A mystical wild land
The Peloponnese is a land rich in heritage, representing the cradle of many Mediterranean peoples and cultures. Its truly diverse and wonderful landscape enchants with mountains, forests, arid rocks and lush sea coasts that hide breathtaking coves. On top of this, stunning archaeological sites and little hidden wonders make this region a paradise for explorers.
Mask of Agamennon (By Xuan Che CC BY 2.0, WikiCommons)
The area of Greece and the Balkan Peninsula has been inhabited since the time of the first hominids. With the development of agriculture and the use of the first metals, developments and great migrations that have as their epicentre, the famous Fertile Crescent (in the Middle East) went on over the millennia. It is precisely this migration movement that creates in the area of the islands and mainland Greece the first concepts of civilisation.
Maritime cultures began to form all over the Aegean Sea, populating the coasts and the countless islands: these were the Cycladic and then the Minoan. Their basis of livelihood was the trade of metals, ceramics, textiles, dyes, and food such as fruits, grains, oil, and wine.
Regarding the Peloponnese in particular, scientific studies recount a core civilisation dating back to the Bronze Age, which was later joined by a population probably originating from the Balkans, setting the foundation for a mighty military folk: the Achaeans.
We owe this civilisation’s earliest explorations and discoveries to the German Heinrich Schliemann. In the 19th century CE, prompted by legendary tales, mythological stories and classics of ancient literature such as the Iliad and Homer’s Odyssey, he ventured into these lands and uncovered an entire civilisation. Despite the rough and often invasive attempts of the time in exhuming artefacts, today, we inherit important archaeological sites and unique pieces.
The Achaeans founded Argos, Tiryns, Pylos, and especially Mycenae, the centre of their domain, which is why their culture is also known as Mycenaean.
As previously mentioned, the Achaeans distinguished themselves as a people of warriors. They gave rise to Homer’s legendary tales, in which their warlike nature is very much alive, making them the force behind their expansion. They, united and captained by the famous Agamemnon, conquered and subjugated populations of the Aegean, including the legendary Ilium, famously known as Troy.
Homer’s writings, though mythical and legendary, offer an exciting insight on which to better understand this population’s character. The Achaeans, although skilled fighters, were also farmers who based much of their identity on agriculture, trade and a deep bond to the deities that were slowly being welded into the common culture. This gave a principle of unity to the Achaean peoples and tribes, who identified themselves in a word that was the progenitor of Greece as we know it today: “Hellas.”
The Mycenaeans, or Achaeans, imposed themselves on the surrounding populations, including the thriving Minoan culture, which fell in 1400 BCE. Mycenaean expansion spread into the Aegean and westward into southern Italy, forming the first Greek-Italic colonies.
To the amazement and sometimes mystery of researchers, this period of significant development is almost cut short by one particular event, presumably an invasion from the north, of an even more fierce population: the Dorians.
This period, which has gone down in history as the “Hellenic Middle Ages,” corresponds to the 12th century BCE and marks the decline of the Mycenaean civilisation. In fact, during these times, traces of long-distance trade were lost, written evidence (of the famous Linear B) diminished, pastoralism took over from agriculture, and no large buildings were erected. On top of this, the Peloponnese and all of Greece were hit by a general depopulation.
This transitional period lasted a few centuries until a revival occurred throughout Greece between 900 and 800 BCE. This new flourishment also included the Peloponnese peninsula, in which the monarchy, or sovereignty that characterised the ancient periods gave space to a new form of civilisation: the polis.
From the union of towns and villages, more solid centres based on laws and new urban identities emerged, such as Argos, Corinth, and Messene. However, in the Peloponnese rose a particular and vigorous polis. Forged by the harsh and iron laws of Lycurgus, it was the time of Lakedaimon, known to this day as Sparta.
The spirit of identity under the Hellenic banner of the Polis was, in reality, more conceptual than tangible. In fact, the polis were constantly at odds with each other, often changing alliances and positions.
The polis’ hegemony quickly fell apart after the terrible Peloponnesian War between rivals Sparta and Athens, which drastically weakened the whole of Greece in a generic sense.
This instability was so significant that the Polis could no longer be organised under a single flag and saved from outside invaders, as had previously happened with the Persian wars. Thus, all of Greece and the Peloponnese, including the notorious Sparta, fell under a new power, the Macedonian one.
During the 4th century BCE, the Peloponnese became only a small province of the largest empire the known world had ever seen. Alexander the Great, at only 29 years of age, was at the head of a kingdom that stretched from Greece to India. He brought about remarkable changes and developments in various aspects, again transforming the ideals of classical Greece.
Such a large empire could not endure for long, and so, with the ensuing war of Alexander’s successors, the Diadochi, the empire was divided into kingdoms. The Peloponnese was under the rule of Pella, the capital of the Macedonian kingdom, one of the four formed after the split.
Empires are known to succeed, and when one falls, another follows. So it is that after a series of significant instabilities left by the Macedonian kingdom, the expansionist power of Rome became unstoppable in Greece and the Peloponnese.
The weak defences of the Greek polis could do nothing against the relentless force of the Roman legions, which conquered Greece without much effort. The Macedonian “sarissa” (spear) proved to be ineffective against the Roman “pilum” (famous javelin of legionaries), and in 146 BCE, Corinth fell, followed by the whole Peloponnese.
Greece thus became a Roman province, and all Greek identities were subjected to emulation, whereby the Romans made Greek customs and traditions their own, readjusting them to their language and philosophy. As a result, religion, art, and culture remain, in some cases, precisely the same, leaving us to believe that Rome, even as an invading force, indirectly undergoes Greekification.
However, the glorious Roman empire also fell victim to its greatness, and in 476 CE, Rome fell under increasingly intense barbarian invasions. As some know, the eastern part of the Roman Empire, popularly known as the Byzantine Empire, endures with Constantinople (today’s Instanbul) at its head.
Nevertheless, the Peloponnese was invaded by Slavic peoples around the 6th century CE. It was not until two centuries later that an imperial army succeeded in reasserting Byzantine powers in the area, beginning a prosperous period.
Meanwhile, crusades raged in the East, weakening the Byzantine Empire’s structure.
The Mediterranean thus became a hot territory, and gaining control over it was the “Serenissima” Republic of Venice, which at various times exercised its lordship over the coastal cities of the Peloponnese, including Argos, Nafplio, Patras, Lepanto, and Monemvasia. On the other hand, the hinterland was in control of the Franks, Crusader exiles.
Even today, the hills of the Peloponnese are populated with numerous medieval towers and castles. The most flourishing period of Frankish rule coincides with the reign of William II of Villehardouin (1245-1278 CE), who intensified his power in the territory through a feudal division.
Constantinople finally fell in 1453 CE, marking the beginning of Turkish expansion.
After 1460, the Peloponnese, also known as the “Morea”, was divided between the Venetians and the Turks, and this political situation, amidst ups and downs, continued in such a manner for about two centuries.
After an intensification of the Turkish presence, the people of the Peloponnese, especially from the Laconic province of Mani, began, on the mainland, the anti-Turkish revolt that led to the constitutional charter of Astros in 1823 CE. In 1825, however, an Ottoman army landed at Methoni, a fortress that remained Turkish, recovering the Morea.
The Peloponnese peninsula was the scene of fierce fighting and extensive devastation.
Alternate events followed until 1829/30, when the Turks finally left these lands, making way for a Greek spirit and identity. The city of Nafplion, on the peninsula’s east coast, became the first capital of the independent Greek state.
In the early 1940s, the Peloponnese served as a bridgehead for Greek and British troops to direct their military operations in Epirus, Phocis and northern Greece in general during the Greek campaign (1940-1941) initiated by the army of the Kingdom of Italy. However, following the intervention of the Wehrmacht in support of the Italians, who were in deep trouble, peninsular Greece ended up largely under German control.
Greece was liberated in 1944.