The Wine-Dark Sea: Greece in a Nutshell

July 25, 2019


‘ There are no foreign lands.

It is the traveler only who is foreign. ’

~ Robert Louis Stevenson



on Mikonos




July 25, 2019, Home from Greece Fifty+ years ago I learned a little bit of Greek history in high school and Western Civ in college, where I took a semester of Greek Drama. I even wrote a paper comparing Aeschylus’s Oresteia with Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. 


I’ve forgotten almost all of it. So here’s a basic but random laundry list of Facts about Greece that I didn’t know before I went there.


‘Wine-dark sea’ comes from Homer’s Iliad (15,500 lines long) and Odyssey. It turns out, those epic poems — transcriptions of oral histories passed down from bard to bard through the ages — are the source of much of Greek ‘history,’ because what we call Greece today was invaded by so many ‘foreign’ powers over the millennia, they have lost most of their ancient records. Which is why the discovery of all those clay tablets at Mycenae got the archeologists and historians so excited — before they realized they were just laundry lists. Btw: The Iliad is written in dactylic hexameter


The Land  

  • Greece consists of around 2000 islands, of which around 166 are inhabited (I heard different numbers)

  • The mainland is mostly mountains

  • The mountains are 70% marble (‘We have so much, we don’t know what to do with it all,’ said our guide)

  • It has the most beaches in the EU 

  • The highways are chock-a-block lined with cypress and oleander 


The Capital: Athens


• Is built on 7 hills (as is Rome)

• Was founded by the Phoenicians (according to legend) 

• And conquered by Rome in 146 BCE  

• It snows in Athens, and there are ski resorts in the nearby mountains 

• The 10-story limit on modern buildings protects views of the Acropolis and the Parthenon...




Half the population of Greece lives in Athens, and half of those live right downtown

• On the way out of town we saw cylindrical metal containers on rooftops: solar-powered water heaters

• It was 90 degrees yet we passed a building with a sign: Eskimo. Did they manufacture air conditioners? Ice cream? I dunno 

• On (some) Sunday, my notes say it was 39 degrees Celsius — or 100 degrees Fahrenheit... but it was hotter in France 



The History 


• 776-700 BCE  City-states were established

• Philip II of Macedonia (Φίλιππος Β΄ ὁ Μακεδών, 382–336 BCE) created the concept of a ‘Greek’ nationality... until then, they were separate (often warring) city-states

• The Golden Age of Classical Greece took place after the Persian Wars (499-400 BCE)

• 336-323 BCE, the reign of Alexander III, aka the Great (son of Philip II). He got as far as India and conquered what the AAA guidebook calls ‘the known world.’ I like imagining what that ‘known world’ consisted of then

• His father had been assassinated, and Alexander’s wife and son were murdered. Is it any wonder where the Greek tragedians got their plots? ​

​at Delphi


• Cleopatra was Greek. When she and Mark Antony died, it was the end of Greek rule in Egypt — and the beginning of Roman rule in Greece 

• ‘Caesar’ is the root of the word ‘czar.’ Who knew? 

• Over the centuries (millennia), Greece — or various parts of it — has been attacked and occupied by the Persians, the Romans, the Franks, the Turks (for 400 years) and the Venetians

• 1821-29 Greek War of Independence (from the Turks)

• ‘The Junta’: The 1967 coup d’état by a group of colonels began a 7-year military dictatorship that ended in 1974 under pressure from the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Democracy was reestablished and the Third Hellenic Republic was formed

• Subsequently: 1975 Tourism booms

• Greece joins the EU in 2002 and hosts the Olympics in 2004





Didn’t go there, but I loved The Durrells of Corfu on PBS and while in Greece, I read Michael Haag’s interesting book about their life there, called, appropriately, The Durrells of Corfu. Since I bet a lot of you also watched it, here’s some Corfu info:


• It’s at the westernmost point of Greece, off the coast of Albania

• It was never part of the Ottoman Empire

• But was part of the Venetian Empire (1386-1797), and there is a lot of Venetian influence in the architecture, culture and cuisine

• Napoleon ‘extinguished the Venetian Empire after Waterloo’

• After which, Britain took over on Corfu

• In 1864, Britain gave it and the other Ionian Islands to Greece

• Until the mid-19th century, the lingua franca was Italian, not Greek

• Prince Phillip (of England) was born on Corfu 


And that’s the end of the Greek portion of PassepartoutPart4. 


Stick around... there’ll be ‘other worldly adventures’ to come! #​
















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