The Ancient Greece we have all come to love is characterized by the rise of democracy, the warring of neighboring poleis, and the birth of new sciences. However, while we are most familiar with the Classical and Golden eras of Greece, the history that precedes this excellence is often veiled in obscurity. As archaeology has begun to uncover new information, we too begin to uncover the past of one of the greatest civilizations. Before the inception of city-states, warfare, and new discoveries in mathematics and natural sciences, there were the Minoans, the Mycenaeans, the Dark Ages, and Archaic Greece.
Around 7000-6500 BCE, the Neolithic Revolution from central Europe ushered in the rise of the Minoan people of Crete. A small island off the Balkan Peninsula, the idyllic island had trading at its heart. Surrounded by the Aegean and Mediterranean, these traders had access to the mainland and acquired extravagant wealth. The people of Crete were peaceful, with no intention of war. Most of what we know about the Minoans comes from their beautiful pottery that documents their daily lives. Like the Classical Greeks, the Minoans treasured their sports; the inhabitants took part in bull-leaping, which involved jumping over bulls. Unlike today, it is assumed that women were equal–if not superior–to men, as corroborated by frescos of women in very lavish clothing found in palaces. Such palaces, most notably Knossos, were commonplace, and it is suggested that the civilization was very urban because of its wealth. The Minoan writing in Linear A, as of right now, is undecipherable. It is assumed that like other contemporary civilizations, the writing was for records and government.
At their acme, considered 3000-1400 BCE, the Minoans were highly successful. In the early 1600’s BCE, however, a devastating tidal wave caused by a nearby volcanic eruption brought great destruction and misfortune to the people. Weakened and without arms, the Minoans were conquered by their former trade partners from the mainland, the Mycenaeans. The Mycenaeans were the polar opposites of the Minoans: unorganized, bellicose, and not as skilled in crafts. Despite their differences, the Mycenaeans greatly admired the Minoan civilization, for they adopted much of their culture by means of cultural borrowing. Like their predecessors, the Mycenaeans built awesome palaces. The prominent city of Mycenae paralleled that of Knossos! One other thing they adapted was Minoan writing, which, fortunately, was translatable. Known as Linear B, it was not decoded until World War II. Homer’s Iliad, composed anywhere from 1200-700 BCE, details the Trojan War. While it depicts a battle aided by divine intervention, it is thought that the Trojan War was real and most likely a battle for trade. Historians are perplexed as to whether or not Homer correctly depicts his time; armor and weaponry are not accurate; however, the cities mentioned and their significance, are.
Just like the Medieval Dark Ages, the era of Greek history from 1200-800 BCE is that of disorganization and illiteracy. After the proposed happenings of the Trojan War, the sites of numerous Mycenaean cities appeared to be destroyed and inflicted by no mere accident. The Mycenaeans were annihilated. War broke out amongst the people, and historians credit the Mycenaeans themselves and the Dorians with the fall of the civilization, thus beginning the Dark Ages. The Dorian people migrated to the lands of Greece from the north. These people, though uncoordinated, eventually created small packs along the coast. Professor Thomas F.X. Noble notes the absurdity of how the once literate Greeks forgot how to write. Starting soon after, Archaic Greece saw the small groups of Greeks form bigger, more organized groups. The Greeks, now in individual sects, identified themselves as Hellenes, after the sun goddess Hellen. This sense of identification allowed for them to grow bigger, which meant conquering other cities and adopting their ideas. Take, for example, the Phoenician alphabet, which the Greeks used to write. Their own culture was invented presently and they began to identify as a greater whole. This led to the creation of city-states and new art in the shape of pottery!
And we thus arrive at the Greece we all know. After a turbulent past, the Greeks cleaned themselves up and achieved great things!
For further information:
The Great Courses: The Foundations of Western Civilization by Thomas F.X. Noble
History: The Definitive Visual Guide by Adam Hart-Davis (2007)
Atlas of World History by Alison Rattle