The History of the Greek Dark Ages

What is generally considered to be the ‘Dark Ages’ of ancient Greece is the period of time between around 1200 – 800 BCE. However, the term ‘Dark Ages’ is used with increasing frustration by scholars due to its misunderstood meaning.

The Dark Ages emerged after the collapse of the Mycenaean Palatial period and the invasion of the Dorian people. At this present time, academics are uncertain about the social groups or administrations of the Mycenaeans and nothing about the Dorians social structure at the beginning. According to Snodgrass, by 1000 BCE, “the population of the Greek world had fallen to its lowest point in a thousand years; most of the previously inhabited sites were abandoned, many permanently” (Donland, p.295). We know from the archaeological record that Dark Age Greek houses consisted of one or two rooms, located in small, unfortified villages. Only a handful of these can be dated to before 900 BCE, and it is widely agreed by scholars that earlier Dark age settlements were more scattered, fewer and smaller.

The conventional conjecture that the Dark Age Greeks were separated into large kinship groups originates from the interpretation of three passages in the Iliad and the words phulon and phretre. Proceeding on the hypothesis that the Dark Age Greeks inherited a “prehistoric tribal organization,” historians have unhesitatingly acknowledged phulon and phretre as “tribe” and “phratry.” In fact, however, these obscure references are the only attestations we have of such Dark Age social groups (Donlan, p.293).

Dark Age Greek sociability revolved around kinship and neighbourhood, known as oikos; families tended to live in the same villages and others nearby. From the information gathered from the statements of Homer, personal alliance, which created mutual relationships of allegiance between equals and between inferiors and superiors, was the principal structuring system of Dark Age society. Thanks to its centrality to the culture described by Homer, and its likeness to other advancements recorded for other societies, we are able to give a schematic description of how this political coalition system came about and how it worked (Donland, p.303).

Around the 8th century BCE, Greek advancements led to the emergence of Archaic Greece. City-states began to emerge as well as economic stability. The people of Dark Age Greece began to embrace central, urban settlements as well as the rural hinterland, political ties and religious beliefs.


Donland, Walter (1985) The Social Groups of Dark Age Greece, Classical Philology, The University of Chicago Press.