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Indo-European Languages

Hellenic Family

Carol Justus and Jonathan Slocum

Mycenaean Greece and Linear B

Greek dialects were attested as early as the Linear B of the Mycenaean tablets found on Crete and mainland Greece (mid-second millennium BC). Speakers of Mycenaean Greek were contemporary with periods of Hittite history and are thought, as Achaeans, to have been the Ahhiyawa with whom Hittite kings were in contact. If Paris/Alexander is also the Alaksandu with whom a Hittite king made a treaty, it is more than likely that the events of the Homeric epics took place in Anatolia before the end of the Hittite Empire (ca. 1180 BC).

Archaic Greece

Although many people identify ancient Greece with classical Athens, much of what made classical Athens and its neighbors distinctive had its origins in what is called the "Archaic period," that is, the period traditionally dated from the first Olympiad in 776 BC to the end of the Persian Wars in 479 BC. Far from being "archaic" in the modern sense, the Archaic period of Greek history witnessed the reintroduction to Greece of the lost art of writing, the development of the city-state (polis), the creation of Homer's epics and of the intensely personal poetry of Archilochus and Sappho, as well as the birth of western philosophy in Ionia (now western Turkey) and the rise to prominence of the great powers of the 5th century, Athens and Sparta.

Classical Greece and Attic Greek

The classical period of Greek history and literature stretched from the end of the Persian Wars in 479 BC to the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. Within this period of roughly 150 years occurred the events that shaped the common perception of ancient Greece, among them the rise of the Athenian empire, the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens, and the rise of Philip's, and later Alexander's, Macedon. The Classical period likewise gave birth to the literature for which the Greeks are still admired, including the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the histories of Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, and the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle.

The Hellenistic World and Koine Greek

The conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) spread Hellenic culture and the Greek language from his home in Macedonia to the Indus River in the east, and to Egypt in the south. Although Alexander's unified empire did not survive his death, its successor kingdoms (the Antigonid monarchy in Greece, the Seleucid monarchy in Syria, and the Ptolemaic monarchy in Egypt) lasted until the fall of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, at the hands of the Romans in 31 BC. However, Alexander's cultural achievements long outlasted his political accomplishments, and Hellenic culture and the Greek language continued to thrive in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire.

The Byzantine Empire and Byzantine (Mediæval) Greek

Byzantium became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in A.D. 330 when the Emperor Constantine refounded it as Constantinople (i.e., the City of Constantine), and with the fall of the Western Empire to the barbarians in A.D. 476 the Byzantine Empire was all that remained of the Romans' once vast imperial possessions. The Byzantine Empire, however, was neither a meager remnant of the Roman Empire nor an outpost of Latin culture in the East, but was rather a powerful state in its own right as well as a center of Greek language and culture until its fall at the hands of the Turks in A.D. 1453.

Modern Greece and Modern Greek

Though subject to the Ottoman Turks until its independence in 1821, Greece has maintained its cultural and linguistic heritage to the current day. Modern Greek, the successor to Byzantine or Mediæval Greek, is spoken not only in Greece proper but in diaspora communities throughout the world.

Recommended Reading

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