Written by Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
We often regard the Greeks as the epitome of Civilizations. However, before the great achievement of the Fifth Century BC in Athens and elsewhere, they underwent a period of decline and dislocation. For over three centuries Greece endured a Dark Age when cities were abandoned and society collapsed. However, out of this grim period there emerged trends that contributed to the glories of Greece Civilization.
The Collapse of Mycenae Civilization
Before 1200 BC, what is now modern Greece was dominated by the Mycenaeans. They are regarded as early Greeks and they were a warrior, people. Based on their archaeological remains they developed a hierarchal society. They constructed vast palaces at sites all over Greece and were renowned seafarers. The Mycenaeans were probably the source of the legends concerning the siege and fall of Troy.
Sometime about 1200 BC, the Mycenaean civilization collapsed and they abandoned their palaces. Once it was believed that another group of Greeks from the northern Balkans, the Dorians, led to their downfall. However, this has been rejected in recent years.
The fall of the Mycenaeans was probably linked to the Bronze Age Collapse when many civilizations in the Near East collapsed. This has often been blamed on the Sea-People a group of invaders. It is possible that climate change led to famines, which caused civil war and led to the collapse of the Mycenaeans.
The Mycenaeans collapse saw the end of the monumental building in Greece for centuries. Their palaces had been centers of culture and with their demise, the knowledge of their writing system known as Linear B was lost.
The material culture of the region declined as seen in the poor quality of pottery from the period. It appears that many areas of Greece and its island were depopulated and many settlements were deserted. There is some evidence that towns were abandoned and many people returned to living in remote settlements that could easily be defended.
There were no longer any more kingdoms with centralized states and bureaucracies as in the past. Now society was more likely to be based on clans who were headed by chieftains. People lived in self-sufficient households called Oikos. Archaeologists show that long-distance trade collapsed and while once the Mycenaeans had traded with other civilizations this ended from the 12th to 9th century BC.
Pockets of Civilization
While much of Greece was in the Dark Age, some areas remained urbanized and engaged in long-distance trade. Lefkandi, on the island of Euboea, was a trade and manufacturing hub and it was a large town by the standards of the time. It appears that it was a maritime power.
The Mycenaeans had colonized parts of the island of Cyprus, where there are elements of their civilization, including the use of an adapted form of Linear B. Such findings lead some experts to believe that there was no Dark Age and that Greek society was much more sophisticated than often believed.
By the 8th century, the archaeological record shows bigger settlements were increasing in size and that new towns were emerging. By this time Athens and Sparta were beginning to grow. There is evidence of more long-distance trade and manufacturing. The quality of the pottery also improved.
It appears that Greeks had many more contacts with other cultures, such as the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were great merchants and had also developed an alphabet, a phonetic one. This was adopted by the Greeks and, as a result, they once more were able to become a literate society. Greece became quite prosperous by the 8th century and the population increased. This led to the colonization of other areas especially in Crimea and Asia Minor.
Age of Homer?
The Dark Ages saw the emergence of the poetry of Homer. He was the greatest of all Greek poets and one of the greatest poets in all the Western tradition. Traditionally, Homer is portrayed as a man who was blind.
Homer is credited with the two great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. These were original works of oral poetry that were based on the semi-legendary stories about a war between the Greeks and Trojans and the adventures of Odysseus in its aftermath.
Experts believe that Homer lived in the 9th century and can be seen as a figure from the Dark Age. However, he was also a forerunner of the recovery of Greek civilization in the 8th century BC. He used the Greek alphabet to set down the oral poems and created a new literary language, which greatly stimulated the growth of Hellenic culture.
The stories of the Iliad and Odyssey had a profound impact on Greek society, including its literature, art, ethics, and even mythology. Just as important, the epic poems helped to foster a sense of a common Greek heritage and identity. Homer was a critical influence in the development of Classical Greek culture.
The Mycenaeans developed a great civilization but, after the Bronze Age Collapse, it disappeared. Greece declined socially, culturally, and economically. It became a poor and backward area, and this remained the case for many centuries. However, parts of the Greek world may have continued to be advanced and prosperous. The creation of a new Greek alphabet was crucial to the ending of the Dark Ages, and the works of Homer contributed to a Renaissance in the Hellenic World.
- West, M. L. (1999). “The Invention of Homer”. The Classical Quarterly. 49 (2): 364–382
- Whitley, James (2003) Style and Society in Dark Age Greece: The Changing Face of a Pre-literate Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press