The most ancient primitive Greeks somewhere between 10000 and 3000 BC were known as the Pelasgians. They inhabited areas of Thrace, Argos, Crete,
and Halkidiki and are known to us through the writings of Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides.
The remnants of the Pelasgian civilization are found mostly in the form of scattered stones which were used as tools, and the foundations of dwellings which just look
like a bunch of rocks to anyone but those with a trained eye. In the Argolis region of the Peloponessos, in the Frankthi Cave there are excavations which show that these early inhabitants were already trading with their ancient Greek cousins on the islands. Other Neolithic
settlements in Central Greece, notably Sesklo and Dimini are evidence that their inhabitants from the fourth millennia BC already had a complex society with walls protecting the towns and a central building which suggests a leader of some sort.
The Photo is an early Cycladic figure found on the island of Sifnos from the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. We know very little about
the culture that produced these marble figurines between 2800 and 2300 BC.
In Crete people from Anatolia came to the island sometime around 6500 BC and settled in the area around Knossos. These people were mostly farmers and lived in small communities.
This changed in about 2400 to 1500
BC when the Minoan civilization, named for the legendary King Minos, flourished. Life in Bronze Age Crete revolved around a series of palaces, scattered throughout the island, whose design and complexity is unlike anything that preceded it in Greece. All of the Cretan palaces share a similar design with the largest one in Knossos, which had been discovered by Sir Arthur Evans, an amateur archaeologist,
the nineteenth century. Palaces are also in Malia, Palekastro,
Phaestos and Zakro, and numerous other places on the island. These palaces were the part of a system which included a number of sanctuaries in caves, on the mountains and in houses. Though little is known about the belief system of this ancient religion, since no sacred texts have been discovered, so far, from the figurines and shrines it can be assumed that the Cretans, if they did not worship nature and human beauty, held it in a very high regard. The legend of the Minotaur, the half-man,
half-bull off-spring of Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos and a bull, and other archaeological finds seem to confirm the worship of the bull as some sort of divine being or symbol. It has also been suggested that this could refer to the constellation of Taurus and perhaps the commemoration of some event that occurred. It is also interesting that Zeus, the king of the Gods, is said to have arrived in Greece from Crete.
The Palaces themselves were also the centers for economic production with storehouses for grain, wool, oil, and international trade. From artifacts found in excavations we know that the Minoans had contact with some of the other ancient civilizations like the Sumerians and the Egyptians. The fact that the palaces were unfortified shows a confidence in their naval power as their defense against aggression.
Ancient Akrotiri, Santorini
The island of Santorini, or Thira, was one
of Crete's primary outposts. Much of this civilization we know from the ruins of Akrotiri as well as the ruined palaces in Knossos and around Crete. These were supposedly destroyed by the eruption of the volcano in Santorini at around 1600 BC which created a massive tidal wave. Some believe it was this wave which destroyed the Minoan civilization, however advances in technology, such as carbon-dating, show that the Minoan civilization did not collapse until around 1450 BC, one hundred and fifty years after
the eruption of Thira. So while the calamity may have led to a decline in the fortune of the Minoans (there was certainly plenty of damage and they did lose a trading partner) this was not what destroyed them. According to Plato it was this same wave which wrecked a Greek fleet as it was returning from conquering the Egyptians, which he learned about from Solon. This is all tied in with the theory that Santorini is ancient Atlantis, another story altogether. Besides the large population centers of Crete
and Santorini there were smaller independent civilizations on the Aegean islands which were rich in minerals and precious metals.
The problem with understanding the Minoan
Civilization is that despite the buildings and artifacts that have
been left behind we have no written history or literature of the
inhabitants of Crete in the Second Millennium. We can only look at
the stones, statues, pottery and painting and try to guess what
their society was like and how it came to an end. In short, the
Minoan origin is still a mystery and there is a lot more that
we don't know as opposed to what we do know.
the same time-period of the Minoans another group known as the Achaean or Mycenaean Civilization centered in
the Argolis of the Peloponessos. During
the bronze age between 2100 and 1900 BC this area was invaded by
people from the east who introduced an advanced culture to
the primitive local people who had been there since Neolithic times.
These ancient Hellenes had fortresses as far
west as Pylos and as far north as Iolcus in Thessaly. The Mycenaean princes
used the Linear B script to keep track of possessions and their enterprises
throughout the Mediterranean. The walls of their fortresses were made of stones
so large that it was difficult to imagine a mortal man lifting
them and were therefore dubbed Cyclopean walls, named after
the race of one-eyed giants of Homer's Odyssey.
Mycenaeans and the Minoans were probably economic competitors in
the Mediterranean. Sir Arthur Evans believed that the Minoans had
colonized the mainland and the Mycenaeans were really part of that
civilization. Others believed that the Mycenaeans were a totally different
culture and the artifacts that suggest Minoan influences were actually
acquired in trade. In 1952 Michael Ventris, an English architect and classical
scholar, deciphered the Linear B tablets found by Evans in Crete. Evans
himself had spent much energy trying to decipher these while
at the same time insisting they were not Greek but a 'Minoan' language.
Ventris discovered that the language actually was Greek which
proved that at least the later period of Minoan civilization came
from the Mycenaeans. So instead of the Mycenaeans being an offshoot
of the Minoans, the most likely scenario seems to be that they were
contemporaries. If the lack of fortifications around the Minoan
cities suggests that their walls were their fleets which ruled the
seas, maybe the eruption of Thira which caused great damage to their
cities with its tsunami, also destroyed their ships. With the Cretan
fleet decimated there was little to keep the Mycenaeans from invading,
occupying and closing out the last period of what we call Minoan
Santorini Volcano Caldera
was the Hellenic people from this period who were the Achaean heroes of Homer's Illiad and Odyssey.
The Illiad is the epic poem about the abduction by Paris, a Trojan prince, of
Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, and the alliance of Greeks,
led by King Agememnon who traveled to the city of Troy (Illium)
in Asia Minor and fought for 10 years, eventually destroying the
city, just to get her back. The Odyssey is the story of King
Odysseus of the island of Ithaki, and his journey home from the war. For many
years these stories were thought to have been myth but in 1870
Henrich Schliemann found the ruins of the ancient city and evidence
of its destruction during the time period that Homer's epic would
have taken place. Truth or fiction, the two books are a fascinating
window on a very early period of human history. Preserved orally
they were committed to writing in the 8th Century and created a
sense of identity among the Greeks, connecting them with their heroic
Lion Gate in Myceneae
The Mycenaean civilization came to an end sometime
around 1200 BC and as was taught to us in our history books was followed by the invasion of the Dorians, who though warlike, brought
with them a new culture and what came to be known as The Iron
Age. Experts are no longer so sure that
this is exactly what happened. What is known from the artifacts
found in Mycenae is that they were a wealthy culture who loved gold
and objects of beauty. What is also known is that there was a city
of Troy which guarded the straits of the Dardenelles, the entrance
to the Black Sea, and at about the time of the epic war described
in the Illiad, this city was destroyed. It is possible that this
ten year war which ended in the defeat of the Trojans, also led
to the weakening and destruction of the Mycenaeans, not by invaders
but by their own working class. So maybe what we have been calling
the Dorian Invasion was an uprising of the peasants and the lower
class who saw an opportunity to change the social order. Why
not? It has only happened thousands of times since then and will
probably happen again many times more.
While the Dorians were invading or uprising, the Pelasgians were leaving for the
islands and the coast of Asia Minor where they created new cities like Smyrna,
Halicarnassus, Samos, Ephesus and Miletus. These city-states brought to mankind
science and philosophy as for the first time people had time to reflect on the
nature of themselves and their place in the world. As these city-states prospered
through trade, more outposts sprung up from the Black Sea to the Western Mediterranean
and gave birth to what is known as the Classical period or Golden age of Greece.
But before that great awakening is a period known as the Dark Ages
which was probably not as bleak as it sounds. Instead of imagining
Mordor-like scenes of humans living like wild animals it is more
likely that people headed for the hills to escape the dangers in
a collapsing society, becoming shepherds and farmers and relying
on the extended family instead of the palaces. These clans or households
were known as 'oikos' from the word for household
in Greek. The clans grew larger and began to develop crafts
and trade once again, not just with their neighbors but across the
sea. By the 8th century the Greeks are living in cities again, known
as polis or city-states. Though autonomous by nature these
city-states could come together during a crisis when outsiders threatened
the Greeks and it is during these periods that the ancient Greeks
emulated the heroes of the Illiad and the Odyssey, who were just
as ancient to them as the classical Greeks are to us. As nuclear
families became clans which became villages, towns and cities
the problem that has plagued Greece through the 20th century appeared:
lack of quality farm land and natural resources to support
the population. So the Greeks began to export the commodity that
they had plenty of and which even up to the twentieth century has
been their primary export. They exported themselves, creating colonies
as far away as what is now Spain in the west and the Ukraine in
the East. Concentrating mostly in the Black Sea, North Africa and
the Western Mediterranean these colonies were set up in
areas rich in farm land, fresh water and were always close to the sea.
As the colonies grew and developed economically the trade routes
between them turned the Mediterranean into highways of ships as
the Greeks took to the seas. They have been sailors ever since.
Where trade routes intersected more colonies were built, most notably
in Italy and Sicily which became more wealthy than the mother country.
Minerva bringing Pegasus to Bellerophon
It was through colonization and trade that
the Greeks came into contact with other cultures such as the Phoenician
traders who they crossed paths with in Italy and the eastern Mediterranean.
The Greeks had pretty much abandoned writing in the dark ages but
during this period of growth used the Semitic alphabet of the Phoenicians
to symbolize the sounds of the Greek language. Other ideas filtered
into Greek culture from the colonies and their interaction with
the local people including the introduction of Eastern Mythology
and religious ideas into the Greek myths, notably in the writings
of Hesiod whose Theogony is probably the most important evidence
of what the ancient Greeks believed, a sort of family-tree of the
Gods written in verse form. (For more info see Richard
Caldwell's Translation of Hesiod's Theogony which is
probably the best unraveling of the poem). This is known as the
oriental-izing period and evidence of this can be found in their
art. For an interesting theory on the influences from the east on
Greek art and culture with thousands of photos comparing Greek-Chinese
and other cultures visit the website of Theresa
Another interesting theory concerns the Palestinians*
or as they are known in the Bible, the Philistines. The theory is
that the Philistines were in fact the survivors of the
Greek-Dorian conquest of Crete in 1200 BC and that these Minoans fled by sea to the Libyan
coast and from there tried to gain a foothold in Egypt and failed and then went
on to Canaan where they arrived just about the time that the Israelites moved in
as well. Another theory is that they were survivors of the Troy expedition
who lost their way home. Neither theory has
real base and are only theories actually… but it is interesting as essentially it means that if
the Palestinians failed to get what they wanted in Gaza they could always start
claiming that Crete was their national homeland! Imagine what a mess that would
be. Theory or reality it could explain the affinity the Greeks
have for the Palestinians and vice-versa.
*Actually, until 1948 the word Palestinian referred to the Jewish settlers
of the area. The Arabs who lived in what is now (mostly) Jordan and
Israel always referred to themselves as Syrians.