Greek Art & Culture in the Archaic Period

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

For some, Archaic just means old. For others, it is simply a transition period on the way to the 'real' ancient Greeks. However, many of the most interesting cultural adaptations of the Greeks occurred during the Archaic Period and we will look at those more closely in this lesson.

What was the Archaic Period?

Since 1200 BC, much of the Eastern Mediterranean world had been stuck in a Dark Age. For a number of reasons, still hotly debated by scholars, the old Bronze Age cultures of Mesopotamia, Mycenae, and Egypt were now replaced with chaos and darkness. However, by 800 BC, some inklings of trade had begun to once again link this part of the world. Merchant ships plied the waters from the Aegean Sea near Greece to the Phoenician home ports of Tyre and Sidon, once again linking Greece to the trading world.

Historians have given the name Archaic Period to this age between the revitalization of Greek life and its zenith during the Athenian Classical Period of the late 5th century. While Archaic may invoke a mental image of something old and tired, life during the Greek Archaic Period was anything but boring.

Trade, Language, and a New Political Class

With this new trade, came a new way of keeping track of merchant's accounts. Prior to the Dark Age, the Greeks had relied on Linear B, an alphabet that we are still doing our best to fully understand even today. Afterwards, they were inspired to copy what the Phoenicians were using, creating the Greek alphabet much as we know it today. Ultimately, it would be this alphabet that would inspire our own by way of the Romans.

However, it wasn't the traditional rich who were making these vast sums off of trade. In fact, many of the old rich families of Greece were still satisfied as landowners. Instead, it was a new class of merchants who were soon able to build vast amounts of wealth, well beyond anything that the old ruling elites could have imagined. Leveraging Greece's abundance of grapes and olives, these merchants sold wine and olive oil as luxury goods throughout the Mediterranean world. In addition to gold, they carried back foreign luxury goods like incense for temples, as well as considerable amounts of food to allow Greece's population to grow and flourish.

Emerging Democracies

This new merchant class was a real threat to the old ruling families of Greece. Before the Dark Age, Greece had been ruled by a handful of powerful kings, and as the region emerged into the light, many old aristocratic landowners were eager to see their political power expanded. Citing the growing influence of the merchant elite, they formed oligarchies, or systems of rule that featured a small group of families that had power, instead of just one monarch. That said, as the Archaic Period continued, these families were increasingly reliant on the money earned by the merchant class overseas. By the end of the period, in some of the wealthiest trading cities like Athens, these merchants would have their own place alongside the aristocrats in seats of power.

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