Archaic Greece

Archaic Greece

Geometric vase from Paros showing battle in progress
Archaic Greece arises: this fine geometric vase shows the ‘geometric’ style at its best:  a battle is in progress – note the spears flying through the air. It was found in on the island of Paros in a mass grave in which nearly 100 young men – presumably the warriors depicted – perished in a battle. It it may have been the battle recorded by the poet Archilochus – I told the story in Current World Archaeology 6.

When did the Greek miracle begin? When I first began to put this account together, I resolved to begin the story in the 6th century BC with the invention of money leading up to the miracle of the 5th century BC. This would have been a deliberate act of contrariness, for recently, that is during the last generation, interest has shifted to an earlier phase, to the 8th century BC, to the time of archaic Greece. This, it has become fashionable to argue, was when the real major changes took place in Greece: kingship was replaced by city states, and a new civic consciousness and sense of individualism emerged. I decided to go against this new interpretation and to revert to the old idea that the Greek miracle began in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, which fits in well with my own belief that the Greek miracle followed on the introduction of money.

However when I began to study China, I began to suspect that there might be something in the current emphasis on archaic Greece after all. Both China and Greece invented money at around the same time in the sixth century BC, but then they diverged: China becoming a monolithic unified state under a single Emperor, while Greece split up into 90 or more independent city states and invented democracy. So if they diverged at around the same time in the sixth century BC – give or take a century – it must be because of their different developments before the advent of money. Which means that the conventional wisdom is right after all: I must begin with an account of archaic Greece.

The Dark Age

Lefkandi headland - Dark Age Greece
The best known Dark Age site in Greece is that Lefkandi, on the island of Euboea, between the towns of Chalcis and Eretria, perhaps the forerunner of the town of Eretria. Here we see the headland on which the principal remains have been discovered
Lefkandi Protogeometric_building
Plan of a mysterious building (temple?) discovered under a mound outside the settlement at Lefkandi. Note the serried graves at the eastern end where the warriors vied to be buried next to the Temple.

The story therefore begins with the Dark Age of Greece. The concept of a ‘dark age’ is one that is very unfashionable in the academic world: it is considered to be a derogatory term and should not therefore be used.  To the rest of us however, the booms and slumps, the ups and downs of history, form the pattern of history that is the very essence of what we study; and there can be little doubt that the period between the fall of the Mycenaean and Minoan empires in the 12th century BC, and the rise of Archaic Greece in the 8th century BC was a very dark age indeed.

Centasur from Lefkandi

A pottery figure of a centaur from Lefkandi

The Mycenaean period, which forms the glorious finale to the Bronze Age, was the great age of palaces, when bronze was everywhere and used in abundance, and bronze objects are frequently found in rich burials. It was the heroic period that is dimly reflected in the poems of Homer and the tales of the Trojan War.  But in the 12th century, the great Mycenaean empire collapsed: the palaces were deserted, and the rich burials disappeared, indeed by the 10th century BC, the use of bronze had almost entirely vanished.

Ironically its place was taken by iron: iron was known in the late Bronze Age but it was not much used as it was considered inferior to bronze. However bronze is made from copper and tin which must be imported, and when the trade routes collapsed so did the bronze industry and its place was taken by iron which occurs far more widely. It is certainly found in Greece, and thus the Iron Age arose in the middle of a dark age as an inferior  replacement for bronze. Thus even though burials are rare, the few grave goods found tend to be of iron.

In the 8th century however, Greece comes alive once again. There must have been a major population increase, because settlements and burials suddenly become much more common. There is also a major change in ritual. Whereas at the beginning of the eighth century most bronze objects are found in burials, by the end of the century the fashionable thing to do was to dedicate bronze objects at some of the great shrines that were springing up, such as Olympia, Delphi or the Temple to Hera at Argos. In his pioneering book on Archaic Greece, Anthony Snodgrass argues that this must mark a major shift in belief systems – a change from individualism – taking your wealth to your grave – to a more collective belief that offerings should be made to the great shrines.


The new era is marked by the emergence of Homer. With Homer, Greece announces that it has become a major player on the world stage, capable of producing two of the greatest epics in the repertoire of world literature. In his two major works of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer looks both backwards and forwards. The two epics were set in the lost world of Mycenaean Greece, recalling the Trojan wars when the Greeks sailed to Troy to avenge the rape of Helen and spent ten years besieging and eventually capturing Troy. The siege of Troy is usually thought to have taken place around 1200 BC, but the Homeric epics were composed at least 400 years later. However they are set firmly in a heroic Bronze Age when heroes fought individual battles and the weapons were all of bronze. Occasionally Homer slips up and reveals he did actually know all about iron.

Homer illustrated: a proto-Attic amphora showing the Cyclops being blinded by Odysseus and his crew. It is now in the museum at Eleusis. (Wiki)

The classic example is in the Odyssey where Odysseus finally defeats the man-eating Cyclops by driving a stake into his only eye. The stake has been heated up and when it is driven into his eye, it hisses as when a weapon is plunged into water to temper it – and this is a technology of iron not bronze. The geography too is the geography of the Mycenaean era. The most boring part of the Iliad is the catalogue of ships in Book 2, when Homer lists all the ships that sailed from Greece to the siege of Troy. But the catalogue is a catalogue of Mycenaean Greece, not of classical, or indeed of archaic Greece.

But Homer also looks forward, not least in his mastery of dramatic style. The Trojan wars played out over ten years, but the Iliad is compressed into just a couple of weeks, with the story of the Anger of Achilles. Achilles was the foremost warrior of the Greeks, who quarrelled with the king, Agamemnon, over a girl. He goes off in a sulk, but is eventually lured back, and fights and kills the leading Trojan warrior Hector, and the story ends with Achilles giving the body of Hector back to his father, Priam. The Odyssey takes longer, following the journey of Odysseus from Troy back to his homeland in Ithaca, a journey which took ten years of prodigious feats. However the major section is again compressed into little more than forty days: when he finally arrives back in Ithaca, he finds that his faithful wife Penelope is plagued by suitors, and then in a James Bond style finale, he slays all the suitors and is finally reunited with his ever-loving wife. In both epics, Homer displays a mastery of dramatic style which is far superior to most other ancient epics, compressing and organising the action into a tight drama. It is a brilliant foretaste of the feast that is to come.

Homer is surrounded by scholarly debates, one of the biggest of which is when was it written down: how far could two such vast epics be memorised by a single man? Much of the story consists of formulas, but it is put together in a very coherent style. When was it first written down? Which leads us into another big debate – when was the Greek alphabet invented?

Alphabet vase, now in the National Archaeological museum of Athens. (Wiki

The Greek alphabet was an invention almost as important as the invention of money, for the Greek alphabet was the first alphabet, and with its derivatives remains the only true alphabet. As such, it marks a major step forward in producing a democratic system of writing: that is a system of writing that can be understood not just by professional scribes but by the whole population.

The great invention of the alphabet was that it has separate signs for both vowels and consonants. Writing can be divided into three different systems or levels: the earliest system, characterised by the Egyptian hieroglyphs or indeed Chinese writing, is where each individual word is represented by its individual sign. It is a complicated system and one that means that Chinese will never become a world language because its writing is too difficult. The average Chinese child does not learn to read until the age of ten because reading involves learning at least 2,000 different signs.

The next stage is the syllabary where each sign represents a syllable, that is a consonant and a vowel. The cuneiform writing of Mesopotamia is essentially a syllabary, though the best known example is now Minoan Linear B which has about 80 basic signs. The Greeks adopted their alphabet from the Phoenicians’ syllabary, but they improved it by adding separate letters for their vowels, thus producing an alphabet of between 20 and 30 signs from which the Latin Alphabet and then our own alphabet have both evolved. It was a great invention. With only 26 letters, it can be learnt even by a child of 5, and we can therefore expect that the whole population will be literate.

From this, two or rather three big debates emerge. When did Homer live? When was the alphabet invented? And how big was the gap between the two events? These are major scholarly debates into which I do not intend to enter. Suffice it to say that the balance of opinion seems to suggest that Homer (probably a single person) composed both the Iliad and the Odyssey sometime around 750 but they could not have been written down until about 100 years later. There must have been oral transmission for at least 100 years. Whether or not there was a deliberate effort at rationalisation by the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus remains controversial. However they emerged, the epics of Homer are masterpieces.

 Greek Colonisation

Map of Greek colonisation
A map to illustrate Greek colonisation. Greek colonies are in red,  Phoenician colonies are in yellow. (Click twice to enlarge) (Wikipedia)

Another major episode in the story of archaic Greece is the strange phenomenon of Greek colonisation. For several hundred years, from around 750-500 BC, the Greek cities sent out colonies all over the Mediterranean and the Black Sea which in effect doubled the size of the Greek world; some of the earliest went to Sicily and south Italy. A second surge sent colonies all around the Black Sea; others were sent out more widely to Egypt and to Libya and to France, to Massilia, modern Marseilles.

Paestum: Hero's grave

Greek colonies were sent out under the leadership of a leader, the founder of the colony. In later years the founders were honoured, and became heroes. This cist grave at Paestum in southern Italy, is presumably the founder’s grave.

The reasons for this outburst of colonisation are difficult to determine. The first essay when studying Greek history at Oxford (“Greats”) is traditionally on the causes of Greek colonisation. This is a typical Oxford question, because in the best Oxford style, it has no answer. I failed miserably because I tried to attribute it to trade, which is definitely the wrong answer. The sites may have been spied out by early traders – there is an early example of a possible trading centre at Pithekoussai, in the Bay of Naples – but apart from this, there is little evidence for trade between the colonies and their mother cities.

Paestum: bronze urn from hereo's grave

Six splendid bronze urns were found in the founder’s grave at Paestum, filled with honey. This is one of them.

The best answer, or one should perhaps say the least bad answer, is that it was a combination of push-me-pull-you. Population was expanding and there was a belief that there was not enough land in the homeland. There was also a major clash between rich and poor and the poor were suffering and the idea of seeking a new life in a new country, free from debts and poverty seemed very attractive.

The colonies were sent out under a leader who was responsible for laying out the cities and allocating equal plots to all the colonists. They had to stay away for five years but if after five years the colony failed, they could return home, though they never did. By and large the colonies were very successful, some of them, Naples, Tarentum, Syracuse and Byzantium being great cities even today. One should perhaps realise that colonisation goes in spasms. One thinks of the migrations of the Germanic peoples that took place at the end of the Roman Empire, or the colonisation in the 15th – 18th century when Europeans, particularly the British, colonised the Americas, Australia, New Zealand and less successfully South Africa and India; or indeed the colonisation that is taking place today as the Arabic nations seek to colonise Europe.

The Rise of the city states

The Archaic period also marks a major change in politics. This is characterised by the rise of the ‘city state’: there were no more kingdoms but the aristocratic families took control of individual cities.  Gradually politics developed in two different directions: some cities developed as oligarchies, where a few leading families directed control of the state. On the other side, some cities developed more popular forms of government – either as tyrannies or democracy. We tend to think of tyranny and democracy as being two opposites, but in Greece they tended to be two sides of the same coin. When a democracy broke down a tyrant would emerge to put it right, and when the tyrant died or tried to pass on his rule to his sons, a more democratic form of government would take over. Thus in Greece some cities tended to alternate between tyranny and democracy, while others became oligarchies which were often more stable, because once an oligarchy is established, it can be very difficult to dislodge.

What we are really seeing is the breakdown of the old feudal system or a kinship-based society, and its replacement by a more broadly based society – which I tend to call a class society, that is a more fluid society where your place in society is more flexible. It is a change from a society where you always owe dues to your superior and your superior gives you support and ‘gifts’, to a society where exchange comes ultimately in the form of money. It is a society ready for money, indeed a society that needs money if its economic basis is to make sense, and the citizens’ desire for more freedom and control over their own lives is to be fulfilled.

This Roman bust in the Uffizi Museum in Florence is inscribed as being of Solon. However the inscription is late – probably put on in the Renaissance – and it is more likely to be a bust of the poet Sophocles

The change is best seen at Athens with the reforms of Solon. Solon (circa 638-558 BC) was one of the leading citizens of Athens – a wise man, a poet (fragments of whose poetry survives) and reformer. In 594 BC he was chosen to be Chief Archon, that is the annually elected ruler. Athens was in chaos, so he drew up a new constitution which he said was not to be altered for ten years, upon which he took himself off for ten years, visiting Egypt and Lycia and making himself unavailable so that no-one could challenge him over his constitution.

The big problem for Athens was the accumulation of debt. Land was held by small farmers but if they could not pay their rent they fell into debt, and if the debts accumulated they could be sold into slavery. The main feature of Solon’s reforms was the cancellation of debts. This proved to be a satisfactory middle way, for the poor people were released from their debts while the rich were relieved that there was not a general land redistribution. They may have lost their debts but they kept their land.

But the problem is to know what is meant by the word ‘debt’. We tend to think of debt in money terms, but money had not yet been invented and we must think of debt in feudal terms, that you were expected to pay a sixth of your produce to your superior every year and if you could not pay your sixth, the only security that you could offer was your own life and liberty, which meant that you could be enslaved. The real importance of this is that we are seeing the breakdown of the old feudal system, though the problem could not really be solved until the invention of money, 50 or 100 years later.

The old feudal system – I tend to call it a caste system – was replaced by a new ranking system based on wealth. This was based on a medimnos of cereals, a word generally translated as bushel. The top rank of society had the wonderful name of pentakosiamedimnoi or 500 bushel men, who alone were qualified to serve as generals in the army (if you had enough bushels, you were therefore qualified to be a general). Then came the knights, the hippeis who had 300 medimnoi and were rich enough to have a horse and could therefore serve as cavalry. Then came the zeugitae who had 200 medimnoi and were the yeomen who served as hoplites or foot soldiers in the army – but they were expected to pay for their own armour. Then there were the thetes who had less than 200 medimnoi and who served as auxiliaries or slingers in the army. They were not allowed to hold any political office but they were nevertheless able to be present in a general assembly, and they were eligible to serve as jurymen in the courts, so this is an important step towards ultimate democracy. He also (probably) established a Council of 400 men, 100 from each tribe, to act as a counterweight to the Areopagus, the assembly of the ex-magistrates.

The François vase,  one of the finest examples of early black-figured pottery.

By the end of what we now call the Archaic period, the Athenian potters were capable of producing urns such as this magnificent amphora known as the François vase, found in a rich grave in Etruria and now in the Museum in Florence

Solon also carried other reforms – he revised and standardised weights and measures, he encouraged foreign traders and also the cultivation of the olive tree. It is perhaps no coincidence that around this time the new Athenian ‘black figure’ pottery swept the markets of Greece and Etruria that had hitherto had been dominated by Corinthian pottery.

These reforms mark an interesting step in the reshaping of Greek society that was taking place at the time: no longer was rank dependent on birth, but on wealth, which is a big step forward in the structure of society. The system did not last long, but it paved the way to the 5th century when the whole system was swept away and replaced by a new system of democracy.

His reforms seem to have been largely successful, for the major problem of debt and civic disunion that wracked the 7th century appears to have changed to being only a minor problem in the 6th and 5th century. Before Solon, Athens was not one of the leading states of Greece: Corinth and perhaps Sparta were the leading states with Argos and Thebes not far behind. But in the 6th century, Athens moves ahead and establishes a dominating role, which was to hold for the rest of Greek history.

On to the Advent of Money – and Democracy

25th November 2015