The Greeks had to learn civilization all over again

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

Without Classical Greece and its accomplishments, Razib Khan says, the West wouldn’t make any sense:

But here I have to stipulate Classical, because Greeks existed before the Classical period. That is, a people who spoke a language that was recognizably Greek and worshipped gods recognizable to the Greeks of the Classical period. But these Greeks were not proto-Western in any way. These were the Mycenaeans, a Bronze Age civilization which flourished in the Aegean in the centuries before the cataclysms outlined in 1177 B.C.

The issue with the Mycenaean civilization is that its final expiration in the 11th century ushered in a centuries long Dark Age. During this period the population of Greece seems to have declined, and society reverted to a more simple structure. By the time the Greeks emerged from this Dark Age much had changed. For example, they no longer used Linear B writing. Presumably this technique was passed down along lineages of scribes, whose services were no longer needed, because the grand warlords of the Bronze Age were no longer there to patronize them and make use of their skills. In its stead the Greeks modified the alphabet of the Phoenicians.

To be succinct the Greeks had to learn civilization all over again. The barbarian interlude had broken continuous cultural memory between the Mycenaeans and the Greeks of the developing polises of the Classical period. The fortifications of the Mycenaeans were assumed by their Classical descendants to be the work of a lost race which had the aid of monstrous cyclops.

Of course not all memories were forgotten. Epic poems such as The Iliad retained the memory of the past through the centuries. The list of kings who sailed to Troy actually reflected the distribution of power in Bronze Age Greece, while boar’s tusk helmets mentioned by Homer were typical of the period. To be sure, much of the detail in Homer seems more reflective of a simpler society of petty warlords, so the nuggets of memory are encased in later lore accrued over the centuries.

A recent Nature paper looks at the Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans and shows that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically similar.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Based on the eclipse reported in the Odyssey, the fall of Troy has been dated to 1188 BC, making the Trojan War part of the Sea Peoples legend and an event in the collapse of the Bronze Age.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Now that you mention it, yes, an eclipse does figure into the Odyssey:

    It was on April 16, 1178 B.C. that [King Odysseus returned from the Trojan War and slaughtered a group of suitors who had been pressing his wife to marry one of them].


    Homer reports that on the day of the slaughter the sun is blotted from the sky, possibly a reference to an eclipse. In addition, he mentions more than once that it is the time of a new moon, which is necessary for a total eclipse, the researchers say.

    Other clues include:

    • Six days before the slaughter, Venus is visible and high in the sky.
    • Twenty-nine days before, two constellations — the Pleiades and Bootes — are simultaneously visible at sunset.
    • And 33 days before, Mercury is high at dawn and near the western end of its trajectory. This is the researchers’ interpretation, anyway. Homer wrote that Hermes, the Greek name for Mercury, traveled far west to deliver a message.

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