Life in ancient Greece developed from three significant civilizations: the Minoans, the Mycenaeans, and the ancient Greeks. Archeologists, scientists who study the remains of ancient cultures, have studied these civilizations and have found evidence of sophisticated societies. In all three of these civilizations the evidence indicates that ancient Greeks used clothing for much more than simply protecting the body from the elements. Clothing for these civilizations served as decoration and signaled the status of the wearer. The wealthiest citizens adorned themselves in fine fabrics and wore elaborate jewelry that required great skill to create, while the poorest dressed in basic, coarsely made garments.
Minoans are considered the first Greeks. Minoan civilization developed on the Greek island of Crete around 3000 B.C.E. Their society was ruled from several large palaces and involved complex systems of trade with others, including the Egyptians. Minoan civilization survived for several hundred years, but archeologists are uncertain why this society failed. Some guess that Minoans suffered natural disasters, such as volcanic explosions on the nearby island of Thera that caused tidal waves or earthquakes on Crete.
Evidence of Minoan life comes from excavated, or dug out, palace sites in Crete where archeologists have discovered pottery, statues, and frescoes, a form of paint applied directly to a wall's wet plaster. These artifacts tell a story of Minoan life and show what people wore while performing everything from the everyday tasks of fishing and trading to participating in religious ceremonies.
Not long after the Minoan culture disappeared in about 1600 B.C.E. , the Mycenaean culture began to flourish on mainland Greece and invaded Crete. Mycenaeans developed small kingdoms that traded with each other and spoke the same language but did not unite under a centralized ruler. Each kingdom was ruled from an acropolis, a set of important buildings, such as the royal palace and soldiers' houses, located on the highest ground of the city. Each kingdom had a main city that was protected by an encircling wall, but most of the people lived outside the city wall. The discovery of bronze armor indicates that the Mycenaeans were warlike and that small kingdoms often fought with each other. In addition, although Mycenaeans brought their own language and culture to Greece, frescoes and pottery show depictions of Mycenaean clothing that clearly shows the influence of Minoan culture. The greatest source of information about the Mycenaeans has been found in royal tombs, which include objects that offer insight into their daily lives and religious beliefs. Although both the Minoans and Mycenaeans developed a system of writing, only information recording the trade of livestock and farm produce and the tasks of palace officials have been found.
A series of famines and other environmental catastrophes around 1200 B.C.E. caused the Mycenaean culture to erode, and Mycenaeans dispersed to other areas. There is no exact information about where the Mycenaeans moved to, but some archeologists believe that they became the ancestors of the Etruscans who later came to power in what is now Italy, just before the rise of Roman society. As the Mycenaeans left Greece, another culture began to flourish. The Dorians, ancient Greeks, became dominant and conquered the struggling Mycenaeans, some who remained and settled in southern Greece. As the Dorians took power, Greek culture plunged into a period called the Dark Ages, which lasted from about 1100 to 800 B.C.E. During this time, not much is known about life in
By about 800 B.C.E. Greek culture began to flourish again with increasing population, the development of trade colonies, and the rediscovery of the skill of writing. As Greek colonies developed into independent states, which all shared the same language, culture, and religion, Greece entered what is known as the Archaic Period (800–480 B.C.E. ). Within the Greek states people were divided between free men, which included the wives and children of these landowning citizens, and slaves. Greek states were governed by free men in a system of government called an oligarchy, or rule by the few, for some years but during the later years of this period tyrants, or single powerful men, took control of whole cities. Evidence about life in Greece during the Archaic Period comes mainly from the states of Athens and Sparta in the central part of Greece.
The period from 500 to 336 B.C.E. is considered the Classical Period of Greek history. During this time Athens dominated Greek business, culture, and politics. The ideas about art, architecture, philosophy, politics, and literature that developed during this period laid the foundation of modern Western civilization. One of the biggest changes to Greek life in Athens was the emergence of democracy, or rule by the people. Citizens of Greek cities overthrew their tyrants and set up governments ruled by citizens. Although citizens could speak and vote in this early form of democracy, women, slaves, and those born outside the city were excluded. At the same time Sparta became the most powerful military force in Greece and emphasized the health and vigor of its population. Developing strong soldiers was that state's primary focus. Women were encouraged to keep fit so that they would give birth to healthy babies, and only newborns with no sign of defect or weakness were allowed to live. As Athenian and Spartan societies became more and more focused on different priorities, conflict between the states arose that ended in a war that Sparta won in 404 B.C.E. This war started a series of smaller wars that resulted in Philip II (383–336 B.C.E. ) of Macedonia, an area in the northeast of Greece, coming to power in 359 B.C.E. Philip's son Alexander (356–323 B.C.E. ) became king of Macedonia in 336 B.C.E. He soon earned the title Alexander the Great and ruled the largest empire in the world, encompassing Greece and vast areas of modern-day Egypt, Spain, and India. Upon Alexander's death in 323 B.C.E. his empire became unstable as various people tried to seize control of different areas. Wars broke out throughout the empire over the next one hundred years. The end of Greek dominance in the region occurred in 146 B.C.E. when Romans began ruling the area.
As the political life in Greece changed over the years and the geographic boundaries shifted, Greek culture developed sophisticated ideas about clothing and appearance. Craftsmen fine-tuned their skills in weaving cloth, tanning leather, making jewelry, and decorating garments with paint and embroidery. These advancements occurred alongside advancements in other parts of Greek life, including the arts, architecture, philosophy, law, and military strategy. Though the ancient Greeks' ideas about life continue to influence modern cultures, clothing styles have changed a great deal.
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Houston, Mary G. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Costume and Decoration. 2nd ed. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1947.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume: From Ancient Mesopotamia Through the Twentieth Century. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Symons, David J. Costume of Ancient Greece. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.