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The Poverty of the early Greek Dark Age

Archaeological excavation has shown that the Greeks cultivated much less land and had many fewer settlements in the early Dark Age1 than at the height of Mycenaean prosperity. No longer did powerful rulers ensconced in fortresses of stone preside over several towns and far-flung but tightly organized territories, with their redistributive economies providing a tolerable standard of living for farmers, herders, and a wide array of craft workers. The Greek ships filled with adventurers, raiders, and traders that had plied the Mediterranean during the second millennium now numbered a paltry few. Developed political states no longer existed in Greece in the early Dark Age, and people eked out their existence as herders, shepherds, and subsistence farmers bunched in tiny settlements as small as twenty people in most cases. Prosperous Mycenaean communities had been many times larger. Indeed, the entire Greek population was far smaller in the early Dark Age than it had been previously. As the population shrank, less land was cultivated, leading to a decline in the production of food. The decreased food supply in turn tended to encourage a further decline in the population. By reinforcing one another, these two processes multiplied their effects.

The withering away of agriculture led more Greeks than ever before to herd animals as a larger part of their living in what remained nevertheless a complex agricultural economy. This increasingly pastoral way of life meant that people became more mobile because they had to be prepared to move their herds to new pastures once they had overgrazed their current location. If they were lucky, they might find a new spot that allowed them to grow a crop of grain if they stayed there long enough. As a result of this less-settled lifestyle, people built only simple huts as their houses and got along with few possessions. Unlike their Mycenaean forebears, Greeks in the Dark Age no longer had monumental architecture, and they ceased depicting people and animals in their principal art form, the designs on ceramics2.

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