Ages of Greece – Mycenaean through Hellenistic

We tend to think of ancient Greece as some sort of monolithic, static thing that existed in the same state for hundreds of years. We talk about “ancient greece” often without realizing that that term covers a range of several hundred years. I do it too. It’s a bad habit. We can’t really talk about ancient Greek beliefs as such, but about ancient greek beliefs in a certain period. The world that produced “The Iliad” is not the same as the world that produced the “Argonautika”, for example. So for the sake of clarity and just keeping our thoughts straight, it’s helpful to look at and discuss and clarify the different ages of ancient Greek history as we understand them today. The natue of greek mythology is already nebulous, so it makes sense that it changes as the history change; The underworld of Homer would not apply to Hellenistic beliefs, for example. 

These are (obviously) part of a modern understanding of Greek history. They themselves didn’t refer to it as ‘Archaic’ or “Hellenistic’. So the divisions are modern and slightly arbitrary. There’s no real exact point where one age ends and another begins. Just like there’s no exact date for the start of the Renaissance. These divisions are mostly for us, for helping us to understand the flow of history and describe Greek culture as it existed at distinct points.

Let’s look at the ages:

Table of Contents

Mycenaean 1750 – 1050

This is the first civilization that we tend to think of as distinctively ‘Greek’. It was characterized  by independent city-states, each centered around a fortified citadel, such as Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos. These city-states were ruled by powerful monarchs. Mycenaean architecture is marked by massive stone structures, particularly the construction of cyclopean walls (large stones fitted together without mortar) around citadels. The most famous example is the Lion Gate at Mycenae. Though they’re the first Greeks, their writing system was something completely different from later developments. Known as Linear B, it was mostly used for record-keeping and wasn’t deciphered until the 20th century.

We know little about their religion, but we do know it set the stage for later Greek practices. Many of the gods worshiped in later ages were first attested to here and this age came to be the setting for many of the stories in later mythology.  

Eventually it fell. We don’t really know why. Lot of theories ranging from natural disasters to an invasion by the so-called Sea People have been proposed, but the end result is the same regardless of the cause. With it fell the bronze age in general and in came the Dark Age of Greece.

Dark Ages – 1050 – 750

“Dark ages” as a term is often a misnomer that hides the genuine developments that took place in such periods (ask any Medievalist). But it was dark in the sense that the previous civilization had fallen, Linear B disappeared as a language, the population declined significantly, and some groups spread out beyond Greece into Asia Minor.

However, this “dark” age made space for the rise of the polises, the city-states that became the primary political forces in the later ages. It was also the time in which the language changed. Linear B disappeared, but a script from the Phonecians was adopted that would later become the Greek of Homer.

Archaic 800-480 BC

Enter Homer. And philosophy. And tyranny (in the classical sense, not the modern one). This was the beginning of the Greek civilization that we know. The polises grew stronger and bigger, so much so that many of them set up colonies. This is also the age where the Olympic games started, and where the iconic temples first started being built. This age set the tone for the Classical period. 

Classical 500 – 323

This is it. When most people think of “Ancient Greece”, this is what they mean. The golden age of Athens, the rise of drama and theater, the iconic sculptures, and the Peloponesian war that ultimately led to Athens’ decline in power. It was also the age of inquiry, scientific and philosophical. Yes, those existed before, but this is when they flourished.  It ended with Alexander the Great and his conquest

Hellenistic 323 – 31

This is the age where Greek culture stopped being simply greek. It spread out over much of mainland Europe, driven by Alexander’s conquest. And it wasn’t just a one-way street. Greek culture mixed with the cultures of the conquered areas, leading to a syncretism of religious beliefs, cultural practices, etc. This age also saw the emergence of new philosophical schools, new scientific thought, and new art. The city-states were still powerful entities in terms of commerce, trade, and culture, and new ones emerged in the conquered areas.  

Highlights (TL;DR)

Mycenaean Period

  • Rise of Mycenaean civilization.
  • City-states with fortified citadels.
  • Linear B writing system.

Greek Dark Age

  • Decline of Mycenaean civilization.
  • Population decline, economic simplification.
  • Loss of writing (Linear B).

Archaic Period

  • Adoption of the Greek alphabet.
  • Colonization of Mediterranean and Black Sea.
  • Development of the polis (city-state).
  • Rise of hoplites and military reforms.
  • Emergence of Greek philosophy.

Classical Period

  • Golden Age of Athens (5th century BCE).
  • Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).
  • Sculpture and art flourish.
  • Development of Greek drama.
  • Significant philosophical advancements.
  • Conquests of Alexander the Great (334-323 BCE).

Hellenistic Period

  • Spread of Greek influence across the known world.
  • Cultural syncretism and blending of traditions.
  • Rise of Hellenistic city-states.
  • Flourishing of philosophical schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism).
  • Scientific advancements
  • Decline and Roman conquest.
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