Notebook, 1993-


[From: Lévêque, Pierre. The Birth of Greece. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. / DISCOVERIES. 1994 [Pierre Lévêque is a professor of Greek history at the Université de Franche-Comté, in Besançon. In addition to his scholarly histories of Greece, he has published several popular surveys of ancient Greek culture as well as guidebooks to Greece and Sicily. His most recent published works are about the history of religion.]

Birth of Greece

6000-26000 BC. The Neolithic Period. Setters from Asia Minor bring knowledge of agriculture to indigienous populations of main land Greece.

2600-2000 BC. Early Bronze Age. Establishment of Lerna, a city on the Gulf of Argolis. Arrival [c. 3000 BC] on mainland Greece of first Greek speaking peoples.

2000-1700 BC. Middle Bronze Age. Erection of the first Minoan palaces on Crete [c. 200-c. 1750 BC] Development of Linear A writing system.

1700-1200 BC. Late Bronze Age. [Mycenaean Period] Destruction of the first Minoan palaces and building of the second: development of Linear B. [C. 1500 BC]. Construction and enlargement of the Mycenaean palace. Conquest [c. 1500 BC] of Crete by the Achaeans. Trojan War [ca. 1200 BC]; destruction of the Mycenean Palaces

1200-c. 800 BC. Dark Ages. Beginning of the Iron Age; development of proto-Geometric style of art [c. 1100 BC]..... [from the Chronology, p. 168]

"Knossus in all its manifestations suggests the splendor and sanity and opulence of a powerful and peaceful people. It is gay - gay, healthful, sanitary, salubrious . . . . One feels the influence of Egypt, the homely human immediacy of the Etruscan world, the wise, communal organizing spirit of Inca days. I do not pretend to know, but I felt, as I have seldom felt before the ruins of the past, that here throughout long centuries there reigned an era of peace. There is something down to earth about Knossus . . . . The religious note seems to be graciously diminished; . . . . a spirit of play is markedly noticeable . . . . One feels that man lived to live, that he was not plagued by thoughts of a life beyond, that he was not smothered and restricted by undue reverence for the ancestral spirits, that he was religious in the only way which is becoming to man, by making the most of everything that comes to hand, by extracting the utmost of life form every passing minute." - [Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, 1941.]

Shortly after the arrival of the first Greek-speaking peoples, in about 2000 BC, a highly sophisticated civilization arose in mainland Greece. In time magnificent fortified palaces and rich tombs would bear witness to the new culture's development, which culminated during the reign of the kings of Mycenae in the 16th-14th Centuries BC and ended with the invasion of the Dorians--another Greek-speaking tribe from the north--in the late 11th century BC. [p. 13]

A knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry had been introduced into this region around 6000 BC, brought by settlers from Asia Minor, where these skills had been perfected much earlier. It is clear that the indigenous people had been quick to adopt the new methods. Remains of settlements discovered on the fertile plains of Thessaly, in the northeastern part of the country, indicate the development of stable and well-organized communities. On the acropolis at the site of Dimini, for example, stood a true palace, indication that even at this early date some monarchical institution had already been established . . . . Descendants of these early inhabitants had learned how to work with bronze only around 1600 BC, again somewhat later than the civilizations to the east. By this time they had obviously formed ties with the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean for in their homeland there was no tin and only very little copper--the two chief elements used to make bronze. Subsequent advances in metallurgy and the manufacture of improved plowing implements and weapons served to revolutionize methods of agriculture and warfare.

The remains of a city dating from the Early Bronze Age [2600-2000 BC] have been excavated at Lerna, on the Gulf of Argolis in the eastern Peloponnese, the peninsula that extends its fingers down into the Aegean Sea. This was a region of active commerce, and according to legend it was at Lerna that Heracles would slay the Hydra, the [p. 14] monster with one hundred heads. Though the houses are still prehistoric in form, the presence of a fortifying wall attests to the community's need to protect itself against its neighbors. In the city center dominating the whole complex, stood a royal palace known as the House of Tiles.

As yet there was nothing specifically Hellenic, or Greek, about this Early Bronze Age culture. The first true Greeks appeared only early in the second millennium BC, at the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age. They were a Greek-speaking branch of the Indo-Europeans, a race that originally occupied the vast plain stretching from the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Europe to the Ural Mountains, which lie to the east of the Caspian Sea. Other [p. 15] Indo-European peoples settled practically all of Europe and part of Asia.

The arrival of these new Greeks was anything but peaceful. The existing palaces, evidence of strong central organization, were destroyed. It would take centuries for Greece to emerge from the foreign and comparatively uncivilized conditions imposed upon it by the invaders. In the beginning, their tombs--unlike those of the indigenous princes--were not filled with lavish funerary gifts: their religion was more concerned with the relationships between the living and the gods than with the fate of human souls in the afterlife.

Homer, the renowned Greek epic poet of the 9th or 8th century BC, sometimes refers to these Greeks as "Argives" or "Danai," but his most common name for them is "Achaeans," a word whose origin is unknown but is now used to refer to this first group of Greek-speaking invaders from the north.

The only place unaffected by the Achaeans' arrival--initially, at least--was the large island of Crete, about seventy-five miles southeast of the mainland, which was inhabited by a highly advanced, non-Greek-speaking people. [16]

The Palaces of the Cretan "Minoans"
Around 2000 BC, in an age of expanding population and increased production, the despotic rulers of Crete began to erect magnificent palaces for themselves. Within a few centuries, the island had been unified under the authority of the prince residing in the central palace at Knossos, a city on the north coast of the island. He was known as the minos. All of Crete's palaces were totally destroyed in the 16th c. BC by an [p. 17] unknown catastrophe--perhaps the earthquakes and tidal waves that accompanied the eruption of the volcano on the island of Thera [modern-day Santorin], directly to the north. The palaces were immediately rebuilt, however, and in their new form they were larger and more magnificent than before. Their reconstruction attests to the great wealth and vitality of Cretan culture then at the height of its power . . . . [p. 18]

Labyrinths of Light and Color
The palace of the minos at Knossos was a vast complex of rooms and courtyards arranged on several levels. In fact, it is thought that the "labyrinth" that appears in the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur was the sprawling palace itself. The structure incorporated flat roofs and sophisticated hygiene facilities.

Everything was designed for convenience and comfort. The royal quarters were cool in summer and could be heated in winter by means of portable braziers. Even the smallest courtyard was bathed in sunlight and adorned with colorful frescoes. One of the most memorable fragments from these paintings is the female figure today popularly known as "La Parisienne," a highly individualized portrait with a noble face, large eyes, an impish mouth, and abundant hair. [In the original text, Plates: Minoan frescoes portray individualized figures of great vitality . . . . "La Parisienne" . . . . [also, a ] Detail of a ceremonial procession from a Minoan fresco . . . . p. 21]

Frescoes in a palace on the nearby island of Santorin reflect the same world of color and refinement. [p. 20] Amazing well preserved, they depict blue monkeys, dark-skinned members of the royal guard, and boxers--all portrayed surrounded by a profusion of flowers, allusions to the Cretan's worship of a nature- or mother-goddess. Sea creatures are frequent motifs in vase painting and frescoes. . . . . A 16th c. BC fresco of dolphins from Knossos . . . . In the Queens apartment at Knossos, Crete. [p. 20]

Cretan palaces were open and unfortified, for their builders were confident that Cretan fleets could repel any potential attack. Thanks to these same fleets the kings of Crete managed to extend their authority over the whole of the Aegean, creating a sea empire that the Greek historian Thucydides [460-401 BC] would describe centuries later. Their light ships traversed the entire eastern [p. 21] Mediterranean, carrying Cretan vases and jewelry to mainland Greece, the Greek island, Asia, and Egypt, and returning with the mineral ores that were so crucial to their own economy.

The name Minoa--derived from minos--was given to Cretan settlements throughout the region, and evidence of the presence of these traders is provided by tablets inscribed in Cretan script. It is clear that Cretans enjoyed commercial ties with a the Cyclades--the scattering of islands in the southern Aegean--and possibly with centers on the southern Peloponnese as well. [p. 23]

The "Cyclopian" Palaces of the Achaeans
In the meantime, on the mainland, invading waves of Greek-speaking peoples had imposed their rule over the native population. Their language appears on even the earliest surviving written tablets, from roughly 2000 BC. They established small, rural colonies that rapidly expanded, in part thanks to the influence of the Cretans, with whom they soon formed trading and diplomatic ties.

Perhaps their most imposing achievement was the construction of huge palaces, which their descendants--believing them to have been built by the Cyclopes, a race of giants--referred to as "Cyclopean." Probably the earliest of these palaces was the one erected in the 17th c. BC by the Achaeans at Mycenae, a city in the northeastern Peloponnese, and continuously expanded in the centuries to follow. Its builders were the most powerful of the monarchs dominating southern Greece, and accordingly this era in Greece's history--corresponding with the Late Bronze Age--is known as the Mycenaean period. [p. 22]

Unlike those of Crete, Mycenaean palaces had pitched roofs and were heavily fortified. Their walls were adorned with frescoes painted in the Minoan manner but celebrating the somewhat darker world of blood feuds and warfare memorialized in Greek mythology.

Cretan influence was evident in other arts, too. Mycenean pottery, jewelry, and metalwork were produced using techniques that had been perfected by The Minoans. [The animated hunting scene . . . . --a masterpiece of Mycenaean damascening, or metal inlay work --suggests that there may still have been lions in Greece in the 2nd millennium BC. p. 23] Just how the two cultures were related is very difficult to define, though it is clear that the [p. 23] Mycenaean monarchs at one point owed allegiance to the Cretan minos. This has been confirmed by inscriptions found on many of the thousands of clay tablets that survive from this era.

The Work of the Scribes
Excavations at Knossos and at various Mycenaean-period sites have uncovered great quantities of archival tablets inscribed with unfamiliar scripts. The earliest of the Cretan tablets employed a system of hieroglyphs, known to archaeologists as Linear A, that has yet to be deciphered. Later documents from Crete and mainland Greece were written in an altogether different script, named Linear B, and it was not until 1952 that scholars finally determined that the language reflected in this script was an early form of Greek. [The largest collection of Mycenaean texts comes from the archives of the palace at Pylos . . . ..p. 25]

In a sense these documents have been somewhat disappointing. They contain not a single reference to religion, mythology, or historical events, let alone early fragments of writing like the Iliad or the Odyssey. They are only lists of figures--mainly inventories and accounts.

But even this material can be helpful to the historian. For example, the tables found in 1939 in the ruins of the Mycenaean-period palace of Nestor in Pylos, on the west coast of the Peloponnese, constitute a nearly complete set of records of the monarchy. There the king was known as the wanax, a mysterious term that is not [p. 25] Greek and has no Indo-European cognates. The wanax was both a tyrant and a deity [there was a god of the same name] and organized and controlled the entire economy of his kingdom. In this he was assisted by a "leader of the people" [lawagetas]--apparently a position similar to a grand vizier or chamberlain--and a whole hierarchy of dignitaries, officers, and administrators who formed a bureaucracy like those of Minoan Crete or the empires of the Middle East. His kingdom was divided into provinces, each consisting of a number of rural communities under the authority of a chieftain [basileus]. Now that so many of the [p. 26] Linear B tablets have been translated, we can conclude that--contrary to what had previously been supposed-there was nothing feudal about the organization of the Mycenaean kingdoms; their institutions were those of a tributary state.

The tablets also tell us a great deal about agriculture in this period. Certain lands [termed the temenos] were owned by the king himself. Others were held by his retainers, and the revenues from these lands constituted their sole remuneration for services rendered. Still other tracts were dedicated to the support of the priesthood, with portions set aside as sacred precincts for the gods and ceremonies connected with their worship. Finally, though private ownership of land was not unknown, the greater part of what remained was considered common land. This was periodically apportioned to heads of families by royal agents at an assembly called the damo [a word that in later Greek became dermos, the people]. The form of writing employed in the royal archive of Mycenae remained unchanged [p. 27] for centuries. It registered whole syllables rather than individual letters, and betrays a relatively unsophisticated analysis of speech sounds. [The Semitic peoples along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, by contrast, had developed several consonantal alphabets as early as the middle Bronze Age, 2000 BC-1700 BC]. The scribes employed as keepers of records for these monarchies contributed greatly to the power of their employers; their meticulous notations, illegible to others, constituted an incomparable exploitational tool.

The Grandeur of the Palaces
Mycenaean-period palaces were also symbols of royal power --impregnable and forbidding. The earliest fortifications of the one at Mycenae were said to have been erected by the legendary founder of Mycenae, Perseus. They were repeatedly enlarged, but the remains of the earliest, dating from the 15th c. BC, are still visible. [The 15th-c. BC Vaphio cup, a splendid example of Mycenaean goldsmithing, provides a glimpse of the agricultural practices of the era . . . . Southern Greece. p. 28]

Over the course of the following two centuries were added huge ramparts securing the spur of the hill, a monumental entrance [the famous Lion Gate], and a back gate. In response to what appears to be a specific threat near the close of the 13th c. BC, a hideout with concealed doors was added on the eastern side, and a tunnel dug to a deep spring, known as the Perseia. [p. 28]

The arrangement of the palace at Tiryns, a few miles to the southeast, was similar. There too a vast enclosing wall was added at the end of the 13th c. BC, clearly designed as a refuge for people and animals in the event of an attack.

Common to the design of these mainland palaces was a central series of three chambers. First came two vestibules--one of them with an adjoining bathroom in which guests might wash and rest--and then a large hall, with four central columns supporting the roof. This great hall was known as the megaron, and though the origin of the term is unclear, the architecture of such halls, with their pitched roofs, skylights, and fixed hearths, appears to have been developed in the North. The type seems to have made its first appearance in Anatolia [modern-day Turkey] rather than in Greece. Two adjacent great halls have been excavated at Tiryns. The hall at the unfortified palace at Pylos is decorated with a superb fresco depicting a young god of music. [p. 29]

The Wealth of the Tombs
Princely tombs became increasingly ornate in the Mycenaean period. The older ones are shaped like a shallow well or cistern and lined with stone slabs, while later ones consist of a shaft closed with a slab, or stela, sculpted in flat relief. Two circles of royal tombs unearthed from the acropolis at Mycenae are of the latter type. The lower circle, which is slightly older, is covered over by the upper circle, which was enclosed within the walls as a sacred site. Both were sumptuously furnished, as though in illustration of the Homeric epithet "Mycenae, rich in gold." Still later tombs at this site were carved out of rock and provided with an entrance corridor. Of these, known as tholoi, or beehive tombs, the finest is the one called the Treasury of Atreus, believed to have been built in the 14th c. BC.

Mycenaean palaces were veritable vaults for the protection of quantities of gold and jewels, the outward symbols of a monarch's prestige. The treasures discovered in them are characterized by a degree of refinement equal to that of Cretan work. Their quiet elegance belies the legendary violence and depravity of their owners. [The ruling family at Mycenae was the infamous accursed house of Atreus, including Agamemnon, Menelaus, Clytemnestra, Orestes, Electra, and Iphigenia, the principle figures of later Greek tragedy.]

Traders and Conquerors Opened Greece to the Outside World
The Egyptian pharaohs were well acquainted with the Achaeans--whom they called "the princes of the islands that lie in the Great Green Sea" [the Mediterranean] --and are known to have exchanged precious objects with them. The famous gold masks found in the tombs at Mycenae were once thought to have been of northern inspiration, but now it is agreed that they reflect the influence of Egyptian art. [p. 30] [Mycenaean death masks, which preserved the features of noted heroes in gold, the most precious of metals, reveal Egyptian influence . . . . p. 29]

The Hittites, who established a powerful empire in the heart of Anatolia [Turkey] in the Late Bronze Age, also knew these Greek peoples. In their texts they speak of the Akhkhiyawa ["the land of the Achaeans"], which may have been the Peloponnese or possibly a place closer to the coast of Asia Minor, perhaps the island of Rhodes. It is significant that the Hittite King appears to have treated the king of the Achaeans as an equal.

The Conquest of the Islands and the Coast of Asia
The Achaeans first tested their strength against the islands of the Aegean, their stepping-stones to the outside [p. 31] [A late 16th- or early 15th century BC fresco from a palace on Thera [Santorin] [western room] depicts the departure of a naval expedition, an apt allusion to the Minoans' mastery of the sea. The palace itself appears in the background . . . . p. 31] world. In the 15th c. BC they even conquered Crete, the focal point of the eastern Mediterranean and, since 3000 BC, the center of a flourishing trade with the great empires of the East and peoples of even more distant lands.

In doing so, they helped to further Cretan influence, especially in religion, on the mainland. Mycenae became the intermediary between non-Greek Minoan Crete and the Greek city-states, the autonomous provinces established in the 10th c. BC. Yet we know very little about the Greek presence in Crete; the archives at Knossos make it clear that an Achaean prince ruled there beginning in the 15th c., but the roughly three centuries of Mycenaean dominance over the island do not appear to have been an especially flourishing era. The western part of the island, previously underdeveloped, experienced a more rapid expansion, while the eastern part looked increasingly toward the Near East.

The Achaean invasion of Crete was a genuine military conquest, and it is quite probable that other such conquests lay behind the establishment of further outposts on the coast of Anatolia--among them Miletus and Colophon--and in Syria and Phoenicia by the 12th c. BC. These regions bordered on the great Eastern empires, whose rulers could easily have repelled unwanted colonists. It is therefore possible that the eastern powers welcomed the presence of these outposts, considering them to be places of exchange and markets of benefit to both peoples.

Mercantile Expansion to the Edge of the Known World
The Achaeans conquered as much through commerce as through warfare. Mycenaean sailors undertook reconnaissance missions and regular trading voyages to the edges of the known world, far beyond the developed regions of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Luwian empires. [The Luwi were an ancient people living on the southern coast of Asia Minor.] Fragments of Mycenaean pottery found in Libya, Sicily, Sardinia, southern Italy, and even, discovered most recently, in the [p. 35] central Italian city of Florence, permits us to map their journeys.

Another indication of the extent of the Achaeans' commerce is the appearance of the name of the western Mediterranean island of Elba on tablets written in Linear B. Some ports--such as those in Sardinia and on the Gulf of Tarentum, under the heel of Italy--appear to have been so important that they must be considered permanent settlements, where regular trade in luxury goods flourished with the consent of local authorities. [The pitcher illustrated below is a typical example of Mycenaean pottery, which displays a remarkable uniformity in form and decoration. Here the main ornamental motif is the octopus, an element that is derived from Cretan art. Scholars have managed to establish a precise chronology of the period based on changes in the style of these pieces, and, accordingly, any pottery unearthed in the course of archaeological excavation can be used to date the site. This particular piece from the 15th c. BC reveals the influence of Egyptian stoneware . . . . p. 35]

It has been suggested that Mycenaean ships may have ventured as far as the coast of Gaul [present-day France] and the Iberian Peninsula, but apart from local imitations of Mycenaean pottery recently identified in southeastern Spain, no certain proof of this hypothesis has been found. In Libya, on the north coast of Africa, Mycenaean ceramics have been unearthed far inland.

It is quite certain that the Achaeans traded in Thrace, in northeastern Greece, and that they navigated the Hellespont [now known as the Dardanelles] and the [p. 35] Bosporus, the straits linking the Aegean to the Black Sea. There are abundant traces of their presence on the western shore of the latter, and by no means insignificant ones on the east coast, in the region then known as Colchis, where jewelry clearly belonging to the Mycenaean tradition has been discovered.


[Lévêque, Pierre. The Birth of Greece. NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. / DISCOVERIES. 1994 ]



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