FC18: The Dark Age of Greece & the Rise of the Polis (c.1100-750 BCE)


FC18 in the Hyperflow of History.
Covered in multimedia lecture #3519.

Introduction: the Dark Age of Greece

The centuries following the fall of the Mycenaeans are mostly obscured from our view by an extreme scarcity of records. As a result, this is known as the Dark Age of Greek history. Still, there are a few things that we know about this period that saw the transition from Mycenaean to classical Greek civilization. It was a period of chaos and the movements of peoples. New tribes of Greeks, the Dorians, moved in and displaced or conquered older inhabitants. Those peoples in turn would migrate, oftentimes overseas, in search of new homes. It was also a period of illiteracy and poverty leaving us no written records or sophisticated monuments to tell us about the culture of this period.

All this led to the Greek world at this time being divided up between various Greek-speaking peoples who were distinguishable from each other by slight differences in dialect and religious practices. However, their similarities were important enough so that we can talk about the Greeks as a people. Two of these Greek peoples in particular should be mentioned: the Dorians and Ionians. The Dorians were Greek invaders who came down from the north to conquer many of the Mycenaean strongholds around 1100 B.C.E. Sometimes they completely blended in with their pre-Dorian subjects, and there was little class conflict in their city-states. In other places the Dorians did not intermarry and remained a distinct ruling class over the non-Dorian population. The most extreme cases of this were Sparta and Thessaly, where the non-Dorians were virtually enslaved and forced to work the soil for the ruling Dorians. Such situations posed a constant threat of violence within city-states.

The Ionians were pre-Dorian inhabitants who avoided conquest by the Dorians, either by fighting them off or by migrating. The region of Attica, centered around Athens, was one main pocket of resistance to Dorian conquest, as seen in the myth of the Athenian king, Codrus, who sacrificed himself in battle to ensure Athens' safety against a Dorian invasion. Many Ionians either chose to migrate overseas or were forced to do so by invaders. Most of them settled in the Cycladic Islands or on the western coast of Asia Minor, which became known as Ionia from the large number of Ionian Greeks there.

The birth of the Polis

The chaos and Greece's mountainous terrain forced people to huddle under the protection of a defensible hill known as an acropolis. By 800 B.C.E., these fortified centers had produced more security and settled conditions that triggered two important developments vital to the emergence of Greek culture. First, the more settled conditions plus the fact that Greece was by the sea and had few resources led to a revival of trade and contact with the older cultures to the East. For example, the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and added vowels to it, so literacy returned to Greece. Also, Egyptian influence can be seen in Greek architecture and sculpture. Here too we see the Greeks would add their own innovations, giving their pillars more slender and graceful lines, and creating more lifelike statues than the stiff formal Egyptian models they had to copy. These influences would lead to and be the partial basis of classical Greek civilization .

Also, the settled conditions along with Greece's poor soils and hilly and dry conditions led to a new type of agriculture and farmer at this time. Instead of the overly centralized agriculture of the Mycenaean period and the under-worked aristocratic estates of the earlier Dark Age, farmers started developing less desirable lands which the nobles probably did not even want. Rather than raising just grain crops or grazing livestock, they developed a mixed agriculture of grains, orchards, and vineyards that was better adapted to the varied conditions of their lands and climate. The intensive labor such farms required bred very independent farmers who would be largely responsible for the emergence of democracy in the Greek polis.

The revival of trade and development of small independent farms also combined to allow the settlements to grow into towns and cities (poleis) that spread out beyond the confines of their original acropolises. Later, in some cities, notably Athens, the acropolis would become a place to build temples to the gods while also serving as a reminder of earlier more turbulent times. In order to understand the Greeks, one must understand what this most distinctive of all Greek institutions, the polis (city-state), meant to them.

The word polis means city, but it was much more than that to the Greek citizen. It was the central focus of his political, cultural, religious, and social life. Much of this was because the Greek climate was ideal for people to spend most of their time outdoors. Therefore, they interacted with one another much more than we do and became more tightly knit as a community. Since poleis were so isolated from each other by mountains, they became largely self sufficient and self-conscious communities. Greeks generally saw their poleis as complete in themselves, not needing to unite with other Greek poleis for more security or fulfillment. We can see three main qualities that were typical of major and minor poleis alike.

  1. The polis was an independent political unit with its own foreign policy, coinage, patron deity, and even calendar. For example, the tiny island of Ceos off the coast of Attica, had four independent city-states, each claiming the right to carry on its own business and wage war as it saw fit-- all this on an island no more than ten miles in length!

  2. The polis was on a small scale. This is obvious from the example of Ceos. But consider a major city-state such as Corinth, which controlled an area of only some 320 square miles, considerably smaller than an average county in one of our states. Athens, by far the most influential of the city-states on our own culture, controlled an area only about the size of Rhode Island. Yet it is to Athens that we look for the birth of such things as our drama, philosophy, architecture, history, and democracy.

  3. The polis was personal in nature. This follows logically from its small size. Greek philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato thought that a polis should be small enough for every citizen to know every other citizen. If it got any bigger, it would get too impersonal and not work for the individual citizen's benefit. Even in Athens, the most populous Greek city-state, some citizens could pay their taxes in very personal ways, such as by equipping and maintaining a warship for a year or by producing a dramatic play for the yearly festival dedicated to Dionysus. This tended to breed a healthy competition where citizens would strive to make their plays or warships the best ones possible, thus benefiting the polis as a whole.

The polis' small and personal nature bred an intense loyalty in its citizens that had both its good and bad points. On the plus side, it did inspire members of the community to work hard for the civic welfare. The incredible accomplishments of Athens in the fifth century B.C.E. are the most outstanding example of what this civic pride could accomplish.

On the negative side, the polis' narrow loyalties led to intense rivalries and chronic warfare between neighboring city-states. These wars could be long, bitter, and costly. Sparta and Argos were almost always in a state of war with each other or armed truce waiting for war. The Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens lasted 27 years, destroying Athens' empire and golden age. Sometimes city-states would be entirely destroyed in these wars, such as happened to Plataea and Sybaris. In addition, there was often civil strife within the city-state as well: between rich and poor, Dorians and non-Dorians, and citizens and non-citizens. This internal turmoil could be every bit as vicious and bloody as fighting between city-states. Ultimately, the Greeks sealed their own doom by wasting energy and resources in their own petty squabbles while other larger powers were waiting in the wings for the right moment to strike.

However, there were several factors that gave the Greeks a common identity and some degree of unity. First of all, the Greeks spoke a common language that largely gave them a common way of looking at things. The Greeks generally divided the world into those who spoke Greek and those who did not. Those who did not speak Greek were called barbarians, since, to the Greeks, they senselessly babbled ("bar-bar-bar").

Religion also gave the Greeks a common identity. Athletic contests in honor of the gods especially emphasized the Greeks' unity as a people. The most famous of these were the Olympic Games held every four years in honor of Zeus. During these games a truce was called between all Greek city-states, allowing Greeks to travel in peace to the games, even through the territory of hostile states. The modern Olympic Games, even though they are no more successful than the ancient games in putting an end to war, still serve as a symbol of peace in a less than peaceful world.

Finally, several city-states might combine into leagues. These leagues might be purely for the purpose of celebrating religious rites or kinship common to their cities. A good example was the Delphic Amphictyony, a league of twelve cities formed to promote and protect the Oracle of Delphi. Some leagues were for political and defensive purposes. The Peloponnesian League under Sparta and the Delian League under Athens were for such a purpose and together claimed the loyalties of most of the city-states in Greece and Ionia. This was good for preventing war between individual city-states. But it backfired when Sparta and Athens went to war in 431 B.C.E. and dragged most of the Greek world into the most tragic and destructive struggle in ancient Greek history.

By 750 B.C.E., the Greek world had largely taken shape as a collection of city-states, often at war with one another, but also feeling certain common ties of language, religion, and customs. At this point, there was nothing remarkable about the Greeks, but forces were at work that would transform Greece into the home of democracy and the birthplace of Western Civilization.