The End of Mycenaean Athens
At the beginning of the twelfth century the Mycenaean palace-cities were first more strongly fortified, with water supplies secured within the walls, and then later abandoned. This is generally attributed to the invasion of Greece from the north by another Greek-speaking people distinguished by their dialect and customs as DÔrians. These invaders swept down through central Greece into the Peloponnese, and burned Mycenae Tiryns and Pylos.
The Athenians always maintained proudly that they were autochthonous, or 'sprung from the earth'; that is, that they were not incomers but 'the people of the land', already settled on their land before the DÔrian invasion. The evidence of excavations on and near the Acropolis suggests that this claim to continuity is correct. The tombs in the cemetery in the Keramikos have yielded an uninterrupted sequence of pottery spanning some five hundred critical years. One particular group, dating over some fifty years, shows a range of Mycenaean pottery lying together with the characteristic long bronze shoulder pins and safety pins which were introduced into Greece by the DÔrians. Moreover, the important pottery remains show a gradual transformation from one style to another, without any sharp breaks.
In the 1930s the Swedish-American archaeologist Oscar Broneer discovered evidence that the walls and defences of Athens, like those of other Mycenaean cities, had been strengthened around 1300B.C. A section of this wall is visible today near the entrance to the Acropolis. There is evidence that at the same time, housing beyond the north-east wall was abandoned.
A Mycenaean Refuge in Athens
There are few traces of buildings dating from the centuries which followed, and the tomb gifts are poor, showing a deterioration in the economic condition of the Athenians, and possibly a reduction in population. But it is clear that the DÔrian invasions passed Athens by without the destruction of the city or its inhabitants. On the far side of Mount Hymettos, on the sheltered Midland Plain and the north-east coast of Attica, Mycenaean burial pottery continued to be manufactured and deposited in graves for some time, suggesting the survival there of a style, and perhaps a culture, which had been destroyed elsewhere in Greece. The result everywhere, however, was a 'dark age' in which writing disappeared entirely and both the population and the standard of living fell. As a result of the destruction beyond the borders of Attica, Athens, although a minor Mycenaean town, may have become by default the most important city in Greece, and something of a refuge for the Mycenaeans. An ancient tradition states that refugees from Pylos fled to Athens after the destruction of that city. The father of ing Kodros, Neleus, was supposed to have come from Pylos, and the name 'Neleus' appears in the genealogy of King Nestor of Pylos. Neleus was supposed to have saved the Athenians from the DÔrian invaders at the cost of his life, by agreeing to be sacrificed in accordance with the promise of an oracle. From him some famous Athenians, such as Solon, Peisistratos and PIato, later claimed descent. The precise significance of this legend is by no means clear, but it may be based upon a genuine historical memory of a king who lost his life successfully repelling the invaders from the borders of Attica.
The Era of Emigration
In the sixth generation after the Trojan war, some of these refugees from Mycenaean Greece allegedly went to Asia Minor, where they settled. Certainly, at a level dated about 1000 BC in Old Smyrna, to the north west of the modem city, locally produced pottery has been found decorated in a style which seems to be very closely imitative of Athenian protogeometric style. It is certain also that there was a general migration from the mainland across the Aegean to Asia Minor (modem Turkey) at about that time. Most cities along the Asian coast were subsequently Greek speaking. Their dialects showed that those in the central region were Ionians, akin to the Athenians; and the Athenians were later to claim, correctly or not, that Athens was the metropolis of all the 1onians of the Aegean islands and the Asian shore.
The Pottery Evidence
The evidence provided by pottery assumes great importance during the Greek 'Dark Age', for when all else rots or rusts, pottery survives. Also, the Athenians began to develop the art of ceramics as a major form of artistic expression, so that it can tell us much. Finally, their practice was to bury pots with the dead, and the burial ground at the Keramikos was used continuously for several centuries, providing archaeologists with evidence over a long period of time. Moreover, since each society developed its own style, similarity of pottery in different places reveals the existence of commercial contacts or cultural influence.
The development of the distinctive style of protogeometric pottery in Athens in the eleventh century is held to show that some degree of peace and prosperity gradually returned to Attica; while the appearance of the geometric in the ninth suggests increased prosperity. Stylistic influences from the east in the later eighth century provide evidence of renewed commercial contact with the Aegean world. Some historians infer from the superior character of Athenian pottery during much of this period that Athens was then the most highly-developed state in Greece.
Although most of what we know about this period has to be inferred from later traditions, it is clear that during this 'Dark Age' that some of the most distinctive characteristics of the city states of the later Archaic and Classical periods evolved.
The Evolution of the Athenian state
At some point, the kings of Athens lost their power to the landowning aristocracy, which met in council on the Areopagos «Ŗll. The aristocrats were divided into four tribes and rival clans, the members of each of which claimed a common descent. The members of a clan, together with their retainers and supporters, were enrolled in 'brotherhoods'. Enrolment into a brotherhood signified that a person was officially a citizen of Athens.
The chief duties of government came to be shared among three archons, or officials, chosen from among the aristocracy: the king archon, who performed the religious duties of the former king; the polemarch, who led the citizens in battle; and the eponymous archon, who presided over the civil administration and gave his name to the year. Later these were assisted by a board of six 'lesser' archons, known as thesmothetai, who were responsible for the interpretation of customary law. With the transfer of power, the institutions of government were symbolically located in the lower town; while the Acropolis became a 'sacred rock' reserved for religious sanctuaries and monuments, as well as remaining a place of refuge in times of danger.
The eupatridai, or 'well-born', owners of large estates on the fertile plains, enjoyed control of the Areopagos Council and these offices of state. The ekklesia, an assembly of freemen, probably had no rights other than that of giving, or withholding assent to decisions made by the aristocrats. Even though there were conflicts between great families and prominent personalities, these 'Few' were united by their common interests against the 'Many'.
Dark Age Attica
During the early 'Dark Age' Attica was a land of independent towns and villages which sometimes went to war with each other, so that we hear, for example, of a war between Athens and Eleusis; but the various communities became united in a single polity. This extended the authority of the city over a wide area including the plain of Thria, and the Midland Plain. Unification was probably achieved over a long period as the result of a gradual process, one not quite completed in the late sixth century, when the island of Salamis was taken from Megara. However, in accordance with the widespread ancient practice of attributing important political developments to a single occasion, and the work of a single prestigious ancestor, the union was attributed by the Athenians to the semi- mythical King Theseus, who had lived in the distant Mycenaean Age. However achieved, this union created a single state larger than any other in Greece except that of Sparta.
Athenian Economic Development
The decline in the power of the Egyptians and Phoenicians during the eighth century led to a power vacuum ŖÁ the eastern Mediterranean. Many Greek city states were able to take advantage of this by sending out settlers to found new colonies. Corinth and Megara and the cities of Euboea were very active, but Athens was not. Despite its unusual size, Athens was surprisingly underdeveloped commercially before the sixth century. The most active cities were comparatively close to Athens, which may have been overshadowed by more powerful neighbours. The Aeginetans adopted the use of coinage at least fifty years before the Athenians, and seem to have then played a more active role in Aegean politics. They, in particular, may have stifled Athenian commerce and hampered its progress, for Herodotus hinted of 'an ancient hatred' between the two states.
© John L. Tomkinson