Historical truth or fiction?

Written by Faidon Moudopoulos (MA Aegean Archaeology.) Edited by Sam Ellis.

To an old friend, Efthimios

The sun was shining; it was the beginning of a new era and the Dorians, the last tribe of the Greeks, were descending from the North. From the region of Epirus, upon its windswept peaks and into its misty valleys, they were bred warriors. These were a hard people, for even when they herded sheep, they held their swords close to their crooks. And now, they were headed south. Their purpose bore the simplicity and single-mindedness inherent to all bloody affairs. It was revenge that drove them. Revenge for their ancestor, Hercules who was exiled, and as a prosperous time emerged, they called to arms; Peloponnese should be reclaimed from the Achaeans.

To the Dorians war was a game, one they were setting the rules for. When the highlanders beat down upon the gates of Mycenaeans, it was not just tactical superiority that set the old settlements ablaze. When the descendants of Menelaus, Nestor and Agamemnon were torn limb from limb, it was not just the edge of a superior blade that did the cutting. These northerners, they had purpose and they would care naught for death, only fury. Because their will was to see the Achaean citadels burned to the ground, and their people flee or die.

And indeed it was so, for inside the city of Mycenae the remains of the plenty and the glory of its beginnings were the mighty bedtime fables of grandfathers to wakeful grandsons, about warriors and heroes. Dry summers and winters wiped out the food stocks and people were starving. The palatial elite were falling out of favour. Ironic as it might have been, only the imminent threat of death and destruction was able to tighten the knot of the mosaic society’s tapestry together. Even arms failed the Mycenaeans, old and rusty bronze would not stand against nearly impregnable Doric iron. By the time the highlanders lit their campfires outside the cyclopean walls, everyone knew that the city would become as the ashes that fed them.

A cool breeze caressed the faces of the warriors and dawn reflected, iridescent, upon their shields. Along the outer rims of the strong citadel of Mycenae, the Dorians were preparing, clanging their sharpened swords, they were ready to unleash their wrath; revenge would soon have been theirs. The conquest of the old Greek world and Mycenae, its jewel, was their long awaited birthright. In the future, those very people would introduce iron to the mainland and teach new techniques of agriculture. The process of the emergence of classical Greece, the cradle of the western civilisation, could now be set in motion.

The above narrative would have been thought to be true by historians and archaeologists in the past. Although archaeological evidence screams out loud that there was not such a massive invasion from people of the north during the late bronze age and more specifically by the age 1100 BC, a similar narrative is still presented as historical truth in preliminary and secondary schools in Greece. Historical positivism prevails, as the stronger people conquer or destroy the inferiors, less advanced ones; a narrative that promotes a national identity, the one of the Greeks. Only in university one might realise that this was not the case and that, even in the context of migrations from the north, the Mycenaean civilisation could have faded or transformed because of many complex reasons, rather than one general military operation. Many of the reasons are hidden underneath the earth, while others are suspected or proven by archaeologists.

As a result, history and a historical narrative can be both fictional and true at the same time, depending on context and the time of the emergence of every narration. One can cast the question: what is history, if not what people in present think happened in the past? And if their assumption shifts by evidence, histories become fiction or fiction may become history. It is worth taking in account that in the Greek language, ιστορία < history, means both history and story, depending on context. In relation to the decay of the Mycenaean civilisation a far less holistic narrative should be created. Evidence show that differences are present from area to area and site to site… So, let’s try again… The sun was shining; it was a miserable hot morning towards the end of summer. The citadel of Thebes seemed abandoned, far less populated than in its previous glory days. People had left the mainland and they were settling on the east coast, opposite the island of Euboea. On this island, the town of Lefkandi, situated on a hilltop on a bay, had been developed as a prominent harbour, used mostly by the supra-regional traders of the eastern Mediterranean. It acted as an intermediate port, cutting long distances in half, giving time to the crews to rest before continuing their journeys. All the economical life of the area was concentrated in the Euboean gulf. Ships were passing through, following every possible direction and carrying all sorts of goods. Pirates and merchants were navigating the sea, working both for their own interest. Many of them during their travels found their way to the coastal sites, drinking in taverns and telling old stories about a man called Odysseus, who sailed to distant lands, long ago, after he sacked with the rest of the Achaeans the glorious city of Troy and the palace of Priam…