Asked in Ancient HistoryAncient Greece
How did geography contribute to Greece's development as a group of individual city-states?
August 14, 2016 1:27PM
The rugged mountains and numerous bays divided Greece into small, isolated regions and city-states. Travel between the city-states was difficult, so the city states didn't communicate much with each other and therefore developed their own systems of currency, government, politics, fashion, and more. A Greek wouldn't think of themselves as "Greek," they identified themselves by their city-states- an Athenian or Spartan, etc.
The geography of Greece affected the city-states in a multitude of ways. This list is not exhaustive, but mentions several important ways that the geography affected the City-States:
1) Minimal Land Travel: The Greek Mainland (Thrace, Epirus, Boeotia, Attica, and the Peloponnesus) is among the most mountainous and hilly lands in all of Europe, making land travel between the city-state minimal. It also directed their efforts away from expanding their influence primarily over land and explains why non-coastal regions of Greece took the longest to develop.
2) Marine Travel and Naval Strength: Most of the city-states were relatively close to the water, especially those found on Crete, Cyprus, the Dodecanese Islands, or Cycladic Islands. Greek city-states favored marine travel which was more reliable and cost-effective than land travel. As a result, many city-states had strong navies as opposed to having strong armies. (Sparta is the one major exception to that rule.)
3) Chronic Disunity: Because of the prevalence of strong navies, the difficulty of land travel, and the presence of many invasion choke-points (the most famous being Thermopylae), the Greek city-states were never completely unified until Alexander the Great conquered them all. (Sparta did defeat Athens in the Peloponnesian War, but only held onto that victory for a very short time. In addition, Sparta never expanded its power into Boeotia or over the Cycladic Islands - which would have been the next logical places to expand.)
4) Pastoralism and Fishing: The mountainous terrain made growing crops very difficult. The two crops that the Greeks were able to cultivate were olives and wheat, but wheat was much more difficult to maintain than the olives. This forced Greeks to resort to pastoralism (primarily animal-based agriculture) and they raised goats, sheep, and pigs. As a result, there was a lot of dairy and meat in the Greek diet relative to contemporaneous civilizations (although significantly less than today). In addition, because of the access to the sea, Greek cuisine included vast amounts of shellfish, mollusks, and proper fishes.
The mountains separated the city states, the bays provided fertile land for farming, and the sea provided fishing and trading of seafood.
The Greek peninsula was made up of fertile patches divided by seas, mountains, and rivers. Populations and cities grew up in each of these enclaves, which became individual independent city-states.
When increasing population exceeded the resources of cities, they sent out their surplus populations to seize land in other parts of the Mediterranean littoral, which brought new city-states, and in time the most successful had to send out their own colonists.
The result was the Greek world expanded to become a couple of thousand Greek city-states around the Mediterranean and Black Seas, from Spain in the west to Asia Minor in the east. The names of modern cities give away their origin - Marseilles in France (Massilia), Naples in Italy (Nea Polis = New City), Tripoli in Libya (Tri Polis = three cities), Gallipoli in Turkey (= city of the Gauls) etc.