Rise of the Greeks: Early Archaic Greece

Ancient Greek History, That's History | 0 comments

Today, I’m discussing the beginning and development of Archaic Greece, which is one of my favorite time periods in ancient Greek history. Archaic Greece — especially early Archaic Greece — was a place that changed rapidly and constantly. The Archaic Period is also the time when the Greeks laid the foundations for the great cultural and artistic movements yet to come. It’s an immensely important period in Greek history, yet one that scholars have traditionally neglected. Let’s discuss.

a map of Archaic Greece

Above: A map of the Archaic Greek world showing the areas in which city-states (poleis) developed, and the areas in which the old tribal organization remained.

The beginnings of Archaic Greece — and why the Archaic Period is called “Archaic”

You might have noticed that most of the periods of Greek history have an “artistic” name. That is, one based in art history. The Dark Age, for example, is also known as the Geometric Period due to the geometric nature of art during that time. When it comes to the Archaic Period, this is a case in which historians have adopted the period’s name from art history. “Archaic,” in artistic and cultural terms, means the earliest period of development of a culture.

Now, this isn’t really true when it comes to Greek history — there were developments in ages before the Archaic Period — but since the Archaic Period contains the logical roots of the literary, cultural, and artistic flowering of the Classical Period, it’s been termed as such. 

But how did the Archaic Period begin? 

We left off with ancient Greece back in the Dark Age, a period with a relative lack of artistic, cultural, and societal development. You may recall that I left you with some words about how the Greek world climbed out of the Dark Age. 

We mark the beginning of the Archaic Period at c.750 B.C., but in truth it has no hard and fast beginning, and it “began” at different times in different places. In a moment, we’re going to take a closer look at Ionia, the region on the western coast of what’s now Turkey, and talk about the intellectual development that began there with oral composers (possibly writers) Homer and Hesiod, while the rest of the Greek world still lay in “darkness.”

On the main, it’s probably fair to say that development began in Ionia earlier than in the rest of Greece because of Ionia’s communication with the Persian Empire, which lay on its back and spanned the rest of Anatolia (present day Turkey). Let’s dig in.

A bust of Homer
A bust of Hesiod

Left: A bust of the “blind bard,” Homer. Right: A bust of Hesiod, the other great poet of the Archaic Period.

Homer, Hesiod, and development in Ionia

Scholars believe that Homer lived somewhere between 850 B.C. and 750 B.C. Yes, this is a relatively large time frame, and we don’t know exactly when Homer was active. In fact, many scholars question whether Homer was actually a single individual. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, examples of epic poetry, gave him no chance to insert himself into his narrative. It would be the equivalent of finding a work of fantasy — or, rather, historical fiction — written today. You’d know someone had written it, but you wouldn’t know all that much about the someone. 

We do know, though, that Homer — or the amalgamation of persons who created Homeric material — lived in Ionia. According to traditional, Homer was a blind bard who traveled the countryside giving recitations of his work. It’s unclear whether Homer was the one to write down the Iliad and the Odyssey. (Well, if he was blind, then he certainly wasn’t. There is a legend that he dictated the poems to a scribe, who wrote them down.)

At any rate, we have very little hard evidence about Homer and his life.

Hesiod, the other great poet of this age, was active between roughly 750 B.C. and 650 B.C. He may have been a contemporary of Homer’s. Though, again, we don’t know if Homer existed. We’re fairly sure that a man named Hesiod existed. We know more about Hesiod because he inserted himself and his thoughts into his poetry — specifically, his Works and Days is written entirely from his point-of-view, in the first person, and includes some details of his background. Hesiod actually lived in Boeotia, the region of Greece that later came to include Thebes, but his father had come from the island of Lesbos in Ionia. 


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Hesiod’s Works and Days, the poem I already mentioned, is probably my favorite piece of Greek literature ever. It demonstrates a great number of things about both Hesiod and the Greek world at his time. For one, it shows evidence of near-Eastern influence. Works and Days is an example of didactic literature — literature meant to give advice or wisdom to its readers. It’s very similar in tone to the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible and to a number of other near-Eastern didactic texts. This demonstrates that by this time, Greeks had had at least some contact with the civilizations of the near-East. Ionian Greeks, at least. This gives us reason to believe that the Ionian intellectual revolution was greatly influenced by near-East intellect and culture, and the developments in Ionia then spread slowly across the rest of the Greek world, which had remained mired in the Dark Age.

You can read Hesiod’s Works and Days here in Harvard’s archives.


Let’s talk a little about the alphabet.

How was all this writing possible, anyway? After all, the Mycenaean Greeks only wrote (it seems) to keep records. Their Linear B system was highly suited to record-keeping. 

The Greek alphabet as we and the ancient Greeks knew it actually developed during the late Dark Age, when Ionian Greeks (again) came in contact with the Phoenicians, a seafaring people from the coastal regions of the Levant. The Phoenicians had developed an earlier alphabet, the Phoenician alphabet. Once Greeks started trading alongside the Phoenicians, they saw the Phoenician alphabet in action. 

Linear B had been a syllabary, which means that each “character” stood for a syllable sound — think da, ba, lu, etc. It had been originally suited for the Minoan language, which we know nothing about. The alphabet suited Greek much better, and pretty quickly people began writing things other than records. The Greek alphabet was one of the greatest developments of the late Dark Age or early Archaic Period.


Art during the Archaic Period

During the early Archaic Period, art lost some of the stiffness and stylized elements it had had during the Dark Age (the Geometric Period) and moved towards a more natural style. This natural style would persist and turn into the hyper-realistic sculpting and artistic style of Classical era Greece.

Above, you can see an example of a statue, this one of a lion. Archaic Greek artists were interested in depicting animals. But, moreover, they began to display a vested interest in human subjects. Statues known as “kore” depicting an idealized young man or young woman became commonplace. These statues would form the basis for later idealistic Greek sculptures of the human body. I’ve added an image of a female kore below. 


The Greeks also made a major development in pottery-making. Early Greek pottery had all been “black-figure” pottery — that is, the figures appeared in black over the natural golden-red color of the clay. During the latter half of the Archaic Period (yes, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves), sculptors in Athens created the “red-figure” method, which involved setting a slip around the figures before the pottery was fired. The negative space would then turn black, and the figures would remain red. 

Above, you can see an example of the black-figure pottery (center) and red-figure pottery side by side. In general, red figure pottery allowed for more artistic detail and also gave the pottery a more striking appearance. This type of pottery would become famous during the Classical Period. 


To close, I’ll reiterate what I said at the start: early Archaic Greece was a place of constant change. I’ve not covered even the half of what there is to be covered. So many of the roots of later Greek civilization lie here. 

In fact, there’s so much to discuss about Archaic Greece that I took a whole course on it for my degree at Tufts. The course is called “Rise of the Greeks,” and I owe part of the title of this article to it. It’s taught masterfully by Professor Steven Hirsch. If you ever, by any chance, find yourself at Tufts, try to take it! There’s a lot of reading, but it’s worth the rigor. This is one of the least-covered areas of ancient Greek history (besides the Dark Age), and I’m very lucky to have been able to take a course on it at all. 

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