Major features of Greek Society of the archaic age from that of earlier period


Major features of Greek Society of the archaic age from that of earlier periods

In this essay I am going to explore the major features of Greek society and how they changed between the Mycenaean, Dark, and Archaic ages. The main points I will cover are the rise of the city state in comparison to the hierarchical and centralised Mycenaean society, the changes in government linking to the change from centralisation to smaller more varied states, and finally going on to the invention of a new, more accessible form of writing and how it helped all these changes take place.

The Greek city state, or Polis, emerged as the major form of society during the archaic age. It was made up of an independent community of people ruled under a constitution.[1] It has been argued that the reason for this split in society is the geography of Greece itself, the number of mountain chains meant that communication between pockets of civilisation was difficult and made political unity almost impossible.[2] However, they preserved some unity through the Greek language, defining anyone who did not speak it as a barbarian and therefore lower class. In this way the Greeks found unity through their belief that to be Greek made them higher beings than everyone else, even while spreading their society over the Mediterranean.

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Colonisation in the archaic age was a relatively new idea; before colonies need to be founded specific criteria must be fulfilled, which were absent in previous ages. For example, the origin state must first have a population increase large enough to sustain two or more self-sufficient cities, this was possible in the archaic age as cities were relatively small making the city over crowded after any significant increase in populace, when compared to the expanses of the Mycenaean system, or even the wealthy minority of dark age civilisations, which could probably maintain the population up to a fairly high level. The second criteria is disaster, the origin state must not be able to support its full population, thus needing to send away a portion of its population who thought it was worth the risk to find opportunities elsewhere.[3] The tight economic control of the Mycenaean age[4] would be an unlikely place to find economic hardship, or at least, hardship the wealthy upper classes felt enough to merit moving a portion of their population, potentially setting up a future rival and losing part of their administrative system and work force. In the Dark ages, with the amount of petty fighting between tribes saw some migration of small groups within and around Greece[5] but no major societies resulted from this. The last criteria I will describe is peace, to feel secure enough to send away a section of population requires at least several years of peace. This was provided in the archaic age as there were no major external invasions until it caught the attention of the Lydians and later Persians during the classical age[6]. Mycenae on the other hand was almost certainly invaded during it's time by the Dorians, and would have also played the part of the invader if any truth is to be taken from poetry such as the Iliad. Even if the fabled invasion of troy was not quite to the scale described it is highly likely that to tell stories of an invasion, something like it must have taken place for them to draw ideas from, such as the destruction of the Cretan city of Knossos in the fourteenth century BC[7].

The development of the city state also allowed citizens a much closer relationship with the politics of the city. Being a much smaller political group made it easier to get involved and actually witness the government at work. This in turn made the government more accountable for its actions and was probably one of the main causes for the political variety witnessed in the archaic age. Three main systems of government existed simultaneously during this age, the most common of which was the tyranny, where one person ruled usually due to either a coup, such as the story of Pisistratus, where he rode into Athens with a woman pretending to be Athena and declared himself ruler[8] or by general consent by the population for a heroic deed. The second system was oligarchy, this was where a small group, usually elders, was in charge following the idea that only people who understood politics should be able to make political decisions, this was very popular in Sparta and usually forcefully imposed on any city it invaded. The last system is possibly the most well know today and that is democracy, where every male citizen could vote on how things were run, this was invented in Athens and was surprisingly the most criticised form of government, especially by philosophers[9]. This can be contrasted with the centralised government of the earlier Mycenaean age which was made up of Palace societies that closely controlled large areas of land worked by an illiterate working class[10], it is very unlikely that anyone who could not read knew or even cared about politics, with the ruling class far removed by distance, social standing and literacy it would have been very hard for the majority of people to have their say in how things were run. It is possible this is wrong as in the Odyssey assemblies of the people are described, however it is never made clear who actually attends except the elders and the noble heroes who actually speak in the assembly, it is possible that the "flowing-haired Achaians"[11] that are summoned are only from the upper-classes, or even that Homers version of the tale had been influenced by the archaic society in which it was written. It is very difficult to add the Dark Age to this comparison as without written evidence it is almost impossible to know the detailed political workings of the society. However what it apparent is that the centralisation and complex hierarchy of the Mycenaean age disappeared, leaving the lower classes without the government and leadership they were used to, allowing warlords and chiefdoms to appear as the form of government, in rare cases, such as the site at Lefkandi, incredibly rich grave goods are found. However it is not yet clear how this prosperous area linked in with the rest of the Greek world. The political equality created by the smaller city state is one of the major features of archaic society that makes it distinguishable from the earlier dark and Mycenae ages. However, this development would not have been possible without arguably the most influential invention of the archaic age, the alphabet.

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During the Mycenaean age writing consisted on a syllabic script known as Linear B, this was made up of sixty ideograms, and over eighty-nine syllabic signs but as it was used mainly for trade and accounting the general population did not have to learn it. Through archaeological evidence it is possible to find the individual handwriting of the scribes who learned it, through this it can be deduced that there were very few people who could be classed as literate in Mycenaean society making it fairly easy for the skill to disappear once the palaces were destroyed and the scribes had no more work.[12] The Dark ages therefore are defined by this lack of writing, although iron was discovered most advanced crafts disappeared along with the palatial society.[13] The invention of the alphabet made many activities much easier in the archaic age and allowed much that has been discussed take place. The ease of learning meant that literacy flourished, not only could the ruling classes write, but the working class and even some slaves who had been taught to take dictation from their masters. This had many far reaching effects. The idea of political equality among citizens could become a reality as all could read the laws and political proclamations given by the government and could understand them fully, it also not so surprisingly created a more equal religious society, in many older civilisations, such as Egypt, writing was linked intrinsically with religion, with the skill being reserved for the priests and scribes. Taking the magic out of writing took power from the temples and spread it to the people. Writing set language and history down and stopped regional dialects becoming new languages, this cemented the difference between the Greeks and the Barbarians creating a more defined Greece.

To conclude, the most important distinguishing feature of the archaic age in my opinion is that of the invention of a generally accessible writing system, the ability to write equalised the Greek people in law, politics, and religion in a way unheard of in the highly hierarchical Mycenaean and dark ages. Writing allowed the city state to flourish and Greek society to spread throughout the Mediterranean without the threat of a collapse parallel to that of Mycenae.



Boardman, J. Griffin, J. Murray, O. ED. (1991) The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Oxford.

Finley, M. I. (1966) The Ancient Greeks. London.

Hall, M . J. (2007) A History of the Archaic Greek World: ca.1200-479BCE. Oxford

Morris, I. Powell, B. B. (2006) The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society. New Jersey

Osborne, R. (2008) The World of Athens: An Introduction to Classical Athenian Culture. Cambridge University Press.

Roberts, J. (2005) The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Oxford


Herodotus (Trans. Sélincourt, A. D) (2003) The Histories. London

Homer (trans. Lattimore, R.) (1991) The Odyssey of Homer. New York


Cumbria University. 2008. Mycenaean civilization. University of Cumbria. [] 9/11/09

[1] Boardman J, Griffin J, Murray O. ED. 1991. 13

[2] Finley M I, 1966, 33

[3] Boardman J, Griffin J, Murray O. ED. 1991. 17

[4] Osborne R (Revised by), 2008, 4

[5] Finley M I, 1966. 16

[6] Finley M I, 1966, 60-61

[7] University, C. 2008.

[8] Herodotus. 2003. 26

[9] Roberts, J. ED. 2005. 213

[10] Osborne R (Revised by), 2008, 4

[11] Homer (trans. Lattimore) 1991, 39

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[12] Hall. M. J. 2007. 56

[13] Morris, I. Powell, B. B. 2006.