodes) is an isolated island south of Rhodes that is a step back in time. In the isolated village of Ólimbos the Greek dialect they speak is so old some of the words date back to Homer's time.

Northeast Aegean Islands are located off the northwestern coast of Turkey and are similar to the other Aegean islands except for one thing. Most of the whitewashed houses have red tiles roofs which the give the villages on these islands a different character. There are scores of nice beaches on each island and also god hiking in the mountains. Samothrace (ferry from Kavala in northern Greece and Lemnos) has the tallest mountain in the Aegean, Fengair (5000 feet) where according to Homer Poseidon watched the Trojan War. The famous Louvre statue, Nike of Samothrace, also known as Winged Victory of Samothrace, was found here.

The Ionian Islands are the group of islands off the west coast of Greek mainland that begin with Zante in the south near Peloponnesus and continue north to Corfu which is within sight of the Albanian border. These islands which lie in the Ionian Sea generally have more trees and receive more rain than their Aegean counterparts. The Ionian island most popular with tourists is Corfu. The one most well known to students who read their lessons is Ithaca, the home of Ulysses.

Greek Parts of Turkey

The European part of modern Turkey between Istanbul, Bulgaria and Greece is called Thrace. European and Asian sides of modern Turkey are divided by the Bosporus, Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles. Only three percent of the land mass lies west of the Bosporus on the European side. Modern Turkey and Greece share a common border in Thrace. Many islands that are only a few miles off the coast of Turkey, and seem as if they should belong to Turkey, are actually part of Greece.

Bosporus is Greek means “ox ford,” a reference to a legend to the goddess Io who swan across the strait in the form of a cow. The first man to cross the Bosporus on a bridge was King Darius of Persia who lashed together a line of galleys at the straits narrowest point in the 6th century B.C. that allowed his 70,000 troops to cross the waterway on their way to do battle with the Greeks. A similar legend has Xeres crossing the Dardanelles.

The Dardanelles (125 miles southwest of Istanbul) is a strategically-located 38-mile-long strait between the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara that is similar to the Bosporus but wider and longer yet still is less than a mile across in some places. Unlike the zigzagging Bosporus, the Dardanelles is relatively straight and canal-like and easier for ships to negotiate than the Bosporus. Known in ancient times as Hellespont, it is, according to Greek mythology, the place where Leander tried to swim to his lover Hero but drowned on the way; The broken-hearted Hero ended up drowning as well.

Anatolia, Asia Minor

Parts of ancient Greek civilization were located around the Black Sea and on the western coast of Turkey, which sits upon a large peninsula between the the Black and Mediterranean Seas called Anatolia (a Greek name meaning “sunrise”) or Asia Minor (the name the Romans used).

About 26 percent of Anatolia is covered by forests; 11 percent is occupied by grasslands; and 30 percent is good for agriculture. Most of this land is in coastal plains in the south and west. Other crops are raised in irrigated areas along river and in mountain valleys. A wide plateau---that is cold in the winter and hot in summer---occupies the central part of Anatolia. Ir rises progressively towards the east and is broken by the valleys of more than a dozen major rivers including the Tigris and Euphrates. Most of the rest of Anatolia is mountainous or hilly. The central and eastern parts of the country are the most desert-like regions of Turkey.

High mountains ring the interior on all sides but the West. There are more than 20 peaks over 10,000 feet. The eastern Black Sea mountain ranges---which included the Kachkar range and the Pontic Alps---parallels the Black Sea and rise up rather abruptly from the Black Sea coast and recive a lot of rain on the northern Black Sea side and dry on the south side. In the south the Tarsus mountains sweep down almost to narrow fertile plane along the Mediterranean coast.

At one time much of Anatolia was covered with forests, but the 36 civilizations needed wood for their houses and cooking fires, and now many of the forests are gone. Most of the remaining forest are in the north and in Black Sea region, which includes the Istanbul area and is surprisingly lush and green. The Aegean and Mediterranean coasts are drier. The plant life found here resembles the scrubby vegetation of southern California or Greece.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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