Rebuilding Ancient Greece – Dark Ages to Olympics



Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

From a lecture by Dr. Frank Holt, Professor of Ancient History, University of Houston (09.26.2013)

The Late Bronze Age (1600-1100 BCE) was dominated by the Hittites and Egyptians as they fought for control of the land bridge (modern Israel) in the Middle East. But at that same time, two other civilizations had emerged in the Aegean – first the Minoans on the island of Crete and soon after the Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland. But they were very much modeled after the Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures with great palaces and redistributive wealth, and they had not developed what would cultivate Western culture.

Changes brought to these Greeks, as to so many others, resulted from the “Sea Peoples” sweeping across the Mediterranean and crushing their civilization as well as ending Hittite and Egyptian control as superpowers in the Middle East. The Mycenaeans were not all destroyed, but the basis of their civilization was no more. They went through three centuries or more of “Dark Ages.” We have very little information about them during this time. There were no palaces for which inventories had to be kept, thus writing ended as well though they spoke the same language. When the “lights came back on”, we can see what they had been up to during that time. They were creating something entirely unique and different from what they had before – a unique civilization that was the basis of all that would follow in Western civilization.


Mediterranean Invasion of the “Sea Peoples” / Creative Commons

What vanished from the land of Greece after the “Sea Peoples”? The Bronze Age ended as the Iron Age emerged. There was no more need for writing, thus Linear B disappeared as well. The Mycenaeans were a war-like people, and warfare was also no more. There was still interaction and limited exchange with others, but they were no longer the bustling center of commerce
and trade they once were. Cities were abandoned after the “Sea Peoples”, and massive building stopped. They no longer built in stone but rather wood and mud. Their largest buildings of wood, twigs and mud could have held twenty people. That is how far down the architectural ladder they had fallen. There were no more magnificent graves and tombs filled with treasures from as far away as Egypt and elsewhere – simply a body with maybe a few iron implements. Most importantly, anywhere between sixty and ninety percent of the population vanished, either from death or relocation. They literally had to repopulate and rebuild their civilization. They had to start over, and this would take centuries, comprising the Greek “Dark Ages.”


The Aegean c.800 BCE / Creative Commons

During this Dark Age period between 1100 and 900/800 BCE, the Greeks had to reinvent themselves without much influence from older civilizations to the east who had themselves suffered blows from the Sea Peoples. They had been largely influenced by those civilization through networks of trade in the Bronze Age, but that influence was no more. How they developed this new civilization was largely a product of their physical environment.

The land area of Greece is relatively small, about one-fifth the landmass of Texas not including water. They had also settled the area of the Aegean Sea on the western edge of Asia Minor or Anatolia (modern Turkey). No matter where one is in Greece, avoiding the sea is nearly impossible, and the Greeks would develop a strong naval tradition. There are no major rivers in Greece such as the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia and the Nile in Egypt. The river that flowed to Athens was no wider than ten feet and could be crossed in two or three steps, and it was completely dried up in the summer. They would travel by sea having no navigable rivers. There was consequently no irrigation system as in Mesopotamia and Egypt and they could support only small cities that would never be densely populated due to limited agriculture that had them constantly living on the edge of starvation. The land they did have is very mountainous. The only agricultural land to settle and farm consisted of small pockets of arable land in the mountains.

It was difficult to unify people spread across such terrain – they were naturally “pulled apart” by the mountains. It was consequently a very inward-looking civilization during its emergence. It was a relatively temperate climate, but the seasons were reversed – winter was the best time for sowing due to the rainy season, and in summer it was far too dry. Greeks and Romans would later do all their fighting in the summer – there was better weather for it and farming was not being done. Ancient Greece was also more heavily forested than modern Greece, and cutting down so many trees affects climate as well.

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Space Aerial of Greece (left) and Ancient Ionia (right) / Creative Commons

The sea nearly separates northern and southern Greece. They are connected by a small isthmus only a couple of hundred yards wide on which the city-state of Corinth would emerge. This would obviously be an extremely strategic land area. Defending themselves meant blockading this isthmus if enemies were attempting to use it for access. Environment and geography play an important part in understanding Greece’s history. The Ionian Greeks on the edge of Anatolia (modern Turkey) would always be in danger of being absorbed into Anatolian and Near Eastern civilizations. The Ionians would rebel, and such rebellions would lead to events such as the Persian Wars.


Ancient Greek Poleis (City-States) / Creative Commons

The Greeks created a civilization composed of literally hundreds of small city-states (poleis, singular polis). They developed in small, isolated valleys. It would be the equivalent of hundreds of small, independent nations in Texas – and their land area was only one-fifth its size. Traveling from one polis to another even nearby usually meant crossing a mountain. Each would have a very difficult time putting an army of 10,000 in the field. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, that would merely be a single contingent.

The poleis were fiercely autonomous (self-governing). None wanted to be dictated to by any other entity, such as those settled in Ionia who determined to rid themselves of Persian control. They had to be independent or they lost something special that they would not get back unless they reasserted themselves. Because of this, they almost never united for common causes.  Indeed, they were more likely to fight each other because they were so protective of their autonomy. Relations between poleis depended on how they perceived of each other. If two poleis believed themselves to be at least somewhat blood-related by sharing a common ancestor, they could freely visit each other and be accepted. Others would not allow some from certain poleis into their own or would accept their presence but ban them from citizenship.

The worst punishment for any Greek citizen was to be exiled from the polis – a person forever without a country no matter where they went because, even if they were able to live in another polis, they would never be a “part” of it. Poleis were very closed and inward-looking. For Greeks, the city was its people – not its location or the the things in it. They would speak of “going to the Athenians” or “going to the Corinthians” instead of going to Athens or Corinth.

All poleis had walls around them for protection. The only exception was Sparta. They felt that walls were for cowards and weaklings who couldn’t win battles. Inside the city wall would be an acropolis (acro=”high”, polis=”city, high city).  Each polis had one (not just the famous Acropolis in Athens), an agora – marketplace – below it, and a residential countryside area. The acropolis was located on a natural higher area set aside in every city with a temple for the gods. The agora was a marketplace and political center. Other civilizations had cities with marketplaces, but the agora in a Greek polis was where the citizens would meet for discussion and voting on various issues. Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations did not need this as their citizens were ruled – they did not vote and therefore did not need a meeting place for discussion and voting. Every polis also had agricultural land to feed its citizens.

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Busts of Homer and Hesiod / Creative Commons

If anything distinguished Greece from others in the ancient world, it was the polis. Each had begun to evolve during the Dark Ages, and they changed over time. But each changed in its own way. Each polis had its own history. They had different political systems used in different ways.

Sometime around tenth or ninth century BCE, the Greeks began to write again, but not in the long gone and forgotten Linear B (though still speaking the same language). They borrowed a new writing system – the alphabet – from the Phoenicians who invented it. They reshaped it a little into the Greek writing system we are familiar with today – alpha, beta, gamma (letters), etc. Homer wrote his epics (most notably Iliad and Odyssey), while others followed and the tradition continued to Hesiod (who wrote his own poetry) and further.

This inaugurated a new period of Greek history. They had been through the Bronze Age, fallen through the Dark Age, and were now in the beginning of the Archaic Age (800-500 BCE). They were incredibly inventive and creative during this period when they developed poleis, coinage (first in Lydia), colonization, and hoplite warriors – as well the Olympics c.750 BCE.


Vase Painting of Achilles versus Hektor from Homer’s Iliad / Creative Commons

Two Greek words are important in this discussion – arête and agon. Arete in Greek means excellence – to be the best at something, what extraordinary people strive to be. They were always seeking arete. Each culture has always developed their own sense of arete – things they considered important enough to strive for, and they would measure it in different ways.

For the Greeks, the ultimate expression of arete was manhood. This was a very male-oriented culture, and manliness was the essence of arete. But they would not accept someone simply claiming to be arete. They would demand it be shown. They had a saying that Zeus hated bragging tongues. Arete was proven through agon – a competition or contest. It was how they proved to be better than all others in certain events. However, they would not accept a contest as being agon unless it consisted of worthy competitors. There would be no glory (no arete) if a 20-year-old beat up a 60-year-old because the contest would not be agon. A true agon must bring forth “agonis” (agony).

Homer, in the Iliad, pitted the best warrior the Archaians had against the best of the Trojans – Achilles against Hektor. That was truly agon, and Achilles showed he had arete by dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot for others to see he had won. To the Greeks, agon was the only way to discover who was best. A Greek could challenge others to agon to prove his arete. If 150 competed, only the winner would have arete. Greeks did not understand the idea as we do of silver and bronze. To them, being second was the same as being 150th. Because of this, we call Greek civilization “agonistic” due to its basis upon agon – everything important had to be put to the test. Politics, drama, art, and more were all agon. The ultimate agon was war.


Krater Painting by Euphronios and Pottery by Euxitheos / Creative Commons

In the Iliad, when the Greeks weren’t fighting they were challenging each other to athletic contests. These sports took the place of battle during non-war periods. They would go around challenging each other to agon. Athletics was simply a substitute for war. Their ancient contests were warrior skills after all. But it went further and included politics, art, architecture – everything. They would sign art either claiming to be arete, standing on its own.  They would sign art so that their name would be associated with that arete (such as the krater above signed by the painter Euphronios and the potter Euxitheos). Another vase had an inscription on it boasting that Euphronios could not produce such work.

Pliny the Elder told a story about a contest between two artistic rivals, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. They were each to paint a scene of grapes to see whose was most realistic, thus making him arete. When Zeuxis pulled back his curtain, a bird flew down to the grapes and he boasted about how realistic they were that even the bird tried to get them. When he demanded Parrhasius pull his curtain aside, the curtain itself was a painting and had fooled even Zeuxis with how realistic it looked. He ceded victory to Parrhasius. Architecture showed arete and took agon to build.

Those who wrote dramas competed against each other. Some of the finest literature in the history of the world was written by Greeks competing against each other for arete. Rhetoric (the art of public speaking) was competitive as well with orations being given in the agora and in front of the council or the people. This is how competitive they were – in everything, always to show they were arete. This is one of the reasons they excelled above so many others in so many things. But there was a downside as well because they were always fighting each other.

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Zeus with Winged Nike (left), Olympic Arch (center), and a Stade (right) / Creative Commons

The Olympics were created as a substitute for war because the Greeks needed to always show arete. They were Pan-Hellenic games (pan=”all”, Hellenic=”Greeks”; all Greeks) – all Greeks, and only Greeks, could compete. The Olympics brought the divided poleis together as Greeks. Today, the Olympics still bring the world together even if only for a few weeks, only now not as a uniquely identified singular “culture”.

These games honored athletes. They were pampered, each representing the best his polis had to offer. A single footrace is what started all of it and has led to what it is today. This race was at first the only event – a 200 yard sprint held every four years in Olympia at a remote shrine to Zeus. Though it was all about arete and agon, it was set within a religious context. The Pan-Hellenic games were religious festivals, each held in honor of a god or goddess. They strove for arete because excellence pleased the gods. They worshipped their gods through these sports.

Olympia was in southern Greece in the Peloponnesos area, but Mount Olympus (where the gods lived) was in northern Greece near Thessaly – these are not the same places. All games were supervised in the sacred temple of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It held an enormous statue of Zeus made of gold and ivory holding a winged creature in his hand, Nike (the goddess of victory and excellence). The games opened with the sacrifice of 100 bulls to Zeus. Athletes marched through a corridor to where the games were held, perhaps the first vaulted arch in ancient Greece. The games were held in a stade (stadium) and were called “stade games,” at first simply being a race of 200 yards. They would gather every four years for this single race. Years later the length of the race was increased, and years after that another event was added. This continued gradually until several events were part of the games. We’re still adding events today.

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Hellenistic Sculpture of Boxer (left) and Vase Painting of a Boxer Yielding (right) / Creative Commons

Ancient Greeks loved boxing, and it became only second in favorite behind the race.  But boxing showed up in the Iliad as well – it was a physical, primal competition. Their hands were wrapped with leather to protect their knuckles and allowed harder hits. A boxer would have to fight several rounds in a single day so that the winner could be found by nightfall. If at twilight there were two left and no one winning or yielding, they would stand toe to toe and trade free blows until one fell or yielded. There were no rules other than they were not allowed to poke the opponent’s eyes out. Trumpeting and yelling (yes, yelling) were added as events to catch attention, call people to order and summon them to events. There was also chariot racing and running in armor. Jumping was part of the pentathlon. A person could simply pass and forfeit an event if he sized up the competition and knew he couldn’t win. A person in the middle of a competition could also hold up his forefinger to the referee to yield.

There were referees who carried big sticks and enforced the rules by beating someone who broke them. If a runner false-started before the signal, he would be pulled aside and beaten and then placed back in position. Charioteers did not win prizes – the horses’ owners won. Philip II, who was Macedonian (father of Alexander the Great) and considered “Greek enough,” owned horses for a chariot and won though he wasn’t even there.

A story was told that a loincloth fell from a racer and tripped him as he was well ahead, and it was after that all had to compete nude.  Women were not allowed to be in the events or to attend – whether for the nude reason or not, agon was a “manly” competition. Referees did not have to be nude but coaches did.  Why coaches as well? Another story was that a woman had trained her son to participate and attended as his coach – disguised as a man. When he won she leapt for joy and exposed herself as a woman. The only clothing allowed afterward were those necessary for the event, such as running in armor. Because the Greeks did not have ideas of second, third, and so on, there was only one winner in each event – only one could be arete.  If you’re familiar with “The Highlander” series, you’ll recall, “There can be only one”.  The idea of one above all dates back to the ancient Greek Olympics.

Eventually competitions developed for boys as well and other events for things like art and drama were added. Some places held events for women to compete in honor of Hera, Zeus’s wife. As bloody as things were, these were not a blood sport. It was considered tame agon. It would be the Romans who would develop blood sport, such as with gladiators and using criminals in the arena to battle animals. Conversely, death was not the end goal in Greek games, though it did sometimes happen. Remember that these competitions were religious in character and remained so. The games were only abolished in the fourth century CE because Christianity had risen by then and events in the honor of pagan gods and the pagan rites held at them were then unacceptable.



Gods02  Gods03  Gods04  Gods05  Gods06  Gods07

(Left to Right) Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Demeter

Gods08  Gods09  Gods10  Gods11  Gods12  Gods14  Gods15

(Left to Right)  Dionysus, Hades, Hephaestus, Hera, Hermes, Hestia, Poseidon

All Greek gods were anthropomorphic – taking human form and possessing human characteristics. For ancient Greeks, the gods were just like humans except for two things: 1) they didn’t eat human food; and 2) they didn’t die – they were immortal. They did suffer, marry, cheat, lie, etc., just like us. Distance between Greeks and their gods, in terms of similarity, was not as great as others or especially as much as in religions today. They would prove themselves more than human through war, and some humans (such as Alexander the Great) could even achieve divinity.  It later became common for Roman emperors to be posthumously deified.

Ancient Greek civilization set the course for the Western world and is still found in Western cultures today, either profoundly in some cases or in ever so subtle ways.  We remain culturally connected to them in how we have formed our own societies and governments as well as in the things we cherish and hold important.

We’re never far from where we were.