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How did Greece's geography impact social, political, and economic patterns?

Greece's geography impacted social, political, and economic patterns in a variety of ways, such as that its mountains prevented complete unification, led to the establishment of the city states near the sea, led to a reliance on naval powers, hindered overland trade, and encouraged maritime trade around the Mediterranean, which led to the influence of other Mediterranean cultures on Greek society.

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The country now called Greece consists of an arid, mountainous section of the mainland of South-Eastern Europe, surrounded by a great many islands. Most of them are small, but one in particular, Crete, is both large and of great historical significance.

The mountains in the center of Greece had several effects on its development. They prevented Ancient Greece from ever becoming fully unified, despite the efforts of Mycenaean, Athenian, Spartan, and Macedonian rulers to build empires. They also prevented many Greeks from living far inland, ensuring that the Greek city states were close to the sea and that their prosperity and power depended primarily on their navies.

Finally, the relatively poor soil and scarce resources of Greece, together with the lack of unity among the states, meant that that Greek civilizations never became spectacularly wealthy, like Persia, Lydia, and later Rome. When we think of Greek civilization, we tend to consider Athens first, and the fame of Athens rests not on conquest or commerce but on the intellectual achievements of philosophers and writers, together with the foundations of democracy and political institutions, and the arts of sculpture and architecture.

In his landmark documentary series and book Civilization, Lord Clark points out that while surplus wealth is clearly necessary for a society to reach the peaks of artistic and intellectual achievement, immense wealth has seldom been particularly helpful and has often been destructive of advanced civilization. The arid climate, mountainous terrain, poor soil, and lack of natural resources in Greece, therefore, may have been beneficial in the development of civilization.

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Greece is a modern entity. What we call Ancient Greece was more a culture than a polity. The Hellenes, or Greeks, had diverse origins but came to share a common culture. Minoan Greece, centered on the island of Crete, peaked in the years 2000 to 1500 BCE. The Minoans took advantage of calm, accessible seas to establish a vast trade network. They were involved in the trade of Egyptian wheat, Greek olive oil and wine, Palestinian metalwork, Anatolian textiles, and Babylonian spices. This abundance of goods created a thriving economy and society. The civilization likely declined owing to the eruption of Thera in the 1500s BCE and the ensuing destruction caused by tsunamis and flooding. The demise of Minoan civilization coincided more or less with the rise of Myceaenean civilization on the Greek mainland. This civilization thrived from about 1600 to 1000 BCE. The demise of the Myceaeneans is sometimes attributed to an invasion of the Sea Peoples. History shows that oftentimes, access to the seas turned out to be a disadvantage, rather than a benefit, for Greek civilization. Greece had to face future threats from the seas, such as at the well-known Battle of Marathon during the Persian Wars. In any case, proximity to the sea had a major impact on Ancient Greece for the duration of its history. Other geographical factors, some of which are less global, can productively be studied thanks to an abundance of scholarly online sources. The links below can help provide a good start. It is helpful to look for sites with .edu extensions, as these are affiliated with institutions of higher learning and are generally sound and scholarly.

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The first important element of Greece's geography is location, including its Mediterranean climate. This means cool, wet, but mild winters, with average temperatures above freezing, and warm dry summers. This climate is well-suited for agriculture. Greece is especially hospitable to grapes, with wine making being well established in antiquity, and olives, with olive oil being another major export, as well as barley and other fruits and vegetables. Goats, chickens, pigs, and sheep thrived in Greece and were used for milk and cheese as well as meat. High quality marble and clay are readily available and form the materials for two areas in which Greece achieved artistic prominence, pottery and sculpture. These relatively accessible natural resources allowed the Greeks to produce a food surplus and develop an advanced civilization.

Greece is extremely mountainous and surrounded by the sea. To get from one Greek city to the next, it was often faster and safer to travel by sea rather than by land. This had two effects. First, it led to "Greece" being a conglomeration of independent city-states rather than a unified nation. Second, many city-states looked to the sea not only for food but trade and colonization.

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In thinking about the impact of geography on Greek life, we must think about three aspects of that geography. The three most important aspects of Greek geography were the mountains that split Greece into a number of relatively small regions, the Mediterranean climate, and the fact that almost all of Greece was near to the sea.  Let us look at how these three aspects of Greek geography impacted Greek social, economic, and political patterns.

The mountains had an impact on Greek politics and economics.  The mountains separated the various regions of Greece and prevented them from forming large polities. Therefore, the basic unit of Greek politics was the city-state.  This was one of the most important facts about Greek political life. The mountains also affected Greek economics.  They made it so that it was very difficult for any overland trade to occur.  This helped to shape the Greek economy.

The proximity of the sea also shaped the Greek economy. Because the sea was so easily accessible and because overland trade was difficult, the Greek economy came to be based on maritime trade.  This also affected the Greek politics and society because it allowed Greece to contact people around the Mediterranean.  These contacts made it so that Greek culture was made up of a variety of influences from around the Mediterranean.  It also allowed the Greeks to spread out, creating colonies around the region.

Finally, the climate had an impact on Greek economics and politics.  The climate was good for growing a variety of crops such as olives and grapes. This gave the Greeks crops that they could trade with people from other regions.  The climate also made it pleasant for Greek people to mingle with one another outdoors.  This is credited with helping the Greek city-states create democratic political systems.

In these ways, Greece’s mountains, climate, and proximity to the sea had important impacts on its social, economic, and political patterns.

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