Human Legacy Course/Early Greece

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Human Legacy Course I
Early Greece

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Hello and welcome to Week 5, Classical Greece. In today's lecture, we will be taking a brief overview into early Greece. Our question for the day is:

Were the ancient stories about Crete based on fact? The wealthy King Minos, his deadly maze called the Labyrinth, and a half-man, half-bull beast called the Minotaur, who trapped prisoners in the maze and ate them alive—there are the tales Greek storytellers told. Many people have wondered whether they actually happened.

Beginning in the late 1890s a British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, led an expedition to dig for ancient ruins on Crete. Evans’s team found something amazing. They uncovered the ruins of a vast palace at Knossos, the site the myths named as the home of the Minos and his Minotaur. Evans found no signs of the beast, of course. But he did think he had found the history behind the legend. He called this lost civilization Minoan, after the legendary king.

Minoans and Mycenaeans[edit | edit source]

Until the discoveries by Evans and others in the 1800s, the earliest history of Greece had been lost to legend for centuries. Even now, after several major discoveries, many parts of that early history are a mystery to us. We do know, however, that two distinct cultures developed in early Greece, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans.

The Minoans of Crete[edit | edit source]

The civilization we call Minoan developed on Crete as early as 3000 BC and lasted nearly 2,000 years. During that time, Minoan ships sailed all over the Aegean Sea—and perhaps further. Minoan colonies grew up on dozens of Aegean islands. Ships laden with trade goods sailed back and forth between these colonies and Crete.

Excavations at Knossos have revealed much about Minoan life. Buildings there were solidly constructed with many private rooms, basic plumbing, and brightly colored artwork on the walls. That artwork has likewise helped historians learn about the Minoan way of life. From images of ships, they can tell Minoan life was tied to the sea: sailing, trade, fishing, even playing in the waves were all common. Women seem to have played major roles in society. For example, most Minoan images of priests are women. Frescoes painted on the walls of Minoan houses suggest that the Minoans played dangerous games that involved leaping over charging bulls during festivals.

Much of what historians have written about Minoan civilization is the result of speculation and guesswork. Part of the problem stems from the Minoans’ writing, which historians cannot read. Called Linear A, the language does not appear to be related to those of mainland Greece. Unless we learn to decipher their writing, all we know about the Minoans will come from the art and objects they left behind.

For reasons as yet unknown, the Minoan civilization fell apart rather suddenly. One possible cause was a world-shaking disaster. When a volcanic island near Crete blew itself apart—one of the largest eruptions ever—the blast may have affected weather patterns around the world. The damage this would have done to Minoan ports and crops may have substantially weakened the society. No matter what else happened, in the end the Minoans were conquered by the warlike Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland.

The Mycenaean States[edit | edit source]

The Mycenaeans built small kingdoms that fought often with each other. The civilization’s name comes from a fortress they built, Mycenae. Historians consider the Mycenaeans the first Greeks, because they spoke a form of the Greek language. The earliest Mycenaean kingdoms owed much to the Minoans. They traded with them and copied Minoan writing to develop their own system, which somewhat resembled the earlier Minoan writing system.

Unlike Minoan writing, however, Mycenaean writing has been translated. Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans also became great traders. Their trade only increased after they conquered Crete.

Despite their ties to Crete, the Mycenaeans’ civilization developed in a very different direction. Mycenaean society was dominated by intense competition, frequent warfare, and powerful kings. To raise money to build great palaces and high walls, Mycenaean kings taxed trade and farming. To show off their strength, they built great monuments like the massive Lion’s Gate at Mycenae.

The Mycenaean kings’ constant quests for power and glory inspired many later legends. The most famous legend is the story of the Trojan War. The war supposedly involved early Greeks, led by Mycenae, fighting a powerful city called Troy in what is now Turkey. Although historians are not sure if the Trojan War really happened, they have found the ruins of a city they believe to be Troy. Evidence at these ruins suggests that the city was destroyed in battle, though it is impossible to be certain.

Whatever the real Trojan story, war played a part in the end of Mycenaean civilization. Along with droughts and famines, invasion from outside, and the end of trade, war between Mycenaean cities sped up their downfall. By the end of the 1100s BC the Mycenaean cities were mostly in ruins. A dark age followed. People fled cities, struggled to farm enough to eat, fought their neighbors and outside invaders, and even lost the use of writing for several centuries. Greek civilization almost disappeared.

Greek City-States[edit | edit source]

For more than 300 years, Greece was awash in confusion. By the 800s BC, however, life in Greece was stable enough for a new type of society to emerge. That society was centered on the polis, or city-state, which became the basic political unit in Greece. Because Greece was so rugged, travel and communication between city-states was difficult. As a result, each polis developed independently of its neighbors. Each developed its own form of government, laws, and customs.

Life In The Polis[edit | edit source]

The polis was the center of daily life and culture for the ancient Greeks. One philosopher even defined a person as one who lived in a polis. Because it was so central to their lives, Greeks were fiercely loyal to their polis. In fact, people did not think of themselves as Greeks at all, but rather as residents of a particular city-state.

A typical polis was built around a high area called an acropolis. In addition to fortifications, the acropolis usually housed temples to the gods and spaces for public ceremonies. Below the acropolis were other public places, like the agora, or marketplace, where people did business, gossiped, and discussed politics. Shops, houses, and more temples surrounded the agora. In quieter parts of the polis, one might find a gymnasium, a training ground and public bath for athletes. Surrounding the entire polis was a sturdy wall for defense. Beyond the wall were a few scattered houses and marketplaces as well as the fields where the city’s food was grown.

Each major polis had a different political system that developed over time. The trading polis of Corinth, for example, was an oligarchy, a city-state ruled by a few individuals. Athens, perhaps the most famous Greek polis, was the birthplace of democracy. To better understand how a city-state’s government developed, we can study one state, Sparta, as an example.

The Might of Sparta[edit | edit source]

Sparta was one of the mightiest city-states in Greece, if one of the least typical. Located on the Peloponnesus, the large peninsula of southern Greece, Sparta was at first surrounded by smaller towns. Over time, Sparta seized control of the towns around it, including Messenia. Once they had conquered the town, the Spartans made the Messenians into helots, or state slaves. Helots were given to Spartan citizens to work on farms so that the citizens did not have to perform manual labor. As a result, Spartan citizens were free to spend all their time training for war.

The Spartan emphasis on war was not created out of any particular fondness for fighting. Instead, it was seen as the only way to keep order in society. The helots outnumbered Spartan citizens by about seven to one and were always ready to rebel against their rulers. The only way the Spartans could see to keep the helots in check was to have a strong army.

To support their military lifestyle, the Spartans demanded strength and toughness from birth. Babies, boys and girls alike, were examined for strength after birth. If a child was found unhealthy, he or she was left in the wild to die. Those who were healthy were trained as soldiers from a young age.

Boys were taught physical and mental toughness by their mothers until age seven. Then they entered a school system designed to train them for combat. This system had been created by a legendary king named Lycurgus whose goal was to toughen boys in preparation for the hardships they would face as soldiers:

“Instead of softening their feet with shoe or sandal, his rule was to make them hardy through going barefoot. This habit, if practiced, would, as he believed, enable them to scale heights more easily and clamber down precipices with less danger. In fact, with his feet so trained the young Spartan would leap and spring and run faster unshod than another in the ordinary way. Instead of making them effeminate with a variety of clothes, his rule was to habituate them to a single garment the whole year through, thinking that so they would be better prepared to withstand the variations of heat and cold.”

—Xenophon, The Polity of the Spartans, c. 375 BC

At the end of their training, groups of boys were sent into the wilderness with no food or tools and were expected to survive. Then, at age 20, boys became hoplites, or foot soldiers. They remained in the army for 10 years, after which time they were allowed to leave and take their place as citizens.

Sparta was rather unusual among Greek city-states in that women played an important role in society. Spartan women were trained in gymnastics for physical fitness. The Spartans thought women had to be fit to bear strong children. They had the right to own property, a right forbidden to women in most of Greece.

Politically, Sparta was led by two kings who served as military commanders. Over time, responsibility for making decisions fell more and more to an elected council of elders. It was considered an honor to take a seat on this council and help run the city.

Gods & Heroes[edit | edit source]

In addition to archaeological evidence, much of what we know or suspect about early Greece comes from studying the Greeks’ legends and myths. Myths are stories told to explain natural phenomena or events of the distant past. The Greeks told myths to explain where they came from, how they should live, and how to cope with an uncertain world.

The Gods of Olympus[edit | edit source]

The ancient Greeks believed in hundreds of gods and goddesses. Each of these deities governed one aspect of nature or life. For example, the god Apollo controlled the movement of the sun through the sky, while his sister Artemis did the same for the moon. Ares, the fierce god of war, frequently came into conflict with Athena, the clever goddess of wisdom. The Greeks believed that the gods would protect them and their city-states in exchange for the proper rituals and sacrifices.

Although the Greeks believed in many gods, about 12 of them were particularly influential in their lives. The Greeks believed that these 12 gods and goddesses lived together on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. As a result, they were called the Olympian gods.

Though they were thought to have great power, the Greeks did not consider their deities perfect. Indeed, myths say the gods were flawed and often unpredictable. They loved, hated, argued, made mistakes, got jealous, and played tricks on each other. For example, the chief god Zeus, lord of the skies and storms, and his wife Hera had a troubled marriage full of arguments. Poseidon, god of the sea, was quick to anger but slow to think through his actions.

Although almost all Greeks worshipped the same gods, each polis claimed one god or goddess as its special protector. Corinth, for example, claimed Apollo’s favor, while Athens considered itself sacred to Athena.

A few locations were considered sacred by all Greeks. One was Delphi, where priestesses of Apollo were thought to receive visions of the future. Another was Olympia. Every four years, Greeks from various city-states got together there for the Olympic Games. In these games, athletes met to compete against each other and to honor the gods.

Myths About Heroes[edit | edit source]

Alongside the gods, Greeks also told myths about heroes. Stories about these heroes were used to teach Greeks where they came from and what sort of people they should try to be. Some heroes, such as Hercules, the son of Zeus who had godlike strength, were renowned throughout all of Greece. Others, such as Theseus, an Athenian prince who killed the Minotaur of Crete, were famous chiefly in their home cities.

The heroes of myths killed monsters, made discoveries, founded cities, and talked with gods on almost equal terms. With the right virtues they could rise above fear and uncertainty. Their examples could inspire individuals, and even whole city-states, to achieve great things. But even in legend, the Greeks’ myths would only let them rise so far. Hubris, or great pride, brought many heroes to tragic ends. Their deaths served as lessons to the Greeks not to overstretch their abilities.

Assignment[edit | edit source]

  • Question #1: What have historians learned by studying Minoan art?
  • Question #2: What is one way in which the Minoans and Mycenaean cultures were similar? What is one way in which they were different?
  • Question #3: Why are historians not sure if the Trojan War really happened? What makes them think that it may have happened?
  • Question #4: What roles did the acropolis and the agora play in a typical Greek polis?
  • Question #5: What led to the creation of a military society in Sparta?
  • Question #6: Do you think the Spartan system was a good way to run a government? Why or why not?
  • Question #7: What were the gods of Greek mythology like?
  • Question #8: Why did the ancient Greeks create myths?
  • Question #9: Why do you think the Greeks were interested in stories about great heroes?

Thank you very much for listening to this audio lecture and goodbye.