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Centuries ago nations like Portugal, and Iraq,
and Syria, Spain, Mongolia, Turkey, Italy,
Egypt, and Greece were the world’s most
powerful, most advanced civilizations.
Today, though, that’s not the case.
While this group does not necessarily represent
the losers in the game that is history, they’re
also certainly not in first place.
Change has relegated them into second tier
status despite their earlier prowess.
One particularly noticeable case is that of
In a span of a couple thousand years the people
living on this peninsula went from shaping
the way the western world would work to being
boxed in by the very world around them.
Greece is one of the most celebrated nations
They developed the political system of democracy—the
very one used by many of the world’s most
powerful nations today.
Because of this perhaps a disproportionate
amount of attention is placed upon the history
of this small nation but nonetheless, ancient
Greece overcame the odds to create a number
of small yet powerful city-states.
However, many of the factors that led to the
success of this ancient civilization are the
same ones holding back the modern state.
On a global scale the country is far from
poor but, as a European nation, it’s one
of the poorest in a very rich area.
Greece is exceptionally mountainous yet the
terrain of Greece is different than that of
many other countries.
Switzerland, for example, has enormous mountains
with nice, wide and long valleys in between.
The mountains of Greece, though, are not as
The average elevation of Greece is 1,600 feet
compared to 4,400 in Switzerland but the mountains
in Greece are much more irregular.
What this means is that there is only so much
flat land in any one place.
Any settlement needed enough land around it
to grow the food that would feed its people
and most agriculture can only grow on relatively
While today we can ship food across the world,
in the time of ancient Greece transportation
technology was not advanced enough so one
essentially had to have enough fields to feed
the population directly around each settlement.
Therefore, the sizes of ancient Greek settlements
were essentially determined by the amount
of flat land they could find in one place.
It was tough for any one political entity
to hold power over vast amounts of land because
it was just too difficult to get around.
For that reason, the peninsula was not one
unified nation as it is today, it was divided
into hundreds of small city-states unified
by a common language and religion.
The most powerful city-states, you’ll notice,
were the ones that had the most flat land.
The area directly surrounding Sparta, one
of the historically strongest city-states,
is a relatively large, flat valley that would
have given them more land than other city-states
to grow food and therefore Sparta was one
of the largest cities.
Athens was also one of the strongest city-states
and still today is by far the largest city
in Greece thanks to being in one of the largest
single flat areas in the country.
This geography did, of course, fragment the
peninsula into hundreds of political entities
but at the time that wasn’t really an issue.
The same geography protected the entire area
from outside invasion.
Mountains acted as a thick shield from western
Europe but this also, of course, made it tough
to get to these areas, at least by land.
This geography forced Greece to the ocean
and the city-states became some of the most
advanced maritime powers.
Because of this, Greece was exposed to civilizations
all around the Mediterranean and beyond and
was able to learn from other nations such
as Egypt and Mesopotamia.
This exposure to the outside world helped
turn the city-states into highly advanced
and cosmopolitan civilizations that produced
the era’s greatest philosophers.
Nowadays, however, the mountains are less
As the world has become more globalized trade
linkages to other countries have become even
more important and the mountains that pepper
the Greek peninsula continue through the Balkans
which means that land transportation infrastructure
is limited to get goods and people between
Western Europe and Greece.
More consequently, though, 78% of the land
in Greece is considered mountainous making
it tied with Slovenia as the most mountainous
country in the European Union.
Greece is also one of the poorer countries
in the European Union.
As it turns out, there’s a link between
how mountainous an EU country is and its GDP
The average EU country with 35% of its land
mountainous has a GDP per capita of $30,000
while the average EU country with only 25%
of its land mountainous has a GDP per capita
of $54,000 proving that there is a correlation
between flatness and wealth.
Now, there are some major exceptions—Sweden
is one of the wealthiest EU countries while
also being one of the most mountainous while
Latvia is one of the poorest while being completely
flat—so the correlation is not that strong
and the EU also conveniently leaves out Switzerland
and Norway—two exceptionally wealthy European
countries that are also exceptionally mountainous—but
nonetheless, it intuitively makes sense that
mountains inhibit development and the statistics
back this up to an extent.
It’s worth pointing out that this is not
just a European phenomenon.
The five most mountainous countries in the
world are Bhutan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan,
Lesotho, and Montenegro all of which have
GDP per capita’s below the world average.
What you’ll notice in Europe is that the
wealthy mountainous countries such as Norway,
Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland are all in
cold climates while the less wealthy mountainous
countries such as Bulgaria, Spain, Italy,
Portugal, and Greece are all in warmer climates.
As it turns out, climate too is a predictor
For every additional tenth of a degree Fahrenheit
of average yearly temperature in the EU a
country’s GDP per capita is, on average,
The reasoning behind the link between climate
and wealth is massively complex, controversial,
and not yet fully understood so we’ll leave
that out but Greece is therefore in this double
whammy situation of being both hot and mountainous
which has proven itself as an inhibitor to
Of the world’s 30 wealthiest countries none
could be considered both hot and predominantly
mountainous—many are one or the other but
The two factors together just seem to be the
perfect cocktail for poor economic health.
Greece suffers from strong regionalization.
The same geography that cut the peninsula
into small city-states today makes it difficult
for a central government to govern the entire
You see this often, countries that were formerly
multiple countries or nations often have problems
with governance, but part of the difficulty
for the Greek government is that their infrastructure
is just not good.
It’s hard to get around the country.
Of course Greece is made up of about 6,000
islands and you cannot, of course, build roads
across the Aegean Sea but the country still
lacks infrastructure on the mainland.
This can likely be attributed to a mix of
a lack of funds and high cost to build through
mountains and the country is therefore considered
to have the third worst infrastructure in
the European Union.
With a lack of proper infrastructure to overcome
the geographical boundaries this makes simple
government functions like tax collection difficult.
Greece receives about 28% less value added
tax than it levies due to how rampant tax
The same is true for income and other forms
of taxation so it’s no wonder why the country
ended up in a debt crisis.
In fact, this debt crisis that has devastated
the country over the past ten years can too
be partially linked back to geography.
You see, Greece’s main geographic asset
is the Aegean Sea.
Part of this is economic.
Many of Greece’s most popular tourist destinations
from Santorini, to Mykonos, to Crete are islands
in the Aegean Sea but the more significant
asset of the Aegean is strategic.
To the Northeast of Greece is the Black Sea
which drains out into the Mediterranean through
the Turkish Straits and the Aegean.
While Turkey holds the most direct level of
control over maritime traffic by controlling
the Turkish Straits, the density of Greek
islands and the strength of the country’s
Navy means that it too, if it wanted to, could
relatively easily blockade the Black Sea.
This means that Greece holds the keys for
Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Georgia’s
only ocean access.
Perhaps more significantly, Greece also controls
the maritime routes to and from Russia’s
most important ports.
Being a very northern country, the majority
of Russia’s coastline sees ice in the winter
which makes shipping difficult whereas the
Black Sea ports do not making them both militarily
and economically critical for Russia.
17% of Russia’s shipping containers leave
from the Port of Novorossiysk, for example,
which is only one of the many Black Sea ports.
A good portion of Greece’s little geopolitical
clout is as a result of holding the Aegean.
Given its importance, Greece therefore puts
a lot of effort into asserting its sovereignty
over this sea.
This sovereignty, however, has for decades
been the subject of a dispute with Turkey.
The dispute is over not only who owns a number
of islands near Turkey but also over the extent
of Greek sovereignty over Aegean waters and
Despite both countries officially being NATO
allies tensions do occasionally heat up and
Greece therefore regularly patrols the Aegean
by sea and air.
The country has a world class Navy and Air
Force that are considered to be some of the
strongest especially for such a small country
but this, of course, comes at a cost.
The country spends a full 2.5% of its GDP
on its military.
That’s a higher percentage than any NATO
member except the US.
The high government spending, which high military
spending contributed significantly to, along
with the country’s seeming inability to
collect the taxes it levies forced the government
to take on debt which, after the Great Recession
hit in 2008, it could not pay off.
The country was then plunged into years of
economic and social crisis.
This affected what is arguably Greece’s
most important industry—tourism.
A full quarter of jobs in Greece are in or
as a result of tourism and the industry represents
20% of the country’s GDP so if tourism disappears,
the whole country is affected.
During the debt crisis, as violent demonstrations
on the streets of Athens were publicized worldwide
the number of tourist arrivals immediately
declined which further exasperated the crisis.
For a number of years the country actually
had negative GDP growth and an unemployment
rate close to 30% but, after austerity measures
and a series of bailouts, unemployment rates
are now shrinking and the country’s GDP
is once again growing, at least slowly.
The truth about Greece is that its geography,
with warm weather, disconnected landmasses,
sheer ocean cliffs, and soaring mountains,
is terrible for most types of economic development
but it’s these geographical features, along
with a fascinating history and warm hospitality,
that make Greece such an attractive travel
Tourist numbers in the country are reaching
historic levels to the point where there’s
starting to be a problem of too much tourism.
While the country continues its path towards
economic recovery the real test will be whether
it can take what it has going for it, most
specifically tourism, and use that to fix
What’s really fascinating about Greece is
not that they fell from a position of strength,
it’s that they ever had that position of
History has proven that the land of this peninsula,
despite all its natural beauty, is not quite
as hospitable and idyllic as it may seem.
In this video I’m sure you noticed the stunning
historical footage of Greece.
This all came from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey—a
brand new game that has essentially recreated
the entirety of ancient Greece during the
Ubisoft actually brought me out to Greece
to try the game and visit the historical sites
they recreated so most of the modern footage
of Greece in this video is my own and, even
as someone who doesn’t really play video
games, I really enjoyed playing Assassin’s
Creed: Odyssey for the ability to explore
a pretty breath-taking historical world.
Of course the gameplay and storylines are
great too but, if you’re just in it for
the exploration, they’ll be releasing a
“discovery tour” mode soon which will
essentially be an interactive museum in the
If you want to learn more and maybe even buy
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey be sure to click
the link at the top of the description.
Thanks for watching and we’ll see you again
in two weeks for another Wendover Productions