The first Greek-speaking people migrated to Greece as early as 2000 B.C. Eventually, their culture spread throughout the country, their language evolving into several different dialects*. During the 1100s B.C., more migrations occurred, as the Dorians, a people from northern Greece, moved into the southern part of the country. Later still, the Dorians and other Greeks migrated from the Greek mainland across the Aegean Sea. Some of these migrants settled on the Aegean islands, and others started settlements on the coast of Asia Minor.

Evidence for early Greek migrations comes from several sources. Among these sources are the writings of Greek historians and classical* authors, many of which were based largely on oral traditions. Archaeological* artifacts* sometimes reveal material traces of the arrival of migrants in an area. Inscriptions may also provide evidence for migrations by showing the introduction of a new language or dialect in a given area. Since evidence gathered from the different sources does not always agree, the details of early Greek migrations are still unclear. As new evidence comes to light, scholars adjust their interpretations of these migrations as well.

The First Greek Migrants. Scholars believe that Greek-speaking people first moved into the region no later than the 1400s B.C., and perhaps as early as 2000 B.C. The earliest date is based on the appearance of new styles of pottery probably introduced by Greek-speaking migrants from the north. A change in burial customs around 1700 B.C. has also been interpreted as evidence of the arrival of Greek migrants. Inscriptions in an early Greek form of writing, called Linear B, have been found on clay tablets in Crete, and these tablets have been dated to about 1400 B.C. This is now believed to be the latest possible date for the appearance of Greek speakers in both Crete and mainland Greece.

* dialect form of speech characteristic of a region that differs from the standard language in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar

* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.

* archaeological referring to the study of past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins

* artifact ornament, tool, weapon, or other object made by humans

Regardless of when Greek-speaking people first arrived in Greece, by the 1200s B.C. most people spoke Greek, thought of themselves as Greek, and shared a common Greek culture. By the 1200s B.C., the region in southern Greece around the ancient city of Mycenae had reached an especially high level of cultural development. In fact, the Mycenaeans might have eventually controlled all of Greece under one centralized government had it not been for the migration into southern Greece of the Dorians near the end of the 1100s B.C.

The Dorians. The Dorians are believed to have come from the Doris region of central Greece, although they may have originated from farther north. The Dorians spoke a dialect of Greek called Doric, and they probably herded livestock for a living. The Dorian migration into southern Greece in the 1100s B.C. is associated with the decline of Mycenaean civilization and a shift from centralized government to the independent city-state*.

The archaeological record indicates that many of the main settlements in southern Greece, including Mycenae itself, were destroyed during the 1200s B.C. After this destruction, most of the settlements were rebuilt, some with increased fortifications. A second phase of destruction occurred in the 1100s B.C. This time the earlier settlements were abandoned and replaced by new ones. Cultural changes and a decline in the standard of living followed this second phase of destruction.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory


Acconding to Greek tradition, the Dorian migration was a military invasion led by descendants of Heracles, the Greek hero known for his great strength. When Heracles died, his sons were exiled from the city of Mycenae, and they took refuge with the Dorian people in northern Greece. Hyllos, one of the sons, became king of a Dorian tribe. Hyl- los's grandsons led a Dorian invasion to regain control of Mycenae and win lands for their followers. Whether or not the story is true, it is clear that the Dorians became established throughout southern Greece around that time, and soon afterward settled throughout the Mediterranean.

Scholars are uncertain whether the Dorian migrants invaded and conquered southern Greece in the 1100s B.C., or whether they were able to absorb the Mycenaean civilization because it was already declining for other reasons. Early Greek historians apparently believed the traditional accounts that the Dorian migration was a military invasion, perhaps led by descendants of the hero Heracles. The historians Herodotus and Thucydides wrote more realistic accounts of a Dorian invasion of southern Greece, and Thucydides gave the date of the invasion as 1120 B.C.

While archaeologists believe that Mycenaean civilization was torn apart by violence during the last decades of the 1200s B.C. and fell into total decline toward the end of the 1100s B.C., nothing links this destruction to Dorians invading and conquering southern Greece. Even if the collapse of Mycenaean civilization was a result of other causes, Dorian migrants apparently took advantage of it. By the end of the 1100s B.C., they had moved into the area in large numbers. The development of the city-state form of government accompanied the settlement of Dorians in the area. The Dorians had small, tightly knit tribal groups in which each individual played a role. This sense of group identity contributed to the development of the early city-state.

Although all of the migrants who moved into southern Greece during the 1100s B.C. were probably not Dorians, the Dorians were likely the first to arrive, and they probably arrived in larger numbers than the rest. As a result, their name came to be associated with the migrants as a whole.

Later Migrations. Following the Dorian migration—or invasion- other migrations occurred in Greece. These migrations involved groups of people leaving Greece to establish new settlements elsewhere. Most of the settlements later developed into city-states, as had the earlier Dorian settlements in southern Greece.

Soon after the Dorians moved into southern Greece, some of them left mainland Greece to settle on the islands of the Aegean Sea. Herodotus wrote that this occurred during the same generation that the Dorians arrived in southern Greece, perhaps as early as 1115 B.C. These Dorian migrations are also documented by archaeological evidence. By 1000 B.C., Dorian settlements appeared on the western coast of Asia Minor. These settlements have been identified from their pottery. In addition, Dorians apparently settled on the island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea and on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean, probably sometime during the 900s B.C.

By 1000 B.C., Greece had five different regional dialects. In addition to Doric, these included Aeolic, Ionic, Arcado-Cyprian, and Northwest Greek. Although scholars once believed that different waves of migrations into Greece from the north explained the existence of these different dialects, the dialects likely evolved after the first Greek speakers arrived. Each dialect was associated with a specific geographic region. Aeolic was spoken in the eastern part of Greece, and Ionic was the dialect in and around Athens. The various dialects were similar but distinctive. A person speaking the Aeolic dialect would be understood by a person speaking the Ionic dialect. Yet, each would be recognized as coming from a different region by variations in speech and vocabulary. Similarly, people today in the United States and Great Britain speak different dialects of modern English.

According to Greek tradition, from about the 700s B.C. onward Greeks speaking these dialects migrated from Greece, probably because of pressure from tribes from northern Greece. They traveled across the Aegean Sea to settle on the Aegean islands and along the western coast of Asia Minor, as the Dorians had a few centuries earlier. Aeolic speakers from eastern Greece settled near Troy on the western coast of Asia Minor and Ionic speakers in nearby Smyrna. The nature of the Greek dialects spoken in these and other places by the 400s B.C. corresponds to this pattern of migration. (See also Archaeology of Ancient Sites; Colonies, Greek; Ionians; Languages and Dialects; Peoples of Ancient Greece and Rome.)

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!