Early Time Periods of Ancient Greece

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Greece didn't just suddenly appear with the Parthenon and democracy. Instead, its roots go all the way back to the Stone Age. This lesson sheds some light on the earliest days of Greek history.

Neolithic Greece

Given all the ruins, texts, and works of art that we have from the Greeks, it's hard to imagine that there was a time during which people were first entering Greece. These people were not who we would think of as Greeks, despite the fact that they lived in Greece. Known as the Sesklo people, these first inhabitants of Greece lived much like other people lived during the Neolithic period more than 8000 years ago. The Neolithic period, sometimes known as the New Stone Age, is important because it was the first time that people began to settle down and farm. Later, around 5000 BC, another Neolithic group known as the Dimini came and wiped out the Sesklo. However, neither of these groups were the predecessors of who we think of as the Greeks.

Three Groups, One Time

Instead, those groups came via the islands around Greece. Speaking a sort of early Greek, they finally started to arrive around 3000 BC. These people had the knowledge necessary to make bronze, so we often refer to them collectively as the Bronze Age Greeks. However, more specifically, archaeologists refer to the three groups by different archaeological periods based on where they existed. The most famous of these groups were the Minoans, who occupied the island of Crete from around 3600 BC until 1170 BC. The Minoans were the first of the Greek-like peoples to write down their language, although we've only been able to decipher one of their alphabets. Also, the Minoans were very famous for their frescoes, or wall paintings that showed scenes from everyday life. Through these frescoes, we've been able to learn a great deal about the Minoans.

Minoan Fresco
Minoan Fresco

Closer to modern Greece were two other groups, neither of which were as famous as the Minoans. On the islands off the coast of Greece was the Cycladic culture. This group was heavily influenced by the Minoans and indeed started to act more and more like the Minoans from around 2000 BC onwards. Meanwhile, the Helladic period peoples lived on the Greek mainland. It was out of this group that the most famous of the Greek Bronze Age cultures would emerge.

Mycenaean Greece

The Mycenaean Greeks thrived on the Greek mainland from 1600 BC until 1100 BC. During this period, some of the most famous Greek cities, like Athens and Thebes, were established. The Mycenaean Greeks are the inspiration for a surprising amount of our knowledge of ancient Greece. After all, Homer references the Mycenaean period in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, and later finds have proven that the likely site of Troy dated from the Mycenaean period. The Mycenaean culture proved to be so dominant that it was able to surpass that of the Minoans, especially after the eruption of a volcano on Crete around 1500 BC.

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