The Human Journey
Pre-Axial Thought in Greece

Pre-Axial Thought


Pages 1234

Greek Dark Age (1100 - 800 BCE)
THE COLLAPSE OF THE BRONZE AGE. Because we really know so very little about this period, it is known as the Greek Dark Age.

The historian Robert Drews describes this as “the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.” It affected the entire region: Mycenaean Greece, Crete, Anatolia and the Hittite empire, Cyprus, Syria, the Southern Levant, and (to a lesser extent) Egypt, and in fact, marked the end of both the Hittite empire and Mycenaean Greece.

In spite of a number of explanations, including climatic change, plague, drought and the migrations of barbarians (these were foreigners – not barbarians in the way we now understand the word), the most likely explanation for this collapse, particularly of the Hittite Empire and Greek civilization are the following:

First, the rising cost of war, maintaining hundreds of chariots and their associated horses, to use as battle taxis and as a means of bearing drivers and archers, became too costly.

Second, these armies also employed light armed infantry men, trained in the mountains and woods, who served the kings and Lords as mercenaries, and as “runners”, killing victims injured by the charioteers. Initially, then, many of these skirmishers may well have entered both communities as settlers and mercenaries, even at the invitation of the Lords of the Greek world and the Kings of Mesopotamia.

It seems likely that these javelin-throwing, fleet-footed soldiers, seeing their chance, decided to take things into their own hands. An orgy of slaughter, looting, and destruction followed where cattle, women and wealth were plundered and that neutralized the chariot, in effect rendering it an outmoded weapon, after 400 years of supremacy over much of the ancient world.

Map of the spread of the chariot
Approximate historical map of the spread of the
chariot, 2000 – 500 BCE.

The success of war thereafter depended on every man playing his part, an attitude that may well have stimulated a spirit of independence and of individual responsibility – useful prerequisites for the social and political changes that would eventually follow.

The political and military collapse in Mycenean Greece was devastating. All the palaces, except Athens, were sacked and burned. Since these citadels held all the arts, written records, and the riches associated with their long-distance trade, a period of illiteracy and poverty took over with no written records or monuments to tell us much. The rise of servile populations, workers, farmers etc., caused additional internal upheaval. Dorian Greeks, who had been a part of the lower classes, the serfs, farmers and laborers of the Mycenaean world, may also have been joined by others from north-western Greece, Macedonia and Epirus. In any case, the inhabitants were overwhelmed and the entire social order collapsed.

Those who lived in the old core river valley areas of the great cities of Egypt and Babylon, got through this terrible time, because they had the population, resources and institutions to emerge into the Iron Age and still maintain their traditional monarchies. But in the areas of Asia Minor, the Levant and particularly in the Greek Kingdoms, where the civilizations were newer, they suffered a much greater, decisive collapse.

The Greek kingdoms in the Aegean probably suffered most because they were in the most remote area of the region.

From about 1200 BCE, judging from archaeological sites, the Myceneaen population had virtually disappeared from the region. Some people possibly hid up in the hills and mountains, perhaps becoming herdsmen, using temporary housing, wearing animal skins and owning little, they left us no archeological trace. Some fled overseas to western Anatolia, or along the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, some may have joined itinerant fighters such as the Sea Peoples.

Anarchy and poverty spread over the entire Greek world which virtually obliterated any memories of the two civilizations: the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Things were so extreme that the survivors were left with at best a dreamlike memory of their past.

But this complete break with the past and with all connection to it eventually would enable the Greeks to develop a new civilization that will move out in directions quite different from elsewhere in the region.

Archaic Greece

Emerging from the Dark Ages 800 - 500 BCE)
By 900 BCE Greek society was gradually re-establishing itself, structured around a smaller social unit called an Oikos, each dominated by the head of the household or clan, and housing his family, servants, retainers, slaves and livestock. Eventually these Oikoi expanded into villages and towns. With their expansion came the problem of who was in charge. Statis or conflict was a continuous and ever present condition in the steps towards the Polis or city-state – the political community which would become characteristic
of Greece.

Fertile land was limited in Greece, which was, for the most part, mountainous and rocky, and this added to the feeling of stress during these chaotic times. A new type of agriculture emerged with fiercely independent farmers developing less desirable lands with a mixed agriculture, better adapted to conditions than the more centralized agriculture of the aristocratic estates. These farmers would collectively play a pivotal role in the formation of the new Greek society.

Map of Greek colonies
Map of Phoenician and Greek colonies
at about 550 BCE

Colonization became a safety valve. From approximately 1000 BCE onwards, young Greeks were sent to colonize territories in order to acquire rich fertile land. In addition Greeks established trade routes where they sailed looking for resources, and colonies were eventually established at various coastal points, not only around the Aegean, but around the Black Sea and the western Mediterranean, as far as Massilia in southern France (Marseilles), Emporiae in Spain, Cyrene in Northern Africa, and Olbia – “wealthy” – in northern Ukrain.

One document gives us insight into the Greeks motivation to colonize: In Homer’s Odyssey Odysseus relates his adventures and tells of visiting the Cyclops and gouging out his eye – the passage includes a description of what it was like to visit Cyclops’ land. He describe the territory as lawless run by barbaric people with no sense of community no “ágora” – meeting place. Each man had a separate law for his own family. But, just offshore was the most glorious island with well-watered meadows, rich soil, just crying out to be colonized and used, and only goats occupied it.
The audiences of this Homeric poem may well have thought how wonderful it would be to go to that rich land.

The Greeks were influenced by those cultures with which they came in touch and to these influences they added their own innovations and improvements. Egyptian influence can be seen in Greek architecture and sculpture, yet Greek pillars are more slender and have more graceful lines, their statues are more life-like than the stiff formal Egyptian models.

Block-statue of Pa-Ankh-Ra
Block-statue of Pa-Ankh-Ra, ship
master, bearing a statue of Ptah.
Late Period, ca. 650–633 BCE,
Cabinet des Médailles.
Statues: Kleovis and Biton
Kleobis and Biton, kouroi of the Archaic
period,c. 580 BCE Held at the
Delphi Archaeological Museum.

Statue of the Charioteer of Delphi

The Charioteer of Delphi (left), Delphi Archaeological Museum. One of the greatest surviving works of Greek sculpture, dating from about 470 B.C. Part of a larger group of statuary given to the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi by Polyzalos, brother of the tyrant of Syracuse, this bronze in the Early Classical style is one of the few Greek statues to retain its inlaid glass eyes.

From the Phoenicians, the Greeks took the written pictograms of words like ‘alef’ and ‘bet’ that meant ‘ox’ and ‘house’ and simply kept the sound: alef – Alpha = the sound A, bet – beta = the sound B, etc. Thus, in 725 BCE when writing comes back to the Greeks, it is no longer Linear B of the Greek Mycenaean period, but what we now know as the “alphabet.” This was probably one of the greatest developments that contributed to modern thinking. For the first time in history the elements of writing were decoupled from their meaning, so that using only 24 - 27 phonetic letters combined into any number of meaningful units, the Greeks were able to write everything they saw and thought of in their own language.

For more on early writing: Click here for ‘Earliest writing’ Found and here for Oldest Alphabet Found in Egypt from the BBC.
Photo of pottery with Early Greek alphabet

Although we know little about this time, we know a great deal more than the Greeks did.  But this, in a sense, left the Greek survivors free from the constraints of evidentiary history, to turn instead to the world of their
traditional storytellers.

(Right) early Greek alphabet on pottery in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

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