18 Centuries of Empire: The Greek Perspective 


[after the Persian Emperors] Alexander the Macedonian [ruled for] 8 years; ... Cleopatra 22 years; Augustus 43 years; ...

--- The Canon of Kings by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, ca. 165 AD.


 Proclaim yourself ‘Emperor of the Hellenes’

--- advice to Emperor Constantine XI by John Argyropoulos of Constantinople, 1449 AD.


Last updated: 27 August 2011.

In the rest of this web site I dated the beginning of the Roman Empire as 338 BC, when Rome asserted its rule over the other Latin cities. The same year saw Phillip of Macedon establish hegemony over most of Greece, creating the first pan-Hellenic Empire. Phillip's son Alexander would turn this into the greatest empire the world had yet seen. This fragmented after his death, but at least one successor kingdom (the Ptolemaic) lasted until the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC, when it was annexed by Octavian, better known as Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome.

As the first quote below the title shows, two centuries later, some Greek intellectuals already viewed the Roman Empire as the direct successor to the Hellenistic kingdoms. The Canon of Kings, compiled as a dating system for the period 747 BC to 160 AD, was based on a Mesopotamian list that began with the Babylonian kings and continued through to the last Persian emperor, Darius III. It was the Greeks who subsequently appended the list of Macedonian emperors, Ptolemaic sovereigns, and then Roman emperors. These "Roman" emperors of course continued until 1453, but became increasingly Hellenized over the centuries; the second quote above shows the conclusion eventually reached by some Greek intellectuals.

This page presents "the Empire" from this Greek perspective of translatio imperii. It began with Alexander's accession in 336 BC, and continued (fragmented) until it was succeeded by the Roman empire in 30 BC. Although the Romans conquered the Greek kingdoms and cities, they had little impact upon their language or culture. The Greek identity of the eastern half of the Empire began to be reasserted under Diocletian (the first emperor from a Greek family) in 285 AD. In the long run, it was this Greek part of the Roman empire that survived intact, to become the Mediaeval "Byzantine" Empire. The birth of the Byzantine Empire is variously dated anywhere from 285 AD to 629 AD (the latter date being when, under Heraclius, Greek replaced Latin as the Imperial language). The last successor states to the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks in 1460/61 AD, and an independent Greece re-emerged only in 1827.

This history is presented in the form of 9 maps, covering the 18 centuries from 336 BC to 1458 AD, plus another map showing the present-day Greek nations. These maps cover a different (much wider) stretch of the world than those in the 18 centuries of Roman Empire page. They also differ from those maps in that the time between maps is not roughly constant, but instead increases monotically. This reflects the astonishingly rapid pace of Alexander's conquests, and the almost equally rapid dissolution of his empire. It also reflects a desire not to replicate too much of the information shown elsewhere on this site: one map reproduces the Byzantine empire at 1040 shown in the 18 centuries of Roman Empire page, another the empire at 633 shown in The Dragon and the Eagle; all of the rest are new.


Note: to view these maps as a coarse "movie", first adjust the size of this window to be slightly larger than a map plus its title, then click on next (>) or previous (<) at the beginning of each title. To return to the Index of Maps, click on the up arrow (^).

Index of Maps

336 BC -- Alexander's accession
323 -- Alexander's empire at his death
300 -- The Diadochoi
200 --  Just prior to Roman intervention
34 BC -- Cleopatra and Antony: the final stand
285 AD -- Diocletian's Division of the Empire
633 -- Heracleios the Basileus
1040 -- The Byzantine Empire at its height
1458 -- The Last Byzantine Kingdoms
Now -- The Present Greek States

Summary Map of Greek Civilization
Summary Map of Greco-Roman Civilization


    ^  > 336 BC -- Alexander's accession

336 BC Alexander's accession Macedonian Empire Phillip of Macedon Death
The Glory that was Greece --- the age that produced the philosophy, art, and literature that would define Western culture --- owes its existence to the victory of the Greek city states, led by Athens and Sparta, against the invading forces of the vast Persian empire in 480-79 BC. But despite this crushing victory, there was no great Greek counter-offensive, and the Persians even regained Iona (the west coast of Anatolia) in 386. Instead, the Greeks of the Classical Age occupied themselves militarily by enlisting as mercenaries in the Persian armies or by fighting inter-city wars (principally involving Athens, Sparta, and Thebes). These (in hindsight) petty struggles were brought to an end by Phillip of Macedon, a Hellenized kingdom to the north of Greece proper. The strengths of his army were two-fold: (i) the Macedonian phalanx, many ranks deep, each armed with a pike 5m or more long; (ii) the Thessalian cavalry. In 338 these forces defeated the combined hoplite armies of Athens and Thebes, the crucial action being the cavalry charge led by Phillip's teenage son Alexander that turned the flank of the Thebans. This victory brought all of Greece bar Sparta under Phillip's rule. In the above map, the Macedonian kingdom itself is shown in royal violet, and the states owing alliegiance to Phillip in a lighter shade; independent Greek states (the colonies from Spain to Colchis, plus Sparta), are shown in green. Not content with these conquests, Phillip announced his plan to lead the Greeks against Persia, to finally avenge the Persian invasions. On the eve of his departure in 336 he was assassinated, and the 20-year-old Alexander rose to the Macedonian throne.

<  ^  >  323 -- Alexander's Empire at his death.

Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great on his death 323 BC
If the Greek cities thought that Alexander was not be the man his father had been, they were right: he was even more ruthless and ambitious. When Thebes rebelled against Macedonian rule in 335, Alexander razed the city. The next year he crossed to Asia, defeated the Persian forces, and occupied Anatolia. In 333 he won an overwhelming victory against the Persian king Darius III himself at Issos, and went on to conquer the levant and Egypt. Darius offered him peace based on the status quo, an offer which Phillip surely would have accepted. But Alexander, having been hailed as semi-divine in Egypt, disdained it. In 331 at Gaugemela he won a second overwhelming victory when Darius fled the battle. In all of these engagements the Greeks and Macedonians were heavily outnumbered, and the cavalry charges led by Alexander were decisive. Alexander followed Darius east, but the latter was eventually assassinated by a rival, whom Alexander promptly defeated also. Alexander led his army to the ends of the Persian Empire, and even beyond it into India, founding cities all the way. Only a threatened mutiny by his homesick troops in 326 prevented him from advancing down the Ganges. He returned to Babylon, heartland of the Persian empire, where he legislated to bring together his Persian and Greek subjects. But his adminstrative skills had little chance to be exercised, as he died there in 323, aged only 32. He had spend half of his short life in hard fighting and hard drinking; this, plus a near-fatal wounding in India, had finally taken their toll on Alexander.

<  ^  >  300 -- The Diadochoi.

300 BC Diadochoi successors Hellenistic kingdoms Macedonian Seleucus Ptolemy
On Alexander's death his empire fell to his retarded half-brother Phillip and his only legitimate son, also called Alexander, who was still in utero. Unsurprisingly, his generals began to consolidate their holds on various parts of the Empire, rather than maintaining loyalty to these incapable heirs. These generals became known as the diadochoi, the successors, and they soon fell to fighting amongst themselves. Phillip was assassinated in 317, and the young Alexander in 306, just as he came of age. Thereafter the diadochoi began styling themselves as kings (basileioi). One successor, Antigonus, still dreamed of reuniting the Empire, but the other diadochoi joined forces to defeat him in the battle of Ipsos in 301. After this a slightly stabler political situation emerged, with four successor kingdoms, indicated by the different colours in the above map, with their areas of influence indicated by paler shades. The kingdom of Macedon (coloured royal violet as before) was ruled by Cassander, who had married the daughter of Phillip. Thrace and western Anatolia formed the kingdom of Lysimachus (brown). Ptolemy (blue) held the kingdom of Egypt, (blue), and extended his rule to Palestine and Cilicia as well. The fourth and largest successor kingdom was that of Seleucus (orange) who ruled from Syria to the Indus. Alexander's conquests beyond the Indus had been abandoned by Seleucus to the Maurya Empire in India, in exchange for 500 war elephants, which proved their worth in the battle of Ipsos. Apart from this loss, and the loss of Alexandria Eschate (Alexandria the furthermost) in Central Asia, the combined kingdoms of the diodochoi extended beyond that of Alexander's empire (although only if dependent areas are included).

<  ^  >  200 -- Just prior to Roman intervention.

Hellenistic kingdoms Macedonian Selucid Ptolemaic Bactria 200BC
Wars between the successor kingdoms continued for another twenty years. Lysimachus finally added Macedon to his kingdom in 285, but this led to war with Seleucus, who conquered Lysimachus' Asian territories. During this war, both of them were murdered in 280 (of the original diadochoi, only Ptolemy had died peacefully, in 282). In the ensuing confusion, the Celts invaded the Balkans and Anatolia in 279. The remnant of Lysimachus' original kingdom was overwhelmed, and the Greek cities regained their independence from Macedon. The Macedonians then accepted as their king Antigonus II, grandson of Antigonus the diodochos. In central Anatolia, the Celts (or Gauls) settled in the region thereafter known as Galatia, screening the Black Sea coast from the influence of the Selucid kingdom (so named after its founder). This kingdom now began a slow and erratic decline towards its demise two centuries later. The north-eastern parts broke away to form the kingdom of Bactria under Diodotus around 245 (this new successor kingdom is shown in red). The Parthians, to the west of Bactria, also became semi-indendent around the same time, while in western Anatolia, Attalus of Pergamum declared himself king in 230 (the territory shown in brown). But at the time of this map (200 BC), Antiochus III was leading a revival in the Selucid kingdom, campaigning as far as India (to collect more elephants as tribute) and capturing the eastern Mediterranean coasts from the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt. He was joined in the latter endeavour by Phillip V of Macedon, who also reasserted the Antigonids' influence in parts of Greece. This alliance caught the attention of ascendant Rome, which had recently defeated Carthage and conquered Graecia Magna (southern Italy and Sicily). By contrast, the Greeks of Egypt were no longer a military force to be reckoned with (they had temporarily lost control of Upper Egypt at this time). But in cultural terms they were unrivalled. Alexandria in Egypt was the centre of the Greek intellectual and artistic world, and, with a population of perhaps 400 000, the largest city the world had ever seen.

<  ^  >  34 BC -- Cleopatra and Antony: the final stand.

Antony Cleopatra Donation of Alexandria map Ptolemeys Egypt 34 BC
In 198, two Roman legions landed in Greece and broke forever the power of the Macedonian phalanx. At the Olympic games of 196, the Greek cities were told they were free of their Macedonian overlords, but the reality was that the Romans were the new overlords. In 192, Rome went to war with Antiochus III, trouncing him as well. In the peace treaty of 188, the Selucids lost most of their Anatolian territory, the chief beneficiary being Pergamum, a Roman ally. After this, the Selucid position east of Mesopotamia began to fall apart, as the power of the Parthians grew. Following further wars, Rome annexed Macedon and Greece outright in 148 and 146 respectively. Bowing to the inevitable, the last of the Attalid kings bequeathed Pergamum to Rome on his death in 133. By this time, the Selucids had been confined to Syria and Palestine, and their territories had shrunk to a few towns there by the time Pompey annexed the area for Rome in 64. Of Alexander's successors this left only the Ptolemeys in Egypt, who had long been under Roman protection (*). The last of the Ptolemeys, Cleopatra VII, maintained her kingdom's independence through her close relations with two leading Roman men. The first was Julius Caesar, who put her on the throne in 48. To him she bore a son, Caesarion, whom she named as co-ruler. The second was Mark Antony, ruler of the eastern part of the Roman empire following Caesar's death in 44 (the western part was ruled by Octavian). She had three children by Antony, and married him in 37. In the "Donations of Alexandria" in 34, Antony created kingdoms for his Greek family out of the territory Rome had acquired over the previous 40 years in the east: for Cleopatra and Caesarion, Cyprus was restored to the kingdom of Egypt; for his son Alexander Helios, Armenia (and, nominally, Media and Parthia, which Antony planned to conquer); for his daughter Cleopatra Selene, Cyrenaica (and, nominally, Libya, which was controlled by Octavian); and for his younger son Ptolemy Philadelphus, Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia. These territories are shown in pale blue, in the above map, while Antony's Roman territories are shown in even paler blue.

(*) Another successor kingdom is also shown in red in the above map: the remant of the Bactrian kingdom around the Khyber pass. The later history of this kingdom is obscure and it may have already disappeared by 34 BC, the time of this map.

<  ^  > 285 -- Diocletian's Division of the Empire

Diocletian 285 Roman Empire Greek Empire
With the riches of Egypt and the might of his veteran legions behind him, Antony's ambition of conquering Media and Parthia was no mere pipe-dream. If he had succeeded then he and Cleopatra would have reunited almost the whole Empire of Alexander the Great. But the fates had other plans. In 32 BC, Octavian convinced the Senate in Rome to deprive Antony of his office and to declare war against Cleopatra. A third of the Senate, and both of the Consuls, fled to Antony in Greece, where he and Cleopatra had gathered their forces. But Antony's consorting with Cleopatra had alienated his legionaries, and they defected to Octavian in droves. Facing defeat in the battle of Actium (see preceding map) of 31 BC, Cleopatra fled back to Egypt with her navy, followed by Antony. Octavian invaded Egypt the following year, and the lovers commited suicide. Octavian annexed Egypt and returned to Rome where, in 27 BC, he was granted the title Augustus, becoming the first Roman Emperor. Virtually all Greek states were now Roman provinces, or Roman dependencies. Over the next few centuries, Greek culture and customs, such as inhumation (rather than cremation), spread over the whole Empire. In the east, Greek remained the lingua franca except for dealings with Imperial governers, law courts, or the army. In 284, Diocletian became Emperor, the first to come from a Greek family (his Imperial name is a Latinization of Diocles). The following year he revived the idea of having two rulers for the Empire, as it had been under Octavian and Antony. He installed Maximian in the west, ruling from Milan, while he ruled the east, from Nicomedia. Diocletian's demi-Empire, the first major state for over three centuries having Greek as its lingua franca, with a ruler of Greek origin and his court in a Greek city, is shown above in pale blue.

<  ^  > 633 -- Heracleios the Basileus

Heraclius Herakleios Heracleios Byzantine Empire Greek Empire 633 629
Diocletian's system of governance did not long survive his voluntary retirement in 305, and by 324 the Empire had a single Emperor again: Constantine. He is justly called the Great for two momentous decisions. First, he recognized that the eastern part of the Empire needed a proper capital, and founded New Rome (soon known as Constantinople) on the site of old Byzantium. Second, he embraced Christianity. By 395 these decisions had completely changed the nature of the Empire. Christianity had become the state religion, and the Empire was permanently divided into eastern and western halves, each with an Emperor, court, and Senate. Over the next century the western Empire fell to Germanic invaders, while the eastern survived intact. From 533 to 563 much of the west was reconquered from the east, but now there was only one Emperor, court, and Senate, all in Constantinople (see here). Half of these gains were lost again by 629, leaving the Empire predominantly Greek once more, despite the loss of direct control over much of the Balkans due to Slavic settlement. The Emperor Hercalius, recognized this reality by adopting Greek as the official language of the Empire, becoming the Basileus Heracleios (*). Nominally still Emperor of the Romans, Heraclius was in fact the first Greek Basileus since Cleopatra, and the colouring in the above map reflects that. At the time of this map, Heraclius had recently reconquered the easternmost provinces (corresponding pretty much with the kingdoms of Cleopatra and her children in 34BC) from the Persian Empire which had invaded in 602.

(*) This term, when used by Alexander the Great and his successors, was translated above as king. Since the time of Constantine the Great, however, it had been used exclusively for the Roman Emperor and his Persian equivalent. 

<  ^  > 1040 --- The Byzantine Empire at its height

Byzantine Empire Greek 1040 Manzikert Syracuse
Unfortunately for Heraclius and the Greeks, all the territory they had just regained from the Persians was lost to the Arabs from 634 to 651. His successor Constans II (641-68), having been defeated by these forces of Islam, turned westward to restore the Empire's fortunes in 660. He was the first Emperor to visit Rome in two centuries, and held court in the old Greek city of Syracuse, within easy reach of southern Italy and Latin-speaking Africa. His plans to make Syracuse the new capital led to his being assasinated there in 668, and within thirty years all of Africa had fallen to the Arabs. Once again, this time finally, the Empire was reduced to an area that was predominantly Greek-speaking. The Empire's fortunes reached a nadir around 754 (see here), from which it slowly recovered. By 1040 all of Anatolia, the Balkans, and southern Italy were part of the Byzantine Empire, as were parts of Armenia, Syria, and (since 1038) Syracuse again.

<  ^  > 1458 --- The Last Medieval Greek States

Byzantine Empire Greek 1458 Morea Trebizond Theodoro
In 1040 the Byzantine Empire still had more than four centuries years to run --- a century longer than the whole existence of the Empires of Alexander and the Diadochoi. But for most of this time the Empire was a shadow of its former self, because of two massive blows. The first, in 1071, was its defeat by the Seljuk Turks in the battle of Manzikert (shown on the preceding map), after which all Anatolia was overrun by the Turks. The western and coastal areas were recovered with the help of Crusaders from western Europe in the 12th century, but these Catholic armies were always supsicious of their Orthodox brethren. The second blow was in 1204, when the Crusaders, having helped put one Emperor upon his throne, rose up against him and sacked Constantinople. These Crusaders grabbed the central parts of the Empire, around the Aegean, while three major Byzantine successor states emerged on the periphery: the Empire of Nicaea in western Anatolia, the Empire of Trebizond in northern Anatolia, and the Despotate of Epirus on the Adriatic (see here). The struggle to re-establish the Empire was won by Nicaea, which regained Constantinople in 1261, and finally absorbed Epirus in 1340. Trebizond remained independent but its Emperors generally recognized the superior status of the "Emperor of the Romans" in Constantinople. The last Emperor in Constantinople, Constantine XI (1449-1453) died in the fall of his city to the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans mopped up the few remaining Aegean Islands the Empire had held, leaving by 1458 only the Despotate of Morea, ruled by Constantine's brothers Thomas and Demetrius. At this time, Morea was a hotbead of intellectual activity, promoting Plato's philosophy and even a return to worship of the ancient Greek pantheon! Trebizond (red) still continued under the "Emperor" David, and there was also the independent Pincipality of Theodoro in the Crimea (green), with a mixed ethnic composition (it was also known as Gothia!) but ruled by Greek Princes.

<  ^     Now --- The Present Greek States

Greece Greek Cyprus
Morea was conquered by the Ottomans in 1458-60, Trebizond in 1461, and Theodoro in 1475. From then there were no Greek states for 350 years, until the republic of Hellas won its war of independence from the Ottoman Empire (1821-27). The Great Powers imposed a Bavarian as king in 1832, and he styled himself, as Constantine XI had been urged to do, Basileus of the Hellenes. This kingdom consisted of Morea and central Greece, leaving the great majority of Greek speakers outside its borders. At this time many Greek nationalists believed in the Megale Idea (Great Idea), of reuniting all Greek speakers. There were still Greek majorities in parts of Anatolia, especially around Trebizond, and a substantial minority in Constantinople, so the Megale Idea effectively meant restoring the Byzantine Empire. In the wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Greece came close to this goal (see here), but defeat by the new Turkish republic in the war of 1920-23 meant that Greeks had to be content with the area shown above in blue (which also includes Rhodes, ceded by Italy in 1945). Athens, the Classical centre, rather than Constaninople, the Mediaeval centre, would be the capital of modern Greece. However, events in Cyprus showed that the Megale Idea still had a hold over some Greeks in the 1970s. This island, which was 80% Greek-speaking, had been lost to Crusaders in 1190, conquered by the Ottomans in 1571, annexed by Britain in 1914, and given independence in 1960. Political pressure by the military rulers of Greece (1967-74) on Cyprus to unite with Greece, against the wishes of its substantial Turkish minority, led to the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974. This established a de facto Turkish state in the northern third of Cyprus, leaving only the southern two-thirds under the internationally recognized Cypriot government. This latter state, almost entirely Greek in population, is shown in green above. Note finally that modern Greece would closely approximate Phillip's Macedonian Empire, if Thrace were added, and Sparta and Crete subtracted.


Summary Map of Greek Civilization

Greek Civilization Empire Ancient Mediaeval Hellenistic Byzantine

This map shows is a summary of Greek civilization as protrayed in the ten proceding maps, from 336 BC to the present day, not including the areas shown in a very pale shade in the map for 34 BC (Roman areas controlled by Antony), nor the area shown in the map for 285 AD (controlled by Diocletian). Shown in dark green are those areas appearing in at least half (i.e. five) of the above maps, with pale colouring in the above maps counting for half. Shown in paler green are those areas appearing in any of the above maps. The dark green areas, the "core" greek areas, consists of a band of continuous band of territory including Greece proper, Macedonia, Thrace, western Anatolia, Cilicia, Syria (inluding Phonecia and Palestine), Lower Egypt, and a sliver of Armenia that just makes it in the count. It also includes the islands of the Aegean and Cyprus, plus Cyrenaica, Magna Graecia, and some of the Black sea coast. The paler green areas stretch from India to Morocco, considerable larger than Alexander's Empire, principally because of the European and African territories of the Byantine Empire.

Summary Map of Ancient Greco-Roman Civilization

Greco-Roman Greek Roman Byzantine Hellenistic Ancient Mediaeval post-classical

This map shows all of the areas that were under Greek or Roman government at any time in Antiquity. Given the influence of Greek culture in the Roman Empire (west as well as east), it can also be interpreted as showing the spread of Greek culture in Antiquity. In fact it is not necessary to consider the whole of Antiquity; this map would be unchanged if the time period were restricted to the Hellenestic period and the Principate. Indeed, it would not be greatly changed if it comprised simply the union of Alexander's Empire in 323 BC and Trajan's Empire in 116 AD. It is remarkable then, that the above area requires, in the present day, approximately forty-five nation-states (*) to govern it.

(*) This tally includes Luxemburg but no microstates, and includes only states with at least one third of their population lying within the above boundaries. 

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