Sic et Non

Uncertainty, perplexity, ambivalence. I'm pretty sure this is where it's at.

The Ancient Greeks: after the “dark ages”, a new beginning

From “dark ages” to the “Golden Age”.

“The European spirit spent its youth in Greece” (Hegel)

Democracy, philosophy, the theater, timeless art and architecture, values that shaped the civilization of Europe and the Western world centuries later and have since come to be respected almost universally were born in and around a rugged peninsula in a corner of the Mediterranean Sea, among a people who lived in separate, largely autonomous communities without any central political organization, in the span of a few hundred years. That was an exceptional era in world history – “the seedbed of almost all that played a dynamic part in shaping the world we still inhabit” (J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History of the World, p. 159). We often think of all this as “just” history – an ineluctable series of events that simply happened like that, as a matter of course. Familiarity breeds blandness, when it comes to history, but if we pause for a moment and think about it we realize that this was an extraordinary phenomenon worth exploring the roots and development of.

The first thing that needs to be stressed is that the history of what we know as ancient Greece was not continuous. The civilization that produced classical Greek culture and thought is separated from the previous one by a sharp break that lasted several centuries and is known as the Greek “dark ages”. Around 1150 BC the so-called Mycenaean civilization suffered systemic collapse, for reasons that are unknown to us. It could have been climatic change or natural disasters (such as a draught), internal revolt, some kind of economic disruption or an invasion, but there is no hard historical evidence about any of that. In any case, the Mycenaean world was thoroughly destroyed. The whole edifice – political, social, commercial and cultural structures – crumbled to ruins. Palaces and elites, workshops and craftsmen, merchants and their ships, armies and fleets and all the technology of that society were apparently wiped out. Even literacy disappeared along with the bureaucracy (the script the Mycenaeans used served administrative purposes). Life went on in “small, loosely organized units, and from cultivating pastures and farms, from hunting and fishing, and a bit later from piracy and sea trade” (Christian Meier, A Culture of Freedom, p. 52).

A new beginning

If we were to mentally position ourselves at that point in historical time and try to look ahead into the future, we wouldn’t be seeing glimpses of a “golden” classical age in the horizon. Just small-time, grind-along subsistence in the backwater of the Mediterranean. So, what went on between the 12th and the 8th century that laid the foundations for that dazzling burst of civilization that followed? Historians try to surmise mainly from circumstantial (e.g. the Homeric epics) and archaeological evidence the developments that took place during the Dark Ages.

It seems that the people of that time, having found themselves facing completely new circumstances and challenges, were forced to respond by gradually developing new social and cultural institutions. The way they responded to each of those new circumstances and challenges was at every step shaping possibilities for a future that to them, of course, remained ever indeterminate and uncertain. Successive generations of them made choices that led to what for us is one of the most intriguing chapters of world history. As Professor Kurt Raaflaub puts it: “To master these challenges [the Greeks] needed their own particular culture. They developed it” (Meier, Foreword).

Unlike most other peoples around them, “dark age” Greeks found themselves living in independent, largely autonomous communities after the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms. Perhaps due to the influx of immigrants/invaders, groups of people fled from mainland Greece to the coast of Asia Minor, where they founded new settlements. Historians believe that it was among those isolated communities that the polis, the unique and typical Greek form of political [political < polis] organizationfirst took shape. From there, it spread first to the islands of the Aegean and then to the Greek mainland, where it prevailed over earlier forms of tribal administrative structures. The polis was partly a product of the relative isolation and independence of communities that characterized life in Asia Minor towns (because of their position as scattered settlements among foreigners) but also on the islands of the Aegean and in mainland Greece (where geography encourages the formation of small communities and the centralizing Mycenaean powers were now gone), but it itself fostered independence and autonomy. The polis was the polity [< polis] of landowners. They saw in this form of community organization a way of maintaining their independence and asserting their dominant status. So, in place after place, they succeeded in establishing viable political units with a strong communal element. The poleis must have started as aristocratic communities of peers – independent, equal citizens, not subject to any master. In order to do that, they had to overcome the resistance of earlier lords, the basileis, and eventually bring about a radical political change – the weakening and reform of the institution of hereditary “lordship”, which evolved into an annual civic office.

Religion, warfare, citizenship

A particularly significant element of this emerging culture was a pluralistic religion that was embedded in the life of the polis. It was not a religion in the sense that we use the word today, and the Greeks did not have a term corresponding to ours. It was an ’embedded religion’ in that it permeated all aspects of private and public life, cemented communal ties, was a part of civic identity, fundamentally tied to the polis. There was no formal dogma, no sacred scriptures, no exclusive priesthood class. Hence, religion didn’t lend itself to exploitation by political authority as an instrument of domination; the elites did not control access to the gods and their will – “they lacked both the ambition and the ability to seek lasting rule” by that means (Meier, p. 110).

At a certain point, another important development took place, that had far-reaching political repercussions. By the early 7th century, in most of the Greek world a new technology of warfare was adopted: the phalanx, or hoplite warfare. Wars were fought between tight formations (phalanxes) of heavily armed foot soldiers (hoplites), several men deep, which clashed with each other. These were short wars, usually decided in a single battle, fought in early summer, just before the harvest. The Greeks generally showed no interest in conquest; they were satisfied to maintain the independence of their limited, restricted communities and the territories that sufficed to sustain them. At the same time, no Oriental power took an interest in the Aegean region during the dark or archaic ages, which meant that for many centuries the Greeks were left alone to shape their world according to the peculiar circumstances, challenges and opportunities that presented themselves to them. Therefore, the small city-state remained the norm for centuries to come, practically all through ancient Greek history up to the time of Alexander the Great.

Phalanx warfare brought about a new civic identity for several reasons. First, hoplites fought side by side, each man protecting with his round shield only half of his own body, the other half being covered by the shield of the hoplite fighting next to him. The phalanx was a body of warriors par excellence. Second, a hoplite had to provide his own armor and weapons, which was less costly than maintaining a horse and its equipment but still required an income surplus, such as that of small landholders or artisans or merchants. Thus, those free men in the “middle” of society (and even men of lower status that fought as light infantry) who contributed to the city’s defense with their means and/or their own bodies – all free, native inhabitants, eventually – were granted political rights and recognized as full-fledged citizens, members of the body politic as well.

The polis evolved into a social structure where no other permanent ties (patronage/clientage, hereditary obligations, etc.) applied, save the direct one between the individual citizen and the city. This meant that the constitution of the citizen body and the polis itself could be reformed by the collective will of its members, something which was crucial for the eventual development of democracy. Citizenship became perhaps the single most important formative element of identity for the Greeks.

During those times, the Greeks also rediscovered literacy. They now adopted the Phoenician script and adapted it to their language. The earliest known inscriptions using it date from the mid-8th century BC. Homer’s epic poems could now emerge from the obscurity of prehistory to become not only the normative texts of Greek culture, but also the founding texts of western literature. Thus, by around that time, the beginning of the archaic period, the setting was in place – the fundamental elements of a culture of freedom, independence and radical reformism – for the astonishing achievements of the classical period. It was formed slowly on the ruins of the Mycenaean world through the interplay of circumstance and collective will, choice, action.

The rest is, quite literally, history.


Christian Meier, A Culture of Freedom, Oxford University Press, 2011.

Heinz – Günther Nesselrath (ed.), Einleitung in die Griechische Philologie(Greek edition, Εισαγωγή στην Αρχαιογνωσία, Τόμος Α΄, εκδ. Παπαδήμα, 2001).

J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History of the World, Penguin Books, 1995.


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6 thoughts on “The Ancient Greeks: after the “dark ages”, a new beginning

  1. So (if I have understood correctly) three things were crucial:

    1. The collapse of the old empire.
    2. A spirit of aristocratic anarchy.
    3. The technology of the phalanx.

    Now (I guess) we just have to look for the 21st century equivalents and get cracking building the new Golden Age.

    • What is crucial, I think, is that the Golden Age was not envisaged or “built” by anyone. It was the product of circumastance and collective responses to immediate problems and challenges. And we should not forget the dark ages (several centuries of them) that preceded the golden one.

      • Agreed, there are to be no blueprints and no seven-year-plans and no razing of villages to the ground to make way for a Brave New Agora. And, yes, the New Golden Age will not be built by any One, but it won’t happen without a lot of building and without a fair amount of demolition work. All those nasty little frontisteria, for instance, surely it would be a good thing if we could agree that they must be closed in the process of building a system of public education that would be less of an unconstitutional sham?

        You make it sound as if pragmatism was enough. Surely the Athenians had a vision of what a free city should be like – a city animated by a love of itself (as described by Pericles, who also recognises the need for that love to be carefully cultivated)?

        We, too, need a vision that is not a blueprint.

        Insisting that we limit ourselves to responding to immediate challenges sounds more like a perpetuation of the dark ages.

      • I have the feeling that our disagreement is merely verbal, because, when you talk about the “frontistiria” and the unconstitutional sham of public education in Greece, you talk about immediate problems and challenges. And when the Athenians discussed their vision of what a free city should be like, the city as an institution existed and they responded to its realities. I’m not saying we do not need some kind of vision. But, as I see it, vision is not (necessarily) antithetical to pragmatism. And responding to immediate challenges does not have to mean reacting aimlessly or blindly. “We want the world and we want it now!” is a visionary reaction to immediate reality that practically gets you nowhere – although perfectly valid on other levels – whereas “let’s find a way to reform the European Union so it’s more democratic”, for instance, might actually be a step that, combined with others, could eventually lead to a world more radically “ours” than it is now.

      • Realism: As you point out in your article, for a few hundred years reality was kind to the Greeks, leaving them free to play the game by their own rules.

        Personally, I would welcome a second article about the Dark Age that followed the Golden Age: Hellenism and the Roman Occupation – when reality stopped being kind to the descendants of Pericles and co. As I understand it, this was the age in which Stoicism, Skepticism and Epicureanism belong, all of which describe utterly fatalistic strategies of accommodation to that unkind reality.

        Like the Greeks under the rule of Alexander or the Romans, we live in an Age of Empire. Here, it seems, there are no lessons to be learned from the Greeks about how to respond. Do we:

        1. Withdraw like the early Christians, make impotence a virtue, and wait for the Empire to collapse (because, like all empires, it will collapse);
        2. Politely ask the Romans for concessions;
        3. Join the barbarians and launch guerilla attacks on Roman strongholds when their guard is down to weaken them and speed the collapse;
        4. Make do with the little domestic pleasures which the Empire persuades us are the True Ends of life;
        5. Or do we do something else?

        Is there anything to be learned from the post-Golden Age Greeks about how to respond to a world in which vision and reality necessarily diverge so radically?

        P.s. Agreed re. this: “We want the world and we want it now!” But what about: “We want the world and we’ll be happy if it arrives in time for our grandchildren to enjoy it”?

      • Aye, there’s the rub.

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