The Greek Civilization (page 2)
The Greek Civilization
Peoples of the Fertile Crescent probably settled the area we today call Greece as early as 6000 BC. The beginning of an identifiable Greek culture, however, goes back only about as far as 2000 BC with the arrival of the Achaeans. These people came from southeastern Europe, between the Carpathian and Ural mountains—the region we today refer to as the Balkans.
The Achaeans remained on the mainland, eventually establishing trade relationships with the Aegean islands and other settlements in the region. This trade network fostered the eventual supremacy of the Greek language through- out the region.
The earliest Achaean palace dates to about the seventeenth century BC, at the city of Mycenae in the Peloponnese (the southernmost section of the Greek peninsula). This city eventually gave its name to the Mycenaean civilization, when the Achaeans invaded and took over Crete.
Geographically, Greece is rocky, mountainous, and somewhat barren. Its poor soil and hilly topography make it ideal for such crops as grapes, olives, and apricots, and for herding sheep and goats. As in any island culture, fish also became a staple of the Greek diet.
Throughout the centuries of their civilization, most Greeks were subsistence farmers, and the economy relied more on barter than on purchase for coin or currency. The Greek economy was a mercantile economy, meaning that it was based on buying and selling and trade, but it was by no means an economy of mass production. Pottery, jewelry, and other everyday and luxury goods were made by hand, one at a time. The number of artisans was not large.
The Minoan Civilization on Crete
The Minoan civilization arose on the large island of Crete about 2000 BC. Knossos was the main Minoan city; others included Phaistos and Malia. Minoan civilization was quite sophisticated, featuring an absolute ruler, a thriving mercantile economy, and vast palaces.
The king was called minos, hence the name Minoan . There are numerous ancient legends of King Minos of Crete but no historical evidence of any individual of that name. Historians believe that minos was a title, not a person’s name. The minos was an absolute ruler who identified himself with the gods; the people were entirely subject to his arbitrary will. The magnificent size and scale of the Minoan palaces is clear evidence of Minoan belief in the divinity of their king.
Social classes on Crete at this time included artisans and literate scribes in addition to farmers, fishermen, shipbuilders, and sailors. The artisan class created a steady stream of luxury items for both export and local use; the jars, amphorae, jewelry, and other objects of the period were remarkably sophisticated and beautiful. Archaeologists have discovered troves of written records that testify to the large group of scribes.
Manufacturing and trade were vital to the Minoan economy, because Crete was poor in natural resources, particularly the metals that were necessary for making weapons and tools. Like any island population, the Cretans were superb sailors and shipbuilders. They maintained an extensive trade network through- out the Mediterranean region.
The Mycenaean Civilization
The Achaeans invaded Minoan Crete around 1500 to 1450 BC; they ruled supreme on Crete until about 1200. Their rise to supremacy on Crete coincides with the wholescale destruction of the Minoan cities by fire. Historians have never solved the mystery of whether the Mycenaeans set those fires in an act of aggression.
Mycenaean palaces were more heavily fortified than Minoan ones, and Mycenaean art reflects more warlike themes. However, the two civilizations had many things in common. First was the thriving commercial trade. Both Egyptians and Hittites knew of the Mycenaeans, and Mycenaean art shows definite Egyptian influences—clear evidence of communication between the cultures. Archaeologists have found fragments of Mycenaean pottery throughout the Mediterranean and also on the Black Sea coast. The civilization evidently traded with peoples in Sardinia and Libya; Mycenaean trading ships regularly navigated the Dardanelles Strait (then called the Hellespont). Greek legends of heroes such as Hercules and Jason show that this was a culture of people who sailed, explored, and roamed their known world.
Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans were a record-keeping society. Archaeologists have discovered huge caches of written records on clay tablets. The earlier ones, written in a script they refer to as Linear A, have not yet been decoded; the later ones, written in Linear B, are mainly accounting documents—lists of figures and inventory totals.
Around 1200 BC, the Mycenaeans attacked the city of Troy in Asia Minor. The Trojan War is the subject of the Iliad . Historians generally agree that the attack on Troy was probably for the simple reason of greed; it was a fabulously wealthy city and very tempting to take over and loot.
The “Dark Ages”
Soon after the Trojan War, the Mycenaean civilization declined. The years from about 1200 to 800 BC are called the “dark ages” of Greece. Historians still debate the causes of the fall of Mycenaean culture; various authors have argued for natural disasters (the area is prone to volcanic eruptions) or an invasion of hostile outsiders such as the Dorians or the Sea People.
The Dark Ages saw movement and resettlement of peoples all along the eastern banks of the Mediterranean and in the Aegean islands. The Aeolians settled in the northern part of this area, the Ionians in the center, and the Dorians in the south. These various tribal groups were more or less constantly at war with one another.
During this otherwise chaotic era, the religious system of Classical Greece was refined and set in the form we recognize from legend and mythology. It was a polytheistic religion, with one supreme god ruling over a number of gods and goddesses, each one responsible for a particular aspect of the forces that governed life on earth. Aphrodite was the goddess of love, Apollo the god of the sun, Poseidon the god of the sea, and so on. The Greeks absorbed the gods of neighboring cultures into their own belief system: Aphrodite came from the Semitic tradition, Zeus from the eastern Europeans, and Apollo from the Anatolians.
The Greek gods were a family network (for example, Zeus was Hera’s husband, Poseidon’s brother, and Athena’s father). Like any human family, the gods squabbled among themselves. According to Greek belief, the gods could and did interfere regularly in human affairs, either to help their favorites or to harm those of whom they were jealous. If a god considered that a human hero was becoming too bold or arrogant, the god would humble him by bringing him misfortune. Gods could assume human or animal form at will and take part in any activity among the humans—many of the heroes of Greek legend were the offspring of a god or goddess and a human being. The only way to appease the gods and keep them on one’s side was through the proper prayers and sacrifices.
The gods and goddesses play major roles in the Iliad and the Odyssey , epic poems written about 750 BC that tell the story of the Trojan War and its after- math. These two heroic adventure stories are among the most influential literary works of Western history. Scholars have consistently attributed them to Homer, about whom very little is known except that he was probably Ionian and was active during the eighth century BC. The barbarism and violence evident throughout the Iliad and the Odyssey reflect the chaotic, brutal Dark Ages in which Homer lived.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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