The Collapse of Bronze Age Greece

Thus far, we’ve been focused on the polities of the Bronze Age Aegean.  During the last centuries of the second millennium BC this civilization collapsed.  The subsequent Greek city-states (ca. 750 BC) looked very different than their Bronze Age predecessors.  What was the nature of the collapse and how were institutions / lifeways preserved across the gulf of the Iron Age?  What elements of Bronze age society are present in the newly formulated city-states of the Archaic Period?  What elements were rejected or reformulated?

25 thoughts on “The Collapse of Bronze Age Greece

  1. The nature of the collapse of the Bronze Age Aegean polities involved completely renovating lifestyle features as opposed to only altering the common aspects of culture and politics/hierarchy in many other collapses; it can be called a “genuine” regeneration (72). This period in history is often referred to as the “Dark Ages,” but this term has been dismissed because of the negative connotation that it invokes (84).
    There are ten basic aspects in which social complexity is measured, and it is these ten aspects that allowed for the preservation of institutions across the gulf of the Iron Age. These institutions include: urban centers, peasants paying taxes and rent, monuments, ruling classes, information-recording systems, long-distance trade, craft specialization and advanced art, military power, scale, and standards of living. Noting the characteristics of these institutions, there are some aspects of Bronze Age society that are present in the newly formulated city-states of the Archaic Period. For example, taxation was virtually nonexistent in both the Mycenaean rule and Archaic Period, the building of temples (although in the Bronze Age they served as more than just a religious sanctuary), and a long-distance trade network. However, unlike what the “Dark Ages” suggests, there was growth and change that was present in this new era. These changes include: urban growth, a shift in power from a singular ruler with lesser officials to political activity involving the masses, changes in script and those who record it, advancement in craft specialization and art, a shift in military tactics and weapons, an increase in scale/density, as well as standards of living.

    • There was definitaly growth and change during the “Dark Age” as you said. People still found a way to survive even though the Bronze Age civilization fell. While writing dissappeared from this region during this time, a rich oral tradition formed. From this oral tradition came the epics such as Iliad and Odessey. And as we know these stories not only inspiried the Greek-city states but they inspire our civilization also.

      • I agree, Ashima. We can find some evidence of the oral traditions, however, through the Linear B recordings. While these gave us little to work with, it does prove there was once some foundations of organization and similarities between these writings and Homer’s epics do show up.

      • I completely agree that although written lanuage ceased to exist during the “Dark Ages” people still continued to pass on stories and develop their own mythology. Throughout the oral history are moral codes and lessons adding to the culture of the society as a whole. without these inlayed lessons there would be a moral hole in society, amounting to even less holding the civilizations together.

        • This oral tradition’s importance is seen with the existence of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Without stories being passed down from generation to generation, there would not have been any record of the ancient civilizations that once were. Homer would not have been able to write these epic poems telling the stories of what used to be the greatest empires of the world.

  2. As Meghan mentioned above, Greece was a part of a “genuine” regeneration (72). The entire system was transformed one way or another. This being said there is a good amount in common with the Bronze Age. While basic concepts remain in tact, many of the techniques don’t. By this I mean that the social complexity of the Greek city-states were measured on a comparison basis to those in the Bronze Age in order deduce that their traits are similar and are in fact a regeneration. Meghan hit on them all. To reiterate the “measurements”, they are: an urban ruling center, taxes and rents paid by peasants, monuments, ruling classes, information-recording systems, trade, crafting, military power, scale and standards of living (73). These are all measurements that help identify the level of social complexity Greek city-states gained throughout regenerations. It is important to note that with each era, there are different qualities of the measurements that change and evolve.
    There are many distinct differences between the Bronze Age and the Archaic period. One is that there is no taxation in the Greece city-states. While classes stay separate and the lines are clear between serfdom and higher living, the taxation was nonexistent. Instead, there was a prominence of slaves among the richer citizens. Also, the size of the city-states were significantly smaller than prior. While population density was relatively high, as opposed to before, this is nothing.
    While the differences are evident, the similarities can also be seen. For example, Dark Age Greece referred to important figures as “basileis”, which is in fact a form of the Mycenaean term “pa-si-re-u” (76). Both terms represent officials that hold some significance. The concept of naming the highest officials and noting their importance remained the same. Trade can also fall under the category of remaining generally the same. While trade disappeared around ca. 1100, by the Archaic period it popped up again and actually expanded significantly. By ca. 500, Greece was the center of a huge international trade network. Thus, demonstrating the extreme evolvement of Bronze Age elements.
    Typically, many of the core elements were passed along through the periods, but the way they applied to each era and society varied. It depended on a number of reasons and complexities.

    • I agree that the social structure from the time of the Bronze Age to the time of the Classical Age changed a lot. The ten dimensions of collapse that you and Meghn mention differed so much from the Bronze time period to the Classical time period. Everything was so advanced in the Classical time it seemed. And yet the people of Classical Greece looked up to the Bronze Age Greece as these were the lost heroic days. Much of Classical age Greece culture and relegion was inspired by the myth associated with the “good old days.”

  3. The cities of the late Bronze Age period were quite small. Then at the beginning of the ‘Dark Age’ even the largest settlement in the Bronze Age(which wasn’t even that large to begin with) reduced significantly. Some parts of Greece were even complete abandoned after 1200 BC. The economic strategies, as well as, the palatial control also changed after the Bronze Age period.The palatial control once achieved in the Mycenaean period(Bronze) reduced significantly as many people moved outside of the control(75).
    The elaborate palaces and structures built and maintained throughout the Bronze Age are not seen in the Dark Age at all. The largest structure in that time was found to be a mud-brick building which could be placed inside Knossos’ central court easily; this shows that the architecture was not even nearly as thought out or as much work put into it as in the Bronze Age.

    • You are right about the architecture becoming less complex during Classical Greece. I wonder why Classical Greece artists never attempted to make complex buildings such as the palace at Knossos. Is it because their culture didn’t allow them to do so? It is also interesting how everything just sort of vanished and a new civilization formed out of the ruins of an old one.

    • I agree with your analysis about the differentiating structures in the bronze age and the Dark age. I think the buildings in the Dark age were not built to its fullest potential because after the end of the bronze age there was gap in prosperity. As we learned in class on monday, people started relying on “big man” societies. These societies were susceptible to “collapse” because everyone in the society had shortage, then they had to move to more fertile land. Therefore, the buildings that they had were not architecturally advanced as in the Bronze Age.

  4. There were quite a number of major differences between Bronze Age Greece and Archaic Greece. One of the most major differences was the change in complexity. Bronze Age Greece had a smaller population and its cities were much smaller. Archaic Greece expand its territory around the shores of the western Mediterranean and the black sea (73).
    Another big difference was the building style and architecture. During the Bronze many cities featured large palaces that combined political , religious, and economic functions (75). During the Iron Age the size of buildings decreased significantly. The largest building of this time could easily have fit into the court of one of the Bronze Age palaces (76). The people of the Greek Archaic Age also started building differently. For a period of time people began to build a lot of temples. These temples were very large and often very ornate. However, most private buildings from this time are much more plain in comparison.
    During the Bronze Age a system of writing, known as Linear B, was used. However, at the start of the Iron Age this style of writing disappeared. At the start of the Archaic Age writing reappeared in Greece in the form of a brand new alphabet. This Alphabet was likely derived from a Phoenician prototype (77). Much of the surviving written works are poetic. However there are also records of religious and economical importance.

    • The change in style of architecture really distinguishes the Bronze Age from the Iron Age because it marks when there was a shift from massive permanent cities to smaller temporary towns. These wooden and thatch structures show how life was different in the Iron Age compared to the Bronze Age. In the Iron age citadels were the norm. Fortification was priority, along with pride and dominance. After the transition into the Iron Age, the focus shifted to survival and regeneration instead of expansion. Smaller towns relying on temporary rulers who promised survival spawned everywhere. Empires no longer existed, but their people did. This shows the resilience of people.

    • I agree with Adam, complexity is the most important aspect touch on. Ian Morris portrays its significance by comparing and contrasting measurable complexity elements of both the Bronze Age collapse and the Archaic regeneration in Greece. By doing this it allows us to correlate the decline and rise of complexity in Greece to natures of collapse and regeneration. Adam emphasized another vital aspect, “Information and Recording Systems” as Morris defined it. Greece deteriorated in virtually every aspect of complexity. However, this aspect was the most consequential because of the termination of written language throughout the Iron Age. The Greek inhabitants in this stagnant era were compelled to preserve history orally, thus oral tradition emerged.

  5. What were Ian Morris’s main reasons for the “collapse” of Bronze Age society? What were they for the regeneration of second generation Greek society? Do you agree with him?

    • Ian Morris explained the reasons of collapse in broad terms. He stated them as being influenced by the population increase. As well as being affected through political changes and wants for expansion. In-addition another reason for decline was technology and increased ideas that were not suitable for the time period. For example, fortifications and food production were not corresponding for how to adapt to the time period that was occurring. His argument for regeneration was through the progress of new ideas and expansion in process of doing certain things. Such things as food production became more efficient and easier to produce at rapid rates. Fortifications also became less bulky in the sense that they became more suitable for the time period. They became easier to move and pick up from since the attackers at that time were raiders not gigantic armies. Also, communities and cities began to understand the importance of taxation and dependence on its citizens. Areas began to tax people certain amounts in order to provide for them along with protect them from outsiders. This created a better connection between the people and government and allowed them to live more securely. Armies also progressed during this time into more organized and developed fighting forces. They adapted to the type of fighting that occurred during that time and became more efficient to fight off other forces or conquer neighboring territories. In all have mixed feelings about Ian Morris and his conclusions on collapse and regeneration. I believe in his arguments concerning collapse he has most of his facts straight. Yet some I feel are shaky and open to different interpretation. When it comes to concerning regeneration i see his points and tend to agree with his findings on how regeneration occurred and the adaptations that were used during it.

    • Ian Morris groups his reasons for the “collapse” into ten categories: urban centers, peasants paying taxes and rent, monuments, ruling classes, information-recording systems, long-distance trade, craft specialization and advanced art, military power, scale, and standards of living.
      Ian Morris states in one of the six important characteristics of the period 1500-500 BC in Greece that the regeneration was not of a political economic shifting but of the transformation of the entire system. Ian Morris explains regeneration in “broad terms.” But those theories cannot explain the regeneration in second generation Greek societies because “differences in local histories explain these varied responses” (84). The main points he associates with regeneration are climate change, politics, and population growth. “Cooler, wetter weather after 900 would have relieved some of the problems of interannual variability in rainfall, with more dependable winter rains making farmers’ lives easier. Such weather also would have improved the disease regime, since textual records from a range of premodern Mediterranean societies show that most deaths came in the hot summer months from gastric complaints.” “…as Assyrian military power revived in the late tenth century, Assyrian demands for tribute drove Phoenician merchants to travel farther afield, partially converting the Mediterranean basin into a periphery to an Assyrian core.” “…the improved climate and disease pool fueled population growth after 800 BC, which increased competition all across western Asia and the Mediterranean, driving Assyrian military predation, Phoenician commercial expansion, and the regeneration of complex society in Greece” (83).

  6. How can the Odyssey help us understand what elements of Bronze Age society were carried over/lost between the Bronze Age and 700 BC?

    • The Odyssey seems to be a mix of Bronze Age society and Classic Greek society. Perhaps this can be interpretted as what the 700 BC Greeks thought of Bronze Age Greeks?

      • The Illiad and Odyssey have a great deal of creative input from Homer’s own mind. Although major event most likely happened all detailed descriptions of citys and actual events must be taken with a grain of salt because of the time discrepancy in the 7000 years between the events and the authoring of the poems.

    • I think the Iliad and Odyssey are great sources for passing on the large concepts and main points of the Bronze Age. We must be skeptical when believing every small detail and measurement because that is something that will not stay true throughout history, especially with a period (the Dark Age) without documentation. Homer portrays a time period with what he has gathered from years of manipulation. This manipulation will have been checked by the different sides keeping it near the line of historical fact. This gives us a great guideline to get a general idea of what the time period was like. We can then compare his accounts to what has been proven as historical fact, piecing together history.

  7. From the Collapse of Bronze Age Greece to the formation of the Archaic Period Greece was going through a transformation. In the late Bronze Age cities were relatively small whereas in the Archaic Period due to urban growth city size dramatically increases. In Mycenaean society Linear B tablets reveal that there were rulers that would enforce staples in a form of tax to people of the society collecting things such as cereals, olives, and wool. The palaces would provide capital to some peasants of the society in exchange for labor. Some Archaic communities had taxation and practiced forms of slavery such as Sparta but many civilizations consisted of free citizens that owned and farmed small plots of land. Bronze age monuments had multiple purposes: they served as the political, religious and economic centers. In the Archaic period temples became the main form of monument and also became more and more complex. In the Bronze age Mycenaean palace rulers were sales wanakes and were surrounded by less important officials. In the Archaic Period they were replaced by aristocratic colleges. In the Bronze age rulers would trade with Near Eastern Kings. The Archaic period brought more complex trade routes as Greece becomes the center of trade participating in trade in bulk communities. Greece’s transformation of it’s trade network led to an improved living condition for all.

  8. After the Bronze Age Aegean collapse we saw the uprising of the “Big Man” societies. It was only natural for people to split up and follow someone who had the means to take charge and take care of them. During this time we still see some progression in technology and societal behavior. Also during this time the ability to write and read are lost and oral tradition takes over.
    From our own experiences and learning we know how the oral tradition can distort stories. I believe that Homer’s writings are a good example of how these stories can be distorted. Proof that some of the institutions and life ways of the Aegean societies is show here by looking be at the similarities from Linear B and whats in Homer’s epics.
    More proof can be found through looking at the types of architecture. For example we still see the basic structure of Megaron’s after the collapse.
    From what we have learned about “Big Man” societies, the smaller city- states that follow are not an unbelievable next step. As people group together and continue to reconnect larger groups are formed with similar structure that in some way can all be traced back to the Aegean.

    • This is a very nice analysis Kevin. The big man society is apparent after the collapse. Dr. Vander Poppen explained to us the concept of these societies through the exercise we did in class on Monday. These societies have the power based on the personal charisma of the ruler. The whole point of this concept is that the “big man” would provide for their followers. So if one person in that society has a shortage, then the big man will take it out of the storage, that was surplus, and distribute it to that person. This position was not heredity, but need based. Whichever person could gain the confidence of the society and provide for them, would be the big man. Therefore, we saw a shift in power of the big man.

  9. Morris helps us visualize similarities between elements of Bronze Age society and their transformations into the upgraded city-states of the Archaic Period. Of these elements I found “Information and Recording Systems”, “Long-distance Trade,” and “Craft specialization and Advanced Art” the most interesting because of their reemergence in the Archaic Period after a virtual disappearance in the Iron Age. I’m particularly intrigued with the parallelism of trade and how it changed after a significant decline. There was an emphasis on trade throughout the Bronze Age, mainly for the “luxurious goods” as gifts amongst rulers. Also, the Bronze Age Aegean civilizations experienced “unpredictable crop yields” and relied on trade to import “cereal crops.” By the Archaic Period, trade was revived and Greece transpired into “the center of an unprecedented network of international trade in bulk commodities.” Likewise, the other elements reappeared with characteristics that exceeded first generation Greece.

  10. With the fall of the Bronze Age and the other time periods population and organization played a great role in the future of that time. Remember Greece use to be a cultural system and not a political system as it eventually evolved into. As Megan mentioned they got more organized by constructing urban centers, peasants paying taxes and rent, monuments, ruling classes, information-recording systems, long-distance trade, craft specialization and advanced art, military power, scale, and standards of living. The late Bronze Age cities might of been small but that’s how most sixth-centuary greeks liked to live, in settlements of just a couple few thousand people. The Dark Age could been way different for many of these men. Basileis functioned as the war consultants of Agamemnon but across the eight and seventh centuries they disappeared and were replaced by aristocratic colleges. All these led to a bigger figure. The figure of the “Big Man”. Like ZJ states this system sounds to have been very effective to most of the rulers. The way that they all had a part into the future of there society was a big thing. Yes, the ruler did have the most responsibility but without him most of the organization and control of the system to work would have not been possible at all. The system is a great way to make it through the worst and the better in times.

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