CLA1101 A lecture notes: May 8
The Dark Age of Greece: circa 1200–750 B.C.
See also the textbook pp. 41–58.
“Dark Age” versus “Iron Age”
After Mycenaean Civilization collapses in around 1200–1120 B.C., Greece enters a phase of history known as
the “Dark Age”. But not long after that, starting around 1050 B.C., Greece is also said to be in the “Iron
Age”: What’s the difference?
The term “Iron Age” is general to a vast area—the Mediterranean, the Near East, and Europe—and denotes
a major phase of human history, similar to that of the “Bronze Age” or “Neolithic Age”. Specifically, the
Iron Age begins when ancient peoples start developing a new metal, iron, for use in tools and weapons.
Thus, for modern archaeology, iron now becomes the most distinctive human-worked durable material left
behind. Iron in the Iron Age did not completely replace all uses of bronze; nevertheless, iron’s emergence
and widespread use is recognized by modern study to mark a fundamentally new era.
The Iron Age’s start-date is regional: It moves gradually east-to-west as the skill of iron-working spreads
westward. The Iron Age is considered to have begun in Mesopotamia around 1200 B.C., in Greece around
1050 B.C., in Italy around 900 B.C, and in ancient France or Gaul around 800 B.C.
The term “Dark Age”, by contrast, is specific just to Greece. It denotes the several centuries of depressed
economy, depopulation, decentralization, and the otherwise collapsed situation in Greece that followed the
meltdown of Mycenaean Civilization.
It’s called the “Dark Age” not for its presumed unhappiness but rather because it remains relatively “dark” to
modern study: The archaeology speaks largely of a vacuum after destruction, with relatively few remnants
and no writing specimens: With the Mycenaean collapse, the Greeks had forgotten the skill of writing in
Linear B script.
The Dark Age is reckoned to start around 1200 B.C. or 1150 B.C.—again, that’s 150 or 100 years before the
start of the Iron Age in Greece. The Dark Age is reckoned to end in 750 B.C., during the Iron Age, while the
Iron Age continues.
Note: Modern historians speak also of the “Dark Ages” of Europe that followed the Roman Empire’s collapse in around 500
A.D. Please don’t get confused: That’s something different from this Dark Age of Greece.
The metal iron in Greece
Modern archaeology dates the first evidence of Greek iron-working (at Athens, as it happens) to about 1050
B.C. By about 950 B.C. iron’s use is widespread in Greece.
Although more restricted in its uses than bronze, iron was far easier for the ancient Greeks to acquire. Iron
mines existed in mainland Greece—for example, near Sparta. Also, supplies were available by trade from
Asia Minor, Italy, Gaul, and Spain. The Italian island of Elba was proverbially iron-rich.
The ancient technology of iron-working was completely different from that of bronze. Copper and tin can
easily be melted together to form liquid bronze, to be poured into moulds (or “casts”) and later beaten into
further shape. But not so with iron. Not until the 1400s A.D. would European foundry-furnaces reach hot
enough temperatures to produce “cast iron”: Until then, iron working would be a laborious process of
repeatedly heating and hammering a bar of iron, to refine and work it into shape.
Thus, the use of iron could not fully replace the use of bronze in ancient Greece: Iron could not be beaten
into sheets or minutely shaped. A soldier’s body armour, for example, had to be bronze—although his sword
1 CLA1101 A lecture notes: May 8
and spear-point might be iron. A statue had to be cast in bronze (not in iron), if the statue wasn’t being
carved from marble or wood. So, as said, bronze did not disappear completely from use.
Now there enters into Western consciousness the image of the village blacksmith. Bushy-bearded, big-armed,
and grumpy (grumpy perhaps from breathing toxic fumes all day), he labours with hammer and tongs, beating
a red-hot or white-hot chunk of iron on an anvil. Nearby to him is a roaring furnace, into which he
periodically shoves the iron (with his tongs) to keep it hot.
A main use of ancient iron was for cutting-edges: axes, swords, plowshares, spear-heads, arrow-heads. When
the biblical book of Isaiah (2:4) predicts “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into
pruning hooks,” the reference is to a blacksmith taking one iron cutting-implement and working it into a
different (peace-oriented) shape.
In English usage, the blacksmith’s workshop is called a “smithy” or “forge”. The verb “to forge” in this
sense means to produce a product of iron (or of some other metal) through hammering-out.
By contrast, the verb “to cast” means to produce a product by pouring liquid metal—“molten” metal—
into a cast. Favourite metals to cast were bronze, gold, and silver, all of which have relatively low melting-
The verb “to smelt” means to separate-out iron ore (or copper ore or silver, gold, etc.) from chunks of
rock, by heating in a furnace and hammering. Smelting is the first stage of metalworking, in order to extract
quantities of the pure metal.
The start of the Dark Age: 1200–1050 B.C.
Widespread destruction and depopulation. Survival on a greatly reduced material level.
• Between 1200 and 1120 B.C., the four major Mycenaean cities fall to destruction and subsequently lie
empty or nearly so. Mycenae-Tiryns seems to have held out the longest, but by 1120 B.C. it too was a wreck,
emptied of inhabitants. Whatever survivors there were, they didn’t stay and rebuild but rather left. Many
apparently emigrated to western Asia Minor and the adjoining islands: see below.
• The low point: around 1050 B.C.
• The city of Athens, which was merely a second-rank city during Mycenaean times, is one place in Greece
that shows continued occupation after the Mycenaean downfall. Athens would survive undestroyed through
the Dark Age, although at a reduced material level.
Greek migrations: 1050–900 B.C.
• Ancient Greek storytelling claimed—and modern archaeology corroborates—that the Dark Age saw the
eastward migration of large numbers of Greeks by sea, from mainland Greece to coastal sites along western
Asia Minor, circa 1050–900 B.C. The migrating Greeks conquered and displaced the prior, non-Greek
inhabitants. Henceforth, western Asia Minor and the Aegean islands would be Greek territory.
At the same time, Greece was also experiencing an invasion or immigration of Greek-speaking tribes
from northwestern Greece—from a remote corner of Greece to its geographical centre. These are the
Dorian Greeks (see page 3, below).
• When “the dust finally clears” historically, after 900 B.C., we find three major different Greek ethnic
groups across the map of mainland Greece, the Aegean Sea, and western Asia Minor. (Please try to check the
following place-names on the map on the inside front cover of our textbook.) Each group had its own
distinctive Greek dialect and social customs—
(a) Ionian Greeks (in Greek, Iones), native originally to the regions of Athens and Euboea in Greece.
The Ionian Greeks claimed descent from a mythical hero named Ion, who was a son of the god
Apollo and became a king of Athens. While the Ionians did remain in old Greece, they also sent
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colonists to the central west coast of Asia Minor, maybe around 1000 B.C.. Here they settled some
12 major sites, collectively called Ionia.
By the 600s–500s B.C., Ionia would supply a major centre of Greek intellectual and artistic output,
technology, and trade. Ionia will be a place of top importance for our “Greek Civilization” course.
(For example, the poet Homer, circa 750 B.C., came from somewhere in Ionia.)
Oversimplifying somewhat, we can say that Ionia in the early 500s B.C. held the place culturally
that Athens would hold later, in the 400s. After Ionia’s decline circa 540–500 B.C. under Persian
conquest, Ionia’s former role as a Greek cultural leader would pass to Athens.
From south to north, the four major sites of Ionia were—
• the city Miletus
• the island Samos, with its capital city called Samos
• the city Ephesus
• the island Chios, with its capital city called Chios
Of these, Miletus would be a preeminent city of the whole Greek world, 600s–500s B.C, while
Samos would vie for dominance and (circa 530 B.C.) would briefly attain it. Traditionally, Miletus
and Samos were rivals and sometimes enemies.
In around 493 B.C., Miletus would be captured and destroyed by the westward-advancing Persians.
Although a city would eventually revive there, the days of Milesian pre-eminence were finished, and
Ephesus would then emerge as the region’s new top city-state. Ephesus would go on to be a major
city of the Roman Empire.
Outside of Ionia, other sites settled by Ionian Greeks included the Cyclades Islands of the Aegean
Sea, such as Naxos and Delos.
Fun facts: Today in many languages of Anatolia, the Middle East, and Central Asia, the word for the
modern nation of Greece is either Yunan or Yunanistan (“Yunan land”). This usage includes Arabic,
Turkish, Farsi, Urdu, and Hindi. The name Yunan comes from ancient Persian and is simply the old
Persian rendering of the name “Ionia”—which arose when a westward-advancing Persia first collided
with the Greeks, in Asia Minor, over 2,500 years ago.
Also, in the Hebrew Bible, a man called Javan or Yawan is named as a grandson of Noah: Genesis
10:2. With his name obviously related to “Ionia,” this biblical Javan is supposed to have been the
first ancestor of the Greeks.
Note: The name Ionia should not be confused with the western Scottish island of Iona, a place of importance for early-
medieval Christian history. The two have nothing to do with each other.
(b) Aeolian Greeks (Greek Aeoleis), native to Boeotia and Thessaly, in central and northeastern
Greece. The Aeolians remained in these regions but also sent emigrants to the northern west coast
of Asia Minor. Their most important settlement was the island of Lesbos, with its capital city of
Mytilene. Lesbos would become known for its prosperity, its seafaring, and its distinctive Aeolian
traditions of poetry. The most famous poet of Lesbos would be Sappho (circa 600 B.C.).
(c) Dorian Greeks (Greek Doreioi). The Dorians claimed descent from a mythical ancestor, Doros.
(That name would mean “gift” in Greek.) More interestingly, the Dorians’ name might really derive
from the Greek word doru, “spear”: They were the “spear people”.
Legend claimed, and modern archaeology corroborates, that circa 1100–1000 B.C. the Dorian Greeks
arrived in southern Greece by invading southward from a home territory in northwestern Greece.
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The Dorians did not conquer the Mycenaean Civilization: This idea was a theory once, but is now
rejected by modern scholarship. Rather, the Dorian invasion is best seen as opportunistic: The
Dorians were exploiting the power vacuum that followed the (prior) Mycenaean collapse.
Similarly, probably the Dorian invasion did not involve the new technology of iron weapons—
another old theory that is now discounted. Instead, the Dorians invaded probably using old-
fashioned bronze or stone. Then, in the years after the invasion, the Dorians and other Greeks
acquired the new skill of iron forging: This adoption of iron-working came fairly soon after the
Funnelling southward through central Greece apparently without stopping, the invading Dorians
captured the southern-Greek region known as the Peloponnese, which henceforth would be an
almost completely Dorian Greek region. Then the Dorians continued their advance southward and
eastward, across the Aegean Sea, to the island of Crete and the southern west coast of Asia Minor.
During the major centuries of Greek history, 800–300 B.C., the foremost Dorian cities would include
Sparta, Corinth, Argos, Sicyon, Megara, the islands of Crete and Rhodes, and the cities Cnidus and
Halicarnassus in southwestern Asia Minor.
True to their “spear” name, the Dorian cities in ancient Greece would tend to be viewed as being
militaristic and relatively narrow in their cultural interests (with focus mainly on certain forms of
music, poetry, and visual arts). In this, the Dorians formed a natural contrast to the Ionian cities,
which were thought of as less militaristic by nature and more widely cultur