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The geostrategic problem of the Aegean Sea from antiquity to today


The Greeks consider the Aegean Sea as the cradle of their culture and most likely they are not wrong. Thanks to the marine element, the contacts of the tribes which would later create the Greek civilization were made possible. The development of trade, however, also gave birth to piracy. According to Thucydides, in order to protect the coasts of Crete, king Minos fought the pirates and brought the central and southern Aegean under his control. It was perhaps the first time that such a large area of ​the archipelago had come under the control of our great power. Probably only the mythical Mynιans were powerful enough to control the northern part of the Aegean.

The partial control of the sea exercised by the Cretans gave the opportunity to the Mycenaeans (successors of the Mynians) to occupy their island after the explosion of the Thera (Santorini) volcano in 1450 BC. The Mycenaeans were the first to bring the entire island archipelago under their control. They probably realized that only partial control of the Aegean created political and military issues. In order to maintain their monopoly of maritime trade, they practiced piracy on the ships of the Powers of the Asian hinterland and Egypt.

Although trade and diplomatic relations are attested with Egypt – with the Asian kingdoms relations had ups and downs. The Hittites who started from Anatolia in Asia Minor when they reached the shores of the Aegean began to have problems. Initially, they captured Cyprus from the Minoans, but the Mycenaeans managed to recapture it and make it a base for pirate raids in Syria. Letters have been preserved in which the Hittite subject kings complain about the pirates and ask for the protection of their overlords.

Having established bases on the Aegean islands, the Mycenaeans launched devastating raids on the Asia Minor coastal zone. The agility of their amphibious forces gave him the initiative and the advantage of surprise while limiting the Hittites’ ability to react. Diplomatic letters of the Hittite king trying to solve the problem diplomatically are preserved. By a strange twist of fate, the letters also refer to the control regime of the islands near the Asia Minor coast reminding us of contemporary political issues.

The decline of the palatial societies of the Bronze Age left the coasts at the mercy of piracy which in the Geometric age was not considered reprehensible. From this period the islanders and coastal Greeks started colonization but no city-state had absolute control over the archipelago. Typical is the problem faced by the Dodecanese islanders from the Carian and Cilician pirates.

The first unfavorable development for Hellenism was when the Persians occupied the coasts of Asia Minor, neutralizing the Lydians and demanding submission from the Greek vassals of the latter. The clumsy policy of the Persian kings between the Greeks and the Phoenicians caused the Ionian revolution. The intervention of the mainland Greeks prompted King Darius to decide to expand westwards in order to secure the coasts of Asia Minor.
The end of the Persian Wars found the Greeks in control of the Aegean through the Delian League but the clumsy policies of the Athenians and the bribes of the Persians succeeded in bringing the Persian troops back to the Asia Minor coast. Persian money was a factor of instability by financing the civil conflicts among the Greek city states thus preventing possible unification and expansion eastwards.

The Macedonian king Philip had realized the problem and built a bridgehead on the Asia Minor coast, but only the successes of his son Alexander the Great brought the Aegean back under Greek sovereignty and under the control of one Power. The division Alexander;’s state by his Successors made again the Aegean a field of confrontation. When the Romans subjugated the mainland of Greece, they faced the interventions of the Seleucids who controlled the coasts of Asia Minor and also the resurfacing piracy problem from Cretans and Cilicians. They solved the issue by subduing their opponents and the archipelago was once again under the control of one Power.

Their Byzantine successors were in serious danger when the Muslim Arabs came to the shores of Asia Minor. The biggest problem was the capture of Crete, which became a den of pirates. Its recapture by Nikephoros Phokas secured the Aegean from Islamic piracy but the problem returned when the Seljuk Turks reached the Asia Minor coast under Comnenan dynasty. The overthrow of the Byzantine Empire by the Crusaders in 1204 created a series of interdependent states and also brought competition from the Italian mercantile cities into the region.

In the 15th century, the coasts of Asia Minor and the straits of the Dardanelles came under the possession of the Ottomans, who, however, faced raids by Christian forces (Venetians, Knights Hospitalers) established in the Aegean islands. Despite the occupation of the Aegean islands and mainland Greece, the Ottomans secured their coasts only after the occupation of Cyprus and Crete.

The creation of the Hellenic Kingdom after the revolution of 1821 rekindled the interest of the Great Powers in the region. The evolution of the «Cretan Question» and the Greek attempts to intervene on the island showed the Ottomans what it meant to have even partial control of the Aegean by another Power even a small one.

The inability of the Ottomans to overthrow the Greek state in 1897 due to the intervention of Britain and France (Naval Powers) caused even worse issues due to the neutralization of the Ottoman fleet by the Greeks during the Balkan Wars. In WW I, the Ottomans were attacked at the Dardanelles by the Entente forces which had established bases on the Greek islands.

The failure of the Central Empires to control Greece allowed the Entente to retain control of the Aegean and confine the Ottoman fleet into the Dardanelles. The defeat of the Ottomans in World War I allowed Greece to try to control the opposite coast of Asia Minor as well, but the bad Greek policies led to the defeat of 1922. The interwar Aegean was then divided between Greece, Italy (Dodecanese) and Turkey.

The poorly executed Italian attack on Greece in 1940 eventually led to German involvement in 1941. Despite their victory, the Germans, were absorbed by the war in Russia and did not use the Aegean, especially Crete, to put pressure on the Allies. The Allied attempt to capture the Dodecanese islands also failed due to a lack of resources.

After World War II, the admittance of Greece and Turkey into NATO closed the Aegean to the Soviet Union, which in turn tried to take advantage of the Greek-Turkish rivalry in the Cyprus issue from 1950 and ease its access to the Mediterranean. Theoretically, the influence of the USA keeps the Greek-Turkish competition under control and the archipelago under its own «high control». However, Turkey’s revisionist policy puts this control at risk.

In recent years, Turkish revisionist policy has brought under consideration a number of parameters that raised questions about the non-direct control of the archipelago by a single Power. The chances of Turkey choosing an armed conflict with Greece could weaken NATO. The US and various European countries appear to have no immediate interest in a Turkish ascendancy. But do they have an interest in a Greek dominance? If the parameter of a possible Turkish decision to join the Russian-Chinese axis is examined things become more complex. Would the West like to allow this axis access to the Mediterranean? The only thing that is certain is that the geostrategic question of the Aegean remains an issue for very capable problem solvers.


Homer The Iliad Loeb Classical Library 1914

Thucidides “History” Loeb Classical Library 1914

Xenophon “Hellenica” Loeb Classical Library 1914

Strabo “Geography” Loeb Classical Library 1920

William Stearns Davis,Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-1913), Vol. I: Greece and the East.https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/where-australians-served/gallipoli/dardanelles-strategy


Weinberg, Gerhard (2005). A World at Arms A Global History of World War Two. Cambridge University Press.




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