Archaic Greek History
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Archaic Greek History

August 2016 - By around 1000 BC people in Greece were starting to rebuild their civilization after the Dark Ages. There seem to have been more people around, and enough gold to pay for building new buildings. The Greeks did not rebuild the kings' palaces, though, because most Greek cities did not have kings anymore. Most cities were ruled by a group of rich men called aristocrats. This kind of government is called an oligarchy (OLL-ih-gark-ee). Instead, the Greeks built temples to the gods where the old palaces had been, mostly on top of hills. The temples were like a vow that the Greeks weren't going to be ruled by kings anymore.

Greek people kept up the same ways of making a living they had in the Bronze Age: many of them relied on trade or raiding or piracy. Groups of men (and sometimes women) sailed to new places and invaded and conquered them, building colonies in other parts of Europe and Africa.

One example is the city of Marseilles in the south of France. Another is a city on the Black Sea called Byzantion, which is now Istanbul, or the city of Cyrene in Libya. The native people in these new Greek colonies suffered: many were forced into slavery, or had to pay a lot of taxes and rent to the Greek settlers, and they couldn't participate in the government. But the Greeks liked it: they could force native people to work for them, and live like rich people, exercising and debating and raiding other people, fighting with the Phoenicians who were also conquering colonies.

soldiers behind their shields
Hoplite soldiers (Chigi Vase, ca. 640 BC)

The Greeks (especially Corinth) also began to trade with West Asia again, especially with the Phoenicians. They learned the alphabet from the Phoenicians (or maybe from the Carthaginians) around 750 BC, and that is how Homer was able to write down the stories about the Trojan War. The Greeks also learned about art from West Asia. The Greeks also began to take jobs as mercenaries (soldiers working for other people) again, in Egypt and also in Lydia (Turkey).

Around 650 BC there were two new ways of doing things which seem to have started in Greece instead of being learned from other people. Nobody is sure which came first, or whether one caused the other. One was a new way of fighting wars. The old way was rather disorganized: all the men on one side would just run at the men on the other side, yelling their heads off, and then they would fight until one side ran away or were all killed. In the new way, men lined up side by side, and each man used his shield to protect the man next to him, so that there was a wall of shields. Of course this only worked if everybody cooperated, and you had to practice a lot to be able to do it right, like a marching band. Also, everybody had to have a shield. But if you did it right it was much more successful than the old run-and-yell method. These new soldiers were called hoplites (HOP-lights).

The other new idea was for a new kind of government. Some of the Greek cities still had kings (Sparta for instance), but most of them were ruled by groups of aristocrats. These aristocrats were often fighting with each other over who would have the most power. Some of them tried to get other aristocrats on their side. But now one of these aristocrats had the idea to try to get the poor people on his side, too. That was pretty easy to do, because nobody had been paying any attention to these poor people at all. So this aristocrat was able to get more power than his friends and he was in charge of the city. Instead of being called the king, he was called the tyrant. The earliest tyrants (that we know of ) were in Corinth. Soon other aristocrats in other Greek cities (and in West Asia) copied this idea. (For more on tyrants click here). By 550 BC many cities were still ruled by aristocrats, especially the ones where Dorians lived, but many others were ruled by tyrants, especially the ones where Ionians lived, like Athens. Other aristocrats hated the tyrants, but a lot of poor people loved them. Most of the tyrants did a good job. They protected the poor people from the rich aristocrats, they built a lot of new buildings, and they helped people to trade with West Asia and the other nearby places.

Learn by Doing - the tyrant game
More about Classical Greece

Bibliography and further reading about Archaic Greece:

Oxford First Ancient History, by Roy Burrell and Peter Connolly (1997). Lively interviews and pictures make the ancient Mediterranean come to life. For teens.

Geometric Greece: 900-700 BC, by J. N. Coldstream (2nd edition 2003).

Archaic Greece: The Age of Experiment, by Anthony Snodgrass (1981). Now perhaps slightly out of date.

Classical Greece
Ancient Greece
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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