What causes a society to collapse – and how do people react when it does? Guest blogger KIRA HOPKINS explores the collapse of Mycenaean Greece and its consequences.
The causes behind the collapse of societies, and the gory details of this process, are popular subjects for archaeologists and general readers alike. Contrary to the mankind’s imagination and half-remembered myths of floods and other calamities, and despite the recent popularity of ecological arguments, society generally collapses for altogether more human causes, and natural disasters can have a surprisingly minor impact. The Black Death, which swept across Europe in the 14th century, killed as much as half of the entire population, but left the political geography of Europe broadly intact. Nor was the Antonine plague, which claimed around a third of the population of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century AD, the catalyst for the empire’s eventual decline or fall. Why society collapses is a fascinating and complex question. Perhaps even more interesting is how people react when this happens.
The Social Collapse of Mycenaean Greece
The destruction of Mycenaean Greece is one of the most famous and well-documented examples of social collapse. Near the start of the 12th century BC, the palaces, based principally at Mycenae, Tiryns and Midea on the Argive Plain, Pylos in Messenia, and Thebes in Boiotia, were burned. This destruction also signalled the end of the systems of rule and taxation through which they had exerted control. The wanax, the ruler based at the palaces, who engaged in diplomacy and warfare with the pharaohs of Egypt and the kings of the Hittite Empire, was gone forever. The effects were devastating. There was widespread destruction, the loss of contacts abroad and of writing, and severe depopulation, to the point of near-total abandonment, in some regions. Skeletal evidence indicates widespread malnourishment and a drop in life expectancy of five years. This period of chaos and destruction, known as the Dark Ages, persisted for centuries before Greece re-emerged onto the world stage in the 8th century, when its population and wealth grew and people began to group themselves in ways that, before long, led to the Classical city states that are familiar to us today. It’s a set up very similar from most post-apocalyptic fiction. Society has collapsed. The ruins of the centre are still smoking, the rulers all gone, small pockets of survivors persist in difficult circumstances.
This narrative, though, has been challenged in recent years, the extent of isolation and poverty in several parts of Greece has been drastically challenged by finds from Lefkandi, Perati, Athens, Argos, and other sites. There were even some benefits to this upheaval for those that remained, most notably the drastic improvement in the quality of grain due to the cutting back of intensive agriculture. The total destruction of the social system and the centres of power was not entirely catastrophic; in fact, freed from an extremely parasitic taxation system which involved the commandeering not just of goods but of free labour, in some respects, this devastating collapse was a period of opportunity for many. We can trace this through examining the movement of goods in this period, the blossoming of regional pottery styles, changing distributions of wealth in burials – and in the leaders that replaced the wanax.
This can be seen most starkly at the former palace of Tiryns where, after a short gap, the ruins of the central structure of the palace itself were partially rebuilt, on a much smaller scale, both physically and functionally. We know from the archival documents found there that the earlier palace housed various industries producing highly prized, decorated textiles and perfumed oils, among them rose and sage scented, for export. It also oversaw precious state offerings to sanctuaries of perfume, precious metals and sometimes people. The new structure on the palace site, Building T, continued none of these complex functions. Instead it contained evidence for group feasts, as the palace had, but on a much smaller scale. The altar built outside the door also suggests that this new leader took on ritual duties as well, though now also on a reduced scale from the wanax and with different ritual practices. The location of the building strongly implies some sort of deliberate connection to the recent past, perhaps a claim that the current inhabitant was himself the wanax, despite their reduced circumstances. Interestingly, this was not the only leader’s house in Tiryns itself. While this structure dominated the acropolis, another, Building W, was situated in the Lower Town, suggesting that complex systems of power were now occurring even within such small areas as the city.
This pattern was replicated, with variations, at many other locations. Asine, a formerly provincial town within the territory of Mycenae, now blossomed into a large, wealthy centre, with a leader’s house with a ritual bench holding votive figurines, indicating the appropriation of cultic authority by the new leader there. At Midea, the former palatial megaron was, as at Tiryns, renovated and used as a cultic and feasting location. Meanwhile, at Mycenae, elite feasting was clearly prevalent among the survivors, though cult does not seem to have been used as a method of control as at the other sites.
Though feasting at the palaces, particularly at Pylos, had been a deeply hierarchical affair, with quality of dinnerwares and location within the feasting halls denoting your place in society, in these new societies the feasting was very homogenous – you were either an elite, able to attend, or you were not, indicating a much simpler society – though one which was still hierarchical. Similarly, while Mycenaean cult practices at the palaces had been extremely uniform, cultic activity in this period ranged from external altars to internal benches, from figurine offering to pig sacrifices. This marked individuality indicates that these post-palatial centres developed their own new methods of displaying power and appeasing the gods, shaped by their individual circumstances and abilities.
In the power vacuum that emerged in the early 12th century, many people took advantage of the anarchy, establishing authority for themselves on a much smaller scale, using whatever social and physical resources were available to them to shore up their new-found status. They induced loyalty from potential rivals and followers through a combination of feasts, offerings and sacrifices, and claimed continuity from the recent, more prosperous past as worked best in each situation. What has been seen as a period of disaster can also be characterised as one of opportunity and tenacity, as can many other periods of collapse.
KIRA HOPKINS is a PhD student at the School of Archaeology, Oxford, and also works as a free-lance copy editor. Her research interests include territory in the archaic Peloponnese, and social collapse and post-palatial society in Greece more generally.
COVER IMAGE: © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons /