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From Mycenae's Collapse to Greek Colonization

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  • 0:06 The Height of Mycenae's Glory
  • 1:49 The Dorian Invasion
  • 3:07 Greece in the Dark Ages
  • 4:41 Chaos Brings Opportunities
  • 6:30 Greece Exits the Dark Ages
  • 7:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the history of Greece from the collapse of Mycenae to the start of Greek Colonization. We watch its dissolution during the Dorian Invasion and take a look at Greece in the Dark Ages.

Mycenae at the Height of Its Glory

Around 1500 BCE, the prosperous Minoan civilization was conquered by a people known as the Mycenaeans, from the Greek mainland. Though the Mycenaeans borrowed many things from their Minoan predecessors, like their government, their writing system and even to some extent, their art, the Mycenaeans were also very different from the Minoans. Though Mycenaean art derived its themes from Minoan art, they never reached the technical mastery and artistic delicacy of the Minoans.

Though the Mycenaeans used the same letters as the Minoans Linear A script, they adapted it to write an early form of Greek, forming their own unique Linear B script. Though the Mycenaeans seem to have practiced a central-palace bureaucracy similar to that of the Minoans, the Mycenaeans also seem to have grasped the importance of military power in government, a concept that seems to have eluded the Minoans entirely.

The Mycenaeans were warriors, first and foremost. Within a century, the Mycenaeans had conquered the majority of the former Minoan empire. By 1400 BCE, Mycenae controlled the entire Aegean Sea, and around 1250, they famously sacked the city of Troy in Asia Minor. Being conquerors themselves, the Mycenaeans were keenly aware of the threat of military conquest. Unlike the unfortified Minoan palaces, the palace at Mycenae had huge walls for protection. The stones for these walls were so massive that later Greeks assumed that these walls must have been built by the mythical Cyclopes, giving this huge stone style of building its name: Cyclopean.

The Mycenaeans built huge walls to protect their palace from invasion.
Mycenae Palace Walls

The Dorian Invasion

Yet neither Mycenae's martial valor, nor those Cyclopean walls were able to protect Mycenae from the Dorian Invasion that began between 1200 and 1100 BCE. The expensive bronze weapons of the Mycenaeans could not hold up to the cheap, but powerful, iron weapons of the Dorians, and within a few decades, the Mycenaean civilization was all but wiped from the earth.

Though the Dorians had superior military technology, they lagged far behind the Mycenaeans in terms of culture and civilization. With the rise of the Dorians, Greece entered a Dark Age. Cities were abandoned, trade ground to a halt and literacy all but disappeared. Greece would remain in this Dark Age for nearly 400 years.

The Dorian Invasion was but one part of a worldwide Bronze Age collapse. Between 1200 and 1150, similar collapses were taking place in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Hittite Empire vanished without a trace. The mighty Egyptians were conquered by a mysterious group known only as the Sea Peoples. Not one city was left standing from Greece to the Levant. Trade and literacy all but vanished from the West.

Greece in the Dark Ages

Since the Dorians left us with no written records and very few material goods, we know almost nothing about Greece in the Dark Ages. Most of our knowledge is rather inferred from The Iliad and The Odyssey, which were composed in this age, and some scant archaeological findings. From these, we believe that the Greeks of the Dark Ages lived in autonomous village communities, ruled over by a king who was little more than a warlord.

Any assemblies were simply gatherings of warriors. There were no formal legal institutions, and crimes, like murder, were dealt with by vengeance on the part of the family. The economic situation was not much better. With no currency, trade was reduced to bartering. The Greeks of this age didn't even have a word for merchant.

Without efficient trade, every household had to be self-sufficient; it raised its own food, manufactured its own clothing and produced its own tools. Skilled crafts were all but unheard of, though a lord might employ a swordsmith or a wheelwright.

Greeks in the Dark Ages had to be self-sufficient.
Greeks Were Self-Sufficient

It was during this age that the central beliefs of Greek religion and myth began to form. This age gave rise to most of the myths of the classical era. However, organized religion as we know it today, with professional priests and places of worship, was all but unknown. The Greeks may have built temples, but these were meant as houses for the gods to visit, not centers of worship for the devout.

Chaos Brings New Opportunities

As dire as this situation sounds, it was not really all bad. For every downside to the Greek Dark Ages, there was an upside as well. The collapse of the Mycenaean civilization released local Greek communities from Mycenaean hegemony. This lack of centralized rule, combined with the need for self-sufficiency, drove Greek villages to develop the fiercely independent autonomy that would characterize them as city-states in the centuries to come.

Since writing vanished from Greece, this led to the composition of the epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, written in verse to make them easy to memorize. Yet, despite the aid of poetry, these epics became so long that someone got the idea to write them down. This desire, in turn, led to the creation of the first 'true' alphabet with letters representing vowel sounds.

Unlike earlier alphabets, which had been designed to record inventories or maybe to trumpet the deeds of kings and emperors, the Greek alphabet was designed to capture all the delicate nuances of poetry. This new alphabet was so versatile, so easy to learn, that literacy once again exploded across Greece. This was a huge boon to the Greeks, because literacy had historically been reserved to a small caste of scribes and administrators.

A rise in the demand for written work led to the creation of the first alphabet.
First Greek Alphabet

Now the useful tool of writing was available to everyone. Merchants recorded their transactions. Craftsmen recorded their inventories. Administrators recorded censuses and reserves. Yet because of its versatility, the Greeks put writing to novel uses as well, such as poetry, philosophy, history, comedy and tragedy.

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