Dark Age Greece

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In the late thirteenth and early twelfth centuries b.c. the Bronze Age palace civilization of Aegean Greece went down in flames. Strongly fortified though they were, the urban centers of a series of small Mycenaean states in southern mainland Greece, together with associated regional centers on Crete and lesser Aegean islands, suffered violent destruction, putting an end to their power and unraveling complex political and economic structures. Although the precise origin of the attackers is unknown and other factors may have played a role, at least locally, in some cases (e.g., earthquakes and climatic downturns), it is significant that the fall of Late Bronze Age civilization in the Aegean occurred during a time of equal unrest throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Hittite civilization in Anatolia suffered a similar fate, and in the Levant and Egypt armies of seaborne raiders and colonists of apparently diverse backgrounds (the "Sea Peoples") sacked towns and threatened the great power of Pharaonic Egypt, leaving a more permanent mark as founders of Philistine city-states in coastal Palestine.

Scholarship nonetheless is inclined, less at present than in the past, to envisage waves of invaders penetrating Greece from outside the Aegean to perpetrate the assassination of the Mycenaean palace kingdoms. However, alternative scenarios of internal civil wars between individual states, or a peasants' uprising, remain mere hypotheses, with only later Greek legend to suggest internal wars. The succeeding archaeological assemblages of the penultimate Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (fig. 1) seem firmly rooted in Mycenaean and, on Crete, Minoan Bronze Age traditions; so if invaders were a critical element, they must have moved on or been absorbed rapidly into local cultures. In any case, the disruption associated with the violent end to the Mycenaean world was awesome enough to plunge the Aegean into a Dark Age that was to last from c. 1200 to 800 b.c.

Although this Dark Age was perhaps more a half-light than utter blackness, no one would dispute that history leaves us with the extinction of literacy throughout these four centuries. As Anthony Snodgrass pointed out a generation ago, many other striking signs of "de-skilling" characterize this period: the disappearance of elaborate architectural complexes; highly impoverished assemblages of metal; the virtual absence of human representations; a dramatic decline in the number of dated occupation sites; very reduced evidence for foreign exchange compared with the preceding period; and no sign of political centers of regional control. Whatever the reason(s) for the end of the palace states, the reduction in social, economic, and artistic complexity was severe and persisted for many generations.

It seems reasonable to ask why recovery took so long and to link this question to a striking feature of the Dark Age, the evidence for large-scale population movements around the Aegean. Although evidence mainly has been reconstructed from the study of the different ancient Greek dialects, later legends, and a little recorded history, along with certain archaeological support, it appears that during this long, disturbed era few parts of the former Bronze Age Aegean world did not become involved in folk movements on a significant scale. Some scholars, such as the British historian Robin Osborne, have suggested a link between these migrations and the much better historically attested colonization movements by Aegean Greeks throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea in the centuries immediately after the Dark Age and in the Archaic and early Classical centuries (the Archaic era is c. 700–500 b.c.; the Classical era is c. 500–323 b.c.; the early Classical era is the fifth century b.c.). The latter generally occurred, however, in times of denser homeland populations and elaborate state organization, so that it seems more appropriate to try to account for the Dark Age migrations in their own unique period context.

Why would whole communities abandon their homelands and risk all to settle far away, especially in an era when organized political authority had collapsed in great violence and insecurity must have been endemic? Violence may indeed have been a central reason. It is true even today that one of the main precipitating factors around the world for the displacement of entire communities, after food starvation and drought, is to escape the arbitrary violence associated with the breakdown of law and order. Generally, this is in the context of civil war or the absence of any centralized control over the use of force. Although there have been attempts to argue that the palace societies were struck by famine or drought, and there is some related evidence from Egypt that could introduce this as one element behind the crisis, no convincing case for prolonged climatic disaster can be found for the Aegean. Other factors must have been critical, even if this is allowed as a potentially secondary contributor. Summarizing a plausible scenario on what remains circumstantial evidence, one might suggest that violent attacks on the Mycenaean state centers by internal forces—with or without assistance from maritime armies of raiders such as the Sea Peoples—caused their definitive removal. This state of affairs ushered in a long period of insecurity that effectively blocked the reconstitution of regional states and the rule of law for centuries to follow.


One of the seemingly curious aspects of accounts by later, Classical Greek historians of events between the Age of the Heroes (a legendary era essentially rooted in memories of the Minoan-Mycenaean Bronze Age) and their own historic era is that they did not envisage this Dark Age at all. The world of the legendary leaders, associated with major palace centers, such as Thebes or Mycenae, certainly is portrayed in its final phase as riven by warfare, assassination, and internal migrations. It also is conceived as directly giving rise to the elite-dominated world of early historic Greece, from c. 700 b.c. (the Archaic era), with its kings or aristocrats (basileis) claiming heroic progenitors for their dynasties. This connection is difficult to accommodate with the archaeological picture just described, with three to five hundred years of an apparent reversion of political and economic organization to a thin scatter of short-lived rural hamlets with narrow horizons and little evidence for any sort of specialization or social stratification. Snodgrass's use of the statistics of Dark Age cemeteries—their number and size—seemed convincing hard data to argue for tiny, dispersed communities appropriate to such limited achievements.

The first sign that the Dark Ages were merely "dim" came with the spectacular discovery on a small peninsula called Lefkandi jutting out on the mainland-facing shore of the island of Euboea, not far from Athens in southern Greece, of a cemetery that had grown up around a monumental funerary mound. Under the mound an impressive apsidal building was found in 1980 (fig. 2), with a male and female elite burial together with horse graves. The burial has been dated surprisingly early, to about 1000 b.c.—the supposed nadir of Greek culture. Current opinion holds that the great house represents the dwelling of a chieftain's family, namely the elite male and his partner. The gifts and finds from the later community cemetery that grew up beside it indicate exchange with the more advanced Early Iron Age city-states of the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps brought by Phoenician traders to the Aegean. (Their presence is known also at the port of Kommos on the southern coast of Crete at this time.) Nonetheless, Snodgrass had calculated from the size and date range of the Lefkandi cemetery that the population at any one time was only that of a small hamlet—difficult to see as a viable basis for a regional chiefdom.

The key to these accumulating discrepancies would be discovered in the late 1980s by one of Snodgrass's brightest students, Ian Morris. In a book that rewrote at a stroke our understanding of the Dark Age, Burial and Ancient Society, Morris showed that the key evidence from cemeteries (settlements being rarely excavated or studied in detail) was, in fact, completely misleading. Through analysis of the structure of the cemeteries and their age, sex, and wealth patterning, he argued that the transitional time between the Mycenaean era and the Dark Age proper—that of the sub-Mycenaean period—saw everyone in a community buried together in cemeteries. With the inception of the full Dark Age or Early Iron Age (proto-Geometric period, c. 1050–900 b.c.), however, formal cemetery burial became reserved exclusively for a social elite. This privileging remained in force in the subsequent Early to Middle Geometric period, but then, in a critical transformational century leading into the first historic era—the Late Geometric (eighth century b.c.)—there was a dramatic return to social inclusiveness in cemeteries.

The obvious effect of this cycle is to mimic an apparent collapse of populations for the central main era of the Dark Age, bracketed by much higher populations. If one now reconstitutes a significant "invisible" population, this reduces the previous image of extraordinary depopulation. Moreover, and equally important, the evidence of such elite power over burial privileges is predicated on the survival of at least a district elite society throughout the whole Dark Age period. Here the Lefkandi house and subsequent discoveries of similar structures in other parts of Greece fall exactly into place. The Lefkandi chief would have been associated with a much larger support population than the communal cemetery indicates, and one can see the impressive type of residence from which the community was kept under elite sway. One further hint fits well into this new scenario: the term used in our first historic sources from about 700 b.c. for the controlling elite is the basileis—princes or lords. The word is used to mean a "minor official" in the preceding Mycenaean state archives. It might be reasonable to suggest that during the catastrophic collapse of palace civilizations around 1200 b.c., regional kingship disappeared, and power fragmented into myriad district chiefdoms. The Lefkandi-type residence would suit this picture very well, as does the survival of the term basileis into the earliest historic period.

One other feature of several of the well-studied Dark Age settlements deserves highlighting—their relative impermanence. Important sites, such as Lefkandi or Zagora on the island of Andros, were abandoned by the end of the period. It is important to point out that Morris's corrections to Dark Age population estimates fall well short of bringing them up to Mycenaean or Archaic era levels. Even when one boosts observable cemetery populations by a factor of two, their size and number remain modest and rare across the Greek landscape. The restrictions on architectural complexity and artistic production or trade remain in place, and one must still see a countryside with generally low population numbers and vast empty and uncultivated spaces, later to be filled and exploited to crisis proportions in the historic centuries of Archaic, through Classical, and into Early Hellenistic times (c. 700–300b.c.; the Hellenistic era is 323 b.c. to 31 b.c. in Greece). In such a landscape, land would not have been of great value, and aspiring chieftains drew their power from controlling a more valuable scarce resource—manpower. In ways still not entirely clear, the Dark Age elite families attached the peasantry to their households. As chiefly power fluctuated from family to family across the landscape or a new elite generation chose to displace the seat of dynastic power from its ancestors, so elite and peasants migrated around the relatively thinly settled countryside. The power clearly was generalized and binding enough to suppress formal burial rights for the lesser folk.

Various theories can be raised to account for the nature of this grip on the working peasantry. A popular model for such a comparatively undeveloped and fragmented society, not far from expanding commercial powers such as the contemporary Phoenicians, would be a core-periphery system. Such a system emphasizes the inflow of eastern Mediterranean prestige goods for the local Greek elite in return for trading out raw materials and surplus foodstuffs that would have been channeled into the local chieftain's trading capital, as a kind of tax from the peasants. As often with this kind of application, the model fails to account for the ways in which elite-peasant dependency arises and is kept from being severed. The brilliant analysis by Hans van Wees of changing fashions in clothing, as portrayed in figured vases from Late Geometric to earliest Classical times (c. 800–480 b.c.), gets much closer to the answer.


Although the main part of the Dark Age shows almost no hint of the representation of people on ceramics, the situation changes dramatically in the critical renaissance of the eighth century b.c. In almost all aspects of life there were major positive changes toward a more populous, politically complex society in most parts of Greece, artistically and architecturally experimental and ambitious. A striking series of large vases of this Late Geometric period give us scenes of everyday life, with a gloss of extra and anachronistic details that come from the popular legendary tales of Troy and the Bronze Age heroic world, clearly underlining claims to heroic ancestry for the living elite. It is notable that these scenes portray the elite and their male retinue as heavily armed at all times. In the first part of the following period, the Archaic (seventh century b.c.), this remains the typical dress for the elite household. In the final Archaic century (sixth century b.c.), however, the sword and spear and open dress, allowing rapid deployment of these weapons, yield to a tight-fitting male dress copied from the Near East and the disappearance of the sword. By the end of that century, the spear is replaced by a walking stick, still potentially available to fend off vagrants but no longer a serious weapon. At the same time, scenes of the elite dining in Archaic times with series of armor and weapons suspended above them shift by early Classical times to representations of the elite and middle class with a single set of military equipment. This symbolizes the economic and political status of the head of the family as a member of the middle or upper citizen class (the hoplite, who had sufficient income to own the heavy equipment required of the citizen foot soldier in a typical Greek city-state).

What do these transformations in dress reveal about the organization of Dark Age society? Almost certainly, it was one where force was law; mere claim to preeminence was inadequate. Just as the chief and the retinue he sustained always were armed so as to be ready to take on rival families or intruders from neighboring districts, a similar threat of instant violence may have kept the dependent peasantry in their place. They were, after all, the essential foundation for the daily rations, banquets, gifts, and supply of metal that the elite superstructure required for its maintenance. The clashing clans of Romeo and Juliet's Verona come to mind, but closer to this time the return of Odysseus in Homer's epic is a vivid illustration of the period's ethos. In Odysseus's absence during the Trojan War and then on his wanderings around the Mediterranean, a group of other nobles insolently encamp in his palace, hoping to marry the abandoned wife, perhaps already a widow, and squandering Odysseus's resources. Upon their return, Odysseus and his son first remove all the weaponry and armor hanging in the dining-hall—doubtless originally placed there for his own followers—and then massacre the defenseless suitors, rounding that off by hanging the servant girls who had fraternized with the unwelcome guests.

The claims of Dark Age elites to have descended from the royal families of the Mycenaean Late Bronze Age are probably, with some exceptions, as unlikely as they were strongly emphasized by these local chiefly families. With much mobility around the landscape and the limited scope of district warrior-leaders, continuity of actual power and bloodlines is implausible. The aristocrats, who were rather more reliant on a gang of armed followers and their own aggressiveness to claim power over a dependent peasantry, nonetheless were keen to bolster supposed ties to legendary Mycenaean heroes. Hence the later Classical Greek conception that there was no Dark Age was born. This myth allowed Theseus to be both an early Mycenaean Athenian prince who destroyed the Cretan Minotaur (plausibly a memory of the Mycenaean takeover of the Minoan palace at Knossos) and the founder of a unified Attic state focused on Athens in the middle era of the Dark Age, some five hundred years later.

One way to convince people that one's family was in direct descent from Bronze Age heroes would be to identify an elite burial of that era and commence to make offerings to one's supposed ancestors in its precincts. Thus one sees the widespread emergence of hero cults at Mycenaean tholos tombs (a massive stone chamber built like a cone-shaped beehive) during the later Dark Age. Another way was to surround oneself with tales and images of the heroic age with which one wanted to be identified. This has two observable facets. First, when in Late Geometric times figural art reappears on a significant scale, with scenes of elite funerals and warfare, the mode of burial and some of the painted accoutrements either deliberately revive customs hitherto kept alive from the Bronze Age only in oral poetry or are pure illustrations to the tales of the Iliad and Odyssey and related epics and did not actually exist in contemporary society (e.g., giant body shields). Second, when the elite held their regular banquets to entertain and impress their neighbors and reward their retinue, oral poetry would be performed and doubtless continually modified to emphasize the claimed links of the audience to particular heroic figures from their own areas of Greece. By the time Homer wrote down a particular version of the two great cycles linked to the Trojan War (c. 700 b.c., at the emergence of written history), many generations of accretions and deletions are known to have occurred.

The feasting that is so central to Homeric elite gatherings seems to have been equally important to the warrior elite society of the Dark Age. One can suppose that large buildings, such as the Early Dark Age Lefkandi house (or its original, since some scholars suggest that the structure was not necessarily the actual chief's house but a replica built to be destroyed with the chief), were the focus of elite banqueting. These buildings also were repositories of prestigious items obtained by the elite through trade, gift exchange, or dowry as a way to emphasize their relative wealth and status to the impoverished dependent peasants who were their clients. The cult activity of the community almost certainly also was based in the chief's house and under his supervision—a further source of power to reinforce armed might and stores of food and valuables.

The multifunctional community focus represented by the chief's house—symbolic monument, ritual core, storehouse of wealth—and its physical plan are of far more than period interest. In its roles and design elements, this house is directly ancestral to the Archaic and Classical Greek temple. (One common version of the earliest Greek temple plans of the eighth through seventh centuries b.c. is in place at Lefkandi, c. 1000 b.c.—an elongated rectangle to which an apse is added at one end, with internal divisions denoting separate functions.) When the community focus of worship developed apart from the elite dwelling, something seen in several cases in the critical transformational Late Geometric eighth century b.c., it retained the traditional form of a rectangular subdivided building, often with the innermost part ending in an apse. Three key elements can be traced back to the Dark Age elite house—an entry porch, a main room with a focus (originally a hearth and later the cult statue), and an innermost chamber serving as private apartment and treasury.

One other element that is more specific to the Dark Ages and becomes less significant in Archaic to Classical times, as a more democratic society emerges, is the popularity of prestigious feasting vessels, or tripods. For much of the Dark Age, however, the general low level of bronze in society makes large containers too expensive. It is mainly in the final Late Geometric era that growing access to trade and a rising population can be associated with elite investment in great display pieces to show off at the traditional banquets in their households. The tripods, often showpieces at museums today, were large cooking and warming cauldrons for communal eating, highly ornamented and sometimes decorated with appropriate symbols of the warrior elite (e.g., a hero with raised spear, a gesture that is the most common one associated with Homeric warriors). Tripods were suitable gifts between elites and later became a common reward for victors in competitions at the international festivals in pan-Hellenic sanctuaries, such as Olympia.


Classical Greece was divided politically between those regions mostly in the north, where power remained with an elite or even a king, and those largely in the south, where power was vested in the middle or "hoplite" class, only rarely and discontinuously reaching down to the poorest free citizens. Very broadly, the northern regions were dominated by a kind of tribal organization, the ethnos, with the south and its more democratic constitutions associated with the city-state, or polis kind of organization. The transformation in Greece, so pregnant for European and later global history, from a common kind of elite politics, found cross-culturally around the world, to a unique experimentation with moderate democracy took place essentially within the Archaic era, but it began in later Dark Age times.

First, the tight control exercised over their peasant clients by the warrior elite seems to have loosened in Late Geometric times with the relaxation of the ban on formal burial. In the following Early Archaic period, military reform occurred widely in Greece: the cavalry and chariots of the rich became subordinated on the battlefield to massed ranks of heavily armed foot soldiers drawn mostly from the wealthier or "yeoman" peasantry. Although Morris, in his pioneering cemetery analysis, suggested that the excluded poor of the Dark Age first won formal burial and soon after became the mainstay of military force in the rising states of Greece, his own statistics tell a different story. He estimated that roughly half the population suffered burial exclusion in the Dark Age, but in the Classical army about half the free population was made up of the aristocrats and middle (hoplite) class, and the other half were lightly armed poorer folk. Effectively, this indicates that the Dark Age elite was a large upper class in a very broad sense, later to form the upper and middle class of Classical times. The Dark Age serf class, even in Classical city-states, normally remained a less privileged class (Athens excepted, and that for a relatively limited part of the general Classical era). This seems to argue that the rise of more democratic institutions in Archaic to Classical times reflects a shift in power from the dominant elite families to lesser, originally dependent elite families, rather than the rise of a hitherto entirely suppressed serf class.

This article has portrayed typical Dark Age landscapes as thinly settled and has concentrated on often rather short-lived chieftain-focused villages. Equally significant is a smaller class of Dark Age settlements of a very different character, usually retaining their uniqueness into the subsequent early historic era. Many key Mycenaean centers shrank to small towns or villages and never recovered greater status or even remained unoccupied (Mycenae and Pylos). A few, however, appear not only to have remained occupied through the Dark Ages and into Classical times but also to have been large clusters of closely spaced hamlets forming a discontinuous town. Athens, Argos, Thebes, and Knossos are four striking examples. This "town in patches" appearance that is seen in the mapped archaeology of Dark Age settlement and cemetery traces at such sites was identified by the Classical historian Thucydides as the "traditional archaic" type of town. It was preserved to his time in the curious amalgamation of close villages that constituted the plan of Classical Sparta. The most likely explanation for this multifocality is that a number of chiefs, with their retinues and serfs, settled in one another's vicinity yet kept a perceptible distance and their own cemetery zones.

In landscapes with mostly smaller communities, the existence of such towns at all times must have exerted a gravitational attraction in their immediate region, with trade opportunities and social possibilities unobtainable elsewhere. Moreover, a warlike elite society sees a virtue in aggression and feuding to enhance status and control over land and people, so that an imbalance of military capability in their favor would have tended to stimulate these larger polities to undertake territorial expansion over lesser polities in their vicinity. Certainly, Athens is remarkable in its feat of taking control of the large region of Attica well before recorded history begins c. 700 b.c., perhaps as early as 900 b.c., and Thebes, Argos, and Knossos all rose to become the most powerful city-states in their regions, though at later dates.

See alsoThe Minoan World (vol. 2, part 5); Mycenaean Greece (vol. 2, part 5).


Bintliff, J. L. "Territorial Behaviour and the Natural History of the Greek Polis." In Stuttgarter Kolloquium zur Historischen Geographie des Altertums. Vol. 4. Edited by E. Olshausen and H. Sonnabend, pp. 207–249. Amsterdam: Hakkert Verlag, 1994.

Morris, Ian. "The Early Polis as City and State." In City andCountry in the Ancient World. Edited by John Rich and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, pp. 24–57. London: Routledge, 1991.

——. Burial and Ancient Society. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Snodgrass, A. M. Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment. Dent: London: Dent, 1980.

——. Archaeology and the Rise of the Greek State. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Van Wees, Hans. "Greeks Bearing Arms." In Archaic Greece:New Approaches and New Evidence. Edited by N. Fisher and H. van Wees, pp. 333–378. London: Duckworth Press, 1998.

Whitley, J. The Archaeology of Ancient Greece. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

John Bintliff