Elliot Fernandez

Archaic Age in Ancient Greek history

The archaic era is a periodization of the history of Ancient Greece that distinguishes the stage where Hellas came out of the dark age and the features of the fully crystallized Greek civilization were formed in the later classical period.
Elliot Fernandez
Elliot Fernandez
He has a degree in History from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (2009) and a Master's in World History from Pompeu Fabra University (2011).
Post on 2022-12-05 | Updated on 2023-01-30

The passage from the Dark Age to the Archaic Age: the end of the Mycenaean civilization

The Ancient Age in Greece is classified into 4 major chronological periods :

Timeline of Ancient Greece

When historiography uses the concept of Ancient Greece, it refers to the Greek-speaking world during Antiquity, which was geographically beyond the current modern Greek State. In Antiquity, then, the Greek-speaking world was not limited only to the territory of the Peloponnese peninsula, but also to all the areas that were colonized by the Greeks.

The Greek world was delimited by three large nuclei:

First circle: mainland Greece, which includes the most important Greek cities:

Second circle of influence, result of colonization:

Third circle of colonization later or furthest from the centre:

Map of the establishment of colonies by the main powers in ancient times
Map of the establishment of colonies by the main powers in ancient times

Where the Greeks found strong states, as was the case in Egypt and Palestine, they did not settle there, because it was useless to fight against these states. On the other hand, where there were no strong states, it was very easy for them to establish themselves.

Despite the cultural unity that existed in the civilizations of the previous three circles, this does not presuppose a political unity of the ancient Greek world. The prevailing idea was that of the freedom of all the polis (city-state) to decide their own destiny. Each political centre was sovereign. The conflict between the polis was frequent. Freedom for the Greeks meant the freedom of each polis and the freedom to attack the rest of the polis whenever they wanted. And as for the colonial centres, they cannot be understood without the poverty and scarcity of land in their metropolises.

How did the society of the Mycenaean palaces go to the societies formed by the polis (city-states)?

In Mycenaean society the supreme leader was a king, called in Linear B "Wanax", and later in archaic Greek "ànax" (the word ànax is used in the works of Homer). Later the word "basileus" appeared to define the king.

Main characteristics of the ancient Mycenaean rulers:

  1. The king ruled from the palace.
  2. There was the Linear B script (a palace script), the first step for writing in Greece.
  3. The palaces disappear around 1200 BC.

In the cities of the archaic stage:

  1. There were no kings. The most similar title was that of basileus, but it designated an aristocrat (aristoi) who stood out above the others.
  2. There were no palaces, there was the acropolis where the goddess or god of the city (symbolic power) was located.
  3. The aristocracy ruled from the agora.
  4. Linear B disappeared. In its place, the Phoenician alphabet was adapted creating a Greek alphabet, which had no relation to the previous Linear A and B. Intracommunity communication.

In the transition from the Dark Age to the Archaic, there was a break in some aspects and continuity in others. Mycenaean writing is lost. The Mycenaean peoples also disappeared, but their culture survived, which gave rise to the communities of Archaic Greece (8th century BC).

What happened in the Greek world between 1200 and 800 BC (Dark Age)?

The distribution of the different Greek dialects shows that at the origin of this language there are movements of people, from the Greek continent to Anatolia. The creation of different dialects produced disturbances that explain the movements of the other peoples of the Sea from the year 1000 BC.

The formation of the "polis" in the archaic period

Organization of society

How did it go from the age of palaces to the polis of the archaic age? Greek society in the polis during the archaic age was organized into 6 social groups:

This society is the one described in the Homeric poems. The ancient palatial society of the Mycenaean era was undergoing transformation. The new clan groups were led by aristocratic chiefs (they were small power groups). Each aristocrat controlled his oikos. Economics was the art of managing an oikosFor the Greeks, the oikos (house = family area) was the basis of all organized life.

Aristoi means the best, it is also defined as agatoi which means the good, which is opposed to the cacoi, the bad. Another term that defines the Aristoi is eupatrides (the well-born). These Aristoi were the ones who distributed the lands of the ancient Mycenaean palaces. These aristocratic aristois, chosen by consensus at certain times, received the name basileus. For example, in the Homeric account of the Iliad, the leader of the Greek expedition to the Trojan War was Agamemnon, but he was not an absolute king, in reality it was the council of aristocrats who commanded, he, however, was the one who led the expedition.

Below the aristois were the peasants, who can be equated with free peasants from peasant communities who did not depend on an aristocrat and were not part of aristocratic families. These peasants fought in the aristocratic armies, but could not discuss or propose measures that the aristocrats had taken.

The thetes were free people, but who worked for an oikos, an aristocrat or a free peasant. They were not part of a community, were treated as individuals, could be foreigners or former slaves, and were not part of the army. They were treated as marginals.

The army was made up of the oikos and the peasants. No one was hired for their work.

The demiurgoi were artisans, the most important blacksmiths who went from community to community offering their services.

Slaves were household servants, we don't find many in the countryside, they were generally war slaves 

These small oikos tended towards autarky, to produce everything that was needed without having to use trade.

From the society of myth to the structured society (domos)

The Cyclops are defined by Homer as those without law. Odysseus presents us with 2 different worlds: the civilized one (aristocrats) and the barbarian world (where the Cyclops, who have no law, live individually and not in community).

In Greek there are 3 words to talk about the law:

Throughout the history of Greek societies we find the figure of the legislator, as for example, in Sparta: Lycurgus. And in Athens: Draco and Solon. We can also find a college of legislators like Thesmôtetes (collegiate group where all have the same vote and power, they are entrusted with the drafting of laws). Those who demand the existence of the Domos are the Demos. La Dike, has always existed and will always exist, unwritten justice.

The aristocracy (aristoi) gradually lost power due to the pressure of 3 different processes:

During the dark or Homeric period (11th-10th-9th centuries), there was a gradual economic recovery of the country. Greek society gradually incorporated iron metallurgy. This technological change improved agriculture, but it caused tensions among aristocrats to gain more power.

What we call stasis (a series of civil wars) occurred between the peasant cities and the aristocratic cities. These internal struggles generated a process called synecism, which pushed towards the creation of the first polis.

The Stasi were solved through:

The tyranny

The Greek tyrant is different from the Roman dictator. The dictator in Rome is like a magistrate or a consul. In contrast, the tyrant in Greece was the person who came to power, supported by the people. First, he looked out for his own interests. He was generally an impoverished aristocrat. A tyrant could be a war hero.

The colonization

It was a phenomenon specific to the polis, therefore, it appeared after the phenomenon of synecism. The Oikos and peasant communities came together and formed the polis. In the Polis there were beginning to be conflicts, therefore, stasis, but also colonization.

The first legislators

Legislators appeared in the colonies. The colony was headed by an aristocrat who had led the conquest expedition. Many times other groups from different polis are added, they need new nomos to emerge. It was a vital issue, these Greeks to defend themselves from the indigenous world developed a particular war tactic.

The military reform of the Hoplites

Hoplita comes from the name Hoplon (typical Greek shield, round, which you hold with your arm and covers the entire chest, only the legs are left out and the head is protected by the typical Greek helmet).

Hoplite tactics were not based on just one soldier, but on a whole squad moving in a disciplined manner. This army was the one that could cope with an undisciplined order of natives. This was what gave the Greeks an advantage, but this tactic did not allow the aristocrat to shine.

A Hoplite had to pay for the shield, the spear... and it was very expensive. Every citizen had the right to defend himself through his own weapons. Whoever had enough money to pay could be part of the hoplites. The polis was divided between those who could and those who could not afford armaments. When a citizenry is divided by wealth, there could be social changes, but when the citizenry was divided by birth, not.

When a Greek city used the hoplite army, the opposite city had nothing to do. If a society wanted to create a Hoplite army, it had to ask the demos for more power.

Colonization in the process of consolidation of the polis

The 9th, 8th and 7th centuries correspond to the stage of Dark Greece and the transition to the archaic age. Colonizers, legislators and dictators responded to the new economic and political reality in Greece. The aristocracy (oikos) was uniting in the process known as synecism, forming the new polis. Important role of the demos, which generated conflicts (stasis). The solution to these conflicts was through the expulsion of part of the population in search of new lands or the appointment of an arbitrator.

The transition from themis (the law transmitted by oral memory) to the domos (the written law) was taking place. In this process, the figure of the tyrant played a very important role, who ruled without the legitimacy of the aristocracy, but with the support of the people, the popular base.

The colonization had the endorsement of the divinity (divine sanctuary of Delphi, meeting place of the Greeks) and a visible head who directed it. Colonization comes from colonus, colos (it means come, culture).

The Greeks have two ancient terms to refer to colonization: apokia and emporion .



The polis of Sparta

The polis of Sparta was established on the banks of the Eurotes river, in the center of the Peloponnese peninsula. There was no well-developed town planning. Its origin is found in the union of four small towns. They had very violent conflicts with their neighbors in Laronia and Messenia. In the 7th-6th centuries there were three Messenian wars, which Sparta won, consolidating the polis as the hegemonic city of the Peloponnese.

The victorious outcome in the Messenian Wars helped establish the structure of classical Sparta:




Government of the Spartans

The city of Sparta was ruled by a diarchy (two kings). It was not a hereditary monarchy. They were always chosen from the two most important aristocratic families of the polis (the Eurypontid dynasty and the other of the Agiad). The women had a certain military training to be able to defend the city.

In Sparta there was a Council of the Ancients (gerousia), made up of 28 elders plus 2 other people. The council of 30 members, who formed the Sparciates over the age of sixty.

In the polis, 5 magistrates, the ephors, were elected annually, without any family or wealth limit. They were chosen by the Spartans in assembly (the Ecclesia). The Ecclesia was the deliberative assembly of the city state of Sparta, which corresponds to the ekklesia in the majority of other Greek states.

The Apella was the assembly in which all male Spartan citizens who had completed the age of thirty could participate. The assembly chose the elders and the new king. The ephors were chosen by acclamation:

The diarchs only had military power, when war was declared.

This system is attributed to a Spartan legislator, Lycurgus. This process was formed between 700 and 550 BC. Between 600 and 550 BC an important cultural change took place in Sparta. Egyptian objects and the poetic tradition disappeared. Sparta was a police regime.

A moment of great difficulty for Sparta was during the Peloponnesian War.

Athens: colonization, tyrants and legislators

Athens during the Archaic age

The great reformer of the political regime in Athens was Cleisthenes (508-507 BC). Athens will not colonize any city.

The political and social development of Athens

A Mycenaean temple had existed in Athens. It preserved the tradition of a royal power. It had no tradition of the arrival of Doric towns. Athens had a tradition of being a city of refuge, a quiet place, where aristocratic heads from other areas took refuge. It had a large commercial port, Piraeus. Strong commercial wealth.

In the 7th century there was already an Athens that traded with the entire Aegean Sea. It attracted the peasants of the surroundings. This facilitated the creation of a peasant infantry force in the area. This explains the appearance of tyranny in 632. As if this rich merchant class wanted to gain power over the aristocracy.

The attempt to establish tyranny by Cylon failed. The Alcmaeonides family stood out in the tyrant's failure. Cylon's supporters shut themselves in the temple of Athena, a sacred place. The Alcmaeonides massacred them all. The one who directed the operation was the archon of the city, Megacles, who was the magistrate who had executive power. The assembly of aristocrats, the Areopagus, delegated power to the archons. With this act he commits a sacrilege, an unjust act (an athymia). The Alcmaeonides were punished and exiled for life from Athens. It affected 70 families. The aristocracy did not feel of a specific polis, but of its clan.

Cleisthenes was an Alcmaeonid. It seems that at the time of Pisistratus there was a certain amnesty and some Alcmaeonides were able to return to Athens. What came of an aristocracy without so much power? Democracy. Cleisthenes was the one who led the process of democratization of the polis.

The first legislator of Athens: Draco (624)

Draco was the author of the first written legal code of Athens called Δεσμοί (Desmoi "bonds, chains"), to distinguish it from the νόμοί (Nomoi "law, custom") of Solon. He established it around the year 621 BC, when he obtained the position of thesmote (θεσμοθέτης “legislator”) of Athens.

In the legal field, collective responsibility shifted to individual responsibility. Citizenship was granted to all who could afford to be armed. There were many metels (foreigners). The archons could be elected from among the aristocracy and the wealthiest layers of the population. The anti-aristocratic laws ended up failing.

Solon (595)

The great legislative change of Athens came with Solon (595). Until Solon, power in Athens was directed by the archons

At the end of their term of office, the archons were part of the Areopagus, Council of Elders that judged major affairs, murders... To be an archon you had to be from one of the aristocratic families. Solon created a financial fund to free all Athenian slaves who were outside the city. The state had to release them. Solon's laws were agreed upon by both the aristocracy and the demos.

Solon's reforms :

The era of braces

The tyranny in Greece is in all cases after the legislators and is a consequence of the failure of the legislative work. The oldest tyranny we know in Greece is that of Cypsel of Corinth, in 657 BC.

The form of access to power changed from one circumstance to another, it could be a police magistrate who did not want to give up power, a recognized military man or a winner of the Olympic Games. But in all cases, all tyranny had popular support. The tyrant represented the interests of the people against the aristocrats. The tyrant wanted power in his hands, but he had to rely on the people and establish measures that were popular.

The aristocratic polis was nothing more than groups of aristocratic power that agreed to retain power. The tyrant broke the nuclei of aristocratic power to strengthen the people. Each aristocratic family had its own private cults, the more important the family the more pretentious were the private ceremonials performed in public spaces.

The epic poem of the Dionysiacs served to lead the entire population, the entire Demos. This overshadowed all the private religion of the aristocracies, it was a way of minimizing aristocratic power and an unconscious way of being part of the city of Athens.

Members of Pisistratus' family were the first to mint Athenian coins. Pisistratus granted credit to the peasants and also confiscated land from the more hostile aristocrats in front of them. All this explains the twenty years that Pisistratus remained in power. In 514 the eldest son Hipparchus was murdered and in 510 Hippias had to flee because of an aristocratic revolt supported by Sparta. The aristocratic regime ensured a weak polis.

At the end of the years of Pisistratus rule, there was an aristocratic revolt supported by Sparta.

The democratic reform of Cleisthenes

Cleisthenes was a member of a family known for its hatred of tyranny, a member of the Alcmaeonids. Cleisthenes had prestige, but at the same time he was an aristocrat with little power in Athens. The tyranny of Pisistratus had created a polis consciousness, forming a group without having to depend on an aristocratic concession. Cleisthenes could not become a tyrant, so he created a new political regime: Democracy.

Within Attica there were 3 regions. These 3 regions corresponded to 3 different realities:

Cleisthenes wanted to form a political regime with consistency and continuity, which responded to the entire population, the idea was that the political regime should take sociological differences into account. He proposed:

Cleisthenes' goal was to mix the population. The rulers who defended the interests of the whole community and above all who did not defend the interests of the aristocracy, to avoid corruption vote, had to get those elected to respond to the sociological difference of the population.

Elections were held within each Demos, an aristocrat could be a member of the government or not. The elections were based on lots.

Demos/ Districts: Each district had 10 tribes.

The Council of the Bulé

The 500 members of the Bulé were divided into sections of 50 members all from the same tribe, and known as prytanes (Prytanes), and subdivided into proedris (Proedri) by groups of 10, each of which presided over the sessions for a long time short

Every decision of the Bulé had to be approved by the ecclesia (assembly of citizens).

A year had 10 months and 360 days. The 50 members of the Bulé were divided into groups of 10 Prytanes (10 months of the year), each ruling 1/10 of the year, at the rate of 1/3 of Prytania for each trittya.

The council of 500 was the executive council of the Ecclesia, they were chosen by lot from the entire population of the Demos or from those who presented themselves as candidates. What he did not want to exercise, he was not obliged to do so. You could only be a member of the 500 2 times in your life. At first you didn't get paid, but later you did. There were rules that could only be voted on if there was a minimum quorum of attendees.

There was an Ecclesia meeting open to citizens' complaints and questions. The Bulé was a conservative order, it was open to the public, it was presided over by the Pritans of that month, every time they met the Bulé was directed by the head of the Pritans who was the Epistatus, one of the 50 Pritans was the Epistatus and each day changed, he was the one who had the city's treasure in his hands. The corner fishmonger could be head of state for a day, but only once in a lifetime. Sovereignty was always in the hands of the church, and it was who decided whether to make war or peace.

The Ecclesia was the assembly of the citizens. Every citizen had the right and duty to attend. There was a meeting a week, but it couldn't be on holidays. At the first assembly of the Prytania a vote of confidence had to be made to the elected magistrates and for certain issues the members of the Bulé had to have their consent. There could also be extraordinary meetings (council of the 500) such as to declare war.

Their powers were unlimited, they had full sovereignty. In Athens there were both free citizens and slaves. They were also in charge of financial matters, they proclaimed decrees, they did not elaborate them, that was done by the Bulé, but they had the last word. The church could also expel a magistrate or a citizen, this was called ostracism "ostraca " (the name of the person who wanted to be expelled was scratched on a piece of pottery, it was put in an urn and if the name was elected by a majority, it was banished for ten years).