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The Iliad and the Greek Bronze Age
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

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Suggested Background Reading


  • Introduction
  • Minoan Crete
  • Helladic Civilization: The Mycenaean Age
  • Troy

  • Some definitions:

    For our purposes, the bronze age in Greece can be identified, roughly, with the second millennium B.C. (i.e., ca. 2000-ca. 1000). In speaking of bronze-age cultures three terms are used:

    *Minoan — refers to the culture of bronze-age Crete
    *Cycladic — refers to the bronze-age cultures of the islands of the Aegean
    *Helladic — refers to the culture of mainland Greece in the bronze age

    Maps of Homer's world can be found among the CLAS 104: Classical Myths pages.    [password required]

    Introduction. The Homeric poems date to the late 8th century B.C., but (like Arthurian legend) they purport to tell of a much earlier age. The Greece of Homer's time was on the rebound: as we shall see in a later unit, his day witnessed the rise of the city state or polis, the flourishing of trade, intense colonization in southern Italy, Sicily, and the Black Sea region, the introduction of coinage, of more sophisticated battle tactics, and of writing — in short, the emergence of what would become Classical Greece. But these developments represented a rise out of an extremely bleak period in Greek history. In the 11th to 9th centuries (the so-called Dark Ages) mainland Greece had consisted primarily of meager, relatively isolated agrarian settlements, dominated by local landed aristocracies, with a relatively low level of material culture: no urban centers, relatively little trade or manufacturing, a population sustained principally by what crops it could manage to foster in the arid, rocky soil and under frequent pressure from migrating peoples displaced by the generally unsettled nature of the times. It is all the more striking, then, that Homer tells of a time of powerful Greek kings who rule large kingdoms, engage in vast military expeditions overseas, and live in grand palaces filled with precious objects while routinely dining on meals such as Homer's audience saw only on special feast days, if at all. Prior to the late 19th century it was felt that Homer's grand vision of powerful kings and grand expeditions was merely a poetic fiction (again, compare the legends about King Arthur), but then in 1870 a megalomaniacal German banker named *Heinrich Schliemann journeyed to northwest Turkey and unearthed a grand bronze-age city (a series of cities, actually) at the very place tradition identified as the site of Troy. He then journeyed to Greece and, in digs at Mycenae and Tiryns, discovered evidence of a rich and powerful bronze-age civilization very like that described in the poems of Homer.

    [For recent assessments of Schliemann and his work, see D.F. Easton, "Heinrich Schliemann, Hero or Fraud?" Classical World 91.5 (1998) 335-43, S.H. Allen, "A Personal Sacrifice in the Interest of Science: Calvert, Schliemann, and the Troy Treasures," Classical World 91.5 (1998) 345-54, and the debate between E.F. Bloedow and S.H. Allen in Echos du monde classique / Classical Views n.s. 17, no. 3 (1998) 579-644.]

    At the turn of the century another amateur archaeologist, *Arthur Evans, journeyed to Crete and uncovered evidence of a hitherto unknown bronze-age civilization there. These two men radically changed the then accepted view of early Greece, revealing that the eastern Mediterranean in the bronze age was vastly more sophisticated and complex than formerly suspected. Schliemann and Evans also gave a valuable impetus to the development of the modern science of archeology. Since their day, many other sites have been discovered and a relatively precise chronology has been worked out, based on stratigraphic evidence, pottery styles, and various synchronisms. Michael Wood presents something of this archaeological background in the first two episodes of his series, In Search of the Trojan War; useful accounts can be found in W.A. McDonald's Progress into the Past and the other works listed in the course bibliography. In what follows you will find a general sketch of the Greek Bronze Age, to be developed further in the class slide lectures.

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    Minoan Crete. We begin on Crete, where ca. 1900 B.C. there suddenly appears a culture of a most striking nature. Archaeological remains in Crete dating to the third millennium B.C. present a picture of a relatively unimpressive, rather typically disorganized early bronze-age culture. At the turn of the millennium, however, a transformation occurs, with a sudden and quite dramatic change in the material remains and (one assumes) in the society those remains represent. The impetus behind this transformation is uncertain, but it would seem to be associated with the gradual assimilation of an immigrant population (perhaps from southwest Turkey) and a concomitant rise in affluence and social organization. The precise identity of the immigrants is unknown: even their language is of uncertain origin, although we have a large number of written records (dating to the middle of the second millennium) inscribed on clay tablets in a script known as Linear A. The archaeological remains, however, attest to one of the most impressive civilizations ever to appear in the ancient Mediterranean: a highly centralized and sophisticated society with a system of writing, a complex and efficient bureaucracy, beautiful wheel-made pottery, and (eventually) a naturalistic style of art that at its best rivals later Classical art. Today, the people of this society are known as the Minoans. Although this culture first arose ca. 1900, a massive earthquake ca. 1700 led to extensive rebuilding and to various artistic and architectural innovations. Most of the material that you will see in books and in the course lectures dates to this second (post-1700) phase of Minoan culture.

    The most prominent, and most instructive, feature of Minoan culture is presented by the palaces (see, esp., the guide by Cadogan). The largest and most elaborate is that at *Cnossus, but others are to be found throughout the island. All are built according to the same general plan: a north-south orientation, with a large central court and a smaller external court to the west; a large number of storerooms and storage magazines (often, as at Cnossus, on ground floor of the west wing), royal quarters (at Cnossus, in the east wing), an industrial area (at Cnossus, in the north wing), cult places (at Cnossus, on the ground floor of the west wing, opening on the central court). The elaborate layout of the palaces reflects a highly sophisticated artistic and architectural aesthetic. There seems to be a conscious effort to avoid regularity and predictability, with numerous twists and turns as one proceeds along the lengthy corridors through an elaborate system of doorways. There is an elaborate system of light wells and windows as well, which must have led to pleasing alterations of shadow and light (known as a chiaroscuro effect) as one proceeded through the palaces. [Plan of palace at Cnossus]

    The design of the palaces allows us to draw several inferences concerning Minoan society. First, it suggests a complex and highly organized political structure, probably under the leadership of a monarch (since someone presumably inhabited the grand domestic quarters in the east wing). The Minoans seem to have had a very tightly controlled and centralized political/economic system. The palace at Cnossus clearly was an important political seat, but it was also an administrative and industrial center, as the vast storerooms, copious amounts of raw materials, and numerous workshops indicate. It would seem that produce from the countryside (grain, wool, oil, wine, etc.) was brought to the palace, recorded (on the clay tablets mentioned previously), and subsequently redistributed, employed in the various workshops, or exported. This high degree of centralization, along with the general cultural continuity throughout the island (indicated, e.g., by similarity in palace design), has suggested to some a wealthy and powerful central monarch, with his political seat at Cnossus, who governed the entire island through various minor kings or nobles, with a peasant population who toiled, not in their own interest, but the nobility's. [FN 1]

    Unlike the similar palaces on the Greek mainland (see below on the Mycenaean Palaces), the Minoan palaces have no fortifications.

    [Although fortification walls have been discovered that predate palaces, these seem to have been abandoned fairly early in the Palace Period: see Jeremy Rutter's notes on Middle Minoan Crete.]
    This could be attributed, in part, to their isolation and their reliance on naval power for both trade and defense. The contrast with mainland Greece also appears, however, in Minoan art: Helladic art bristles with scenes of soldiers, weapons, chariots, and military exploits; Minoan art, on the other hand, focuses on scenes from nature (portrayed with a liveliness and plasticity that at times anticipates modern abstract art), religious ritual, and daily life, with relatively few instances of military motifs. The general picture that emerges is one of a wealthy, cultured, unified, peaceful people. Today there is often a tendency to romanticize the Minoans: some have equated them with the lost civilization of Atlantis, others (pointing to the prominence of women in Minoan art) have argued that they represent evidence of peaceful matriarchal societies in the bronze age that came to be overthrown by Indo-European invaders (see below on the Indo-Europeans), who brought with them their strongly patriarchal and militaristic traditions. There is little real evidence for such theories. Above all, it is necessary to remember the limited and often ambiguous nature of the archaeological evidence, which is constantly being reevaluated as new finds come to light. [FN 2]

    The bronze-age finds on Crete were immediately associated by Evans with the legendary king *Minos (from whom the term "Minoan" is derived). According to later Greek myth, Minos ruled a powerful naval empire (or thalassocracy) from his palace at Cnossus. The most famous legend concerning Minos told of the adventure of *Theseus and the *Minotaur. Theseus, the son of King Aegeus, was a legendary ruler of Athens (see The World of Athens, H.I. 5). When King Minos' son Androgeus was killed in Athens (cf. below on the possible historical significance of the Theseus legend), the powerful Cretan monarch exacted a terrible toll from the Athenians: each year seven young men and seven young women were sent from Athens to Cnossus, where they were fed to the savage Minotaur.

    [The Minotaur (the name was taken to mean "the bull of Minos") was a monstrous creature, half human, half bull. He was the offspring of Minos' wife, *Pasiphae. Legend had it that Minos had boasted that the sea-god Poseidon (who was also the god of earthquakes) would grant him any favor he wished and, as proof of this, had prayed to Poseidon to send him a bull out of the sea, promising to sacrifice the animal in the god's honor. The bull appeared, but was so magnificent that Minos decided not to sacrifice it but to keep it, sacrificing a normal bull in its place. Angered by this slight, Poseidon caused Pasiphae to fall in love with the bull. Pasiphae approached the artisan *Daedalus, the most cunning craftsman of all time, and convinced him to build a cow suit for her. Donning Daedalus' cow suit, Pasiphae managed to consummate her passion for the bull and, as a consequence, bore the Minotaur. Horrified by his new "stepson," Minos ordered Daedalus to construct an elaborate maze (the *labyrinth) [FN 3] in which to confine the monster: so cunning was the maze that, once inside it, no one could trace their way out.]

    Upon reaching manhood, the young Theseus insisted on being included in the seven young men to be sacrificed that year. He had no fear of the Minotaur, but was a bit daunted at the difficulty posed by Daedalus' maze. Fortunately for him, the young princess *Ariadne (one of Minos' daughters) fell madly in love with him and told him how to defeat the maze by unrolling a ball of yarn as he worked his way into the labyrinth. Theseus followed her instructions, killed the Minotaur, and managed to escape from Crete, taking the young princess with him. (In the time-honored manner of the best Greek heroes, Theseus quickly deserted Ariadne on the island Dia [Naxos], where she either committed suicide or was taken up by the god Dionysus to be his bride: for more on the amorous adventures of Theseus, see The Mythological Background to Euripides' Hippolytus.)

    If you study theories of myth, you will find that one approach suggests that myth is "faded history" — dimly recalled historical fact, preserved in a fanciful form in traditional stories handed down over generations. The tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, it can be argued, presents precisely such a myth. What features of the legend tie in with what you have seen of Minoan culture as represented by the palaces? (More connections will appear when we look at slides of Minoan art.)

    Minoan culture collapsed just as quickly as it evolved. All of the palaces except that at Cnossus were destroyed ca. 1450; Cnossus survived for another 75 years or so, but the archaeological evidence suggests that it had been taken over by Greeks from the mainland. Cnossus itself was destroyed ca. 1375 and Crete remained a cultural and political backwater for centuries afterward. The cause of this sudden collapse remains uncertain, but many scholars believe that it is related to the eruption of the island of *Thera, north of Crete (see map 4 in The World of Athens) in ca. 1500. The eruption of Thera was a cataclysmic event, some four to ten times as violent as that of Krakatoa in 1883.

    [A good part of this relatively large island simply blew up (leading many to recall, once again, the myth of Atlantis). In the past few years archaeologists have excavated an important settlement on Thera, preserved intact for centuries in mud and ash. Thera provides invaluable evidence for Cycladic culture and is a must-see for any tourist to Greece: it is actually possible to walk through the town and get a sense of daily life in a Cycladic setting. The frescoes (in the National Museum in Athens) are among the most striking works of art to survive from antiquity.]

    It has been thought that the ash from this eruption, along with a possible tsunami, may have disrupted the Minoan economy and perhaps ruined its fleet sufficiently to allow invasion. On this view, Helladic Greeks seized the island and destroyed all of the palaces except that at Cnossus, which they took under their control, only to fall themselves (how, we can only speculate) some 75 years later.

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    Helladic Civilization: The Mycenaean Age. The arrival in Europe of the "Greeks" (that is, the people who brought with them the rudiments of the language and culture that we associate with historical Greece) is identified by the gradual appearance (ca. 1900-1800) [FN 4] of a new culture on the mainland, characterized by a distinctive gray pottery made on a fast wheel (known as Minyan ware), by the arrival of the horse and chariot, and by a more martial cast to the archaeological remains (cf. above on the relatively peaceful cast of Minoan Society). The new arrivals were invaders from the east and, perhaps, the north. They were descendants of a people known as the *Indo-Europeans, originally perhaps located in the steppes of southern Russia, who, by the third millennium B.C., had began a gradual series of migrations to the west and south, taking with them their distinctive language, religion, and culture.

    [Our knowledge of the Indo-Europeans derives mainly from comparative linguistics and anthropology. Linguists have demonstrated that the principal languages of modern Europe and western Asia (Greek and Latin — along with those languages derived from Latin, the so-called Romance languages: Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian — as well as the Germanic, Baltic, Celtic, Slavic, Armenian, Hittite, Tocharian, Iranian, and Indic languages) are all regional offshoots of an original Indo-European tongue. As well as a linguistic heritage, the Indo-Europeans bequeathed to their descendants, e.g., a strongly patriarchal tradition and a pantheon headed by a powerful male weather god: note the similarity between the Greek Zeus (whose name is etymologically associated with the shining sky), the Latin Jupiter (etymologically: "father Zeus"), and the Sanskrit Dyaus Pitar.]

    The new arrivals present little of interest for us until ca. 1550, when Helladic culture itself undergoes a dramatic alteration. Our earliest evidence consists of two grave circles (dated to ca. 1550 and ca. 1500, respectively) at Mycenae. The later of these was unearthed by Schliemann; the earlier was not discovered until the 1950s. Within these circles were a series of shaft graves laden with precious objects, many of which were imported from (or showed direct influence from) Egypt, Mesopotamia, and (especially) Crete. At about the same time, elaborate stone tombs (known as tholos tombs) began to appear and, within the next century or so, elaborate palaces that matched those of Crete in size and magnificence, if not in sophistication. Originally it was thought that these developments were the result of colonists or refugees from Egypt or Crete who subdued the local Greek population and established a modified form of the society prevalent in Crete, Egypt, and the Near East. (Review the Theseus legend (summarized above): what was Androgeus doing in Athens, and how was Minos able to exact such tribute?) Today it is generally believed that trade contacts between mainland Greece and its neighbors to the south and east led to a sudden flourishing of riches and the local adaptation of the traditions of the Greeks' more advanced Mediterranean neighbors.

    This flourishing of Helladic culture in ca. 1600-1100 B.C. is known as *The Mycenaean Age, after Mycenae, the home of Agamemnon. The principal sites of importance, in addition to Mycenae, are Tiryns, Pylos, Thebes, Athens, and Gla, each of which had impressive citadels. The Mycenaean palaces are much less expansive and complex, and much more regular in design, than their Minoan counterparts. They are built around a main structure known as the *megaron, or royal hall, consisting of a large rectangular chamber fronted by a colonnaded antechamber (see The World of Athens, ill. HI 1). At the center of the megaron was a large hearth surrounded by four columns (which would have supported a clerestory — for light and ventilation — and in some cases a balcony). On the right wall, as one entered, was an elaborate throne (attested by marks preserved in the flooring). It would seem that this chamber was where the king performed his most important political and, perhaps, religious functions. [Rendering of the bronze-age palace at Mycenae]

    The most striking feature of the palaces, however, is presented by their fortifications. In contrast to the Minoan palaces (discussed above), those of mainland Greece (with the exception of Pylos) are heavily fortified, with massive walls constructed of immense, irregularly shaped stones. [Later ages felt that these stones were too large to have been put in place by human agency: the story arose that the walls had been built by the Cyclopes (gigantic craftsmen in the service of Zeus — the better-behaved kinsmen of the famous one-eyed monster who tried to eat Odysseus). Thus the term *cyclopean masonry is used even today to indicate this style of bronze-age construction.] Clearly the Mycenaean Greeks, like Homer's heroes, were familiar with the hazards of war. [See, further, W. Taylour, The Mycenaeans, J.T. Hooker, Mycenaean Greece, and the other works in the course bibliography.]

    Like the Minoans, the Mycenaean Greeks kept elaborate records on clay tablets, written in a script related to Minoan Linear A but distinct from it (hence it is known as *Linear B: see The World of Athens, ill. HI 2). An immense cache of these tablets was discovered at Pylos, but they also appear at Thebes, Athens, and (significantly) Cnossus. In the mid-1950s an architect and amateur linguist by the name of Michael Ventris demonstrated that the Linear B tablets were written in a form of Greek — a discovery that seemed to demonstrate conclusively that the kings of Pylos, Mycenae, etc. were not foreign overlords (like the Normans in 11th century England) but Greeks. [See esp. J. Chadwick, The Decipherment of Linear B, and E. Doblhofer, Voices in Stone.] The Linear B tablets provide invaluable evidence regarding the palace economy and their day-to-day administration, particularly at Pylos. Like the palace at Cnossus, that at Pylos was as much storage depot and administrative center as royal seat, with massive amounts of goods being brought in, catalogued, and stored or redistributed. The tablets also tell us something of military and political affairs at Pylos, and of religious matters. What they do not contain is literature of any sort: they are purely administrative. [See in particular the excellent book by J. Chadwick, The Mycenaean World.]

    The Mycenaean Greeks enjoyed increasing prosperity in the 15th and 14th centuries, reaching something of a golden age in the early 13th century. But in the middle of the 13th century problems began to arise: Thebes was sacked; Mycenae was attacked (the houses outside the walls of the citadel were destroyed and later rebuilt); Mycenae, Tiryns, and Athens all extended their fortifications to secure a water supply and (at Tiryns) to provide for an influx of refugees from the surrounding countryside. It seems clear that something of a siege mentality was beginning to develop. Around 1200 the Mycenaean world begins to undergo a general collapse. This was a disastrous period throughout the eastern Mediterranean: the Hittite empire (in modern Turkey) collapsed; various centers in the Near East fell; Egypt survived, but records there speak of attacks by "the sea peoples" and this time marks the beginning of a period of decline in Egyptian affairs. Various theories have been proposed to account for this wide-spread catastrophe: climactic change (which might have caused a general collapse of the ancient economies — fragile under the best of conditions — and a breakdown of social order) and foreign invaders remain the two favorite. (The Greeks themselves spoke of an invasion of Dorian Greeks, said to be the descendants of the pan-hellenic hero Heracles.) By ca. 1100-1050 the great centers on the Greek mainland had all fallen. This collapse ushers in the Dark Ages of the 11th to 9th centuries, mentioned at the beginning of this account.

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    Troy. It is now time to return to Homer. It turns out that there was an age of great kings and grand palaces. But was there a Trojan War? (This question is considered at length by Michael Wood.) Excavations at Troy itself have uncovered nine major settlements. The most important are:

    Troy II: the city Schliemann thought was Homer's Troy, but dating to the latter half of the 3rd millennium
    Troy VI: ca. 1900 [FN 5]-1300; a grand city — rich, powerful, with extensive trading contacts throughout the eastern Mediterranean (particularly, it turns out, with the Mycenaeans) — but one that seems to fall to an earthquake rather than through human agency
    Troy VIIa: a makeshift affair founded on the rubble of Troy VI but apparently destroyed by human agency ca. 1275-1200

    Interpretation of the archaeological evidence is difficult. We have a Troy that is destroyed by fire (Troy VIIa) at almost the very time ancient tradition claimed Troy fell (1184 B.C. was the traditional date), but it is not the grand Troy described by Homer and it falls at a time when the Mycenaean centers themselves appear to have felt threatened and were making defensive, rather than offensive, preparations. (It seems more likely that Troy VIIa fell to the same forces that destroyed the Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations.) On the other hand, we have a grand city (Troy VI) that matches Homer's Troy quite nicely and that falls when the Mycenaeans are at the peak of their power, but that seems to have fallen by earthquake (although this interpretation of the evidence has been questioned: for one thing, if earthquake were the only cause of Troy VI's fall, why was it rebuilt on such a reduced scale and in so haphazard a fashion?). These are not questions that we can solve in this class, but it is perhaps fair to give Homer the benefit of the doubt. After all, if there was no historic basis for Homer's tale, what would be the motivation for inventing it? On the other hand, we can prove that the Mycenaeans had extensive trade contacts in Asia Minor, the Near East, and Egypt: it does not seem improbable that hostilities of some sort might have broken out between the Mycenaeans, eager to trade in Asia Minor and the Black Sea region, and the Trojans, who commanded such a strategic position overlooking the Dardanelles.

    [For a more detailed (largely negative) assessment of the historicity of the Iliad, see K.A. Raaflaub, "Homer, the Trojan War, and History," Classical World 91.5 (1998) 386-403.]


    [FN 1] Further evidence, of a general sort, is provided by the Linear A tablets. Confirmation for this view of the Minoan political and economic structure is found in the very similar structures attested on the Greek mainland, as we will see. [Return to text]

    [FN 2] One example: some few years ago archeologists claimed to find evidence of human sacrifice in one of the smaller palaces adjoining the grand palace at Cnossus. If proven, such practices would entail a radical shift in our notions of the "peaceful" Minoans. See, in particular, C. Eller, The myth of matriarchal prehistory: why an invented past won't give women a future (Boston, 2000). [Return to text]

    [FN 3] The English "labyrinth" comes from the Greek labyrinthos. The ending of this word (-inthos) associates it with a family of words that predate the Greek language: that is, it survives from the (unknown) language spoken by indigenous people of the region prior to the arrival of the "Greeks" (compare below). It closely resembles another Greek "loan word," labrys (a type of double ax). We will see the significance of this in the slide lectures. [Return to text]

    [FN 4] Note the synchronism with developments on Crete. [Return to text]

    [FN 5] Again, note the synchronism with Minoan Crete and the arrival of Indo-European peoples in Greece. [Return to text]

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