The Dark Ages
by: R. Aurelius Orcus
A. Economy, Trade and Technology
For some reason the Myceneans abandoned their civilization between 1200 and 1100 BC. The populations of their once-mighty cities dwindled rapidly until there was no urbanized culture left on the Greek mainland. Most of the cities were eventually destroyed, and all the great craftsmen of the Mycenean cities faded away when society could no longer support them. How much of their culture they abandoned, we don't know. For the one key element of their culture that they did abandon was writing, and we don't know why. Without writing, they left us no history following the collapse of Mycenean civilization; we have, instead, only five centuries of mystery: the Greek Dark Ages. Also called, the Greek Middle Ages, this period may have been precipitated by migrations and invasions of a people speaking a dialect of Greek, the Dorians. Later Greeks believed this to be the case: in Greek history and legend, the Dorians were a barbaric northern tribe of Greeks who rushed down into Greece and wrested control over the area.
It was a time of chaos and some compare it with the dark ages of the western civilisation. It was a time of turmoil and chaos and a time where most of the legends took place as did human sacrifice. Poets who travelled around were a common sight back then. The entire population of Hellas must have been dramatically reduced because settlements had become much smaller. Small communities were similar to a small tribe and in time of danger they went up a hill for protection. The ruling party consisted of people with the title basileus (king). Such a king had to make sure he didn't miff his fellow lords. The decisions were more in favor of those who had more cattle or land and were usually the minority. By the 9th century BCE the population had grown larger, sothat people went out to the nearby islands to settle. By the end of the 9th century the Greeks had entered the ports of northern Syria, Fenicia and Cyprus.
In the absence of archaeological evidence, it seems unlikely that a nomadic, tribal group could so easily overcome a highly efficient, warfare-centered society like the Myceneans. There is, though, no reason to disbelieve the Greeks. The best explanation is that a combination of economic decline and migrations of northern peoples slowly spelled the end of the Myceneans.
From 1200 (or 1150, or 1100, take your pick) to 750, the Greeks lived a fairly sedentary, non-urbanized, agricultural life. Many villages were abandoned, and it seems likely that many Greeks returned to a nomadic life in small tribal groups. Many Greeks in this period took to the sea and migrated to the islands in the Aegean; according to Greek history, the Dorians soon followed them. Not only did the Greeks abandon writing and most crafts, they also abandoned their large commercial network. They virtually stopped trading with Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Egypt; in fact, they seem to have stopped trading with one another as well. Fortunately for the Greeks, none of the great powers had ever been interested in Europe or the Aegean, so the Greek Dark Ages, once the Dorians had settled, were probably a time of peace. This long breathing-space allowed the Greeks the leisure to slowly redevelop an urbanized culture. Despite the bleakness of the situation, the Greeks began to slowly urbanize in the latter part of the Dark Ages. This early-urbanized culture would produce, at the very close of the Greek Dark Ages, the single greatest Greek accomplishment in the Greek view of themselves: the poetry of Homer. Not only are the two epic poems of Homer windows into the distant Mycenean past and into the darkness of the Greek Middle Ages, they are the defining moment in Greek culture; for the Greeks will turn to these poems throughout their history to define themselves culturally, politically, and historically.
The Greek Dark Ages were characterized by a gradual, though severe, decline in material culture. Mycenaean pottery styles were gradually replaced by proto-Geometric ware, cremation supplanted burial, and the appearance of long pins and spectacle-fibula suggest a new style of dress. International trade, monumental building, and the size of the Greek population declined considerably from Mycenaean times. There is no evidence for writing, and cities dramatically shrank in size. The new technology introduced in the Dark Ages was mainly military: iron weapons and tools appeared, and the slashing sword and throwing spear were introduced. In the 11th or 10th century, cavalry replaced the chariots of the Bronze Age. The later Greeks saw this period as a Heroic Age, and much of our information about Greek society and culture in the Dark Ages comes from legends preserved in later literature.
The exploits of these heroes formed three "cycles": The Theban Cycle, supposedly occurring two generations before the Trojan War and concerning Oedipus and his family; the Cycle of Heracles and his sons, the Heraclidae; and, the Trojan Cycle, the war of the Achaeans against Troy, led by Agamemnon, Achilles, and Odysseus. These legends are preserved in Attic drama of the fifth century BCE and in the epic poems called the Iliad and the Odyssey. The epics were ascribed to the blind poet, Homer, who probably lived sometime between 850 and 650 BCE The same individual may have composed both works, but it is more likely that the Iliad predates the Odyssey by about a century. The poems contain some reliable traditions dating back to the Mycenaean Age: the use of chariots and bronze weapons, large royal palaces, and the Catalog of Ships (Iliad 2.484 ff), which reflects the importance of Mycenaean, not Dark Age, states. Other elements clearly belong to the 10th and 9th centuries: the use of the dipylon or "figure 8" shield, the ritual gift of tripods, and the cremation of the dead.
In both epics, the Mycenaean world and the Dark Ages are blended together, and it is difficult to distinguish the date of various elements of the poems. In the Dark Ages, Greek states were considerably smaller and less wealthy than in Mycenaean times, though the basic unit is already the walled polis or city-state. Social organization was tribal: Ionians, for example, were grouped into four tribes. Within the tribes there were "brotherhoods" (phratriai) composed of members sufficiently related to each other to certify legitimate birth and citizenship. The landless day-laborers (thetes) were at the bottom of the social ladder, even below slaves. Most of the people (demos) were free peasants, who might be convened in the assembly place (agora) to listen to their superiors but expressed their wishes only by silence or applause. There was no voting and it was not normal for a commoner to speak in the assembly. An aristocratic warrior class, based on birth, wealth, and military prowess, formed clans (gene), which maintained relations with each other through arranged marriages and guest-friendship (xenia), involving the ritual exchange of gifts. The leaders of the aristocratic clans met in a council (boule) and advised the king, now called a basileus instead of wanax.
Royal powers were not absolute but depended on the consent of the nobles and clan leaders. Religion was family-based and centered around the hestia, or hearth. Zeus was the king of the gods, but the other gods sat in council, gave advice, and even sometimes opposed Zeus. The gods had local associations: Hera with Argos, Sparta, and Mycenae; Athena with Athens and Troy; Aphrodite with Paphos in Cyprus; and Ares with Thrace.
B. The Dorians and the Dorian Invasion
Legends which survived among the Dorians and have come down to us through Pindar, Herodotus and other ancient writers. They say that the earliest ancestors of the Dorians were Makednoi (that is, Macedonians), who migrated to Doris from Pindos, more precisely from the Lakmos region. The Dorians took their name from Doris, where they formed themselves into one ethnic group by the union of the local inhabitants and the newcomers, it can readily be inferred that the name Makednoi and the mention of Pindos as their original homeland do not refer to the whole of the Dorian tribe but just to one of its component groups - not the Hylleis, however, because these had settled in present-day Sterea Hellas earlier.
Ancient texts containing echoes of fragments of a very old lost epic about Aigimios say that the Dorians were in danger of attack by the Lapiths, that the king of the Dorians, Aigimios, sought the help of Herakles in return for the reward mentioned above, and that Herakles repulsed the Lapiths and established the Dorians in a region from which he had driven out the Dryopians. It follows that the race which was led by Aigimios and helped by Herakles was not yet the Dorians but the Makednians. Herakles here is no more than the representative of a people in central Sterea Hellas. One of the texts mentioned above says that Aigimios people at the time of the Lapith attacks were in Histiaiotis; others imply that they had already reached the northern part of present-day Sterea Hellas. The second version must be the earlier one, because it tallies with the mention of the alliance of the people who are represented by Herakles. The mention of the Lapiths as enemies of the Dorians, i.e. the Makednians, does not conflict with this version since, as we have seen, there are traces of Lapith settlements in the Spercheios Valley.
The Dorians of the historical period were divided into three tribes: Hylleis, Dymanes, and Pamphyloi. The eponymous heroes of the Dymanes and the Pamphyloi were believed to be the sons of Aigimios who had led the Dorians to Doris. The eponymous hero of the Hylleis was said to be the son of Herakles who had acquired one third of Aigimios kingdom for helping him against the Lapiths.
In the 12th century, the power vacuum created by the decline of Mycenaean civilization was filled by Greeks speaking the Dorian dialect, who invaded the peninsula from the north. Greek tradition characterized this movement as the "return" of the sons of Heracles (Heraclidae): Hyllus, Dymas, and Pamphylas, who were the eponymous founders of the three Dorian tribes. The Dorians originally came from southern Macedonia, though the Greeks derived their name from the city of Doris in central Greece. It may be that the Dorians settled there for some time before moving into the Peloponnese. The Argolis, Lacedaemon, and Messenia were conquered, and the Achaeans and Arcadians pushed into corners of the peninsula. Other Dorian groups attacked the Aegean Islands, and conquered Thera, Melos, and the central portion of Crete. A few cities in Asia Minor (principally, Halicarnassus and Cnidos) were founded or cofounded by Dorians. The Dorian invasion corresponded with the start of the Iron Age in Greece, but despite the introduction of this superior metal, culture as a whole declined in Greece as a result of the Dorian invasion.
C. Aeolian and Ionian Migrations
The speakers of the Aeolian and Ionian dialects were pushed out of their original territories by the Dorian invaders. The Aeolians settled on the northwest coast of Asia Minor and on the islands of Tenedos and Lesbos. This Aeolian migration seems to have started around 1130 and to have lasted until 1000 or even later. Athens resisted the Dorians, though in the 11th and 10th centuries there were changes in Athenian burial customs, dress, and pottery style, which suggests the arrival of new peoples. These were probably Ionian and perhaps Mycenaean refugees fleeing the Dorians. Athens also formed a base for an Ionian migration to the east. The Ionians invaded the western coast of Asia Minor, which was subsequently called Ionia, taking over the existing cities of Colophon, Miletus, Smyrna, Myus, Priene, Ephesus, Phocaea, and others. The Cyclades were also settled by Ionians in this period. The spread of proto-Geometric pottery from Athens to all over the Aegean world in the 10th century is probably connected to this Ionian migration. The Ionians shared common religious festivals, particularly the Panionium and Delian festival of Apollo.
D. The Greek Renaissance (900-800 BCE)
After 900, eastern (orientalizing) influence resulted in the development of the proto-Corinthian and proto-Attic pottery styles. The stiffness of geometric design gave way to lively representations of humans and animals: color reappeared; ornament, often symmetrical, was vigorous. A whole new set of vase shapes was invented. Spread by the growing trade with distant places, then by colonies, proto-Corinthian became the luxury pottery of the Mediterranean world. Grave sites at Athens indicate a remarkably high rate of population increase in the 9th century
Encyclopedia of the World
The Antiquity: Greeks and Romans in the context of the worldhistory
World Cultures Site