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CLAS 104: Chronological Overview: Periods and Sources
compiled by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

The chronological periods relevant to this course are:   [Note 1]

Late Bronze Age ca. 1900-1100 BC
Protogeometric Period
("Dark Age")
ca. 1100-875 BC
Geometric Period ca. 875-750 BC
Orientalizing Period ca. 750-620 BC
Archaic Period ca. 620-480 BC
Classical Period 480-323 BC
Hellenistic Period 323-30 BC
Roman Period 27 BC - AD 476

*The Late Bronze Age (ca. 1900-1100 BC)

This is the period that provides the historical basis for many Greek myths and legends and that no doubt was crucial in the formation of the traditions that we know from later sources. We can deduce this, e.g., from the prominence of Bronze Age centers in the later tradition (e.g., the association of Crete with a mighty Bronze Age monarch named Minos, of Tiryns with Heracles, of Mycenae with Agamemnon, of Pylos with Nestor) and from the specific details preserved in some of the later accounts (e.g., the myth of the Minotaur and the palace at Cnossus).
Read the account on the Iliad and the Greek Bronze Age page (for CLAS 110). As a general reference, see as well the plan of the palace at Cnossus and a rendering of the palace at Mycenae.

The Protogeometric Period (ca. 1100-875 BC)

A transitional period following the collapse of the Late Bronze Age centers in the eastern Mediterranean. Beginning of the Iron Age. While archaeologists stress that this so-called "Dark Age" was not nearly so bleak as is it is often depicted, the contrast with the civilizations that preceded this period is striking. A time for preserving and elaborating memories of the past rather than for profound cultural innovation.
For one way in which concrete knowledge of the earlier Bronze Age civilizations and their cultural traditions was retained during this period, see the Iliad as Oral Formulaic Poetry page.

The Geometric Period (ca. 875-750 BC)

Rise of the Greek polis (city-state) and of communal projects that increasingly leave their mark in the archeological and written records. In the course of the 8th century, the first stone temples begin to be built. 776 is the traditional date of the first Olympic games. This is also the period that sees the development of a new tradition of more sophisticated pottery (after which the period is named).

Orientalizing Period (ca. 750-620 BC)

Continued growth and elaboration of the polis; development of international connections via trade and colonization (Italy, Sicily, Asia Minor, Black Sea region): see the Archaic Age and the Rise of the Polis page. Introduction of the Greek alphabet (ca. 750) and appearance of the earliest preserved "literary" productions. Composition (or first recording) of the Iliad and Odyssey (ca. 750-700). Poetry of Hesiod (ca. 700). First free-standing monumental sculpture (ca. 660). First lyric poetry for which we have fragments (Archilochus: ca. 650). Introduction of currency (ca. 650). Introduction of Attic black figure pottery (ca. 630).
The attitude toward myth in this and the following period (the Archaic Period) is interesting. On the one hand, we see the poets and artists actively manipulating and reworking the traditional accounts (mythoi) that provide them with the core of their material: from a modern perspective, they seem to be working according to an artistic aesthetic not unlike that of a writer of modern fiction — an aesthetic that privileges originality and sophistication in the elaboration of plot, theme, and artistic form. Yet our sources make it clear that, well into the fifth century BC (and no doubt far beyond that period, in the case of many people), these works were not regarded as mere fictional or aesthetic entertainment but as documents that dealt with matters of historical fact. Authors, vase painters, and other artisans approached their material, not in the spirit of a Stephen King or Yann Martel, but with a perspective which blends concerns that we would characterize as historical and religious. Whatever professional motives might have driven these artists, they were perceived as recrafting their tales in order to elicit deeper truths from the material and/or correct mistakes in the earlier tradition: they were not producing best-sellers or "pop art," but providing deeper insights into the figures about whom they were composing, whom they regarded as historical.
This attitude is in large part the result of the fact that these artists are working within an oral society. Poets, in particular, did not compose their works to be read, but to be experienced in performance — at a religious rite, a festival, a symposium (drinking party), or the like — and those works would be recalled thereafter, if at all, mainly by being reperformed, from memory, on later occasions. Oral traditions tend to be much more fluid than those that rely upon a written record, and admit innovation and "corrections" much more readily. The continual recrafting of tradition evident in surviving poetry no doubt reflects similar tendencies in the less formal but much more pervasive traditions of story-telling at this time, which are difficult to trace in our written record.
Important sources:

*The Archaic Period (ca. 620-480 BC)

Rise of Athens from a rather typical city-state to the leading military, political, and cultural center in the Greek world. The period opens with the Athenian statesman Solon attempting to deal with internal political and economic tensions; it concludes with the defeat of the Persian invasion under Xerxes (battles of Salamis and Plataea). Includes the period of the reign of the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus (561-27), who does much to put Athens on the cultural and political map, and the initial establishment of the Athenian democracy under Cleisthenes (508/7). (See the Rise of Athens and the Athenian Democracy page.) Introduction of Attic red figure pottery (ca. 530); discontinuation of Attic black figure pottery (ca. 470). Introduction of Athenian tragedy (last third of the 6th century).
For the attitude toward myth in this period, see above regarding the Orientalizing Period.
Important sources:

*The Classical Period (480-323 BC)

The most productive period in Greek history. It opens with the rise of Periclean Athens and the development of the radical Athenian democracy, in tandem with the rise of the Athenian naval empire; it ends with the death of Alexander following his subjugation of Greece and his conquests in the East — i.e., with the end of Greek freedom and the death of the polis as a viable autonomous political-economic entity.
Like other similar periods of intense cultural development, the Classical Period is characterized by a fertile clashing of old and new ways of thought. While the older religious, political, and social traditions of the preceding age continue, they increasingly come into conflict with the new realities sparked by the rise of the Athenian democracy, the increasingly urban nature of Athenian society, economic developments and a general growth of wealth, the spread of literacy, and the advent of new critical modes of thought. The changes effected by these new developments become apparent only gradually during this period, but from the mid-fifth century on, the engagement with myth is complex. The traditional tales, and the religious views they imply, continue to be a source of inspiration, but there is an increasing number of intellectuals who are willing to regard these mythoi (traditional tales) as "mere myths" — i.e., fabrications with no connection to any external or historical reality, and with no authority to compel belief. (See the discussion of Sophocles Oedipus and the Greek Enlightenment page on the course notes page for CLAS 110.)
Important sources (all Athenian, unless otherwise noted)

*The Hellenistic Period (323-30 BC)

Covers the period from the death of Alexander to the death of Cleopatra (last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt).
As a result of Alexander the Great's brilliant campaigns in the East (336-323), the eastern Mediterranean for a brief while found itself under the rule of one man. On Alexander's death, however, this territory was soon divided into a group of dynasties, the foundations for a number of which were laid by Alexander's former generals. The main players were:
In this new political configuration, the local populations of the eastern Mediterranean found themselves governed by foreign (Greek) overlords. Inevitably, Greek became the official language of the ruling classes (much like French in Norman England) and Greek culture came to be inculcated into the educational systems and general outlook of members of the local aristocracies. As a result, this period in the history of the eastern Mediterranean region is known as the Hellenistic ("Greek-like") Period, since Greek language and culture came to be wide-spread but, as you would expect, underwent fundamental changes as they were disengaged from their original social and cultural moorings and adopted by foreign populations under such artificial circumstances.
["Hellas" = "Greece"   "Hellenic" = "Greek"   "Hellenistic" = "Greek-like"]
The language and culture of Athens naturally enjoyed pride of place (as a result, the "common dialect" that developed — the so-called Koine Greek, which is the language of the New Testament — is derived directly from Classical Attic Greek) while the achievements of Athens in the classical age came to be invested with an additional layer of significance, as a symbol of what it was to be "Greek," as opposed to Egyptian, Syrian, Babylonian, etc. This is a period that is obsessed with its past, as the Macedonian upper classes, who had traditionally been looked down upon as semi-barbarians by their Greek neighbors to the south, and who now found themselves living the lives of expatriate overlords in a foreign land, struggled to assert their Greek heritage.
It is no accident, then, that this period sees the establishment of the first large-scale institute for higher learning: the Library and Mousaion ("Museum") at Alexandria (founded in the early 3rd century), where scholars devoted themselves, in particular, to collecting, studying, and codifying the great cultural achievements of the Greek authors of earlier ages.   [Note 2]   It is to this age that we owe the preservation of many earlier works of Greek literature, as well as much of our knowledge of the significance of those works.
The engagement with the past in this period is intense, but (like so many other features of the age) also intensely artificial. As a result, the literature of the period is incredibly bookish — dense with learned allusions to earlier works and continually defining itself and its intended effects in reference to those works. (If you have ever read T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, you know something of how this type of literature operates — although it would seem that most of what was produced in the Hellenistic Period was far from meeting the standards set by Eliot.) Under the influence of Callimachus, in particular, emphasis came to be placed upon producing short, highly crafted, densely allusive works that would win the approval of a learned, hyper-literary audience.
As you might expect, the engagement with myth in this period is quite different from what it had been in earlier times. Whatever the beliefs of the masses, the literary treatment of myth by such bookish scholar-poets shares almost as little with the world-view that originally produced these stories as does our own.
Important sources:

The Roman Period (27 BC - AD 476)

From the establishment of the Augustan Principate to the fall of the Western Empire.
Continues the bookish, hyper-literary treatment of Greek myth developed in the Hellenistic Period, but with occasional gestures toward incorporating native Roman divinities and religious practices into the tradition. Like their Hellenistic predecessors, authors in this period are sophisticated, highly literate, and extremely self-conscious, and compose exclusively for a discriminating, highly literate audience made up of the economic, social, and political elite.
Important sources:

See, further, the Overview of Archaic and Classical Greek History by Thomas Martin on the Perseus WWW site.


Note 1:   The terms Protogeometric, Geometric, and Orientalizing refer to specific styles of vase painting. They should not be understood to indicate anything specific about Greek society or culture in these periods. [Return to text]

Note 2:   The Mousaion was the ancient equivalent of a research institute where, especially in the third century, important break-throughs were made in such areas as mathematics, astronomy, geometry, and medicine. [Return to text]

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