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Remaking Greek Civilization

In Greece, the Dark Age of depopulation and poverty persisted longer than in the Near East. Although Greek economic improvement is evident as early as about 900 B.C., it was not until the period around 750 B.C. that political states, now of a new kind, developed again and the Dark Age can be seen as ended. The obscure history of Greece in years between these general dates laid the foundation for the pronounced social, political, and intellectual changes associated with the creation of the Greek city-state. Throughout this period, continued contact with the Near East greatly influenced Greece, not only in commerce and trade but also in the exchange of ideas. Entrepreneurs from the Near East apparently often made their way to Greece, bringing with them both the knowledge of new technologies, such as iron working, and of ideas that Greeks took over and made their own in mythology and religion.

The Start of Economic Revival

The evidence from burials shows that Greeks in more and more locations had become conspicuously wealthy by about 900 B.C. A hierarchical arrangement of society was evidently spreading throughout Greece, and the few men and women at the pinnacle of society had the riches to have expensive material goods placed in their tombs with them. In the earlier part of the Dark Age, the best grave offerings a dead person could expect were a few clay pots. The exceptional contents of rich graves point to significant economic changes already under way by the ninth century B.C.

Technological Change: Using Iron

Metallurgical technology eventually helped bring about the end of the Greek Dark Age. Archaeology allows us to see this trend, as in the evidence from the burial of a male about 900 B.C., which consisted of a pit into which was placed a clay pot to hold the dead man's cremated remains. Surrounding the pot were metal weapons including a long sword, spearheads, and knives. The inclusion of weapons of war in a male grave was a continuation of the burial traditions of the Mycenaean Age, but these arms were forged from iron, not bronze, which had been the primary metal of the earlier period (often referred to therefore as the Bronze Age). This difference reflects a significant shift in metallurgy, which took place throughout the Mediterranean region during the early centuries of the first millennium B.C.: iron displacing bronze as the principal metal used to make tools and weapons. Greeks probably learned to work iron1 from voyaging Near Eastern entrepreneurs who brought their skills with them from their homelands. The island of Cyprus seems to have been particularly important as a place where this new technology developed and then was passed on to other places further west. In keeping with the habit of characterizing periods of history from the name of the metal most used at the time, the Dark Age can also be referred to as the Early Iron Age in Greece.

The Greeks, like others in the Near East, turned to iron because they could no longer obtain the tin needed to mix with copper to make bronze. The international trading routes that had once brought tin to Greece and the Near East from distant sources had been disrupted in the upheaval associated with the wide-spread turmoil that affected the eastern Mediterranean region beginning around 1200 B.C. Iron ore, by contrast, was available locally2 in Greece and in other areas throughout the Near East. Iron eventually replaced bronze in many uses, above all in the production of agricultural tools3, swords, and spear points. Bronze remained in use for shields and armor, however. The lower cost of iron tools and weapons meant more people could afford them, and with iron being harder than bronze, implements kept their sharp edges longer.

Agricultural Resurgence

Better and more plentiful farming implements of iron eventually helped to increase the production of food, a development reflected by the evidence of a burial from Athens. This grave, from about 850 B.C., held the remains of a woman and her treasures, including gold rings and earrings, a necklace of glass beads, and an unusual chest of baked clay. The necklace was an imported item from Egypt or Syria, and the technique of the gold jewelry was also that of the Near East. These objects reflected Greek trade with the more prosperous civilizations of that region4, a relationship whose influence on Greece increased as the Dark Age came to an end in the next century. The most intriguing object from the burial is the woman's terracotta storage chest. It was painted with characteristically intricate and regular designs, whose precision has led modern art historians to give the name Geometric to this style of the late Dark Age. On its top were sculpted five beehive-like urns that are miniature models of granaries (structures for storing grain5). If these models were important enough to be buried as objects of special value, we can deduce that actual granaries and the grain they held were valuable commodities in real life. This deduction in turn means that already by 850 B.C. agriculture had begun to recover from its devastation in the early Dark Age, when herding animals had become more prevalent and cultivation had decreased. Whether the woman was the owner of grain fields we cannot know, but from her sculpted chest we can glimpse the significance of farming for her and her contemporaries.


Increased agricultural production in this period accompanied a growth in population. It is impossible to determine whether a rise in population preceded and led to the raising of more grain or, conversely, whether improvements in agricultural technology and the placing of more fields under cultivation spurred a consequent growth in the population by increasing the number of people the land could support. These two developments reinforced one another: as the Greeks produced more food, the better-fed population reproduced faster, and as the population grew, more people could produce more food. The repopulation of Greece in the late Dark Age established the demographic conditions under which the new political forms of Greece were to emerge.

The Definition of Aristocracy

People like the wealthy woman buried with the granary model at Athens and the earlier couple from Lefkandi constituted the aristocracy that emerged during the later part of the Greek Dark Age. The term aristocracy 6 comes from Greek and means “rule of the best.” Although the use of this term is traditional in accounts of ancient Greek history, it is important to remember that “aristocracy” in this context does not mean what it often means in,for example, French or English history. That is, ancient Greece never had an aristocracy that was an officially recognized nobility, whose members inherited their status regardless of their wealth or other socio-economic characteristics. Rather, the term as used in ancient Greek history refers to the social elite, whose status depended on a combination of factors, of which wealth and public conduct were very important. When one speaks of a Greek aristocrat, then, it is crucial to understand this designation as meaning “a member of the social elite.” Aristocrats in ancient Greece seem to have possessed more wealth than others in their communities, but birth was also a criterion in their enjoying general acknowledgment as the “best” in their society — that is, the people with the greatest social status and political influence. We can only speculate about the various ways in which families might have originally gained their designation as aristocratic and thus became entitled to pass on this status to those born into them. Some aristocratic families in the Dark Age might have inherited their status as descendants of the most prominent and wealthy families of the Mycenean Age; some might have made themselves aristocrats during the Dark Age by amassing wealth and befriending less fortunate people who were willing to acknowledge their benefactors' superior status in return for material help; and some might have acquired aristocratic status by monopolizing control of essential religious rituals.

Homer and the Social Values of Greek Aristocrats

The aristocrats' ideas and traditions on organizing their communities and about proper behavior for everyone in them—that is, their code of social values—represented, like the reappearance of agriculture, fundamental components of Greece's emerging new political forms. The aristocratic social values of the Dark Age underlie the stories told in the Iliad and Odyssey7, two book-length poems that first began to be written down about the middle of the eighth century B.C., at the very end of the Dark Age. Despite the ancient origins of Homeric poetry, the behavioral code that it portrayed8 primarily reflected values established in the aristocratic society of Greece of the Dark Age before the rise of political systems based on citizenship.

The Male Ethic

The primary characters in the Homeric poems are aristocrats, who are expected to live up to a demanding code of values. The men are mainly warriors, like the incomparable Achilles9 of the Iliad. This poem tells part of the famous story of the attack by a Greek army on the city of Troy10, a stronghold located in northwestern Anatolia. Although it is commonly assumed that the Trojans were a different people from the Greeks, the poems themselves provide no definitive answer to the question of their ethnic identity. In the Iliad's representation of the Trojan War, which the Greeks believed occurred about four hundred years before Homer's time, Achilles is, in the language of the poem, “the best of the Greeks11” because he is a “doer of deeds and speaker of words12” without equal. Achilles' overriding concern in word and action is with the glory and recognition for all time that he can win with his “excellence” (the best available translation for Greek arete 13, a word with a range of meanings). Like all aristocrats, Achilles feared the disgrace that he would feel before others if he were seen to fail to live up to the code of excellence. Under the aristocratic code, failure and wrongdoing produced public shame.

A Woman's Excellence

A concentration on excellence (arete ) distinguishes the code of values of the aristocrats of the Homeric poems. For an aristocratic woman like Penelope14, the wife of the hero of the Odyssey, excellence consists of preserving her household and its property by relying on her intelligence, beauty, social status, and intense fidelity to her husband. This curatorship requires her to display great stamina and ingenuity in resisting the attempted predations of her husband's rivals15 at home because he, Odysseus, is away for twenty years fighting the Trojan War and then sailing home in a long series of dangerous adventures. Although Penelope clearly counts as an exceptional figure of literature, aristocratic women in real life, like men, could see their proper role in life as requiring them to develop an exceptional excellence to set themselves apart from others of more ordinary character and status. Under this code, any life was contemptible whose goal was not the pursuit of excellence and the fame it brought.

The Recovery of Writing and Homer

The Greeks had relearned the technology of writing as a result of contact with the literate civilizations of the Near East and the alphabet developed there long before. Sometime between about 950 and 750 the Greeks modified a Phoenician alphabet16 to represent the sounds of their own language, and the Greek version of the alphabet eventually formed the base of the alphabet used for English today. Greeks of the Archaic Age17 (roughly, the period from 750 to 500 B.C.) swiftly applied their newly acquired skill to write down oral literature, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greeks believed that Homer18, a blind poet from the Greek region called Ionia19 (today the western coast of Turkey), had composed the Iliad and Odyssey. Modern scholarship has often disputed this attribution on the grounds that no single author could have been responsible for these lengthy and complex poems if, as is commonly assumed, they were originally composed and transmitted orally, without the aid of writing. If, on the other hand, Homeric poetry as we have it was composed by writing, the authorship question is on a different footing. Whatever the truth of this much disputed question, Homeric poetry, even if it was put into final form by a single author, grew out of centuries of oral performance by countless Greek poets singing of the deeds and values of legendary aristocrats. Stories from Near Eastern poetic tales influenced this oral poetry, which for centuries helped to transmit cultural values from one generations of Greeks to the next.

The Olympic Games of Zeus and Hera

Excellence (arete ) as a competitive value for male Greek aristocrats showed up clearly in the Olympic Games, a religious festival associated with a large sanctuary of Zeus, king of the gods of the Greeks. The sanctuary was located at Olympia20, in the northwestern Peloponnese (the large peninsula that forms southern Greece), where the games were held every four years beginning in 776 B.C. During these great celebrations the aristocratic men of the age competed in running events and wrestling21 as individuals, not as national representatives on teams, as in the modern Olympic Games. The emphasis on physical prowess and fitness, competition, and public recognition by other men corresponded to the ideal of Greek masculine identity as it developed in this period. In a rare departure from the ancient Mediterranean tradition against public nakedness, Greek athletes competed without clothing (hence the word gymnasium22, from the Greek word meaning “naked,” gymnos ). Other competitions such as horse and chariot racing23 were added to the Olympic Games later, but the principal event remained a sprint of about two hundred yards called the stadion 24 (hence our word “stadium”). Winners originally received no financial prizes, only a garland made from wild olive leaves25, but the prestige of victory could bring other rewards as well. In later Greek athletic competitions prizes of value were often awarded. Admission was free to men; married women were not allowed to attend26, on pain of death, but women had their own separate festival at Olympia on a different date in honor of Zeus' wife, Hera. Although less is known about the games of Hera27, literary sources report that unmarried young women competed on the Olympic track in a foot race five-sixths as long as the men's stadion. In later times, international games including the Olympics were dominated by professional athletes, who made good livings from appearance fees and prizes won at various games held all over Greece. The most famous of them all was Milo28, from Croton, in southern Italy. Winner of the Olympic wrestling crown six times beginning in 536 B.C., he was renowned for showy stunts such as holding his breath until his blood expanded his veins so much that they would snap a cord tied around his head.

Competition and Community

The competition of the Olympic Games originally centered on contests among aristocrats, who prided themselves on their innate distinctiveness from ordinary people, as the fifth-century B.C. poet Pindar made clear in praising a family of victors: “Hiding the nature you are born with is impossible. The seasons rich in their flowers have many times bestowed on you, sons of Aletes [of Corinth], the brightness that victory brings, when you achieved the heights of excellence in the sacred games.”29 The organization of the festival as an event for all of Greece nevertheless indicates a trend toward communal activity that was under way in Greek society and politics by the mid-eighth century B.C. First of all, the building of a special sanctuary30 for the worship of Zeus at Olympia provided an architectural center as a focus for public gatherings with a surrounding space for crowds to assemble. The social complement to the creation of this physical environment was the tradition that the Games of Zeus and Hera were panhellenic, that is, open to all Greeks. Moreover, an international truce31 of several weeks was declared so that competitors and spectators from all Greek communities could travel to and from Olympia in security even if wars were otherwise in progress along their way. In short, the arrangements for the Olympic Games demonstrate that in eighth century B.C. Greece the aristocratic values of individual activity and pursuit of excellence by one's self were beginning to be channeled into a new context appropriate for a changing society. This sort of assertion of the importance of communal interests was another important precondition for the creation of Greece's new political forms.

Religion, Myth, and Community

Religion provided the context for almost all communal activity throughout the history of ancient Greece. Sports, as in the Olympic Games held to honor Zeus, took place in the religious context of festivals honoring specific gods. War was conducted according to the signs of divine will that civil and military leaders identified in the sacrifice32 of animals and in omens derived from occurrences in nature such as unusual weather. Sacrifices themselves, the central event of Greek religious rituals, were performed before crowds in the open air on public occasions that involved communal feasting afterward on the sacrificed meat. The conceptual basis of Greek religion was found in myth ( mythos 33, a Greek word meaning “story” or “tale”) about the gods and their relationship to humans. In the eighth century B.C., the Greeks began to record their myths in writing, and the poetry of Hesiod34 preserved from this period (there was at this date not yet any Greek literature in prose) reveals how religious myth, as well as the economic changes and social values of the time, contributed to the feeling of community that underlay the creation of new political structures in Greece.

The Mythical Origin of Justice

Hesiod35, an eighth-century B.C. poet from the region of Boeotia in central Greece, employed myth to reveal the divine origin of justice. His long poem The Theogony (“The Genealogy of the Gods”) details the birth of the race of gods from primordial Chaos (“void” or “vacuum”) and Earth, the mother of Sky and numerous other children. This myth about the succession of the gods owed its inspiration to Near Eastern myths, another example of the importance of contact with that region for the cultural as well as economic development of Greece as it emerged from its Dark Age. Hesiod explained that, when Sky began to imprison his siblings, Earth persuaded her fiercest male offspring, Kronos, to overthrow him by violence because “Sky first contrived to do shameful things.”36 When Kronos later began to swallow up all his own children, Kronos's wife had their son Zeus overthrow his father37 by force in retribution for his evil deeds. These vivid stories, which had their origins in Near Eastern myths like those of the Mesopotamian Epic of Creation, carried the message that existence, even for gods, entailed struggle, sorrow, and violence. Even more significantly, however, they showed that a concern for justice had also been a component of the divine order of the universe from the beginning. In his poem Works and Days, Hesiod identified Zeus as the fount of justice in human affairs, a marked contrast to the portrayal of Zeus38 in Homeric poetry as mainly concerned with the fates of his favorite aristocratic warriors. Hesiod presents justice as a divine quality that will assert itself to punish evil-doers: “For Zeus ordained that fishes and wild beasts and birds should eat each other, for they have no justice; but to human beings he has given justice, which is far the best.”39

Justice in Dark-Age Life

Aristocratic men dominated the distribution of justice in Dark Age society. They exercised direct control over their family members and household servants. Others outside their immediate households would become their followers by acknowledging the aristocrats' status as leaders. An aristocrat's followers would grant him a certain amount of authority because, as the followers were roughly equal in wealth and status among themselves, they needed a figure invested with authority to settle disputes and organize defense against raids or other military threats. In anthropological terms, aristocrats operated as chiefs of bands40. An aristocratic chief had authority to settle arguments over property and duties, oversaw the distribution of rewards and punishments, and usually headed the religious rituals deemed essential to the security of the group. At the same time, a chief's actual power to coerce unwilling members of his band was limited. When decisions affecting the entire group had to be made, his leadership depended on being capable of forging a consensus by persuading members of the band about what to do. The poet Hesiod describes how an effective chief exercised leadership: “When his people in their assembly get on the wrong track, he gently sets matters right, persuading them with soft words.”41 In short, a chief could only lead his followers where they were willing to go.

Tensions between Leaders and Followers

Aristocratic chiefs sometimes abused their status and created tensions between leaders and followers. Eventually this tension contributed to the political reorganization of the Greek world in the creation of the city-state. A story from the Iliad42 provides a fictional illustration of the kind of abusive aristocratic behavior that chiefs could exhibit in the period before the city-state emerged. According to the Iliad, when Agamemnon, the aristocratic leader of the Greek army besieging Troy, summoned the troops to announce a decision to prolong the war, now in its tenth year, an ordinary soldier named Thersites spoke up in opposition. Thersites could express his opinion because Agamemnon led the Greeks as a Dark Age chief led a band, which required that all men's opinions be heard with respect. Thersites criticized Agamemnon as unjustly greedy. “Let's leave him here to digest his booty,” Thersites shouted to his fellow soldiers in the ranks. Odysseus, another chief, immediately rose up to support Agamemnon, saying to Thersites, “If I ever find you being so foolish again, may my head not remain on my body if I don't strip you naked and send you back to your ship crying from the blows I give you.” Odysseus thereupon cowed Thersites with a blow to his back, which drew blood.

In this fictional episode, the assembled soldiers approve of Odysseus' inequitable treatment of Thersites, who admittedly speaks without moderation or tact. For the city-state to be created as a political institution in which all free men had a stake, the idea that all men had the right to speak their minds, even rudely, had to emerge in the real world. Non-aristocratic men had to insist that they deserved equitable treatment, even if aristocrats were to remain in leadership positions and carry out the policies agreed on by the group.

The Injustice of Chiefs to Peasants

The poet Hesiod43 reveals that a state of heightened tension had developed between aristocratic chiefs and the peasants (the free proprietors of small farms, who might own a slave or two, oxen to work their fields, and other movable property of value) in the eighth century. Their property made peasants the most influential group among the men ranging from poor to moderately well-off who made up the bands of followers of aristocratic chiefs in late Dark Age Greece. Assuming the perspective of a peasant farming a small holding, the poet insisted that the divine origin of justice should be a warning to “bribe-devouring chiefs,”44 who settled disputes among their followers and neighbors “with crooked judgments.” This feeling of outrage evidently felt by non-aristocrats at not receiving equal treatment in the settlement of disputes served as a stimulus for the gradual movement toward new forms of political organization in Greece.

1 Hes. Th. 862

2 Hom. Od. 1.184

3 Hes. WD 387

4 Hdt. 1.1.1, Columbia 71.113 [Vase]

5 Dewing 380 [Coin], Hes. WD 465, References to barley, References to grain, Barley on coins, Grain on vases

6 Aristot. Pol. 4.1293b, Aristot. Nic. Eth. 1160a 33, References to aristokratia

7 Hom. Il. 1 ff, Hom. Od. 1 ff., Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Homer

8 Hom. Il. 6.440, Hom. Od. 4.266

9 Hom. Il. 9.325, Achilles on vases, References to Achilles

10 Troy [Site],Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Troy

11 Hom. Il. 1.244, Hom. Il. 1.412, Hom. Il. 16.271

12 Hom. Il. 9.443

13 Hom. Od. 24.197, Greek dictionary entry for arete, References to arete


Hom. Od. 2.115

15 Hom. Od. 2.87

16 Hdt. 5.58.1

17 Archaic Vases, Archaic Sculpture, Archaic Sites, Archaic Architecture

18 Hdt. 2.53.2, Thuc. 1.3.3, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Homer

19 Hdt. 1.142.1, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Ionia, Ionian Sites

20 Olympia [Site], Olympia, Temple of Zeus [Building], Paus. 5.10.2

21 Pind. O. 9.13

22 Paus. 6.6.3, Eur. Phoen. 368, Greek dictionary entry for gymnasion

23 Pind. P. 11.47, Hdt. 6.36.1

24 Pind. Pythian 11, Greek dictionary entry for stadion

25 Hdt. 8.26.2, Wreaths on vases, Wreaths on coins

26 Paus. 5.6.7, Paus. 6.20.9

27 Paus. 5.16.2

28 Paus. 6.14.7

29 Pind. O. 13.16

30 Olympia, Temple of Zeus [Building], Paus. 5.10.2, Olympia [Site]

31 Thuc. 5.49.1, Aeschin. 2.12

32 Hom. Il. 1.447, Perseus Encyclopedia entry for sacrifice, Sacrifice on vases, TRM OV 10.1.3

33 Hdt. 2.45.1, Plat. Rep. 330d, Plat. Laws 636c, Greek dictionary entry for mythos

34 Hes. Th. 1 ff., Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Hesiod

35 Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Hesiod, Hes. Th. 1

36 Hes. Th. 166

37 Hes. Th. 490


Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Zeus, Zeus in sculpture, Zeus on coins, Zeus on vases

39 Hes. Th. 276

40 Hom. Il. 18.503

41 Hes. Th. 85

42 Hom. Il. 2.211

43 Perseus Encyclopedia entry for Hesiod, References to Hesiod

44 Hes. WD 264

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hide References (53 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (53):
    • Aeschines, On the Embassy, 12
    • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1160a
    • Aristotle, Politics, 4.1293b
    • Euripides, Phoenician Women, 368
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.142.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.1.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.45.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 2.53.2
    • Herodotus, Histories, 5.58.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 6.36.1
    • Herodotus, Histories, 8.26.2
    • Hesiod, Theogony, 1
    • Hesiod, Theogony, 166
    • Hesiod, Theogony, 276
    • Hesiod, Theogony, 490
    • Hesiod, Theogony, 85
    • Hesiod, Theogony, 862
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 264
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 387
    • Hesiod, Works and Days, 465
    • Homer, Iliad, 1
    • Homer, Iliad, 16.271
    • Homer, Iliad, 18.503
    • Homer, Iliad, 1.244
    • Homer, Iliad, 1.412
    • Homer, Iliad, 1.447
    • Homer, Iliad, 2.211
    • Homer, Iliad, 6.440
    • Homer, Iliad, 9.325
    • Homer, Iliad, 9.443
    • Homer, Odyssey, 1
    • Homer, Odyssey, 1.184
    • Homer, Odyssey, 24.197
    • Homer, Odyssey, 2.115
    • Homer, Odyssey, 2.87
    • Homer, Odyssey, 4.266
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.10.2
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.16.2
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5.6.7
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.14.7
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.20.9
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.6.3
    • Pindar, Olympian, 13
    • Pindar, Olympian, 9
    • Pindar, Pythian, 11
    • Plato, Laws, 636c
    • Plato, Republic, 330d
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.3.3
    • Thucydides, Histories, 5.49.1
    • Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander, 10.1.3
    • Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, a)reth/
    • Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, gumna/sion
    • Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, sta/dion
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