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The Early Greek Dark Age and Revival in the Near East

Many city-states and kingdoms in the Near East and Greece were weakened or obliterated in the disruptions of the period 1200-1000 B.C., and these misfortunes brought grinding poverty to many of the people who did survive the troubles of this age. Enormous difficulties impede our understanding of the history of this troubled period and of the period of recovery that followed because few literary or documentary sources exist to supplement the incomplete information provided by archaeology. Both because conditions were so gloomy for so many people and because we have only a dim view of what happened in these years, it is customary to refer to the era beginning in the twelfth/eleventh centuries as a Dark Age: the fortunes of the people of the time seem generally dark, as does our understanding of the period. The Near East recovered its strength much sooner than did Greece, ending its Dark Age by around 900 B.C. The Greeks did not fully recover until perhaps a hundred and fifty years after that.

The Loss of Writing

The depressed economic conditions in Greece after the fall of Mycenaean civilization present a dramatic example of the desperately reduced circumstances of life which so many people in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world had to endure during the worst years of the Dark Age. Mycenaean society collapsed because the complex economic system was destroyed on which its prosperity had depended. The most startling indication of the severe conditions of life in the early Dark Age is that the Greeks apparently lost their knowledge of writing when Mycenaean civilization was destroyed, although it has recently been suggested that the loss was not total. In any case, the loss of the common use of a technology as vital as writing is explicable because the linear B script used by the Mycenaeans was difficult to master and probably known only by a restricted group of specialists, the scribes who worked in the palaces keeping records. They employed writing only for recording the flow of goods into the palaces and then out again for redistribution. When the redistributive economy of Mycenaean Greece was destroyed, there was no longer a place for scribes or a need for writing. The oral transmission of the traditions of the past allowed Greek culture to survive this loss by continuing its stories and legends as valuable possessions passed on from generation to generation.

The Question of a Dorian Invasion

The Greeks later believed that, following the collapse of the Mycenaeans, a Greek-speaking group from the north, called the Dorians1, began to invade central and southern Greece. Dorians were especially remembered as the ancestors of the Spartans2, the most powerful city-state on the mainland before the spectacular rise to prominence of Athens in the fifth century B.C. Strikingly, however, archaeology has not discovered any distinctive remains attesting a Dorian invasion, and many scholars reject it as a fiction. The lack of written works from the Greek Dark Age3 means that the mute evidence uncovered by archaeologists must provide the foundation for reconstructing the history of this transitional period.

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 Age4 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 ceramics5.

The Reconstruction of Social Hierarchy

The general level of poverty perhaps meant that early Dark Age6 communities were largely egalitarian. Archaeologists have recently analyzed evidence from burials, however, which suggests that Greek society had once again begun to develop a hierarchical system perhaps as early as 1050 B.C. The revival of a social hierarchy in Dark Age Greece clearly shows up in the tenth century B.C. at a site now known as Lefkandi on the island of Euboea, off the eastern coast of the Greek mainland. There archaeologists have discovered the richly furnished burials of a man and woman, who died about 950 B.C. Their riches included goods of Near Eastern manufacture and style, testifying to the ongoing contacts between Greece and the Near East in the Dark Age. These contacts deeply influenced Greek mythology and religion as well as commerce. The dead woman wore elaborate gold ornaments that testify to her exceptional wealth. The couple were buried under a building more than 150 feet long with wooden columns on the exterior. The striking architecture and riches of their graves suggest that they enjoyed high social status during their lives and perhaps received a form of ancestor worship after their death. Such wealthy and powerful people were probably still few in number at this date, but their existence at Lefkandi proves that marked social differentiation had once again emerged in the Greek world. Stresses in this hierarchical organization of Greek society, as we shall see, were to set the stage for the emergence of Greece's influential new political form, the self-governing city-state of free citizens.

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hide References (5 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (5):
    • Herodotus, Histories, 1.56.1
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.12.1
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.12.3
    • Thucydides, Histories, 1.18.1
    • Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, 1.1
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