When the Greeks met the Greeks and made…Greece

About 2100 b.c. a migrant, cattle-herding, pony-riding people made their way into the Mediterranean land mass that today is called Greece. They entered overland from the north, probably the Danube Basin, but their origins may have been farther northeast, for they spoke a language of the Indo-European linguistic family. Modern philologists believe that the ancestral Indo-European language—whose modern descendants include English, German, Gaelic, French, Farsi, Hindi, and modern Greek—evolved in the fourth millennium b.c. on the plains of southern Russia. This mother tongue then branched into different forms, carried in all directions by nomadic tribes. The group that reached Greece circa 2100 b.c. brought with it an early form of the Greek language. These people can be called the first Greeks.

The land that they invaded was held by farmers who had probably immigrated centuries earlier from Asia Minor, a place with which they perhaps remained linked via an eastward trade network that included the Aegean island of Crete. They apparently knew seafaring and stone masonry—two skills that the nomadic Greeks did not yet have.

But the Greeks were the stronger warriors. They took over the country, probably by violence in the most desirable locales, but elsewhere perhaps by intermarriage (as may be reflected in the many Greek myths in which the hero marries the foreign princess). One apparent sign of conquest is the wrecked remnant of a pre-Greek palace that modern archaeologists call the House of the Tiles, at Lerna on the plain of Argos. Destroyed by fire circa 2100 b.c., this may have been the home of a native ruler who led an unsuccessful defense of the fertile heartland of southern Greece. Yet at certain other sites, archaeologists have found no clear signs of violence—only continued habitation and the abrupt emergence of a new style of pottery, betokening the Greeks’ arrival.

The region that the Greeks now took over—and that would henceforth be their homeland—is a huge, jagged, southward-pointing peninsula, with a coastline stretching nearly 2,000 miles. Beyond its shores, particularly to the southeast, are islands that beckon to sea travelers and traders. Through the peninsula’s center, from north to south, runs an irregular line of mountain ranges, whose slopes in ancient times held forests of oak, beech, and fir— timber for generations of house builders and shipwrights. In a later era, the limestone formations in these mountains would yield marble for sculptors and architects. But the mountains also occupied most of the mainland’s total area, leaving only 20 percent as arable land.
Aside from scattered pockets, the farmland lay mainly in three regions: the plains of Argos, Boeotia, and Thessaly, in southern, central, and northern Greece, respectively. These territories were destined to become early Greek centers of power, especially the region of Argos, with its capital at Mycenae.

The soil of much of Greece is red or orange from clay deposits, which served centuries of potters and sculptors. In ancient times the farmed plains and foothills produced wheat, barley, olives, grapes, figs, and pomegranates— crops that could survive the ferociously hot, dry Greek summer. Summer, not winter, is the barren season in Greece, as in other parts of the Mediterranean. Winters are relatively mild—cool and rainy, but far rainier on the mainland’s western side. The eastern regions, although traditionally densely populated, are blocked by the central mountains from receiving the westerly rainy weather. Athens gets only about 15 inches of rainfall a year; Corfu, on the west coast, has three times that much.

In such a country, where farmland and water supplies were precious, the Greek invaders of circa 2100 b.c. found most of the best locales already settled. The Greeks took over such settlements but kept their pre-Greek names. For that reason, the names of most ancient Greek cities do not come from the Greek language. Names such as Athens, Corinth, and Mycenae are not etymologically Greek; their original meanings are lost in prehistory. Relatively few ancient mainland sites have recognizably Greek names, among them Pylos (“the gate”), Megara (“the great hall”), Chalcis (“bronze city”), and Marathon (“fennel”).

Eventually the Greeks acquired the civilizing arts of the people they had conquered. The Greeks learned shipbuilding, seamanship, and stoneworking—skills at which they excelled. More significantly, they borrowed from the non-Greeks’ agrarian religion, which perhaps involved the worship of a mother goddess and a family of fertility deities. Non-Greek goddesses and beliefs, imported into Greek religion, served to complement and refine the warrior Greeks’ Indo-European-type worship of a sky father and male gods. A new spirituality was born.

Thus in the centuries after 2100 b.c. came the creative fusion of two cultures—one primitive Greek, one nonGreek. To these two elements was added a third: the example and influence of the dynamic, non-Greek, Minoan civilization of Crete. By 1600 b.c. such factors had produced the first blossoming of the Greeks, in the Bronze Age urban society called the Mycenaean civilization.

The excerpt is from “the encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek” (David Sacks) because I find it useful to put things in perspective like that sometimes.  Hint, hint.

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