Chapter 3

Shedding Light on Ancient Greece's Dark Ages

In This Chapter

● Investigating the Dorian invasion

● Colonising to the east and west

● Inventing writing

● Establishing new Greek city states

In around 1200 BC the whole of society in the eastern Mediterranean was in trouble. In the east the Hittite civilisation had collapsed and huge numbers of people fled west into Syria, Palestine, and as far as Egypt. Around the same time the Mycenaean world fell apart (refer to Chapter 2). After this civilisation’s last big hurrah at Troy, something devastating happened back at home. All the big Mycenaean city centres were attacked and utterly destroyed. Mycenae and Pylos were burned and never fully recovered. And around 50 years later a second sequence of attacks finished off the remaining cities.

The damage was devastating and conclusive, and the Greek world was humbled by it. A huge amount of the learning and technology that the Mycenaeans had developed during the past 500 years was lost. The big cities were abandoned and left as permanent landmarks to the memory of those Mycenaeans who’d died, with vast numbers of people deciding to move and re-establish themselves in other areas of the Mediterranean.

It took 300 years for the Greek world to recover, but recover it did. Although the Mycenaean culture was gone, never to return, a new set of Greek people developed, with new cities, kingdoms, and - by around 750 BC - a new form of written language that scholars recognise as ancient Greek.

So although historians refer to the period of around 1100 to 750 BC as ancient Greece’s Dark Ages, light was shining at the end of the tunnel. The changes ancient Greece experienced during its Dark Ages are the focus of this chapter.

The term ‘Dark Ages’ is actually quite a misleading one. The term suggests a time when nothing much happened - as you’ll see from this chapter, that’s not the case! The idea of a Dark Age comes from the fact that historians are uncertain about exactly what happened and who went where. The age is dark in terms of information, not innovation!

Surviving the Dorian Invasion

So what cataclysmic force overwhelmed the mighty Mycenaeans in around 1200 BC? Well, according to the Greeks themselves, the Dorians did it.

Later ancient Greek historians describe the destruction of Mycenae and the burning of other Mycenaean cities as being the work of a powerful army from the north that swept down over the Peloponnese mountains and into southern Greece.

The Greeks filled in the gaps in their knowledge with myth and stories - a phenomenon I describe in detail in Chapter 2. The Dorians may well have been an example of this process.

According to the Greeks, the Dorians were a people who came from the north and smashed the Mycenaeans. Many Greeks believed the Dorians descended from a group of people called the Heraclids. The Heraclids were thought to have been the descendants of the great Greek hero Heracles (or Hercules as the Romans called him) who’d once lived in southern Greece under Mycenaean control but had then been sent into exile. The Heraclids regrouped and eventually returned, led by King Hyllus, to wreak revenge on their former masters.

The famous Greek historian Thucydides, who was writing 500 years after the end of the Mycenaean civilisation, had no doubts about what had happened:

Eighty years after Troy the Dorians and the sons of Herakles made themselves masters of the Peloponnese. It was with difficulty and over a long period that peace returned.

Many other versions of this story existed then and now, and all accounts seem to point to an invasion into Greece by a big army from the north or north-west.

Exactly who the Dorians were remains a mystery. What is important, however, is that by 1100 BC things had changed. The Mycenaeans had disappeared, many people had fled from their homes to a new life elsewhere, and the map of the region was very different.

Travelling into a New (Dark) Age

The movement of most people from mainland Greece during the Dark Ages had a huge effect on the rest of the Mediterranean. Imagine if today all the people living in a city like London suddenly left and began to look for somewhere else to live in Britain. The effect on the lives of people throughout the UK would be huge. Obviously big differences exist between life then and now, but some considerations are constant: The Greeks needed water, food, shelter, and enough land to be able to sustain themselves and their families.

Unsurprisingly the Greeks ranged far and wide in their search for new land. Some went east toward modern-day Turkey and beyond; others went west to Italy, Sicily, and, by the seventh century BC, North Africa. These big migrations during the Dark Ages are one of the reasons why the history of ancient Greece is so fragmented.

As I note in Chapter 1, being Greek during this time was more a state of mind than a nationality. Well, the migrations of the Dark Ages contributed significantly to this experience.

Heading east

A vast number of people leaving mainland Greece headed east across the Mediterranean toward Asia Minor. Traditional Greek myth/history says that these people fled to the city of Athens and then on to an area known as the Ionic Coast (see the map on the Cheat Sheet), establishing ancient Greece’s roots in a matter of a few years. The official version of events soon became that this movement of people was a single event of colonisation, with one population group moving from their original home to make a new one.

As ever, the truth is slightly different. The transfer of people from mainland Greece to the coast of Asia Minor was a migration rather than a colonisation. This process took place over a number of years rather than in one big trip. For one thing, an adequate fleet of ships wouldn’t have been available for such an undertaking. Furthermore, the stuff about Athens is just propaganda. Many years later, when Athens was building up its empire from many of these Greek towns, saying that the original inhabitants had come from Athens made for a good argument to go back and aggressively force the towns to join their empire and pay a tribute! (For more on this empire-building, see Chapter 7.)

A much more likely comparison of the process is that of the Pilgrim Fathers leaving England for America, a brave and adventurous group of people embarking on a journey of discovery without really knowing too much about the land that they were going to. Again like the Pilgrim Fathers, these on-the-move Greeks were a mixed group from all around the mainland. Whole towns wouldn’t have moved at once and each successive migration would have been made up of a mixed bag of people. It was only when they made land and founded a new place to live that they became a new ‘people’.

Those that had headed east became known as the Ionian Greeks because the coastland and nearby islands they inhabited were known as Ionia. Confusingly this region had nothing to do with the Ionian Sea, which refers to the stretch of water between Sicily, Southern Italy, and Western Greece. Although the two words look exactly the same in English, they meant different things in ancient Greek.

Meeting the neighbours

Although much of the territory of Ionia was uninhabited when the Greeks arrived, the areas to the immediate north and south weren’t. These areas were called Aeolis and Doria (so-called because some Dorian Greeks had ended up living there) and they’d both been populated for some time.

● Aeolis: The people to the north of Ionia were known as the Aeolians. They were probably also Greeks who had left the eastern Greek mainland a little before the travellers who became known as the Ionians.

Later Greek writers maintained that the Aeolians were the sons of Orestes, the son of the famous Mycenaean king Agamemnon. But this bit of genealogy is just a myth. The area known as Aeolia was very fertile, and the Aeolians seem to have spent their time as relatively contented farmers.

● Doria: To the south of Ionia was Doria, which was under the control of a very different people called the Carians. The Carians spoke an old language that was different from the Greek languages. They’d been in contact with the Mycenaeans and had absorbed a lot of Greek culture but they were definitely not Greek. Like the Aeolians they were, in the main, farmers.

The Greek writer Strabo describes the Carians as barbaroi, which gave rise to the modern word barbarians. Strabo’s word choice came from his belief that when the Carians tried to speak Greek, they made a noise that just sounded like ‘ba, ba, ba’! The Greeks used this word to describe anybody who was a non-Greek speaker.

Establishing new Greek cities

The new Ionian territory was made up of 12 major cities. Two of them were on the islands of Chios and Samos and the others, such as Ephesus and Smyrna, were on the mainland (see the Cheat Sheet map).

The Greeks learn to write

The Greeks in the east were in very close association with the Phoenicians and picked up from them something far more important than any treasures or fancy goods. At some point around 750 BC, Greeks in the east began to use the Phoenician system of language notation, which led to the Greek alphabet. Although some letters and forms varied depending on where ancient Greeks lived throughout the region, the basic underlying principles of the Phoenician-based system became standard throughout the Mediterranean. In fact, the Greek expression for writing is phoinikeia grammata, which means 'Phoenician writings'.

In the main, the new settlers built their settlements on peninsulas just away from the mainland. These areas were linked to the mainland by narrow causeways, or isthmuses. These locations were beneficial for a few reasons:

● The new cities enjoyed relatively cool temperatures along the hot Asia Minor coastline.

● The geography offered natural harbours that the new inhabitants used for trading supplies and receiving friends and relatives from the Greek mainland.

● The new cities were more secure from attack because they had water as a natural barrier on one side and freshly built fortifications on the landward side.

Early on, these new towns weren’t particularly remarkable - but they became tremendously important later on. Constantly involved in the struggles between Greece and Persia, they were eventually used as an excuse for the invasion of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great. (For more on Alexander the Great, march to Chapter 11.)

Soon after their foundation, the cities were nothing more than increasingly popular trading spots. The trade that they engaged in, however, brought them into contact with a culture that had a major impact on ancient Greeks - the Phoenicians.

Trading with the Phoenicians

The Mycenaeans had been adventurous traders and their kings had spent their wealth on luxuries from the east, in particular Syria and Egypt. The knowledge gained from trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean became more wide-spread on the Greek mainland and helped with the migrations that followed the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation.

The main traders in luxury goods from the east were the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians were originally from the east, possibly as far east as the Persian Gulf, and they established themselves in the city of Tyre on the Syrian coast, in the area known now as Lebanon. From there they eventually founded colonies as far away as Cadiz in Spain and most famously Carthage in North Africa.

Going west

While the great migration of people to the east took place, things continued to happen on the Greek mainland. Archaeology indicates that the tenth and ninth centuries BC (900-700 BC) was a period of great poverty on the Greek mainland. After the destruction of the Mycenaean civilisation, a great deal of the established industry and infrastructure disappeared. Society became entirely dependent on agriculture, and the number of inhabited sites decreased significantly.

The old system of Mycenaean kings was dependent on wealth, so when the kings were eliminated, society changed too. The old palace culture of the Mycenaeans disappeared (see Chapter 2), and a levelling out of social classes took place. In each community, power became shared among a group of the most influential people rather than one man. I write more about these changes in Chapter 4.

The most immediate result of these societal changes was another wave of migration. Around 750 BC new groups of people were looking to leave mainland Greece. This time, the people weren’t fleeing invasion (see ‘Heading east’ earlier in this chapter). Instead, they were:

Discontented nobles who’d lost influence

Struggling farmers who were looking for new territories to cultivate

With the Ionian Greek cities firmly established to the east, these new travellers had to look elsewhere for fresh land - and they looked to the west, as Figure 3-1 shows.

Settling in Italy

One of the western-bound Greek travellers’ first ports of call was southern Italy. In fact, so many early ancient Greeks migrated to Italy that the Romans later called the south of Italy and Sicily Magna Graecia, which was Latin for ‘Greater Greece’.

Figure 3-1: Greek colonies in the western Mediterranean.

In the eighth century BC westward migrating ancient Greeks founded the Italian towns of Neapolis (Naples), Kapue (Capua), and Taras (Taranto).

These towns became very rich and powerful thanks to their close trade links with mainland Greece and beyond. The towns maintained their independence for more than 500 years until the Romans finally conquered them and absorbed them into their empire.

On the island of Sicily, the most important new town by far was Syracuse (see Figure 3-1). Greeks from the city of Corinth founded Syracuse in around 734 BC. They were led by Archias, who named the town Sirako after a nearby swamp. Due to its excellent position for trading, Syracuse grew very quickly and became immensely wealthy. The money was spent on extending the harbour facilities and defences and for some time Syracuse was considered to be the most powerful Greek city in the whole of the Mediterranean.

Setting up in Egypt

Coincidence is a wonderful thing. Just around the time that ancient Greeks were establishing more western towns and initiating trade across the Mediterranean, the ancient civilisation of Egypt opened its doors to trade. For thousands of years Egypt had been closed to Mediterranean society. Egypt had no need to trade with anybody because it was so fertile and pretty much self-sustaining. For more on the histories and mysteries of ancient Egypt, check out The Ancient Egyptians For Dummiesby Charlotte Booth (Wiley).

During ancient Greece’s Dark Ages, Egypt was invaded and conquered by its great rival Assyria, led by the great monarch Assarhaddon. The Assyrians ruled Egypt for several generations until Assurbanipal, one of Assarhaddon’s successors, was the victim of a big revolt led by Psammetichus. Psammetichus was probably from Libya in North Africa and had raised a mercenary army from all around that included new Greeks from Ionia and Caria. After he won a tremendous victory over Assurbanipal, one of Psammetichus’s first acts was to open the doors of Egypt to his new allies.

This meant that Greeks could now trade with Egypt and travel there to experience the country. As a result, many Greeks encountered the art and architecture of Egypt for the first time, and the rich Egyptian culture had a huge impact on them. For more on the Greeks’ interactions with the Egyptians, see Chapter 17.

Venturing into Cyrene

Psammetichus came from present-day Libya in North Africa, and the Greeks soon established a town there too. In around 630 BC, a group left the small island of Thera and founded the town of Cyrene (shown in the map in Figure 3-1). Cyrene was in a great location, roughly halfway between Carthage and Egypt, and it very quickly became large and wealthy.

Ancient Greece’s Dark Ages were actually a tremendous period of travelling and expansion, which changed the map forever. People living on opposite sides of the Mediterranean now, appropriately, claimed to be Greek and spoke a version of the Greek language. Large trade networks were building up and these new international Greeks were adopting new things such as writing.

Back on mainland Greece, however, something equally remarkable was happening: old social structures were breaking down and new rulers emerging. Read all about it in Chapter 4.

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