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Geology and Geography

The Greeks called their land Hellas and themselves Hellenes. It was the Romans who called them Greeks- (Graeci ) and that is the name by which we know them.

The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that “ Egypt is the gift of the Nile ” but he never came up with an expression so memorable to describe his own country. Perhaps that was because the Greece he knew was never a united nation with fixed geographical borders. Rather it was a collection of city-states (although town-state or even village-state would have been more accurate for few had the population to be called a city.) These city-states were like a large family of quarrelsome brothers, almost always fighting with each other, but occasionally, banding together to battle against outsiders when they felt like doing so. Afterwards, they were as likely as not to turn on each other again.

In soft regions are born soft men - Herodotus

The Greeks have often been described as “independent-minded” and there seems no doubt that geography played a major role in shaping that character. It was the mountains and the sea that molded Greece and Greeks into what they were.

Mountains in Greece don't soar to the heights of other mountain ranges such as the Andes, Rockies, Alps or Himalayas-but they are extensive. In fact, about 80% of Greece is covered with mountains with the result that most settlements were less than 10 miles from a mountain. These mountain ranges isolated regions from each other more effectively than fences because what they lack in height they make up with steepness and ruggedness preventing or discouraging overland travel and communication.

No matter where people settled in Greece, they were rarely more than 50 miles from the sea. The philosopher Plato noted that the Greeks lived around the sea “ like frogs around a pond. ” A deeply indented coastline held between its rocky fingers a sea that could vary from tranquil to turbulent depending on the season and the weather. Most Greek mariners had experienced firsthand the sea's treacherous currents and diabolical whirlpools.

During the summer months the sea tended to be peaceful. Being an inland body of water the Mediterranean Sea has almost no tides- less than a meter between high and low tides. It has little plankton (that's why its waters are so clear), which means that it doesn't support the extent and variety of sea life seen elsewhere but certainly enough to be both an important and welcome source of food.

Surrounded by water, the Greeks nevertheless faced a shortage of fresh water. Compared to many countries, there is a real scarcity of rivers and these often dry up to a trickle in the hot summer months. (Summer temperatures, because of the cloudless skies, are often hotter than in the Tropics.) The lack of rivers is offset somewhat by a plentiful supply of fresh water springs. These were precious and life giving and it is not surprising that they were considered to be sacred sites.