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Life & Culture in the Greek Dark Ages

Instructor: Kevin Newton

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

Before 1200 BC, the Greek Bronze Age culture flourished. After 750 BC, Greek culture again flourished. What happened in the 450 years in between is one of the biggest mysteries in Greek history. This lesson sheds some light on the Greek Dark Ages.

What Caused the Dark Ages?

Before approximately 1200 BC, people in Greece and much of the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean world were living at the height of development. The Mycenaean culture of Greece had spread throughout much of the Aegean, most famously to the city of Troy. In fact, it would be the siege of that city that caused much of the interest in Mycenaean Greece in the first place. These cultures were largely adapted to the use of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, and accordingly, this period is called the Bronze Age.

Then, suddenly, something happened. Across the entire Mediterranean, cultures that had been thriving suddenly were destroyed. Shockingly, more than 3,000 years later, we still really don't know what happened. Some historians claim that a group known only to history as the Sea Peoples, sailing somewhere from present-day Libya, destroyed Egypt and Greece. Others point to the invasion of the Dorians, a group from northern Greece with warlike tendencies. No matter the event, the Bronze Age civilization in Greece, and civilizations elsewhere, abruptly collapsed.

What Was Daily Life Like?

The collapse of government may seem to have advantages. But the Greeks soon found out they needed their governments. Governments provided military protection, but more importantly they provided a sort of management system to make sure that enough food was grown to allow some people to pursue other activities. Now, since everyone had to worry about food, people forgot how to do the other things that had distinguished Greek culture in the first place.

Loss of Culture

With so many people worried about food, Greek culture started to implode. People stopped writing, which means that we have very little information to draw upon from daily life. Instead, we have one of the few instances of history in which historians have to defer to archaeologists despite the fact that earlier writings detailing a different time exist, in this case, the writings of the Mycenaean people who lived before the Dark Age. Through examining dump sites, tombs, and what remains of the small settlements of the period, we can conclude that this was a society that was focused on staying alive. We know this because instead of finding, for example, broken shards of decorated pottery, we instead find only basic goods, like ceramics with only simple decorations. This was not a time that permitted the hours necessary to decorate consumer goods.

Note the Squid on this Pre-Dark Ages Pottery
Pre Dark Ages Pottery

However, there was progress. Near the midpoint of the Greek Dark Ages, the Greeks attempted to reach out to the rest of the world. Small-scale trade resumed with the Eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, we can see that the Greeks were aware of the cultural greatness of their ancestors, even as their own society stood still. The most enduring literary giant of Greek history, Homer, is thought to have lived either during the height of the Dark Ages or towards its end, and he makes it clear throughout his work that Greece was once great. On a more visual level, pottery from this period did lose the animal-heavy style of the Mycenaean period, but does begin to have geometric shapes again. Greek artists once again had the time to push the boundaries of their art beyond geometric shapes and towards increasingly lifelike portrayals.

Pottery from the Greek Dark Ages Is Only Geometric in Design
Dark Ages Greek Pottery

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