What was the Ancient Greek 'Dark Age'?

Ancient Greek cup
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The Greek Dark Age is a period in Greek history that lasted from about 1200 BC to 750 BC.

 

During this time, the various Greek city-states underwent major cultural, political and military shifts. 

 

The period is known as the Greek 'Dark Age' because very little written evidence survives from this time.

 

This means that our understanding of this period is largely based on archaeology and oral tradition.

 

This article will provide an explanation of the Greek Dark Age, including what caused it, what happened during this time, and the long-term impacts it had upon Classical Greek civilisation.

Background

The Greek Dark Age is traditionally considered to have begun with the fall of the Mycenaean civilisation.

 

This was a Bronze Age civilisation that had its heartland in mainland Greece. It reached its height around 1400 BC, but by 1200 BC it had collapsed. 

 

The precise reasons for this are still debated by historians, but it is likely that a combination of internal strife and external invasions led to its downfall. 

One of the most common explanations by historians was known as the Dorian Invasion.

 

This was the belief that a group of people known as the Dorians invaded Greece from the north and destroyed the Mycenaean civilisation.

 

It was argued that the pressure from these invaders influenced the Myceneans to build high walls around their settlements.

 

However, this theory has now largely been discredited. It is more likely that the Mycenaeans were simply unable to cope with the pressures they were facing, both internal and external.


Cultural changes

During the Greek Dark Age, the various city-states underwent major cultural shifts.

 

One of the most notable changes was the decline of the use of Linear B, the written script used by the Mycenaeans.

 

This script was replaced by an alphabet, which is thought to have been developed in Phoenicia and brought to Greece by traders.

 

This new alphabet made writing much easier, and it soon became widely used throughout Greece.

 

Burial practices also appeared to change during this time. In the Mycenaean period, people were buried in large communal tombs known as tholos tombs.

 

However, during the Greek Dark Age, individual burials became more common. Cremations also became more popular, and a number of new burial rites appeared. 

 

This change has been interpreted as a sign of a decline in social cohesion during this period.

Settlement and population decline

There is also evidence for a decline in population and settlement during the Greek Dark Age.

 

This is most clearly seen in the archaeological record, which shows that many sites were abandoned during this period.

 

Some famous cities that were left in ruins during this time were Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos.

 

The reasons for this decline are still debated, but it is likely that a combination of factors was responsible including climatic changes, over-exploitation of resources, and conflict.

 

Whatever the cause, this decline had a significant impact on Greek society. It led to a decrease in trade and contact with other cultures, which further exacerbated the problems that Greece was facing.


Political changes

The Greek Dark Age was also a time of major political changes. During the Greek Dark Age, there was a shift from large-scale centralised states to smaller-scale decentralised ones.

 

This process is known as 'state collapse'. It occurred for a number of reasons, including the population decline mentioned above.

 

With fewer people around, it became harder to maintain large-scale states. 

 

The most important change was the rise of the city-state (or polis). Prior to the Dark Age, Greece had been divided into small kingdoms, each ruled by its own king.

 

In comparison, a polis was a form of government in which each city-state was independent and had its own laws, customs and coinage.

 

The Greek Dark Age saw the rise of many famous city-states, such as Athens, Thebes, and Corinth.

These city-states were often in conflict with one another, both militarily and politically. This led to a period of great instability in Greece.

 

One of the most significant developments was the rise of tyranny. This was a form of government in which one person (the tyrant) held absolute power over the state.

 

Tyranny first emerged in the Greek colonies in Asia Minor after 700 BC, and soon spread to other parts of Greece.

Long-term impacts

The Greek Dark Age had a number of long-term impacts upon Classical Greek civilisation.

 

One of the most important was the development of democracy in Athens, which was developed as a way to rid their city of tyrants.

 

This system of government emerged from a period of turmoil and conflict, and it would go on to have a profound impact upon Western civilisation. 

 

The Olympic Games also began during the Greek Dark Age. These games were a way of celebrating the gods, and they soon became a hugely important part of Greek culture.

 

The first recorded Olympic Games occurred in776 BC, and they would continue to be held every four years for centuries to come.

The Greek Dark Age was also a time when many new philosophical ideas were developed.

 

These ideas would go on to have a major impact upon Western thought, and they are still studied and debated by philosophers today.

 

Religious beliefs also developed during this time. In particular, the Delphic Oracle became an important part of Greek religion.


Was it really a 'dark age'?

The term 'Greek Dark Age' is a controversial one. Some historians argue that this period was not really 'dark' at all, and that it has been unfairly maligned by modern scholars.

 

They point to the many achievements of the Greeks during this time, such as the development of democracy and philosophy.

 

Others, however, believe that the term is accurate. They argue that the Greek Dark Age was a time of great instability, decline and hardship. 

However, the name 'Dark Age' remains a useful way of describing this period of time because it highlights how little we know from written sources, and how much modern scholars are 'in the dark' about many details of these centuries.

 

This designation also helps to emphasise the contrast between the Greek Dark Age and the following Classical period.

Summary

The Greek Dark Age was a period of great transformation for Greece. It was a time of political, economic and social upheaval, which had a profound impact on the country.

 

Despite its name, we now know that this was not a 'dark' period in Greek history. It laid the foundations for the Classical period, which would go on to be one of the most influential periods in Western civilisation.


Further reading