GREECE is the southern portion of a great peninsula of Europe, washed on three sides by the Mediterranean Sea. It is bounded on the north by the Cambunian mountains. It extends from the fortieth degree of latitude to the thirty-sixth, its greatest length being not more than 250 English miles, and its greatest breadth only 180. Its surface is considerably less than that of Portugal. This small area was divided among a number of independent states, many of them containing a territory of only a few square miles, and none of them larger than an English county. But the heroism and genius of the Greeks have given an interest to the insignificant spot of earth bearing their name, which the vastest empires have never equaled.
The name of Greece was not used by the inhabitants of the country. They called their land HELLAS, and themselves HELLENES. At first the word HELLAS signified only a small district in Thessaly, from which the Hellenes gradually spread over the whole country. The names of GREECE and GREEKS come to us from the Romans, who gave the name of GRAECIA to the country and of GRAECI to the inhabitants.
The two northerly provinces of Greece are THESSALY and EPIRUS, separated from each other by Mount Pindus. Thessaly is a fertile plain enclosed by lofty mountains, and drained by the river Peneus, which finds its way into the sea through the celebrated Vale of Tempe. Epirus is covered by rugged ranges of mountains running from north to south, through which the Achelous the largest river of Greece, flows towards the Corinthian gulf.
In entering central Greece from Thessaly the road runs along the coast through the narrow pass of Thermopylae, between the sea and a lofty range of mountains. The district along the coast was inhabited by the EASTERN LOCRIANS, while to their west were DORIS and PHOCIS, the greater part of the latter being occupied by Mount Parnassus, the abode of the Muses, upon the slopes of which lay the town of Delphi with its celebrated oracle of Apollo. South of Phocis is Boeotia, which is a large hollow basin, enclosed on every side by mountains, which prevent the waters from flowing into the sea. Hence the atmosphere was damp and thick, to which circumstance the witty Athenians attributed the dullness of the inhabitants. Thebes was the chief city of Boeotia. South of Boeotia lies ATTICA, which is in the form of a triangle, having two of its sides washed by the sea and its base united to the land. Its soil is light and dry and is better adapted for the growth of fruit than of corn. It was particularly celebrated for its olives, which were regarded as the gift of Athena (Minerva), and were always under the care of that goddess. Athens was on the western coast, between four and five miles from its port, Piraeus. West of Attica, towards the isthmus, is the small district of MEGARIS.
The western half of central Greece consists of WESTERN LOCRIS, AETOLIA and ACARNANIA. These districts were less civilized than the other countries of Greece, and were the haunts of rude robber tribes even as late as the Peloponnesian war.
Central Greece is connected with the southern peninsula by a narrow isthmus, on which stood the city of Corinth. So narrow is this isthmus that the ancients regarded the peninsula as an island, and gave to it the name of PELOPONNESUS, or the island of Pelops, from the mythical hero of this name. Its modern name, the MOREA, was bestowed upon it from its resemblance to the leaf of the mulberry.
The mountains of Peloponnesus have their roots in the centre of the country, from which they branch out towards the sea. This central region, called ARCADIA, is the Switzerland of the peninsula. It is surrounded by a ring of mountains, forming a kind of natural wall, which separates it from the remaining Peloponnesian states. The other chief divisions of Peloponnesus were Achaia, Argolis, Laconia, Messenia, and Elis. ACHAIA is a narrow slip of country lying between the northern barrier of Arcadia and the Corinthian gulf. ARGOLIS, on the east, contained several independent states, of which the most important was Argos. LACONIA and MESSENIA occupied the whole of the south of the peninsula from sea to sea: these two countries were separated by the lofty range of Taygetus, running from north to south, and terminating in the promontory of Taenarum (now Cape Matapan), the southernmost point of Greece and Europe. Sparta, the chief town of Laconia, stood in the valley of the Eurotas, which opens out into a plain of considerable extent towards the Laconian gulf. Messenia, in like manner, was drained by the Pamisus, whose plain is still more extensive and fertile than that of the Eurotas. ELIS, on the west of Arcadia, contains the memorable plain of Olympia, through which the Alpheus flows, and in which the city of Pisa stood.
Of the numerous islands which line the Grecian shores, the most important was Euboea, stretching along the coasts of Boeotia and Attica. South of Euboea was the group of islands called the CYCLADES, lying around Delos as a centre; and east of these were the SPORADES, near the Asiatic coast. South of these groups are the large islands of CRETE and RHODES.
The physical features of the country exercised an important influence upon the political destinies of the people. Greece is one of the most mountainous countries of Europe. Its surface is occupied by a number of small plains, either entirely surrounded by limestone mountains or open only to the sea. Each of the principal Grecian cities was founded in one of these small plains; and, as the mountains which separated it from its neighbors were lofty and rugged, each city grew up in solitary independence. But at the same time it had ready and easy access to the sea, and Arcadia was almost the only political division that did not possess some territory upon the coast. Thus shut out from their neighbors by mountains, the Greeks were naturally attracted to the sea, and became a maritime people. Hence they possessed the love of freedom and the spirit of adventure, which have always characterized, more or less the inhabitants of maritime districts.