early history of Greece

The civilization of Crete spread to all the peoples of the Mediterranean

The civilization of Crete spread to all the peoples of the Mediterranean. Below: Cretan vase and remains of the palace at Knossos.

Places inhabited by the first peoples of Greece

Places inhabited by the first peoples of Greece.

Achaean ship

Artist's impression of an Archaean ship carrying goods across the Aegean Sea.

Many of the civilizations of the ancient world flourished in the countries round the eastern Mediterranean: Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor, Italy, and Greece. Of these only Italy and Greece lie in what we call Europe, and it was Greece that gave civilization to the European countries. There is much in our language, thought, and literature that can be traced back to the Greeks.


The Achaeans

Legend has it that the greatest king of Knossos was called Minos, and so by a curious mistake the civilization of Crete is called Minoan after him. Minoan civilization was at its height from well before 2000 BC to about 1400 BC, when the palace of "Minos" was destroyed. In fact, the historical Minos belonged not to Knossos in its great days but to the unknown people who destroyed its famous palace and occupied Crete in the two centuries following 1400 BC. The main center of power had shifted by then to the mainland of Greece, whose people were generally known at this time as the Achaeans. At about the time that the palace of Knossos was destroyed, another palace was being built in the south of Greece, at Mycenae. From Mycenae the Achaean culture which succeeded the Minoan has come to be called Mycenaean.


Mycenae and Troy

In about 1200 BC the most powerful of the Achaeans were Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, and his brother Menelaus, king of Sparta. If the legend is true, it was the kidnapping of Helen, Menelaus's wife, which led to the most famous event in Greek history: the siege of Troy. Troy was captured and destroyed some time in the early 12th century BC by an army of Achaeans drawn from Greece itself and from the islands. The siege of Troy gave Homer the story for his Iliad and Odyssey; it was the last great adventure of the Mycenaean world. Less than a hundred years later, the empire of Mycenae collapsed and Greece was invaded by the Dorians. There then followed a dark age in which culture had no place and the art of writing was lost. However, there came the rise of Athens and the golden age of Greece.


Customs of the Achaeans

The Achaeans lived in small towns clustering round the foot of a hill, on top of which lay the temples and the palace of the king. They lived mainly by farming, although there were also fine carpenters, metal-workers, and masons. Homer's account of the shield of the hero Achilles recalls the skill of the metal-workers; he describes the pictures engraved on the shield showing how the people lived.


The Achaeans wore a long tunic which extended to their knees; the women wore a veil and a belt. The rich adorned themselves with gold rings and brooches. Men and women wore leather sandals.


Each family provided for its own needs. The men cultivated the land and built their own houses and made their own furniture. The women spun and wove their wool. Even the sovereign was not above manual labor. The Achaeans lived mainly on roast meats, vegetables, and bread made from corn. The favorite drink was wine mixed with water.



The Dorians who conquered Sparta founded one of the most powerful states in Greece. But they were always few in numbers; to preserve their military power, they thought it necessary to remain a small caste of highly-trained soldiers ruling over a large population of farmers. The farmers were called helots. They were treated almost like slaves, and allowed very little liberty. The Dorian Spartans, meanwhile, were free to train as soldiers and study the arts of war. The Spartans were quite different from the Greeks as we usually picture them; unlike their great rivals, the men of Athens, who loved to discuss literature and philosophy, the Spartan way of life was stern and hard. They took small boys from their homes at a very early age and trained them to be leaders of the state in politics and war.


The Dorians

The civilization of Mycenae and of the Achaeans was destroyed in the eleventh century BC by the invasion of the Dorians. They did not conquer the whole of Greece; but it was many centuries before the Greek peoples flourished as they had done in the Mycenaean age. During the dark age which followed, the only centers of culture were to be found in the eastern Mediterranean, in the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon and in the Israel of Solomon. When they emerge in history again, in the seventh and sixth centuries, the Dorians and Achaeans and other Greek peoples had settled down together as one people.


Types of Dorian dress
Types of Dorian dress. Top to bottom: soldier, magistrate, helot


They lived in independent city states (the Greeks called a city polis, the word from which "politics" comes), often at war with one another. But they gathered together every four years for the Olympic Games; and if they were threatened by attack from outside, they turned to Sparta in the Peloponnese as their leader, as they had to Mycenae in earlier days. But other great cities were rivals to Sparta: Thebes in central Greece, the home of many legends, and Athens, later to be the most famous of all Greek cities.