Why do we call it the Dark Age?

Let’s begin our discussion of the Dark Age of ancient Greece with the answer to this question.

In history, when a period has little written source material coming out of it, we call it a dark age.

The more commonly known Dark Age occurred following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and enveloped much of Europe. Somewhat similarly, the Dark Age of ancient Greece began after the fall of the Mycenaean Greeks and extended across much, though not all, of Greece. During this period, literacy seems to have fallen. Local leaders took control following the collapse of Mycenaean organization. Populations became more closed off from each other — perhaps laying the ground for the fierce independence of the later Greek city-states — and trade with Egypt and other areas virtually ceased.

During the Dark Age, the Greek “races” established themselves in various areas. A meat-based diet predominated the Greek world. This diet didn’t allow for much population growth.

To some extent, the eastern half of the Greek world — the area known as Ionia along the coast of modern Turkey — was spared the brunt of the Dark Age, since it remained in connection with the near East. Towards the end of the Dark Age, a number of important developments in Ionia catalyzed the beginning of the Archaic Period.

The map below shows the extent of Greek influence throughout the Dark Age, which lasted from roughly 1100 B.C. (the collapse of the Mycenaeans, or rather Mycenaean organization) to roughly 800 B.C. (the beginning of the Archaic Period, marked by a number of developments).

a map of Greek influence during the Dark Age of ancient Greece
A map showing the extent of Greek influence throughout the Dark Age.
The Bronze Age Collapse and the Fall of the Mycenaeans

The Dark Age began following the Bronze Age collapse, which affected the Greek world in addition to civilization in the near-East and elsewhere. It’s possible that this collapse was, in part, triggered by some sort of climate changed that caused agriculture to fail.

The collapse of Mycenaean centers led to a power vacuum. Local warlords took control of small, city-state sized areas. Throughout the Dark Age and the early Archaic Period, these areas would slowly develop oligarchies, democracies, and other types of government.

Read my article on the Mycenaean Greeks for more information on these topics.

Sources for the Dark Age

Very little writing remains from the Dark Age. Which, as I’ve already discussed, is the reason it’s called the Dark Age.

What does remain is pottery. Originally, the Dark Age was termed the Geometric Period due to the nature of its art. As you can see, it heavily features geometric patterning. It’s a lot less realistic than the art of previous periods — contrast it with Minoan and Mycenaean art.

art from the Dark Age of ancient Greece (also known as the Geometric Period)
An example of Dark Age (Geometric) art.

Archaeologists have also discovered a small amount of architecture dating to the Dark Age, mainly the late Dark Age. Here’s an example of a Dark Age era foundation unearthed by archaeologists. Again, note the contrast between the earlier Minoan and Mycenaean architecture, and the smaller-scale nature of Dark Age architecture.

I will say that archaeologists haven’t invested a great deal of time into unearthing foundations from the Dark Age (and historians haven’t spent a lot of time studying the Dark Age). So there’s likely a lot more that remains hidden, in terms of both history and archaeology as they pertain to this period.

Dark Age foundation
A Dark Age-era foundation.
Poverty, Illiteracy, and the Iron Age

During the Dark Age, mostly as a result of a reduction in trade, the Greek world became poorer than it had been previously. The population likely decreased (this suggested by the smaller size of settlements and the fact that they became fewer in number).

Without any organized or centralized government, the need for record-keeping vanished, and with it literacy waned. Although it is true that few inscriptions have come to us out of the Dark Age, it’s likely that the Dark Age wasn’t actually completely “dark” in a historical sense. In other words, literacy probably persisted in some part of the Greek world. At any rate, towards the end of the Dark Age or at the beginning of the Archaic Period, the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet and made it their own.

Also during the Dark Age, the Greek world entered the “iron age” — the use of iron characterizes Greek Dark Age settlements. The Greeks likely learned how to smelt iron from Cyprus and the Levant. Iron was predominant by 900 B.C.

Geometric Art

Again, contrast the stark geometric style of this period with the war motifs of Mycenaean art and the beautiful animal motifs of Minoan art. Dark Age (Geometric Period) art still featured animals, most commonly horses, as in the sculpture below.

geometric horse
A Geometric Period horse sculpture.

Pottery is the most common type of Dark Age art in terms of what archaeologists have unearthed. Here are several examples of Dark Age pottery. Again, note the geometric features and the general lack of balance.

How did the Dark Age end?

The line between the Dark Age and the Archaic Period is blurry at best. Sometime around 800 B.C., a number of shifts occurred which had likely been in the works for centuries. Together, they led to a domino effect that catapulted the Greek world out of the Dark Age.

I’m going to discuss this topic in much more depth in my next post about the early Archaic Period, but one of the major developments was a shift in diet: from a meat-based diet to a cereal-based diet. Cereal-based diets are able to sustain much larger populations than meat-based diets. The population explosion, in turn, helped bring greater agricultural yields, and caused the Greek economy to grow. Economic development combined with development in the realms of culture and literacy. Eventually, all this spilled over into the political and military structures of the Greek world.

It’s tempting to view these developments as things that happened suddenly, but in truth, like I already said, they were all centuries in the making. The Dark Age gave impetus to the Archaic Period, just as the Archaic Period launched the Greek world into the Classical Period.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the Dark Age of ancient Greece!

If you found this article interesting, pass it along!

And if I’ve piqued your interest, check out this article from the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Also read my article on the Minoan civilization, a pre-Greek civilization that flourished on the island of Crete until around 1450 B.C. And read a guest post from Ingrid of Experiments in Fiction for more information on ancient, pre-Dark Age scripts.

You can find all historical articles in the That’s History archives.

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Start a conversation in the comments.

Did you learn something new? Do you know something about the Greek Dark Age that I didn’t cover? (There’s a lot more than just this!) What’s your favorite historical period? Tell me anything.

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