Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Greece: the early history

The Lion Gate, Mycenae

There are three stages in the history of pre-classical Greece.


There were Greek-speaking peoples in Greece soon after 2000
Funerary mask unearthed
in 1876. It is now thought to
predate the Homeric king.
BCE. From c. 1600 BCE they were building fortified palaces, the most famous being the palace in Mycenae.  The palaces were created for a rich ruling class by skilful artisans. 
Their magnificent graves were first unearthed by Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90) in the 1870s. He wrongly believed that he had unearthed the funerary mask of the Homeric king, Agamemnon.

The Mycenaean civilisation had a system of writing, Linear B,  but this was only used for inventories and administrative records. The period played a critical role in the development of Greek mythology and its stock Homeric epithet, ‘rich in gold’ has coloured our understanding of the culture. The gold came from Nubia, Egypt, Macedonia or the island of Thasos and was paid for out of an agricultural surplus. The main crops were barley and wheat, supplemented with olives and vines. Olive oil was exported. Sheep and goats comprised the majority of the livestock.

The Dark Ages: c. 1200-c. 800 BC 

The archaeological evidence shows that from around 1200, for reasons that are not yet understood, the Mycenaean civilisation collapsed and the ensuing period saw an endless series of wars, the destruction of palaces, the abandonment of Linear B script, and the degeneration of building and craftsmanship. However, during this time the smelting of iron was learned from Cyprus and the Levant.

Archaic: c. 800-480 BC

In this period the Greek world revived. Decorated pottery appeared. The population rose, and new towns were settled.  There was an alphabet based on that used in Syria and a written literature.  In c. 700 BCE Homer in his two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, wrote from an Iron Age perspective about the Mycenaean civilization of the earlier Bronze Age.

The period c. 700-600 saw the emergence of the polis, the city-state, or, more correctly, the ‘citizen-state’. This has been defined as a small,  self-governing community of citizens, their wives and children, as well as resident foreigners and slaves. Essentially the polis was a community of warriors.

This period also saw the increased migration of Greek communities, so that there were Greek settlements in Sicily, southern Italy (Naples) and Asia Minor (Ephesus, Smyrna).Though there was no country called Greece, the Greeks had in common their own language and alphabet, political organisation, religion, and the concept of the ‘Hellenes’ as a distinct people opposed to the barbarians. (The word meant non-Greek, and came from the Sumerian barbaru meaning foreigner.) Writing in the fifth century, the historian Herodotus wrote of 
‘the common brotherhood’ of the Greeks: ‘our common language, the altars and the sacrifices of which we all partake, the common character which we bear’ (History, 8: 144).