The ancient Greeks gave us our alphabet and much of our scientific, medical and cultural language; they invented democracy, atomic theory, and the rules of logic and geometry; laid the foundations of philosophy, history, tragedy and comedy; and debated everything from the good life and the role of women, to making sense of foreigners and the best form of government, all in the most sophisticated terms. But who were they? Peter Jones tells their epic story by breaking down each major period into a series of informative nuggets. Along the way he introduces the major figures of the age, including Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Euclid and Archimedes; explores the Greek myths and the role of the gods; provides fascinating insights into everyday life in ancient times; and shows us the very foundations of Western culture.
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About the Author
Peter Jones taught Classics at Cambridge and at Newcastle University, before retiring in 1997. He is the author of various books on the Classics, including Learn Latin and Learn Ancient Greek, as well as Reading Virgil's Aeneid I and II, Vote for Caesar and Veni, Vidi, Vici.
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2000–1600 BC Minoan Crete – the golden age
c. 1600 BC The explosion of Minoan Thera
1600–1150 BC Late Bronze Age; the rise and fall of 'Mycenaean' Greeks
1450 BC Mycenaeans move into Knossos
1400 BC (Greek) Linear B writing
1350 BC Knossos destroyed
c. 1200 BC Mycenaean attack on Hisarlik?
c. 1150–800 BC End of Bronze Age society and culture; the Dark Ages
FROM BRONZE AGE TO DARK AGE
This is a much debated period of history because we have virtually no written sources for it. Two peoples and one site will dominate the greatly simplified story of the Bronze Age world presented here: Minoan Cretans; Mycenaean Greeks; and Hisarlik, a site of major importance in what is now north-west Turkey (Asia Minor) at the entrance to the Dardanelles.
Crete at this period is called 'Minoan' merely because Minos was a famous mythical king of Crete and Knossos' excavator Sir Arthur Evans decided to call it that; but – this is important – Crete at this time was not inhabited by Greeks. Who the inhabitants were, we do not know.
From about 2100 to 1700 BC the Minoans developed the building of impressive courtyard-centred 'palaces' on Near Eastern models. Those at Knossos and Phaestos are especially notable. The wealth required to do this came from their fleets trading all round the eastern Mediterranean, especially to get copper and tin (Crete lacked any metal deposits). There is evidence of Minoan 'colonies' along the coast of Asia Minor set up, among other things, to get a foothold in the trade routes and inland resources.
These palaces were seats of political, administrative and ceremonial power rather than urban concentrations. They were held by a chieftain, many of whose acolytes lived in nearby 'mansions'. They stored and redistributed goods: grain, especially drought-resistant barley, olive oil, wine (the Mediterranean's staple foods), spices like saffron, coriander and woollen products. The script Linear A, so called by Evans and as yet undeciphered, was used to administer the system. Knossos could serve (it has been roughly calculated) around 15,000 people.
The island of Thera exploded in a massive volcanic eruption c. 1600 BC. This may have had some effect on Minoan power; it certainly did on nearby islands. The major change to Minoan power came around 1450 BC. This was when people who were Greeks from mainland Greece attacked Crete or took it over. We call these 'Mycenaean' Greeks. The epithet 'Mycenaean' is, like Minoan Crete, a modern invention to denote 'Bronze Age Greeks'. Mycenae itself is simply an impressive Bronze Age palace site on the Greek mainland, rich in gold (to judge from its graves). Many Minoan palace sites were destroyed or abandoned at this time.
Mycenaean Greeks were warriors and traders. Their trade expanded widely after Crete was taken over, possibly because the Minoan navy no longer controlled the seas. When the Mycenaeans moved into Crete, they converted the signs of Linear A to create both in Crete and in Greece a new, Greek script, Linear B, for purposes of administration. The palace of Knossos was finally destroyed – why, we do not know – around 1350 BC. Further, around 1200 BC, Mycenaean Greeks may have been involved in the demise of the important site of Hisarlik, on the Turkish coast near the entrance to the Dardanelles.
But around 1200 BC this Bronze Age culture was beginning to collapse in the Greek, Egyptian and Hittite worlds: sites were being destroyed or abandoned, for reasons that still remain mysterious, and skills (including writing) were being lost. Many Greeks began to leave the mainland and make their way east to the coast of Asia Minor (western Turkey). The Iron Age had begun, and the Dark Ages were about to close in.
THE BRONZE AGE
The Bronze Age is so called because bronze was the standard metal in use. This metal is a combination of tin and copper. Our word 'copper' derives from Greek Kupros, 'Cyprus', which was well known for its copper mines (copper is a chemical element with the symbol Cu, from Latin cuprum, via the Greek). Tin is assumed not to have been available around the Mediterranean and was perhaps brought in mainly from the East, or even from Cornwall.
BEFORE THE WRITTEN WORD
'Pre-history' is defined as a period of time from which we have no written records.
The Greek world of the second millennium BC does not quite count because written clay tablets, called 'Linear B', survive from this time (see p. 12). But since these are simply economic accounts for one year, they give us no help with establishing a sequence of events. So we rely primarily on archaeology, though written accounts from Hittites (in central Turkey), for instance, and Egyptians also come into play.
DATING THE UNWRITTEN WORLD
Archaeology does not tell a story. But it can reveal processes of change over time, for instance a settlement's population expanding or contracting, becoming more or less wealthy, forging trading connections, or new populations with different styles of goods coming in, and so on. Burial sites in particular often yield highly informative hauls, such as prestige goods and precious metals from distant lands.
Dates are very cautiously attached to the period – as far as they can be – mainly by the following methods:
(i) Tracing the changes in style of decoration on pots. Because some of this pottery is found in dateable locations abroad (e.g. Egypt, where a dating system survives), scholars have been able to draw up a system of rough-and-ready dating by changing pottery style.
(ii) Radiocarbon dating of objects and dendrochronology (tree-ring analysis). These techniques are used to firm up the results, though they often suggest earlier dates than the pottery analysis.
The middle of the ancient island of Thera, modern Santorini, just south of Crete, blew up some time around 1600 BC. It did so because it was and still is a volcanic island, which will one day blow up again as the volcanic core slowly rebuilds itself in the middle of the roughly circular caldera, the 'cauldron' like shape left by the explosion. The explosion is calculated to have been one of the largest ever, punching about 24 cubic miles of material (15 billion tons) into the air, many times larger than the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. The fallout and accompanying tsunamis must have caused widespread devastation, though scholars still argue over the details and the precise dating. Some think that memories of this explosion influenced Plato's story of Atlantis some 1200 years later (see p. 9).
Incidentally, the name 'Santorini' derives from Santa Irene ('Holy Peace'). This was the name of a local church, given to it in the thirteenth century AD when it was part of a short-lived 'Latin' empire. Its official name in modern Greek is Thira.
The town on Santorini known today as Akrotiri was a Bronze Age settlement. It was buried Pompeii-like by the explosion, and since 1967 it has been excavated. Houses were rectangular, with flat roofs, two, sometimes three, stories high; the main door opened onto wide streets or squares. Storerooms and workrooms were on the ground floor. They provide evidence of businesses in farming, fishing, woodwork, textiles and metalwork; jars from Lebanon, stone vases from Egypt, ivory work and ostrich eggshells testify to flourishing trade abroad. Living accommodation was on the upper floor or floors. Each private house (of those so far excavated) has a fresco, often visible from outside via a large window. Santorini is typical of many Aegean islands in having strong connections with Minoan Crete: its wonderful frescoes are thoroughly Minoan in style – landscapes in exotic locations, featuring monkeys, leopards and antelopes – and Linear A writing was found there. There is a cache of clay impressions from seal-stones, all of them common in Crete but not made of clay from Thera – clear evidence of flourishing trade connections.
Seal-stones are gems or stones, engraved with depictions and/or writing. They are miraculous works of miniature art in themselves: about an inch long, exquisitely engraved with a whole range of images, from ceremonials to wild animals (craftsmen engraving them were helped by miniature 'magnifying glasses' that survive naturally in rock crystal).
Worn round the neck or wrist, these seal-stones had a practical use. To seal a document or lid in the Minoan world, one tied it up, pressed clay around the knotted fastening, and then 'sealed' the clay by impressing it with your own seal-stone, which could indicate personal ownership or controlling authority. That 'seal' should be unbroken when the item was delivered.
This was all part of the Minoan system of the control and distribution of goods and produce. In Phaestos, there is an archive of 6,500 clay seal impressions, indicating the vast scale of this operation. When the Mycenaeans arrived in Knossos, seals began to feature the Linear B script.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
We do not know what the people of Crete called themselves. In Egypt, however, there are paintings in tombs of Cretan young men (one can tell by the clothing) called Keftiu. They are bringing gifts – evidence of Cretan trade. There is also a bull-leaping fresco in the Nile delta (see p. 15). The Syrians called Crete 'Kaptaru', the Bible 'Kaphtor'. So the letters 'K', 'p' or 'f' and 't' should feature in the name.
KNOSSOS AND LINEAR A
Knossos in Crete was the name of the fabled palace of the mythical Cretan king Minos. When coins bearing the name of that place emerged from the ground near modern Heraklion, Arthur Evans, keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, decided to investigate. He had already become excited by the possibility that signs on seal-stones from Crete bought in Greek antique shops were a form of writing; here was a chance to prove it. In 1900 he bought up the location, convinced that Minoan Crete, as he called it, was history, not myth, and started to excavate. To his great excitement, he immediately started turning up seal-stones and clay tablets. The language on them turned out to be the language of Minoan Cretans, which Evans called Linear ('script written in lines') A. This language turned out not to be Greek (see p. 12). So whoever the Minoans were, Greek they were not.
KNOSSOS AND LINEAR B
At the same time, Evans also began turning up evidence of a different script, which he called Linear B, clearly related to the script of Linear A but significantly different from it. He found great quantities of this script in continuous lines of writing, inscribed on clay tablets (around 1,800 in all), bunched together like files or dossiers of some sort, datable to around 1400 BC. Even more exciting, in 1939–40 Carl Blegen, leading an American expedition excavating near Navarino bay in south-west Greece, was excavating a palace which we know to be Pylos (mentioned in Homer), and he too uncovered a great cache of writing on clay tablets (636 of them), exactly like the Linear B from Minoan Crete, datable to around 1200 BC. What was this script doing in Greece? Had the Minoans taken over Greece? In fact, as we know, it was the other way round. What language was it? We now have some 5,000 clay tablets inscribed with Linear B from Crete and the Greek mainland (including Mycenae, Tiryns and Thebes), all dated to c. 1450–1200 BC, and all from large settlements.
In 1953 the Linear B puzzle was solved. Building on a great deal of earlier work and inspired by the Second World War code-crackers at Bletchley Park, the young architect Michael Ventris and the Cambridge Greek scholar Dr John Chadwick announced that Linear B was a form of ancient Greek. But far from being exquisite early poetry or accounts of battles between Greeks and Trojans, the Linear B clay tablets were not evidence for general literacy but the work of an official class of trained bureaucrats. The tablets describe a society labelled, inspected, rationed and controlled by an officialdom of a sort to make the heart of any EU bureaucrat beat that little bit faster. Records of economic activity, the tablets cover four main types of transaction: taxation (on an annual basis, with recurrent formulas for assessment, payments and deficit, if any); agricultural production; maintenance of palace staff; and craft production (chariots, textiles, furniture, leather goods, etc.). Religious activity was also monitored, and records kept of offerings, land and allowances that were given to gods, workers (in return for services) and priests. Interestingly, nearly all the Greek Olympian gods feature – Zeus, Athena, Hermes, even Dionysus, who was once thought to be a late arrival in the Greek pantheon. The only exceptions are Aphrodite and Apollo. The palace bureaucrats clearly had no business plans for sex and the arts.
We must forget about markets and money. Minoan Crete was a command economy, under palace control. From the territory they controlled, officials drew foodstuff and raw materials. This was then given to workers in the palace and the region: food, so that they did not struggle to stay alive, and raw materials to be turned into manufactured goods to palace specifications. These included textiles, metalwork, furniture and perfumes, both for internal consumption and for bartering (how trade was carried on before money or its equivalent was invented).
There is a delicious paradox about these clay tablets. They were meant to be only temporary records, before the information was transferred to more 'permanent' materials such as skins. But when the palaces were burned down, the clay was fired hard and so preserved, whereas the 'permanent' materials were destroyed! We know the tablets were a temporary record because they refer to just one year's economic activity, mentioning only 'this year's' flocks (etc.), and occasionally 'last year's' (for comparative purposes).
The details of the records give us some idea of the enthusiasm of the civil servants. Stocks of spare chariot wheels are recorded: 'one pair of wheels, bound with silver'; 'one pair of cypress-wood with borders, and one single wheel'; 'six pairs, unfit for use'. Among much else we also learn:
what the acreage of Alektryon's estate is and how much he should pay in annual tax, as well as to the gods Poseidon and Diwieus (Zeus);
that in one Cretan village two nurses, one girl and one boy are being employed;
that Dynios owes to the palace 2,220 litres of barley, 526 litres of olives, 468 litres of wine, fifteen rams, eight yearlings, one ewe, thirteen he-goats, twelve pigs, one fat hog, one cow and two bulls;
who is looking after Thalamatas' cattle;
the amount of tax to be paid in linen by the town of Rhion (with certain deductions for a certain class of workmen);
the wheat and fig rations for thirty-seven female bath attendants and twenty-eight children at Pylos;
the number of hammers, brushes and fire-tongs to be found in a room in the palace; and
the names of four oxen: Dusky, Dapple, Whitefoot and Noisy.
By far the largest interest of the Minoan Linear B tablets is in sheep. Over 800 of the tablets, each dealing with a single flock, produce a total of around 100,000 sheep in Crete. They are identified by sex and categorized as 'old', 'young', 'this year's' and 'last year's'. The purpose of this was to ensure that flocks of castrated rams, which produced the wool, were kept up to strength. Target figures for wool production (about 2 lb/0.9 kg per ram, 1 lb/0.45 kg per breeding ewe) and actual figures were recorded: they had targets and league tables even then. Presumably each sheep was marked with a baa-code. Then on to textile production: we can follow the process from the wool being ordered; collected; spun and carded; woven and finished; and finally turned into everything from headbands to heavy rugs. Every step of the way, restless officialdom wielded its stern recording clipboard. Incidentally, since the Linear B tablets consist largely of lists of objects, very few verbs are used.
DANGEROUS SPORTS, CRETAN STYLE
Seal-stones and frescoes from Crete provide hundreds of depictions of men leaping over bulls. In one type, it appears that a man grasps the bull's horns and, as it tosses its head, levers himself up over the bull in a backward somersault. Another type depicts a man diving head-first over the horns and using his hands to somersault backwards off the bull's back. Young women may also have had a role – though it is hard to be certain – as they seem to be depicted standing in front of and behind the bull. Since in many Mediterranean countries bulls were venerated – they were the largest and most dangerous animals on Crete – this may well have been part of a religious ceremonial. But it could equally be some sort of spectacular involving man and beast. Bull-leaping can still be seen in parts of Spain and south-west France.
Excerpted from "Eureka!"
Copyright © 2014 Peter Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents
I 2000–800 BC,
II 800–725 BC,
III 725–700 BC,
IV c. 700–593 BC,
V 593–493 BC,
VI 493–450 BC,
VII 450–421 BC,
VIII 421–399 BC,
IX 399–362 BC,
X 360–336 BC,
XI 336–322 BC,
XII 322–229 BC,
XIII 229–146 BC,
XIV 146–27 BC,
Epilogue: the survival of Greek literature,
A note on the author,