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CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
- The Dark Ages
In this lecture, Professor Donald Kagan explores the earliest history of Greek civilization. He demonstrates how small agricultural enclaves eventually turned into great cities of power and wealth in the Bronze Age, taking as his examples first Minoan Crete and then Mycenaean Greece. He also argues that these civilizations were closely related to the great monarchies of the ancient Near East. He points out that the Mycenaean age eventually came to an abrupt end probably through a process of warfare and migration. Reconstructing the Mycenaean age is possible through archaeological evidence and through epic poetry (Homer). Finally, he provides an account of the collapse of the Mycenaean world, and explains how in its aftermath, the Greeks were poised to start their civilization over on a new slate.
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Introduction to Ancient Greek History
CLCV 205 - Lecture 2 - The Dark Ages
Chapter 1. The Minoan Civilization [00:00:00]
Professor Donald Kagan: I’m going to talk to you today about the beginnings of the Greek experience as far as we know it, and I should warn you at once that the further back in history you go the less secure is your knowledge, especially at the beginning of our talk today when you are in a truly prehistoric period. That is before there is any written evidence from the period in which you are interested. So what we think we know derives chiefly from archeological evidence, which is before writing — mute evidence that has to be interpreted and is very complicated, and is far from secure. Even a question such as a date which is so critical for historians, is really quite approximate, and subject to controversy, as is just about every single thing I will tell you for the next few days. These will be even more than usual subject to controversy even the most fundamental things. So what you’ll be hearing are approximations as best we can make them of what’s going on.
Well, we begin our story with the emergence of the Bronze Age in the Aegean Sea area. That appears to have taken place about 3000 B.C. I think these days they date it down about another century to about 2900. Precision is impossible; don’t worry about that. And what we find, the first example of a Bronze Age — and I use the word civilization now for the first time, because before the Bronze Age — there is nothing that we would define as civilization. Civilization involves the establishment of permanent dwelling areas that we call cities, as opposed to villages. Agricultural villages will have existed all over the place in the late Stone Age, in the Neolithic Period, as it is known. But there is a difference and the critical difference is that a city contains a number of people who do not provide for their own support. That is to say, they don’t produce food. They need to acquire it from somebody else. Instead, they do various things like govern and are priests, and are bureaucrats, and are engaged in other non-productive activities that depend upon others to feed them. That’s the narrowest definition of cities.
Of course, with cities we typically find a whole association of cultural characteristics, which we deem civilization. Well, that’s what we see for the first time in the Aegean area on the island of Crete. That civilization was uncovered by the archaeologists right at the beginning of the twentieth century. Sir Arthur Evans, an Englishman, was responsible for the major work that has revealed that civilization. He was captivated by it, he — at one point I think he convinced himself that he was a descendant of the kings of that civilization. But in any case, he named it. He named it after the legendary King of Crete who appears in Greek mythology by the name of Minos. So he referred to that civilization as the Minoan civilization. When we use the word Minoan we mean the civilization whose home is Crete. It spread out beyond Crete because the Minoans established what we might want to call an empire in various parts of the Mediterranean, and it starts with Crete. It is a Bronze Age culture, and it is the first civilization we know in the area.
What we find in the Minoan civilization — I mean the main place we can learn about this civilization was the city of Knossos, located on the northern shore of Crete where a great palace complex was discovered and is available. By the way it’s an absolutely beautiful site, a great tourist site; you can see quite a lot there. Anyway, when you examine that site and draw the conclusions that are inevitable from examining it, and, also I should have said, all of the Minoan settlements, you realize that they look and seem very much like older civilizations that have grown up in the Ancient Near East. The real sort of typical home of the kinds of things were talking about is Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, the Tigress, Euphrates Valley, which spread out beyond Iraq and went up into Syria and neighboring places. It, too, was very similar to the civilization, but apparently a little bit newer in the Nile Valley in Egypt, about which we know a great deal more than we know about the Minoans because, as you know, in the nineteenth century, scholars discovered how to read the languages that were written in Egypt and in Mesopotamia. So, they were able to develop something approaching history for the period we’re talking about.
That is not true for Crete because, although they had a script — and we have available to us tablets with those writings on them — to this day no one has deciphered the language written by the Minoans. Therefore, we don’t have that kind of knowledge. So barring that, nonetheless, what we see reminds us very much of these ancient Bronze Age early civilizations. So, this will be significant as we talk about how the Greeks differed from them, which gets us to the Greeks. The Minoans are not Greeks. Strictly speaking, what do we mean when we say somebody is Greek? We mean that his native language, not one that he’s acquired subsequently, but the one that he learned as a child, was Greek, some version of the Greek language. These are linguistic terms. But of course, the people who spoke them, especially in the early years, tended to be part of a relatively narrow collection of people, who intermarried with each other chiefly, and therefore developed common cultural characteristics. So of course, the language is only a clue. When you speak about Greeks you will be speaking about something more than merely the fact that they spoke a certain language.
In the nineteenth century, there was a lot of talk about races. There were people who spoke about the Greek race, or similar races, for quite a long time in the science of anthropology and subjects like that. It’s been determined that those terms are inappropriate. They suggest there is something in the genes that explains the characteristics of particular people; that is certainly not true. So let’s understand each other. We’re talking about a culture when we’re talking about the Greeks, which is most strikingly signified by the language that is spoken.
Well, the way we can reason things out from the evidence we have suggests that Greek-speaking peoples came down into the area around the Aegean Sea, perhaps around 2000 B.C., about a thousand years later than the emergence of the Minoan civilization at Crete. And again, I think these days they tend to down date it by another century or so, so it might be around 1900 B.C. We really don’t know very much about these early Greek settlers. We begin to know more about three or four hundred years down the road, when there appear buildings and settlements in the world later inhabited by the Greeks, as we know, to which we give the name Mycenaean.
Chapter 2. Mycenaean Language and Writing [00:08:58]
Now, that derives from one site in the northeastern Peloponnesus called Mycenae, and the name is given because in the poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the leading Greek king, the man who is the leader of the expedition to Troy, is Agamemnon, who was king of the Argolid region and his palace and his home are at Mycenae, and that’s why we call the entire culture, the Bronze Age culture, running from about 1600 to perhaps as late as 1100, but perhaps not so late. That’s what we mean when we speak about the Mycenaeans and the Mycenaean Period. And please keep in mind that they are Greek speakers; and we know this with confidence, something we didn’t know at the beginning of the twentieth century, because written evidence is available on a bunch of clay tablets that were accidentally baked in some conflagration in these places.
The same thing is true of Knossos in Crete, and perhaps a few other sites in Crete. Not at the same time, but the reason we have any written evidence at all is that there was some kind of conflagration that produced a fire that baked clay into pottery. In the normal course of events, clay dissolves and disappears, and any message on it is erased. In other words, this was not meant to be a record to be left for the future. It was an accident. These things that we discovered were meant for a practical usage in ways that I will tell you about in a little while. So, anyway, that writing — let me back up a step. When Evans found writing at Knossos, he found two — well, he actually found seven, but only two that turned out to be significant — two kinds of script. I shouldn’t even say script; that sounds like he’s writing a nice cursive line. There were two kinds of writing. Because he couldn’t figure out what they were, he called one Linear A and the other Linear B, because he could tell by careful analysis that they were different, and he could tell which pieces belonged to which.
Linear A is earlier and it is associated with and it is clearly the language used by the Minoan kings at Knossos and other places. Linear B resembles Linear A, but it is clearly different and later, and one reason we know that comes mostly from stratigraphy, but we can also tell because it’s a much simpler script, but by no means simple. These are not alphabets; these are syllabaries, every symbol represents a syllable; in other words, typically two letters rather than one. That’s a nice step over having loads, and loads, and loads of symbols representing lots of things which is true more of Linear A than Linear B, but it’s still — we’re talking about something approaching sixty symbols in a syllabary and when you think about how hard it is to learn to read when you’re only using twenty-six symbols, and how few Americans do learn to read, which I keep reading in the paper — it’s not an easy thing. It’s not a simple matter. Imagine what it would be like if you had to learn about sixty such things? Well, of course, what follows from all of that is that ordinary people did not.
What we learn ultimately from our decipherment of Linear B — which I’ve just skipped over, which was done in the 1950’s by a brilliant young architect, who loved solving problems of this kind, he was able to discover that this was an early form of Greek and that he could essentially make out what it said. At first there was doubt and controversy, which has completely gone away, as more and more examples of this writing have become available and scholars are now able, by and large, to be confident that they know what these things say. So, the fact that this was a Greek script that was available in the Mycenaean Period tells us very confidently that the Mycenaeans were Greeks. But of course, a lot was known about these Mycenaeans well before the syllabary was deciphered.
It’s worth saying a word about that, because I want to undermine any great confidence that you may have and what you can believe that scholars tell you, because we keep finding out how wrong we are about all kinds of things. I would say, if you walked into the leading universities in the world, there would probably be Germans in the 1850’s and you went to the classics people, and you said, “well, you know Homer wrote about these places, Mycenae and other places, can you tell me where that was?” They would say, “You silly fellow, that’s just stories, that’s mythology, that’s poetry. There never was an Agamemnon, there never was a Mycenae, there isn’t any such thing.” Then in 1870, a German businessman by the name of Heinrich Schliemann, who had not had the benefit of a university education and didn’t know what a fool and how ignorant he was, believed Homer, and he said he wanted to look for Troy. So, he went to where people thought Troy might be and he began digging there, and before you know it, he discovered a mound filled with cities, which he believed was Troy. And after the usual amount of scholarly debate, there seems to be no doubt that it was the City of Troy. So having succeeded with that, he thought well, now that I’ve seen Troy, how about Mycenae? Off he went to the northeast Peloponnesus to the site where he thought it might be, Mycenae, from Homer’s account — I wouldn’t be telling you this story, and you know the outcome. He found it and it was the excavation of the site of Mycenae which was soon followed by the excavation of other sites from the same period that made it possible for people to talk about this culture, even before they could read the script.
Chapter 3. The Citadel, Farmland, Burials and the Oil Trade [00:16:07]
The culture is marked by some of the following features. Let’s take Mycenae, which is maybe the best example of the whole culture. Certainly, it’s a perfect model for what we’re talking about. What you have to begin with is a town or a city, or a settlement of some kind built on top of a hill, and it’s usually intended to be a formidable hill, one not easily accessible to anybody who comes walking along, a place, in other words, that would make a very nice fort, a citadel. That’s, indeed, what we find at Mycenae. On that citadel, on that strongly, rocky fort or citadel, they built what we now identify as the royal palace, the palace of the king. That was, I should point out, maybe about ten miles from the sea. Now, not all Mycenaean sites are so far from the sea; some of them are closer, but what it’s important to say is that none of them are right on the sea. They’re always back some few miles. The reason for that I think is that the early times in which these civilizations arose saw all kinds of dangers coming, and the most — the swiftest, the least suspected, the one that could come upon you overnight came from the sea.
People who came by land you would be hearing rumblings about down the road from villages that were spread out, but if somebody comes in from the sea on a ship, you may find them there in the morning and you don’t know what’s what. So the idea for security and safety, they built their estates far from the sea, but not far because as we shall see the Mycenaean civilization was a commercial one that relied for its wealth upon trade and that meant trade by sea, more than by land. The citadel is always surrounded by farmland, and, of course, you cannot live in ancient society if you are not surrounded by farmland, because the food that comes from the soil is essential for life, and you can’t count on trade to provide it to you with any security. Later on when times are more secure, there’s trade for grain as well for everything else, but when you’re settling a place in the first place, you can’t rely on somebody bringing it to you. You’re going to have your own people working it, and bringing it up to you themselves. So, the citadel and the farmland surrounding it, make up fundamentally the unit which is the Mycenaean kingdom.
Well, the first thing that Schliemann found when he dug at Mycenae was this remarkable circle of graves, which were shafts dug straight down into the soil, and they are referred to, to this day, technically as shaft graves, and then in other places not very far from that main hill, they found even more remarkable burials, what we call beehive tombs. Just imagine a huge beehive, in which let’s say, the center of the inside of that might be as much as fifty feet high or more, and these were built of extraordinarily huge, heavy stones and very well worked too. Here’s the marvelous thing. The reason he had to uncover it was that beehive tombs, like everything else, were buried. This wasn’t just the results of centuries of neglect, it is clear that they were built in order to be buried. That is to say, it was some kind of a big religious thing going on here, where the king — it was obviously a royal thing because the cost of it was so enormous; nobody else could afford a tomb of that kind. So, here was a royal tomb closed forever and yet built at a fantastic expense and enormous kind of labor.
The same is true in a general way of what we find in the royal palace up on top of the hill at Mycenae, and so what is perfectly clear is the people who ruled these places were enormously powerful, at least locally, and wealthy. Even if you imagine that slaves did the work, you would need a hell of a lot of them, over a long period of time, and you had to feed them, if nothing else. So, we are talking about a wealthy group, and of course, the thing that struck Schliemann almost amazingly was that in the circle of graves that we’ve been talking about, he found all kinds of precious things buried. The most striking of which were death masks made of pure gold on the remains of the body, but also jewels, and implements, and weapons of very high expense. That’s what, of course, makes it clear they were royal; by the way, there are only a few of these graves over a large period of time. So, you must imagine these are successive kings who are being buried in this, what must have been, sacred soil. So, that makes it clear we’re talking about a wealthy civilization, at least in which the rulers are wealthy, and in which the rulers, of course, are very powerful.
Now, what we learn, both from archaeology and from references in the Linear B tablets is that they engaged — these cultures engaged in trade to a significant degree. You find Mycenaean elements, tools, other things, pottery particularly of a certain kind, all over the Mediterranean Sea. You find it in datable places and that’s why we can give this some kind of date, such as in Egypt. The Mycenaeans had regular trade with Egypt. We find Egyptian things in Mycenae and vice versa, and also presumably, much of it must have gone into Mesopotamia; some of it went all the way to the Western Mediterranean. This was a civilization that was not shut in on itself, but was in touch with the entire Mediterranean region. The major thing they seem to be selling were aromatic oils in little vials. Think of them as some combination of oil and perfume. I better say something about oil in the ancient world, so that you get a grip on what’s going on here.
The ancient Greeks had no soap. Think about that for a moment. That’s a problem, isn’t it? Yet, they wanted to get clean and so what device they used was to take oil, typically olive oil, spread it on themselves, then get a scrapper, a metal scrapper, and scrap off the oil with it what was underneath the oil. And then finally, they would take their bath and out they would come and be clean. Now, oil is a wonderful thing; olive oil is a great thing. In certain forms you eat it. The olive itself, you use it to cook with as oil; some people just put oil on their salad. I, myself, can’t stand it but — the point is — but that’s not all. If you get oil, crush the oil from the olives that come down from the trees, that’s a nasty smell that it has. So if you’re going to use it for this purpose, it’s not going to be good by itself. You’ve got to put some nice perfume onto it, in order for it to be useable, just as your soap would be pretty horrible without any perfume on it. So it looks as though what the Mycenaeans did — Greece is filled with wonderful olive trees and so they obviously took the oil from those olives. I’m sure they sold it in various forms, but one of the most popular was for this purpose.
Everybody in the Mediterranean wanted it for the same reasons, and obviously these Mycenaean sites had access to what they needed. It looks like, by the way, that they got much of the perfume from areas outside of Greece. Some of the best of it came from northeast Africa, as a matter of fact. You remember the Queen of Sheba from the Bible? I say that, but I shutter to think how many of you have read the Bible, but anyway, she was so rich as to attract the interest of King Solomon, because that’s where those wonderful, fine smelling things, frankincense and myrrh, and stuff like that was available — useful for this purpose. So they had to import that to make their goods as saleable as they wanted and so on. So you have trade with the Mediterranean and most especially the eastern Mediterranean, because that’s where the older, more sophisticated, more civilized cultures were and that’s where wealth was too, compared to what was out in the west. So, that’s also the pattern of trade.
Chapter 4. Cultural Unity, Agriculture, Religious Authority [00:26:29]
What you see is a kind of cultural unity, first of all, within the Mycenaean world itself. It is evident that these different Mycenaean towns, all throughout the Greek world, on both sides of the Aegean Sea, were in touch with each other. One of the things that’s interesting about that is you can see pottery styles that you can hardly tell whether they came from one end of the Mediterranean or another, if they’re of the Mycenaean variety, because it was a single culture. I don’t mean there were no local variations, but there was this general unity. I’m going to contrast that with the situation in Greece after the fall of the Mycenaean world, and I was going to say not just in the Mycenaean towns themselves, but over the entire Aegean Sea and indeed across the Mediterranean. In the years of the Mycenaean Period, roughly from 1600 to 1100 or so B.C., you are dealing with a largely unified culture. What is it? What do we talk about the world like these days? What’s the cliché? Globalized world; it was a globalized world, except it was a little piece of the globe. But they didn’t really know or care about very much outside of the Mediterranean area.
Now, in the respects that I have spelled out, and I mean chiefly the fact that they were engaged in commerce and industry to some degree and that they were a trading people and that they were in touch with one another and so on, they were already similar to the civilizations that came before them in the ancient Mediterranean Near East. In those places, in Egypt, the Pharaoh, and in Mesopotamia at first individual city states were ruled in the same way as everybody else I’m going to be talking about now, by somebody who is a king, a monarch, a one-man ruler who is the warlord, commander of the armies, who has the control of the power in the state, but more than that, all the economic activity that we find — and our best example of what I’m about to say is in Mesopotamia — in the cities of Tigress-Euphrates Valley. The ruler there, from his palace, assisted by vast groups of bureaucrats directed the economy of his land entirely and fully. Agriculture was overwhelmingly the activity, the most important activity of the people of that area, of any area.
So, we have evidence that the king doled out seed for planting, instructed people just exactly when to plant, where to plant, what to plant there, when to fertilize it if they did. In Mesopotamia they usually didn’t need to because the richness of the soil and so on. In other words, you have a degree of centralized control of true, monarchical power, of a wealthy monarchical power. Already the model is there in Asia. Again, I want to say it’s the same but in a special way in Egypt, because in Egypt the whole Nile Valley — because I think of the nature of the Nile Valley — became totally centralized, under the rule of one man, the Pharaoh, and he commanded the whole thing. It took longer for anything like that to happen in Mesopotamia, although it ultimately did. When we get, for instance, down to about 1750 B.C. in Mesopotamia, Babylonia, which is at that point the dominant kingdom of the area, King Hammurabi has just about the same power as a Pharaoh would in Egypt.
It’s also worth pointing out that these rulers had full religious authority for their rule. In the case of the Pharaohs of Egypt, the Pharaoh was himself a god, and insisted on being worshipped in that way. In Babylonia, for instance, and this I think was typical, Hammurabi was not a god, but as we know, thank God, by the great steely that he left, which is now in the Louvre. The law code of Hammurabi is available to us and there’s a preface to it in which he basically explains why you should obey the rules that he now is laying down for you. And his answer is because the top god of our world, Marduk, appointed me in that place and I’m doing what he wants me to do, and if you cross me you cross him, and that’s bad news. That’s a rough translation. So, this is very important. You have a full monarchy in the sense that both — we in America talk about the separation of church and state, that is a very rare and unusual thing in the history of the world. The normal situation in cultures pre-civilized and civilized as well is for there to be a unity between religious things and non-religious things, and all of that to be ruled by a single individual who is the monarch of that territory with religious sanction as well as through his power, and through the legitimacy of his descent. That’s the normal human way of living.
You should always be aware, I think, about how peculiar we are. We are the oddballs in the history of the human race, and anybody who follows our pattern, and it’s important to realize that because there’s nothing inevitable about the development that has come about to be characteristic of the world. When we find people challenging it, I think they have the bulk of time and human experience on their side when they say you guys got it wrong.
Chapter 5. Society and Economy [00:33:41]
So, let me say something about the nature of the society and economy that we find in the Mycenaean world revealed both by the archaeology and by what we learn in the records provided by Linear B. The remains and records of these strongholds make it clear that the political organization was an imitation of oriental monarchy. The sovereignty — the sovereign at Mycenae rather, and at Pylos, another important site for the period, and at Thebes, which was another one, was somebody that the tablets refer to as the Wanax, and that is the same as a later Greek word which drops the “W” at the beginning, anax. As we shall see that word in later times means some powerful individual, but it doesn’t mean what it means here, the boss, the single monarchical controller of everything. He held a royal domain that belonged directly to him, which was very significant in size and wealth. He appointed bureaucratic officials; he commanded royal servants and he recorded royal goods, which by the way, most of the tablets are inventories, lists of things that exist in the palace that belonged to the king. There are other things that have to do with instructions that the king is sending out to people from the palace.
There is no reference, in any of the tablets — I don’t know how much we can make of that because the tablets limit themselves to such limited kinds of things that maybe it doesn’t prove anything, but in this case, I think it does. There is no reference to law. There is no reference to some objective or anything other than the king himself in the administration of justice. One scholar says, “It is natural to infer that the king, all powerful controller of the all seeing bureaucracy, possessed supreme authority also in the region of lawmaking and law enforcement. An omnipresent bureaucracy with its detailed and all encompassing records gives the clearest picture of the power exercised by the centralized monarchs of the Mycenaean Age.” The records discovered at Pylos here are particularly interesting. They cover only one part of a year and yet they carry details of thousands of transactions in hundreds of places. These files, as we might call them, are both sweepingly inclusive and penetratingly minute.
For instance, bronze is allocated to different places for the manufacture of arrowheads or swords, with a note telling how many smiths in each place are active and how many are not. Cretan sheep are enumerated to the amount of 20,000. I’m sorry, that’s not right. I don’t want to get this wrong, 25,051, and we learn that in a Cretan village, two nurses, one girl, and one boy are employed. We are told how much linen is expected from a place called Rion. What is the acreage of the estate of a man called Alektruon? What a guy name Dounias owes the palace? The answer is 2200 liters of barley, 526 of olives, 468 of wine — I hope you remember all this; fifteen rams, one fat hog, one cow, and two bulls. We even learned the names of two oxen owned by Terzarro: Glossy and Blackie. The records make it perfectly clear that the kingdoms of Pylos and Knossos were bureaucratic monarchies of a type unexpected in Greece, but in many ways similar to some contemporary and earlier kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean. It is very unlike anything we associate with the Greeks, or anything that ever again existed in the Greek world, and that’s really the point I want to make. Although these people are Greeks, they are ruling a culture which is thoroughly different from the one we will be studying for the bulk of the semester. So like the eastern states, you have a powerful ruler who is a warlord. There is a palace economy, there is a script, there is a bureaucracy, and there is collectivized agriculture under the central control of the economy. That economy and that society go forward and flourish for, as I say, about 400 years maybe — perhaps about 400 years.
Chapter 6. Theories about the Fall of the Mycenaean World [00:39:05]
Then a bunch of terrible things obviously begin to happen that shake the security of this society, and ultimately bring it down. Roughly speaking, about 1200 B.C., we hear of general attacks that are going on around the Mediterranean against the various civilizations of which we know. Egypt experiences a number of attacks from the outside world. Chiefly what we hear about is in the area of the Nile Delta, right there on the Mediterranean Sea. Among those attackers, there are others besides — there are attackers from Libya, we hear, but there are also attackers that are simply called from the sea; the sea people attack. At roughly the same time the dominant empire in Asia Minor, Anatolia, is run by a people who are called the Hittites, who have been there for hundreds of years in security and are now suffering assault. We know that because they also have a writing which we can read, and it speaks of it as well as the archeological remains that show destruction.
Similarly, attacks are going on against the kingdoms of Syria and of Palestine, which — it’s always hard to know what that piece of land should be called at any particular moment, but I call it Palestine because one of the sea peoples that attacked the Nile around 1200 in Egypt are called the Pelest, and most scholars suggest that is the same name as came to be the name for this region when they ruled it, called Palestine. And you will remember that when the Bible talks about this, it refers to a people called the Philistines. These are thought to be all the same people. So since they ruled it until — what’s his name, Samson took them out with the jawbone of an ass. I think it’s proper to call it Palestine at that moment. Cyprus, likewise, suffers from these attacks, and so far west as Italy and Sicily are under attack. Something is going on. The question, of course, is what scholars have disagreed about and continue to disagree about, because the evidence simply will not permit any confident answer, but I ought to just mention a few of the theories that have been tossed around, a few among many, many, many.
One that seems to be in fashion these days, although you never know how long the fashion lasts, is: internal uprisings that somehow these monarchical areas, when life got tough, the people must have risen up against them. I think this reflects hopeful Marxist wish fulfillment rather than any reality, but that is not what poor people have done in history. If you look at revolutions, revolutions come typically when things are getting better and the people don’t like the fact that they don’t have more than they already have. But, in any case, that’s one theory. Earlier theories — it’s wonderful to have scientific theories that you can use to handle these problems, which you cannot demonstrate any fact for whatsoever. I’m being a bit strong, but not too much. The one theory made some investigations of earth spores, hoping to find — what do you call that stuff that floats around and makes you sneeze? Pollen. So as a result, they said there were droughts in these areas throughout that period and that caused tremendous unhappiness and discontent.
Other people have suggested climatic shift. I keep waiting for somebody — I think the time is right for somebody to come up with a theory and explain it by global warming. Also we know that the island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, called Thera, blew up in a most enormous kind of an explosion at some point back there in prehistoric days, and one theory is it was the explosion on Thera that caused so climatic trouble, that it can explain what went on here. The trouble is, you just don’t know when that explosion took place, and since there are several periods in this general area that we’re talking about now, in which something big happened, some great change takes place, it turns out different people want to have their explosion at different times. It’s like a moveable feast; you put your explosion where you need it at any particular moment. I am making light of it and I think it’s somewhat justified, because the evidence is just so scanty. It’s just that I think it’s fun to play the game these guys do, but we shouldn’t take it too seriously.
Now, let’s go back to a theory which has at least got the virtue of being very old, although hardly anybody believes it anymore. That is, the theory that what happened in the Mycenaean world, let’s forget what was happening elsewhere, was the result of a movement of tribes, of ethnic groups who were outside the Mediterranean region, say at the beginning of this period and say in 1600, but who pressed into it. Usually, the picture is that they are coming from the north or the northeast and pressing down into it. I have to believe that whoever came up with that theory for the first time was aided in coming to it by thinking about the end of the Roman Empire, when something precisely like that did happen. These Germanic and other tribes, who were largely located north and northeast of Europe, came down — I should say not Europe, but the Roman Empire — came down and ultimately destroyed it by invasion. And of course, there are more theories about the fall of the Roman Empire than there are about the fall of the Mycenaean world.
Anyway, connected to all of this was a very interesting Greek myth, which speaks about the return of the Heraclides. They are the sons of the mythical hero Hercules, who was a Peloponnesian figure, and the story goes that the sons of Hercules were expelled from the Peloponnesus and then promised that they would come back a hundred years later and conquer it. And so they did come back hundred years later and conquered it, and since — this is the link that explains the old story in historical Greek times, let us say the fifth century B.C., the people who inhabited the Peloponnesus were mainly speakers of the Greek dialect called Doric. It was thought that Hercules’ sons and Hercules being Peloponnesians no doubt spoke Doric too, and so this was referred to as by scholars in the nineteenth century, not by the ancient Greeks, as a Dorian invasion. In other words, another kind of Greek. The Greeks who lived in the area before the fall of the Mycenaean world, what were they called? Well, Homer gives us several names for them, but three stick out for me. The most common and the most widely used was Achaeans, another one is Danaans, and a third one is Argives. Argives comes from the fact that they rule over the land Argos in Greece.
Now, the one that has some clout historically is Achaeans, because in the records of the Hittite kings, there are references to people — I’m trying to think, I think they’re called, I want to get this right, but I don’t remember whether this is the Egyptian or, something like akhaiwashaa, unless that’s the Egyptian form. Anyway they are called by names that sound something like that; one among the Hittites, one among the Egyptians and it’s so easy. Given the fact that the letter “w” dropped out of the Greek language between the Mycenaean Period and the Classical Period, you could easily imagine that these people were referred — referred to themselves as achaiwoi, and when the “w” drops out they areachaioi, which is what Homer calls them. So, the idea here is that the original Greeks who came in, were what we call Achaeans and that when these disturbances came and if the Dorian theory is true, Dorians either killed them all or dominated them, possibly intermarried with them, but dominated them and washed away, wiped out the use of the Achaean language and imposed their own Dorian language upon it.
And supporting such an idea, among other things, is that if you go to the mountains in the center of the Peloponnesus where it’s awfully hard to get to, there is a region called, well, actually beyond those mountains, on the northern shore, is a place called Achaea, where the people are Achaeans. So, the theory might well be that they were driven away from their old homes in the southern Peloponnesus, and went up to the northern Peloponnesus. Then there are the people in the mountains of Arcadia who also don’t speak the Doric language, and maybe they were driven up there to escape. So those are the things that helped people decide that the Dorians may really have been the sons of Hercules, who actually invaded and that what we find after the fall of the Mycenaean world in Greece are some of the following things — things that were not typically found in the Mycenaean world.
First of all, iron weapons, not bronze ones. A kind of a pin used to hold your cloak together, called a fibula, unknown in the previous period. The building of buildings in the shape of what the Greeks called a megaron, a rectangular center, which has a hearth in it, a front porch, and a back porch which will be the style in which Greek temples are built in the historical period. That appears for the first time after the fall of the Mycenaeans. We know that the Mycenaeans buried their dead by inhumation, those great tombs, those great graves, and even the common people outside them are buried in graves; whereas, in the historical period, these people were cremated rather than buried in the world of Homer. That’s what we see. So, the idea that was put forward in the nineteenth century was that the Dorians who were a less civilized, tougher, meaner, harder fighting people assisted by the use of iron and in their weapons which were superior allegedly to the bronze, came down, defeated the Achaeans, imposed themselves on them where they could and drove them away where they couldn’t, and that explains how things went.
That has been attacked and is largely not believed these days for a whole lot of technical reasons that I don’t want to trouble you with right now. I do not think we can believe that simple story as it stands. It is too simple and there are too many things that it doesn’t account for and there are too many things would suggest that it’s not correct. However, I am not sure there is nothing in that story, and here I really am influenced most strongly by my colleague, professor Jerome Pollitt, now retired, who was our History of Art and Archaeology guy. He has a notion that is very nuanced and sophisticated and it appeals to me quite a lot. He suggests that there were, indeed, Greek tribes from the north who spoke Dorian dialects, who came down during this period attempting to come into the richer and better settled world of the Mycenaeans. They didn’t come down and then go away for hundred years and then come back, but rather they came down in waves of tribes and families, and so on, exerting gradual pressure, pushing in when they could, retreating when they couldn’t, and so on. For this I think there’s a very good — whether or not you accept the Dorian idea — I think we should find attractive the idea that if there was an external invasion, it came in this way over a period of time, a century or two with success and then retreat, not having success, flight, all that kind of stuff going on.
Because the Mycenaean centers all reveal for that stretch of time that they’re scared. The proof of it comes from strengthening their already quite strong walls in almost all the sites that we see, and also — this is a very important fact. If you’re expecting to be attacked and besieged, as all these citadels would be by an invader, you would want more than anything else a water supply, but they didn’t necessarily have good water supplies in such circumstances. So, we see the building of water holders in these places; there’s a very striking one. The next time you go to Mycenae don’t miss the cistern that was dug in the mountains, on the hillside, within the walls at that period. It’s deep and you better take a flashlight because it’s as black as it can possibly be. But they spent a lot of time, energy, and money on being sure that they would have a supply of water to hold them for a long siege. I think that that indicates that something of the kind is going on.
Then we see that when this culture comes to an end, it is accompanied by people fleeing, getting away from the Mycenaean world. Some of them only go so far as Athens, which had the good fortune somehow of not being destroyed, one of the few important Mycenaean places that is not destroyed. So, for some reason it was safe in Athens and some fled to Athens. Others had to keep going and settled on the islands of the Aegean Sea. For others, it was necessary to go further and to settle the west coast of Asia Minor, which, indeed, this is a great period of Greek settlement on the west coast of Asia Minor. Then it looks like there came a moment where there was a final blow, where whatever was attempting to overthrow these cities and this civilization succeeded, but it was not the same in every place. The fall of Pylos is generally thought to be around 1200 B.C.; Mycenae itself may be fifty years later, and other places later than that. I think it’s very important to notice that some of these places that were big in the Mycenaean world were entirely abandoned and not settled again by the Greeks. Buried, lost, people didn’t even know where they were, that’s extraordinary. That only happens when something very, very large drives people away from an inhabited site. So, here is where Jerry Pollitt’s analogy to the fall of Rome seems so very appealing. That is, more or less, what did happen in the Roman world and I don’t see anything that’s suggested it couldn’t happen in the Greek world at the time we’re talking about.
I’m trying to figure out; we quit when, ten until 1:00, right? Right, yeah, okay.
Chapter 7. Results of the Fall [00:56:52]
Now, I suppose the most important aspect of all of this for our purposes are the results of all of this, and they were tremendous. You have the destruction completely of the Mycenaean Bronze Age culture. Greece never sees anything like it again. This is not the way it was in the ancient Near East. This is not the way it was in Egypt. There you see continuity for a very, very long time. The Greek world has this tremendous discontinuity. It’s like the door slams and you got to go into a new room. Among the things that are lost for a long time, there is writing. There is no writing in Greece from let us say1100 or so on until the middle of the eighth century B.C., rough date 750 and then the writing that they do have is completely unrelated to the writing that was lost. They get it from a different place. The letters, the design of the writing comes, in fact, from Asia, probably from — almost certainly from Phoenicia, the land that is now called Lebanon and the language that was for that script was Semitic language.
Hebrew is close to what’s going on there, but they don’t take the language. They borrow the characters from what had been already something quite close to an alphabet and had only a relatively small number. I forget the exact number of the ones in the Semitic alphabet, but we’re talking about roughly twenty-five. I mean, you’re into the ballgame for an alphabet such as ours. The Greeks borrow that with typical Greek innovation. They do the big step of inventing vowels so that now you don’t have to remember anything. You can read every sound that is made, and they produced their alphabet. But their alphabet has got nothing to do with Mycenae; this is a new thing altogether. The Greeks are totally illiterate from around 1100 to 750. Another characteristic of these years, which scholars refer to as the Dark Ages, just as they do the years after the fall of the Roman Empire — dark for two reasons. Dark, in the most obvious way, because we don’t have any writing, no record of them. We can’t see. It’s dark. The other, dark, in the sense of gloomy, not good, bad; this is a hard time, a poor time, a wretched time, a miserable time. These are dark times. So, that’s what is meant by the term, Dark Ages, and that’s what does follow the fall of the Mycenaean world.
Part of the story is that that old connection that the Mycenaean world had with the Mediterranean in general, most particularly, with the East stops, we don’t find in the excavations we make of Greek towns in the Dark Ages — we don’t find implements, jewels, goodies, anything from Egypt or Mesopotamia or anything like that. Nor by the way, do you find Greek things in those places. The Greeks are isolated during this period. Of course, everything I’m saying is somewhat exaggerated. I’m sure there must have been individual exceptions to everything, but we’re talking about the overwhelming reality.
And not only are the Greeks as a whole cut off from the rest of the world, but Greece itself, which used to be an area of easy exchange, where people could go from one place to the other and did, localism now comes into the picture. The unity is broken. It’s again like — I hope you know something about the early middle ages where places were simply cut off one from the other and there were no roads kept or made, and just going from one village to another was a strange and dangerous thing, because nobody was in charge. Things were completely out of control. That’s the way things clearly were in the Greek world. For instance, you can see pottery, which used to have this, remember this largely unitary quality. You can tell if you’re at all experienced with it very easily, if you go — let’s say to the year 900 B.C. You can tell if a pot comes from Athens or it comes from Pylos, or — not Pylos it was probably out of business — Thebes or someplace else because they have their local characteristics which are perfectly obvious. This suggests that they’re not seeing each other’s goods; they’re not trading them. They’re simply working within their own very narrow ambit. That’s the kind of a world that is being created.
Something less easy to say confidently, but probably clear, I think, is the whole legacy of Mycenaean culture is really lost, not fully though. There is always something that we call folk memory that has a recollection of the distant past which may have truth to it, but may not, or it may have only an element of truth to it, and it’s always very hard. What comes back in this form is usually what we call legend, and anybody, who rejects legend across the board as simply being invention, is just dead wrong. Anybody who tries to use it as an accurate account of what really happened is no less wrong. Some place in the middle is where the truth is, and it’s hard to find. But in any case, what we find are a number of units in the Greek world. Call them towns for the sake of argument, sounds too urban, but call them that. Small, that means to say small in extent, few people, because the population surely went down, since the capacity to grow food, to distribute it, that whole system that depended on the existence of a central palace and a strong king running everything, running production, running distribution, it’s gone. You know that doesn’t come back. When that’s destroyed, you’re in terrible shape.
So, the population surely dropped, and all the evidence we have supports that. So, what you have are small, poor, weak units, and that’s a miserable situation. Now, they have no choice, they cannot rely as human beings typically do on just doing what your parents did, just inheriting a tradition that functions, that works, that keeps you going. They couldn’t do it. The survivors had to figure out a new way to do things and they didn’t do anything new in a hurry. This all came hard and at the cost, I’m sure, of a lot of human life and a lot of misery. But what comes out of it is something different.
Now, I jumped though. We do know that certain memories lasted. The Greeks always thought there was an earlier age. The Greeks of the classical period always thought there was an earlier age that was much better than the age in which they lived, an age in which men were heroes. They were bigger, they were stronger, they were tougher, they were faster, they were more beautiful, they lived longer. Those were the great old days and then there’s us, we, poor miserable wretches. That’s the picture that the Greeks carried with them. The legends, just stories from generation to generation, changed, and molded, but nonetheless, retaining certain elements of the earlier tradition. Then, finally, we have to believe, there’s no escaping, I think, that there was another thing that provided for memory, something we call the epic tradition.
When we get to Homer we will find a highly developed epic poetry and once we come to grips with the fact that it was orally composed and recollected poetry, then you will get some idea of the length of time that must have been involved in the creating of it — we’ll turn to this when we get to the Homeric issues. Once you realize that there are clearly accurate depictions of aspects of the Mycenaean world that show up in those poems, which appear to have been written down for the first time, perhaps around 750 B.C. or so, then you must realize there had to be an epic tradition, a poetic tradition of the same kind that goes back all the way to the Mycenaean Period. I think we must remember that there were people creating and repeating, and working out, and changing a poetic tradition that started in the Mycenaean world and lasted for the rest of Greek history.
Now, the legacy from the Mycenaeans to Greek civilization later is very limited. But what there is, is very important and no part of it is more important than the Homeric poems themselves. But if we look at the society that emerges, this Dark Age society that emerges from the ancient world of Mycenae, what you have is a rare human experience. The creation almost of a clean slate, even more so I would argue than the disruption that it came after the fall of Rome, because there’s one big difference. The fall of Rome did not destroy one of the most important tenacious and significant aspects of the old culture, the Roman Catholic Church, which remained and became the central fact for the new culture. There’s nothing like that in the Mycenaean world. We are really talking about something that’s almost entirely fresh. The Greeks had no choice but to try to find their own way, uninfluenced as Mycenae was influenced by Mesopotamia and Egypt; uninfluenced by anything-starting from the lowest possible place and having to make a living, and to go forward, and to shape a world which was their own because there wasn’t anything else to guide them. Next time we’ll take a look at the Dark Ages and the world of Homer.
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