Greeks first settled on the Greek mainland about 2000 B.C. Geography played a
large part in the formation of their society, as it does in all civilizations.
Mountain ranges divide Greece into many small valleys. The resulting pattern of
settlement, so different from that of Egypt, encouraged the Greeks to develop
independent political communities without the direction—or oppression—of a
central ruler. The broken coastline, indented with countless small harbors,
invited the people to become sailors, traders, and warriors at sea. By 1600 enterprises by sea had transformed a number of the independent
Greek communities into wealthy, fortified states. Chief among them was Mycenae;
therefore the years from 1600 to 1100 B.C. are often called the Mycenaean Age.
Two sets of graves found in the soil of Mycenae have
given us a fascinating glimpse of the wealth and
artistic accomplishments of this city. The graves in
each were enclosed within a circular wall. The older
set, tentatively dated between 1700 and 1600 B.C., was
outside the walls that surround the citadel of Mycenae.
Interred there were wealthy Greeks, perhaps from a royal
family or clan. Alongside the bodies, the surviving
relatives had deposited various offerings, for example,
a golden rattle in a child's grave. The second set of
graves, inside the citadel walls, far surpassed the
older ones in wealth.
These graves, dated between 1600 and 1500 B.C., were
discovered in 1876 by one of the founders of Greek
archaeology, Heinrich Schliemann, and are still among the
wonders of archaeology. Their contents include such
stunning luxuries as three masks of gold foil that were
pressed on the faces of the dead and a complete burial
suit of gold foil wrapped around a child, as well as
swords, knives, daggers, and hundreds of gold
ornaments. Bulls' heads in the graves indicate the
influence of Crete on artists working in Greece.
The graves tell us little about the political or social history of Mycenae, but
they do demonstrate its growing wealth in the sixteenth century. The city's king
was probably its chief religious officer as well as commander of the army.
Elaborate fortifications and large numbers of swords and other weapons at
Mycenae and other early Greek cities indicate that Greece was a more warlike
society than Crete.
The economic organization of cities in the Mycenaean age resembled that of
Oriental kingdoms in its centralized, "vertical" system. This is shown by the
contents of Linear B tablets, written in the same kind of early Greek that was
used at Knossos, that have emerged from the soil at Mycenae, Thebes, and Pylos.
The largest group, that from Pylos, can be dated soon after 1200 from the
evidence of pottery
fragments found with them. The tablets themselves are preserved only because
they were baked in fire as these several cities were destroyed by invaders. All
the tablets are rosters and inventories, cataloguing oil, seed, objects of
metal, men, and women, all in the service of the palace bureaucracy.
Between 1400 and 1200, Mycenae reached the height of its prosperity and created
the most imposing monuments in all Bronze Age Greece. Between 1350 and 1300 the
stupendous walls around the citadel were built in their present form; it is
significant that such defenses were apparently needed, as they were not (or at
least none was built) on Crete. The mighty Gate of the Lionesses (or Lion Gate)
was erected as an entrance to the city, and the most expensive Mycenaean tombs
were built. These are the beehive-shaped, or tholos, tombs, large vaults with
walled entranceways. The grandest and best preserved is the so-called Treasury
of Atreus, conventionally named for the legendary father of King Agamemnon—but
we do not really know which rulers were buried here. The high vaulted ceiling is
still intact, and the somber cavern creates a breathtaking effect.
Each city of the Mycenaean period was probably independent under its own king.
The only time these cities appear to have united was during the war against
Troy, a prosperous city in Asia Minor near the Dardanelles. The origin of the
Trojans is not yet clear, but some of their pottery suggest a close relationship
to the Greeks. Apparently the Trojans were rich and offered a tempting prospect
to pirates and looters. This was probably the real cause of the Trojan War, but
ultimately Greeks explained the origins of the war by the romantic story in
Homer's Iliad about the seduction by a Trojan of Helen, the wife of the king of
Sparta. The excavation of Troy, begun by Schliemann at Hissarlik in Turkey, has
disclosed several layers of building. One layer, called Troy VII A, was
destroyed by an enemy about 1250. This evidence suggests that Homer's account of
a successful Greek expedition against Troy contains some historical truth.
The war against Troy was the last feat of the Mycenaean Age. About 1300 or a
little later, various marauders began to attack Greek ships and even mainland
Greece. The identity of these warriors is still uncertain. Historians usually
call them sea-peoples, and their homes were probably somewhere in Asia Minor.
Whoever they were, they made trading by sea so dangerous that the export of
Mycenaean pottery virtually ended. The raids by sea were temporarily
destructive. But much more significant was a series of attacks by land, lasting
roughly from 1200 to 1100. Near 1100, Mycenae itself was overrun and destroyed.
It is still not wholly clear who these land invaders were. Ancient Greek
tradition spoke of the "return of the sons of Heracles," by which was meant the
supposed return of Greeks speaking the Doric dialect of Greek to their ancestral
home in the Peloponnese; the same traditions worked out a date for this event,
which we can equate with about 1100 B.C. But we cannot accept such material from
sagas without question, and this "Dorian invasion" has been debated from the
beginning of the modern study of Greek history. In an attempt to replace the
traditional view, that the speakers of Doric Greek were roughly the last wave of
Greeks to arrive in Greece, some historians have suggested that all the Greek
dialects arrived more or less at once. Only later, they think, after a social
revolution of some kind, did the speakers of non-Doric dialects in the
Peloponnese take flight to other regions, thus allowing the Doric dialect to
emerge in linguistic documents.
This is possible, but the traditional view can also be defended and seems
preferable on balance. Mycenaean civilization suffered a series of shocks, and
when we have evidence about Sparta and other sites in the Peloponnese we find
many of them occupied by speakers of Doric Greek. Sparta in fact became the most
important of the Dorian states after the Dorian invasion had run its course.
The period from 1100 to 800 B.C. is known as the Dark Age of Greece. Throughout
the area there are signs of a sharp cultural decline. Some sites, formerly
inhabited, were now abandoned. Pottery was much less elegant; burials were made
without expensive ornaments; and the construction of massive buildings came to a
halt. Even the art of writing in Linear B vanished. The palace-centered
bureaucracies no longer existed, but of the political machinery that replaced
them we know almost nothing.
Still, the cultural decline was not quite a cultural break. Farming, weaving,
and other technological skills survived; pottery, though it was for a while much
less gracious, revived and developed the so-called Geometric style. Nor was the
Greek language submerged. Many Greeks, displaced from their homes, found safety
by settling in other parts of Greece.
In a larger sense, the shattering of the monarchic pattern in the Mycenaean Age
can be viewed as a liberating and constructive event. We cannot show that the
kings and dynasties in Greece were dependent on or were imitating kings in the
ancient Near East, but the two systems of monarchy resembled each other. If the
Mycenaean kings had survived, mainland Greece might have developed as Anatolia
did, with strong monarchies and priests who inter preted and refined religious
thought in ways that would justify the divine right of kings. Self-government
within Greek states might not have emerged for centuries if it appeared at all.
But the invasions of the twelfth century, in which the Dorians at least played a
part, ended forever the domination of the palace-centered kings.