Greek Dark Age
The year 1100 B.C. or so marked the end of higher civilization in the Aegean for a long time. The succeeding period (1100-750 B.C.) is conventionally called the Dark Ages of Greece, and it is aptly named. Because writing disappeared along with Mycenaean civilization, no written evidence exists for this period. Since it was extremely poor and primitive in other respects too, even the archeological remains are quite limited. Nevertheless, the Dark Ages were formative for the later development of the Aegean.
In the first place, the region was largely isolated form the rest of the Mediterranean, a situation that differed markedly from the Bronze Age. The Mycenaeans had traded widely with the Near East. The Dark Ages have yielded few goods imported into or exported out of the Aegean at all. Trading contacts essentially ceased. This is due partly to the poverty of the Aegean and partly to conditions elsewhere. By 850, some limited trade began to reappear, but regular continuous contacts did not develop until the 700s.
This lack of contact meant that the Iron-Age Aegean peoples, unlike the Minoans and Mycenaeans, were not influenced by Near Eastern examples in creating their fundamental institutions. On the other hand, some trade did exist within various parts of the Lower Aegean itself throughout the Dark Ages. As a result, Aegean peoples came to have a distinct culture of their own, different from that of their neighbors. The culture shared certain broad similarities everywhere, but with lots of local variations.
Perhaps the most obvious illustration of this is provided by the pattern of language that took shape in the Dark Ages. In historic times, most peoples around the Aegean had the same language. We call those who spoke this language Greeks, but they called themselves (and still do) Hellenes. This common language set them apart from other peoples who did not speak it. Other peoples were called barbaroi. Originally, “barbarian” simply meant anyone who did not speak Greek. Yet, even though all Hellenes spoke Greek, they did not all speak it the same way. From place to place, minor differences existed in pronunciation (and later spelling) and even in grammar. The differences were not great enough to prevent Hellenes from understanding each other; they could talk together. Such minor linguistic variations are called dialects.
Why the dialects arose is not absolutely certain, but they most likely resulted from movements by various Greek-speaking groups in the late Bronze Age and early Dark Ages. Whether invaders ended Mycenaean civilization or not, the evidence suggests that some Mycenaeans did migrate across to Asia Minor in this period, and while others resettled the older Mycenaean communities at a much lower level of civilization after a few generations. Also, some Greek-speaking people with different dialects seem to have wandered into the Greek hearthland from elsewhere, settling there. The clearest sign of this is the distribution of dialects later on.
In the Dark Ages the ruling upper class of the Helladic times had disappeared completely along with the rest of civilization. A bit later, I will argue that there were no clearly defined, dominant political leaders in the Dark Ages, at least not at first. Moreover, the general poverty of the time had reduced everyone in society to roughly the same economic level as well. One example will serve. The rich Mycenaean chamber tombs and shaft graves had given way to meager cist graves for all classes. The wide divergence in the wealth of burials found at Mycenae never existed in Greece again until Hellenistic times. The lack of economic and political distinctions offers presumptive evidence for social equality as well.
In place of the stratified Helladic society, Dark-Age Greeks reverted to a primitive tribal organization made up of numerous groups of individuals united by kingship, or some less formal style of individual leadership, sometimes called the Big Man leadership, and by control of contiguous lands. The Big Man is an informal leader, identified by Anthropologists in some primitive cultures, who maintains his influence through gift and favor giving, and, sometimes by virtue of his leadership in warfare. At any rate, the major social unit was the oikos (-oi) or household. It was made up of persons who worked together to farm a single piece of land. In most cases, they were all members of the same family who owned the land. In a few instances where the farm was a bit larger than usual, the oikos might also include one or two slaves. But this was rare. Members of the oikios cooperated to farm the land, and to defend it and one another from outsiders. Each oikos also had its own religious observances to aid these activities. Without mutual assistance of an oikos, an individual would have difficulty in feeding or protecting himself. Thus, the paramount loyalty of individuals was to the family unit.
The family acted to protect its members from outsiders, and male family members combined both to defend their own family, lands and livestock, and, from time to time, to raid neighbors and steal livestock and women.  Decisions affecting the whole oikos were made by a council of elders, probably under the guidance and influence of the family head.
Greece in the dark ages might best be described as a frontier society. Folks to protected what was theirs and occasionally took what they could from other oikoi. Inter-familial activities were most often those of the blood feud. Because there were virtually no differences of wealth within the family, there existed a strong assumption that all males old enough to fight were equal.
Besides the oikos, more extended kinship units also existed. By the end of the Dark Ages, most Greeks came to have a genos (-e) or clan as well. A clan is a group of families that trace their relations to one, often mythical or semi-mythical, ancestor. Clans may not have existed in the early Dark Ages, but the Greeks did have tribes. The word for tribe is phyle (-ai). A tribe was made up of large numbers of persons thought to have a remote common ancestor. Tribes probably existed in the Dark Ages, because there is good evidence that they existed in some form earlier in the Bronze Age. In later times, most Doric-speaking regions had three tribes, while Ionic-speaking ones usually, but not always, had four. These tribes often had the same names in widely separated regions and across later political divisions. This suggest that they already existed before all the movement and migration took place.
Tribal units based solely on kinship were important when the Greeks were still moving around. As they settled down and took up farming, other units based on common territorial interests arose. Families with farms in the same local area normally lived in villages for protection. The men of the village would fight together to defend it and its lands as a whole. Village families intermarried and over time, everyone came to be related to everyone else. The village became like a large family.
There is a term for the interrelated families making up the people of a village. In Doric, the term is damos; but I normally use the more common Ionic spelling and pronunciation, which is demos. Family ties to the demos, which arose because families lived and fought together gradually superseded the remoter ties to tribe. In the Dark Ages, there were literally hundreds of these tightly knit separate villages scattered throughout the Aegean. Within villages, additional local territorial subdivisions gradually emerged. Men from different sections of the village fought together in bands within the larger army. For that, they formed military clubs. Club members not only fought as a unit, they carried out religious rites to secure divine aid in war. Such clubs, which are subdivisions of the demos, are called phratriai, phratries or brotherhoods.
Since members of the demos worked together and fought together and were all related anyway, there was again a strong presumption that they should be equal socially. Yet, even in such a simple society, some inequities were bound to arise. First, for one reason or another, some individuals did not have an oikos or land of their own, and could not fulfill the military requirements of the family warrior-retainers who shared in the fighting and spoils that followed success in war. Such persons were called thetes, landless men. They cannot have been very numerous, but they did exist (Eumaius the swine herd in the Odyssey is one such), and they may be considered the least fortunate “class” during this period. Even slaves had a more secure membership within structure of the oikos  than did thetes.
Among the oikoi themselves within the village structure, some had a bit more land or better land than average. Men in these families could afford better, more expensive armor and other equipment for war. Poorer farmers had simpler weapons; perhaps some could not afford any at all. Thus, the better-equipped men with more land were more likely to become leaders of the demos in war. That helped them extend their advantage. As leaders, they got a bigger share of the spoils of war and grew richer still over time. So wealthier, more important soldiers had an edge over others in the demos, but it was a relatively slight edge. In the Dark Ages, there was much more equality than inequality in Greek society.
Like the social system, the political system of the Dark Ages preserved few traces of earlier Mycenaean practice. There is much more general agreement among scholars about that I think. At the end of the Bronze Age, large highly centralized states headed by an autocratic wanax were replaced by these hundreds of mall, independent villages. They did not have or need much government; each oikos ran its own affairs and protected its own members for the most part.
But, as we have seen, the families of the demos did fight together, and so they needed some kind of organization for war. Later Greeks called the organization that evolved an ethnos, a tribal state or tribal organization.  Each demos had a leader (or sometimes more than one). The leaders had different titles in different parts of later Greece; but one of the commonest ones, and the one I use is the title basileus. This term is often translated as “king,” but that is misleading. None of the terms used by other Indo-Europeans to designate a king is found anywhere in Greece. Greeks had no such concept at first.
Basileus is not an Indo-European word, and we do not know what it originally meant. But other terms used for early village leaders suggest that it signifies something like “chief.” The basileus led the soldiers of the demos in war; he may also have carried out some common religious rites. But that is all he did. In the beginning, most war leaders were probably elected for their military ability. By the end of the Dark Ages, however, their jobs had become hereditary in many communities.
Even in war, the chief’s authority was not absolute. To act, he needed cooperation from other leading warriors in the village. Thus, occasionally, he would call these men together to advise him about his duties. They met with him and gave their opinions in what was called a boule or council.
But when a major decision affecting the whole demos had to be made, they would have a mass meeting called an agora. Since the decision had to do with war, the agora included all those who fought—the soldiers. So, it consisted of all the adult males who could afford armor and weapons. Practically in most villages, that meant just about all the men of the demos, although some of the poorest may have been left out. The agora did not discuss and debate issues. The basileus and his advisers merely explained what they wanted to do and why. Then the soldiers shouted either approval or disapproval. The procedure was not exactly democratic; but in principle, the entire demos, or at least most of it, made the final decision.
In most important respects, the Dark Ages formed a new beginning for the inhabitants of the Aegean, a beginning largely uninfluenced by earlier or outside precedents. Many Greeks hardly progressed beyond this beginning. As late as the 300s B.C., many parts of Greece retained the tribal institutions of the ethnos, which I have described today. But the immediate future lay with those who were to use the forms of the Dark Ages to build a more advanced society.