Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By 800 BCE, the Greeks had shaken off their Dark Age doldrums. Villages united around central towns, and these towns grew into cities, and these cities, in turn, became city-states. The city-state emerged as the iconic political unit of Greece.
On the mainland, Athens, Sparta, Thebes and Corinth were established. Miletus appeared in Asia Minor. Naxos and Samos arose on the islands of the Aegean. As the populations of these city-states swelled, they soon outstripped their local resources. City-states began colonizing lands outside of Greece.
These began as purely commercial ventures, small trading settlements along the coasts that held markets, warehouses and a few Greeks to maintain trade. Yet as demand for goods, especially food, continued to surge at home, city-states began establishing full-blown colonies. These colonies provided food for the mother city, and also a place for excess population to settle and farm.
Though the Greeks built colonies all along the Mediterranean, the bulk of Greek colonies were established in the fertile land of Italy and Sicily. As the years went by, Greek colonization of southern Italy became so intense that the Romans would refer to southern Italy as Magna Graecia, Great Greece.
To review, around 1200 BCE, the Mycenaean civilization, which had ruled the Aegean since at least 1400 BCE, was brought low by a Dorian Invasion. This invasion was part of a larger Bronze Age collapse that overran the Mediterranean civilizations of the Bronze age. Across the Mediterranean, cities were burned to the ground, trade ground to a halt and literacy all but vanished. These global changes had a profound impact on Greece.
The dissolution of the centralized Mycenaean government led to the development of fiercely independent city-states. The decline of literacy led to the creation of The Iliad and The Odyssey. These poems, in turn, led to the creation of a new alphabet: the world's first 'true' alphabet with vowel sounds to capture the nuances of poetry.
This new alphabet was so easy to learn that literacy in Greece skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, allowing merchants and craftsmen to take advantage of this useful tool. The new alphabet was so versatile that it could be used for things other than record keeping, and the Greeks established new forms of literature, including poetry, history, philosophy, comedy and tragedy.
After finishing this lesson, you should recall that a Dark Age of Greece began with the Dorian Invasion which there is little known of, however, during this period myths and stories survived like the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey which were so long that they needed to be written down thus creating an easy alphabet and a surge in education.
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Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets