The Dark Ages of Ancient Greece
The details of Greek history in the Dark Age remain difficult to discover.
By Dr. Thomas R. Martin
Jeremiah W. O’Connor, Jr. Professor of Classics
College of the Holy Cross
The local wars, economic disruptions, and movements of peoples in the period 1200–1000 B.C. destroyed Mycenaean civilization in Greece and weakened or obliterated cities, kingdoms, and civilizations across the Near East. This extended period of violence brought grinding poverty to many of the people who managed to physically survive the widespread upheavals of these centuries. Enormous difficulties impede our understanding of the history of this troubled period and of the recovery that followed, because few literary or documentary sources exist to supplement the sometimes ambiguous and incomplete evidence provided by archaeology. Both because conditions were so grueling for many people and, perhaps more than anything, because the absence of written records from Greece limits us to a dim view of what happened there in those years, it is customary to refer to the era beginning around 1000 B.C. as the “Dark Age”: The fortunes of the people of the time seem generally dark, as does our understanding of the period.
The Near East recovered its strength much sooner than did Greece, ending its Dark Age by around 900 B.C. That region continued its vigorous international export trade in luxury items as well as raw materials, such as timber for large-scale buildings (fig. 3.1). The end of the Greek Dark Age is traditionally placed some 150 years after that, at about 750 B.C. No enormous break separated the culture of Bronze Age Greece from that of the Dark Age. Above all, the continuing contact in the Dark Age between Greece, the Near East, and Egypt meant that the survivors of the fall of Mycenaean Greece never lost touch with the technology and the ideas, especially religious traditions, of the older civilizations to the east. The details of Greek history in the Dark Age remain difficult to discover, but there is no doubt that in these centuries Greeks laid the foundations for the values, traditions, and new forms of social and political organization that would characterize them in later ages.
- c. 1000 B.C.: Almost all important Mycenaean sites except Athens destroyed by now.
- c. 1000–900 B.C.: Period of most severe depopulation and reduced agriculture.
- c. 950–750 B.C.: Greeks adopt Phoenician alphabet.
- c. 900–800 B.C.: Early revival of population and agriculture; iron beginning to be used for tools and weapons.
- 776 B.C.: Traditional date of First Olympic Games.
- c. 750 B.C.: The end of the Greek Dark Age.
- c. 750–700 B.C.: Homeric poetry recorded in writing after Greeks learn to write again, using a Phoenician alphabet modified with vowels; Hesiod composes his poetry.
Economy and Society in the Early Dark Age
The harsh economic decline in Greece after the disintegration of Mycenaean civilization severely increased the difficulty and precariousness of life for many people during the worst years of the Dark Age. Mycenaean palace society had collapsed because the violence of the period after about 1200 B.C. had destroyed the complex redistributive economic systems on which most Mycenaeans’ survival had depended. The most startling indication of the dire state of existence in the early Dark Age is that the Greeks apparently lost their knowledge of writing when Mycenaean civilization ended, although it has been suggested that the loss was not total. In any case, the total or near-total loss of the common use of a technology as vital as writing is explicable because the Linear B script that Mycenaeans used was difficult to master and probably known only by the palace scribes, whose job was to keep the many records required for the palaces’ centralized economies. These scribes employed writing as a technical skill for recording the flow of goods into the palaces and then out again for redistribution. Once the rulers had lost their power and nothing was coming in to their storehouses to be recorded and then redistributed, there was no longer any need to keep written records or to pay for the technical expertise of scribes. Remarkably, however, the oral transmission of the traditions of the past in poetry and song allowed Greek culture to survive this loss because its people remembered its stories and legends as valuable possessions to be passed down through time out loud. Oral performances of poetry, music, singing, and informal storytelling, all of which had been a part of Greek life for longer than we can trace, kept alive the Greeks’ fundamental cultural ideas about themselves from generation to generation even during the worst of times.
In terms of accurate knowledge of the events of their past, however, the Greeks of later periods suffered from nearly total amnesia about the now-long-ago Bronze Age. They knew very little about Mycenaean civilization and its fall, and some of the major things that they thought they knew seem not to have been true. As mentioned earlier, they believed, for example, that Dorians, a Greek-speaking group from the north, began to invade central and southern Greece following the collapse of Mycenaean civilization. Dorians were famed as the ancestors of the Spartans, the most powerful city-state on the mainland before the spectacular rise to prominence of Athens in the fifth century B.C. Strikingly, however, modern archaeology has not discovered any distinctive remains attesting to a Dorian invasion, and many scholars reject this ancient idea as a fiction, at least if it is taken to mean a large-scale movement of people all at once. The lack of written records or literature dating from the Greek Dark Age, when Greeks were probably ignorant of how to write, means that the mute evidence uncovered by archaeologists must provide the foundation for reconstructing the history of this transitional period. Therefore, we have no choice but to put greater trust in the results of archaeological excavations than in what the Greeks themselves believed about Dorians.
Archaeological research has shown that the Greeks cultivated much less land and had many fewer settlements in the early Dark Age than during the height of Mycenaean prosperity. No longer did powerful rulers protected by fortresses of stone control palaces, towns, and countryside, relying on their carefully structured redistributive economies to ensure a tolerable standard of living for farmers, herders, and workers in many different crafts. The number of ships filled with Greek adventurers, raiders, and traders sailing back and forth on the Mediterranean Sea was now minuscule compared to the numerous Mycenaean fleets that had conducted so many commercial, diplomatic, and military missions during the late Bronze Age. Large political states no longer existed in Greece in the early Dark Age, and most people scratched out an existence as herders, shepherds, and subsistence farmers bunched in tiny settlements as small as twenty people. The populations of prosperous Mycenaean communities had been many times larger. Indeed, the entire Greek population was far smaller in the early Dark Age than it had been in the second millennium B.C. It is possible that the violence that destroyed the palaces killed so many people that for a considerable period there were not enough agricultural workers available to produce the surplus of food that was needed to increase the birth rate to grow the population. People were always the scarcest resource in antiquity because life was hard and many died very young, and the difficult conditions of the Dark Age meant that it was harder than ever to develop human resources.
The withering away of agriculture in this period led more Greeks than ever before to herd animals to sustain their families. This increasingly pastoral way of life meant that people became more mobile because they had to be prepared to move their herds to new pastures once the animals had overgrazed their current location. If pastoralists were lucky, they might find a new spot that allowed them to grow a crop of grain to supplement the food they were raising in their herds. As a result of this less-settled lifestyle, the majority of the population built only simple huts as their houses and got along with few possessions. Unlike their Mycenaean forerunners, Greeks in the early Dark Age no longer had monumental architecture—no palaces with scores of rooms, no fortresses defended by mammoth stone walls. Art also experienced a kind of impoverishment, as Greek potters no longer included pictures of people and animals in the decoration on their painted pottery.
The general level of poverty in the early Greek Dark Age might lead us to think that communities were relatively egalitarian in this period, at least as compared with the strong hierarchy of Mycenaean society. Archaeological evidence reveals, however, that a hierarchical social system survived in some locations in any case, or perhaps that it had revived as early as the late eleventh century B.C. By the middle of the tenth century B.C., indications of social hierarchy in Dark Age Greece are unmistakable at the sites of Lefkandi on the island of Euboea, off the eastern coast of the Greek mainland, and of Nichoria in Messenia in the Peloponnese. Excavation at Lefkandi has revealed the richly furnished burials of a man and woman who died about 950 B.C. Their graves contained expensive luxury items, some characteristic of Near Eastern manufacture. The dead woman wore elaborate gold ornaments, including breast coverings that testify to her exceptional wealth. The couple was buried under a building more than 150 feet long with wooden columns on the exterior. The striking architecture and riches of their graves suggest that these individuals enjoyed high social status during their lives and perhaps received a form of ancestor worship after their death. At Nichoria, archaeologists have discovered the remains of a mud-brick building with a thatched roof that was larger than the other structures in the settlement. It included a space that seems to have been a megaron, like those known from Mycenaean palaces. Though this building was no palace, its design does suggest that a locally prominent family lived there; most likely, it was the house of a leader who operated as a chief because he had a higher social status than his neighbors and was wealthier.
Although there were probably relatively few people with significantly greater wealth and status than others in tenth-century B.C. Greece, the excavations at Lefkandi and Nichoria reveal that social differentiation had either persisted or once again emerged, even in the generally poor and depopulated Greek world of the time. Stresses in this hierarchical organization of Greek society, as we shall see, were to set the stage for the emergence of Greece’s influential new political form, the self-governing city-state of free citizens.
Economic Recovery and Technology
In the earlier part of the Dark Age, the vast majority of dying people could afford no better grave offerings than a few plain clay pots. The evidence of archaeology reveals, however, that by about 900 B.C. a limited number of Greeks in diverse locations had become wealthy enough to have their families bury valuable objects alongside their bodies. This accumulation of conspicuous wealth indicates that a hierarchical arrangement of society was evidently (again) spreading throughout Greece by this time; the relatives of the men and women rich enough to have expensive material goods laid beside their mortal remains at their funerals were using this display to mark their status at the pinnacle of society. This social differentiation marked by wealth, which endured even into the grave as a dramatic signal to those still alive, corresponded to significant economic changes based on technology that were clearly under way by the ninth century B.C.
Two burials from Athens illustrate the changes taking place during this period in metallurgical and agricultural technology, advances that would eventually help bring about the end of the Greek Dark Age. The earlier of the two burials, that of a male about 900B.C., consisted of a pit into which a clay pot was placed to hold the dead man’s cremated remains. Surrounding the pot were metal weapons, including a long sword, spearheads, and knives. The inclusion of weapons of war in a male grave continued the burial traditions of the Mycenaean Age, but these arms were forged from iron, not bronze, the primary metal of the earlier period. This difference reflects a significant shift in metallurgy that took place throughout the Mediterranean region during the early centuries of the first millennium B.C.: Iron took the place of bronze as the principal metal used to make weapons and tools. For this reason, following the custom of characterizing periods of history from the name of the metal most used at the time, we refer to the Dark Age as the “early Iron Age” in Greece.
Greeks probably learned the special metallurgical techniques needed to work iron, such as a very high smelting temperature, from foreign traders searching for metal ores and from itinerant metalworkers from Cyprus, Anatolia, and the Near East. Iron eventually replaced bronze in many uses, above all in the production of swords, spears, and farming tools, although bronze remained in use for shields and body armor. The use of iron spread because it offered practical advantages over bronze. Iron implements kept their sharp edges longer because properly worked iron was harder than bronze. Also, iron ore was relatively common in Greece (and other regions of Europe), which made iron weapons and tools less expensive than ones of bronze, which required imported metals to make. The popularity of iron was accelerated in particular by difficulties in obtaining the tin needed for alloying with copper to produce bronze. International trading routes, which had once brought tin to Greece and the Near East from this metal’s few and distant sources, had been disrupted by the widespread turmoil that had affected the eastern Mediterranean region beginning around 1200B.C. However, iron ore could be mined and smelted by Greeks in their own territory, ensuring a reliable supply.
The technology that also produced more-durable and affordable farming tools eventually helped to increase the production of food, a development reflected by the evidence of a second significant Dark Age burial at Athens. This grave, from about 850 B.C., held the remains of a woman and her treasures, including gold rings and earrings, a necklace of glass beads, and an unusual object made from baked clay. The necklace had been imported from Egypt or Syria or perhaps had been made locally by an itinerant metalworker from there. The technique of the gold jewelry was also that of the Near East. These valuable objects reflected the ongoing contact between Greece and the more-prosperous civilizations of that region. The most intriguing object from the burial is the clay object, which was a small-scale model of storage containers for grain (fig. 3.2). It was painted with characteristically intricate and regular designs, whose precision has led modern art historians to give the name “Geometric” to this style of art in the late Dark Age. On its top were sculpted five beehivelike urns that are miniature representations of granaries (containers for storing cereal grains). If this model was important enough to be buried as an object of special value, then actual granaries and the grain they held were obviously valuable commodities in real life. After all, grain provided the staple food for the Greek diet; it was the nutritional basis of life.
The model suggests that the woman and her family derived substantial wealth from their farmlands growing grain, which in turn hints that agriculture was recovering from the devastation in the early Dark Age, when the cultivation of crops had decreased while herding animals had become more prevalent. The woman’s burial clearly witnesses the significance of farming for her and her contemporaries. The most important consequence of increased agricultural production in this period was a growth in the population. On present evidence, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that, for unknown reasons, a rise in population somehow preceded the recovery in agriculture and then promoted the raising of more grain, with more workers now available to labor in the fields. It seems more likely, however, that improvements in agricultural technology that allowed more food to be grown with less effort spurred a consequent growth in the population by increasing the number of people the land could support. In any case, these two developments reinforced one another: As the Greeks produced more food, the better-fed population reproduced faster, and as the population grew, more people could produce more food. The increase in population in Greece in the late Dark Age established the demography under which the new political forms of Greece were to emerge.
The Social Values of the Greek Elite
People like the rich couple from Lefkandi and the wealthy woman buried at Athens came from the small layer of society that constituted the wealthiest, most prestigious, and most powerful level of the hierarchy that clearly had become widespread in Greece by the later part of the Greek Dark Age. Historians often use the term aristocracy, a Greek word meaning “rule of the best,” to refer to this elite social group, but that term can be misleading because of its varying meanings. In other times and places, such as early modern Europe, aristocracy has meant a legally constituted and formally recognized nobility, the members of which inherited their status by being born into a family officially designated as aristocratic. Greece never had a widespread system of official nobility. When the word aristocracy and its relatives, such as aristocrat, do appear in discussions of Greek history, it is imperative to remember that they do not mean what they often mean in, for example, French or English history. Some Greek families inherited privileges that set them apart, especially in conducting religious rituals, but there were few such people. For this reason, it is more accurate to refer to the leading members of Greek society as an elite rather than as an aristocracy, and that is the term used in this book. A social and political elite can acquire its status in various ways, but fundamental to the concept of an elite is the idea that its members must merit their status in the judgment of others and that they must continually prove by their behavior and actions that they deserve their superior position in society.
Members of the Greek social elite in this period merited their status based on a combination of interrelated factors, including above all conduct and wealth. Of course, being born into a family that already enjoyed wealth and prestige obviously represented the fundamental basis for membership in the social elite, but by itself one’s lineage did not guarantee general acknowledgment as a member of the “best” in the society. It was essential to meet, and to be seen to meet, the demanding standards of the competitive code of behavior expected of this group, and to remain wealthy. Furthermore, it was crucial to employ one’s wealth appropriately in public contexts: to compete with other members of the elite in making displays of status by acquiring fine goods and financing celebrations; to cement relationships with social equals by exchanging gifts and with inferiors by doing them favors; to pay public honor to the gods by providing expensive sacrifices, especially of large animals; and to benefit the community by paying for public celebrations and construction projects. Therefore, to gain recognition from others as a dutiful and therefore admirable member of the elite of the society, one had to behave in certain ways. Losing one’s wealth or failing to observe the code of behavior expected of the elite could catapult one into social disgrace and oblivion, regardless of the past glory of one’s family.
We can only speculate about the various ways in which families in Greece originally gained their designation as elite and thereby became entitled to pass on this status (and wealth) to those descendants able to maintain the ancestral standard. Some families in the Dark Age might have inherited elite status as survivors of prominent families of the Mycenaean Age who had somehow managed to hold on to wealth or land during the early Dark Age; some certainly could have made their way into the elite during the Dark Age by amassing wealth and befriending less-fortunate people who were willing to acknowledge their benefactors’ superior status in return for material help; and some did acquire superior social status by monopolizing control of essential religious rituals that they perpetuated for other members of the community to participate in.
The ideas and traditions of this social elite concerning the organization of their communities and proper behavior for everyone in them—that is, their code of values—constituted basic components of Greece’s emerging new political forms. The social values of the Dark Age elite underlie the stories told in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Greeks had relearned the technology of writing as a result of contact with the literate civilizations of the Near East and the alphabet developed there earlier. Sometime between about 950 and 750 B.C. the Greeks adopted a Phoenician alphabet to represent the sounds of their own language, introducing important changes to the script by representing the vowels of their own language as letters. The Greek version of the alphabet eventually formed the basis of the alphabet used for English today. Greeks of the Archaic Age (roughly 750–500 B.C.) swiftly applied their newly acquired skill to write down oral literature, such as Homer’s two famous epics. Near Eastern poetic tales influenced this oral poetry, which for centuries helped to transmit cultural values from one generation of Greeks to the next. Despite the ancient origins of Homeric poetry, the behavioral code portrayed in its verses primarily reflected values established in the society of Greece of the Dark Age before the rise of the political systems of the city-state based on citizenship.
The main characters in the Homeric poems are leading members of the social elite, who are expected to live up to a demanding code of values in competing with one another. The men live as warriors, of whom the most famous is the incomparable Achilles ofThe Iliad. This poem tells part of the story of the attack by a Greek army on the city of Troy, a stronghold in northwestern Anatolia. Although it is commonly assumed that the Trojans were a different people from the Greeks, the poems themselves provide no definitive answer to the question of the Trojans’ ethnic identity. InThe Iliad’s representation of the Trojan War, which the Greeks believed occurred about four hundred years before Homer’s time, Achilles is “the best of the Greeks” (for instance, Iliad 1, line 244) because he is a “doer of deeds and speaker of words” without equal (Iliad 9, line 443). Achilles’ overriding concern in word and action is with the glorious reputation (kleos) that he can win with his “excellence” (the best available translation for Greek aretē, a word with a range of meanings, sometimes translated as “virtue”). Like all members of the Homeric social elite, Achilles feared the disgrace that he would experience before others if he were seen to fail to live up to the code of excellence. Under this code, failure and wrongdoing produced public shame. He lived—and died—always to be the best.
Excellence as a competitive moral value also carried with it a strong notion of obligation and duty. The strongest of this type of responsibilities for the elite was the requirement that ties of guest-host friendship (xenia) be respected no matter what the situation. In The Iliad, for example, the Greek Diomedes is preparing to battle an enemy warrior, Glaucus, when he discovers that Glaucus’s grandfather once hosted his own grandfather as a guest while he was traveling abroad in Glaucus’s land. This long-past act of hospitality had established ties of friendship and made the men “guest-host friends” of one another, a relationship that still remained valid for the two descendants and had to be respected even in the heat of battle. “Therefore,” says Diomedes in the story, “let us not use our spears against each other. . . . There are many other Trojans and their allies for me to kill, the gods willing, and many other Greeks for you to slay if you can” (Iliad 6, lines 226–229). To show their excellence in this case, these fighters were obliged to respect morally binding commitments they themselves had no original part in making but still had to respect. In this way, the notion of excellence could serve both as a competitive social value and as a cooperative one. That is, in the context of warfare among people with no obligations toward one another, excellence demanded that warriors compete to defeat their enemies and to outshine their friends and allies in their ability to win battles. In the context of relationships such as guest-host friendship, however, excellence required that even enemies put aside martial competitiveness to cooperate in respecting moral obligation established among individuals from their families.
The concentration on excellence as a personal quality distinguishes the code of values not just of warriors in the Homeric poems but also of socially elite women. This essential feature of the elite society portrayed in The Iliad and The Odyssey appears most prominently in the character and actions of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, the hero of The Odyssey, and his partner in the most important household of their home community of Ithaca, on an island off the west coast of the Peloponnese. Penelope’s excellence requires her to preserve her household and property during her husband’s long absence, by relying on her intelligence, social status, and intense fidelity to her husband. She is obliged to display great stamina and ingenuity in resisting the attempted depredations of her husband’s rivals at home while Odysseus is away for twenty years fighting the Trojan War and then sailing home in a long series of dangerous adventures.
When Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he assumes the disguise of a wandering beggar to observe conditions in his household in secret before revealing his true identity and reclaiming his leading position. Penelope displays her commitment to excellence by treating the ragged stranger with the kindness and dignity owed to any and all visitors, according to Greek custom, in contrast to the rude treatment that he receives from the female head of the servants in his household. Odysseus, still in disguise, therefore greets Penelope with the words of praise that were due a woman who understood the demands of her elite status and could carry them through: “My Lady, no mortal on this boundless earth could find any fault with you; your glorious reputation [kleos] reaches to the broad heavens, like that of a king without blame, who respects the gods and upholds justice in his rule over many strong men, and whose dark land sprouts wheat and barley, whose trees bend with the weight of their fruit, whose sheep bear lambs every season, whose sea teems with fish, all the result of his good leadership, and thus his people flourish under his rule” (Odyssey 19, lines 107–114).
After Odysseus and his son manage with a clever ruse to kill off the rivals that were plaguing their household, the hero then executes the servants who had disrespected him as a stranger deserving hospitality. In the Homeric code of values, these actions are just because justice means “retribution; appropriate and proportional payback for one’s actions.” Scholars sometimes say that this code was based on vengeance, but that term can be misleading if it is understood to imply the necessity of violence and coercion in punishing wrongdoers. For Greeks, acting justly in keeping with the concept of excellence required what today might be called retributive justice. As depicted in The Iliad (18, lines 478–608) in the scenes carved on the new, divinely made shield of Achilles, retribution even for a crime as serious as a homicide can be satisfied with the payment of money, rather than violent punishment, if the family of the victim agrees. It is therefore important to remember that Greek ideas of what constituted justice stemmed from a focus on reestablishing and maintaining appropriate and agreed-upon social relations among people in the community.
Similarly, although it is certainly true that Greek society after the Dark Age was patriarchal, it must also be remembered that the code of excellence had high standards for women as well as for men, and that women who met those standards earned high status in return, and that those who fell short risked disgrace for their social failures. Penelope clearly counts as an exceptional figure of literature, but nevertheless it is significant that The Odyssey, in praising her, employs a description also fitting for a man. Indeed, her praise suits a ruler, one of surpassing virtue and achievement. In real life, women of the social elite, like men of the same status, regarded their proper role in life as a duty to develop an exceptional excellence to set themselves apart in the competition with others, whether members of the elite or those of more ordinary character and status. Under this code, any life—for a woman as for a man—was contemptible unless its goal was the competitive pursuit of excellence and the fame that it brought. Of course, this demanding code of values in a competition for the highest recognition both from one’s contemporaries and also from posterity relegated the great majority of the population to secondary status, from which they had little if any hope of escaping, unless they could somehow manage to gain public prominence and the wealth that would allow them to participate in the competition for excellence that defined the lives of the elite in Greek society.
The Olympic Games and Panhellenism
Excellence as a competitive value of the social elite showed up clearly in the Olympic Games, a religious festival associated with a large sanctuary of Zeus, king of the gods of the Greeks. The sanctuary was located at Olympia, in the northwestern Peloponnese, where the games were held every four years beginning in 776 B.C., according to the date that tradition has preserved. During these great celebrations, men wealthy enough to spend the time to become outstanding athletes competed in running events and wrestling as individuals, not as national representatives on teams as in the modern Olympic Games. The athletes’ emphasis on competition, physical fitness and beauty, and public recognition as winners corresponded to the ideal of Greek masculine identity as it developed in this period. In a rare departure from the ancient Mediterranean tradition against public nakedness, Greek athletes competed without clothing (hence the word gymnasium, from the Greek word meaning “naked,” gymnos). Other competitions, such as horse and chariot racing, were added to the Olympic Games later, but the principal event remained a sprint of about two hundred yards called the stadion (hence our word stadium). Winners originally received no financial prizes, only a garland made from wild olive leaves, but the prestige of victory could bring other rewards as well. Prizes with material value were often awarded in later Greek athletic competitions. Admission to the Olympic Games was free to men; married women were not allowed to attend, on pain of death, but women not yet married could be spectators. Women athletes competed in their own separate festival at Olympia on a different date in honor of Zeus’s wife, Hera. Although less is known about the Heraean Games, Pausanias (Guide to Greece 5.16.2) reports that young unmarried women competed on the Olympic track in a footrace five-sixths as long as the men’s stadion.
In later times, professional athletes starred in international sports competitions, including the Olympics. The successful competitors made good livings from appearance fees and prizes won at events held all over Greece. The most famous athlete of all was Milo, from Croton in southern Italy. Winner of the Olympic wrestling crown six times beginning in 536 B.C., he was renowned for showy stunts, such as holding his breath until his blood expanded his veins so much that they would snap a cord tied around his head. Milo became so internationally famous that the king of the Persians, whose land lay thousands of miles to the east, knew his reputation as a spectacular athlete.
The Olympic Games centered on contests among individuals, who prided themselves on their demonstrated distinctiveness from ordinary people, as the fifth-century B.C. lyric poet Pindar made clear in praising a family of victors: “Hiding the nature you are born with is impossible. The seasons rich in their flowers have many times bestowed on you, sons of Alatas [of Corinth], the brightness that victory brings, when you achieved the heights of excellence in the sacred games” (Olympian Ode 13). Despite the emphasis on winning and individual achievement, the organization of the festival as an event for all of Greece nevertheless indicates that a trend toward communal activity was under way in Greek society and politics by the mid-eighth century B.C. First of all, constructing a special sanctuary for the worship of Zeus at Olympia provided an architectural focus for public gatherings with a surrounding space for large, international crowds to assemble. The social complement to the creation of this physical environment was the tradition that the Games of Zeus and Hera were “Panhellenic,” that is, open to all Greeks. Finally, an international truce of several weeks was declared to guarantee safe passage for competitors and spectators traveling to and from Olympia, even if wars were in progress along their way. In short, the arrangements for the Olympic Games demonstrate that in eighth-century Greece the values of excellence demonstrated by one’s individual activities were beginning to be channeled into a new context appropriate for a changing society, one that needed new ways for its developing communities to interact with one another peacefully. This assertion of communal as well as individual interests was, like demography, another important precondition for the creation of Greece’s new political forms in the city-state.
Religion and Myth
Religion provided the context for almost all communal activities throughout the history of ancient Greece. Competitions in sport, such as in the Olympic Games that honored Zeus, took place in the religious context of festivals honoring specific gods. War was conducted according to the signs of divine will that civil and military leaders identified in the sacrifice of animals and in omens derived from occurrences in nature, such as unusual weather. Sacrifices themselves, the central event of Greek religious rituals, were performed before crowds in the open air on public occasions that involved communal feasting afterward on the sacrificed meat. The conceptual basis of Greek religion was transmitted in myth, whose stories of the past depicted the conflict-filled relationships of gods, people, and creatures such as satyrs and centaurs (see, for example, the statuette from Dark Age Lefkandi, fig. 3.3), beings whose mixed animal/human physical form expressed anxieties about what human nature was truly like. Greek myth was, as said before, deeply influenced by Near Eastern myth in the Dark Age, as Greeks heard stories from Near Eastern traders passing through in search of metals and markets, and tried to understand the drawings and carvings of Near Eastern mythological figures found on objects they imported, such as furniture, pots, seals, and jewelry.
In the eighth century B.C., the Greeks began to record their own versions of these myths in writing. The poetry of Hesiod reveals how religious myth, as well as the economic changes and social values of the time, contributed to the feeling of community that underlay the gradual emergence of new political structures in Greece. Living in the region of Boeotia in central Greece, Hesiod employed myth to reveal the divine origin of justice. His Theogony details the birth of the race of gods over several generations from primordial Chaos (“void” or “vacuum”) and Earth, the mother of Sky and numerous other children. Hesiod explained that when Sky began to imprison his siblings, Earth persuaded her fiercest male offspring, Kronos, to overthrow him by violence because “[Sky] first contrived to do shameful things” (Theogony, line 166). When Kronos later began to swallow up all his own children, Kronos’s wife Rhea had their son Zeus overthrow his father by force in retribution for his evil deeds. These vivid stories, which had their origins in Near Eastern myths, like those of the Mesopotamian Epic of Creation (Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, pp. 60–99), carried the message that existence, even for gods, entailed struggle, sorrow, and violence. Even more significantly for social and political developments in Greece, however, they showed that a concern for justice had also been a component of the divine order of the universe from the beginning.
Hesiod identified Zeus as the source of justice in all human affairs, a marked contrast to the portrayal of Zeus in Homeric poetry as primarily concerned only with the fate of his favorite warriors in battle. Hesiod presents justice as a divine quality that will assert itself to punish evildoers: “Zeus ordained this law for men, that fishes and wild beasts and birds should eat each other, for they have no justice; but to human beings he has given justice, which is far the best” (Works and Days, lines 276–280). In the Dark Age society of Hesiod’s day, men dominated the distribution of justice, exercising direct control over their family members and household servants. Others outside their immediate households would become their followers by acknowledging their status as leaders. A powerful man’s followers would grant him a certain amount of authority because, as the followers were roughly equal in wealth and status among themselves, they needed a figure invested with authority to settle disputes and organize defense against raids or other military threats. In anthropological terms, such leaders operated as chiefs of bands. A chief had authority to settle arguments over property and duties, oversaw the distribution of rewards and punishments in a system of retributive justice, and often headed the religious rituals deemed essential to the security of the group.
At the same time, a chief had only limited power to coerce recalcitrant or rebellious members of his band to respect his decisions and commands. When choices affecting the entire group had to be made, his leadership depended on being capable of forging a consensus by persuading members of the band about what to do. Hesiod describes how an effective chief exercised leadership: “When wise leaders see their people in the assembly get on the wrong track, they gently set matters right, persuading them with soft words” (Theogony, lines 88–90). In short, a chief could only lead his followers where they were willing to go, and only by the use of persuasion, not compulsion. The followers expected to gather in an assembly of them all to settle important matters by implementing what they regarded as just retribution. These expectations of persuasion and justice lived on after the Dark Age as fundamental principles contributing to the creation of the political structures undergirding the organization of Greek city-states composed of free citizens, not subjects.
Chiefs were of course not immune to misuse of their status and ability to persuade others to do their will, and it seems likely that friction became increasingly common between leaders and their poorer followers in the late Dark Age. A story from Homer provides a fictional illustration of the kind of behavior that could have generated such friction in the period during which the city-state began to emerge. When Agamemnon, the arrogantly self-important leader of the Greek army besieging Troy, summoned the troops to announce a decision to prolong the war, then in its tenth year, an ordinary soldier named Thersites spoke up in opposition, fiercely criticizing Agamemnon for his greedy and unjust behavior. Thersites had the right and the opportunity to express his opinion because Agamemnon led the Greeks as a Dark Age chief led a band, which required that all men’s opinions be heard with respect in a common assembly. It was thus in front of Agamemnon’s assembled followers that Thersites excoriated the leader as inexcusably selfish. “Let’s leave him here to digest his booty,” Thersites shouted to his fellow soldiers in the ranks. In response, Odysseus, another chief, immediately rose to support Agamemnon, saying to Thersites, “If I ever find you being so foolish again, may my head not remain on my body if I don’t strip you naked and send you back to your ship crying from the blows I give you.” Odysseus thereupon beat down Thersites with a blow to his back, which drew blood (Iliad 2, lines 211–277).
At the conclusion of this episode, The Iliad describes the assembled soldiers as approving Odysseus’s violent suppression of Thersites, who is portrayed as an unattractive personality and ugly man (these two characteristics went together in Greek thought). For the city-state to be created as a political institution in which all free men had a share, this complacent attitude of the mass of men had to change in the real world. Ordinary men had to insist that they deserved equitable treatment, according to the definition of equity valid in their society, even if members of the social elite were to remain in leadership positions, while the rank and file themselves remained as subordinates to the elite leaders in war and their social inferiors in peace.
Hesiod reveals that by the eighth century B.C. a state of heightened tension concerning the implementation of justice in the affairs of everyday life had indeed developed between chiefs and peasants (the free proprietors of small farms, who might own a slave or two, oxen to work their fields, and other movable property of value). Peasants’ ownership of property made them the most influential group among the men, ranging from poor to moderately well-off, who made up the bands of followers of elite chiefs in late Dark Age Greece. Assuming the perspective of a peasant farming a smallholding, the poet insisted that the divine origin of justice should be a warning to “bribe-devouring chiefs” who settled disputes among their followers and neighbors “with crooked judgments” (Works and Days, lines 263–264). The outrage evidently felt by peasants at receiving unfair treatment in the settlement of disputes served as yet another stimulus for the gradual movement toward new forms of political organization, those of the city-state.
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From Ancient Warfare: A Very Short Introduction, by Thomas R. Martin (Yale University Press, 08.11.2000), published by Erenow, public open access.