Archaic Greece

Learning Objective

  • Understand the changes to Greek society during the Archaic Period

Key Points

  • The Archaic period saw significant urbanization, and the development of the concept of the polis, as it was used in classical
  • Archaic Greece, from the mid-seventh century onward, has been referred to as an “age of tyrants.”
  • The Homeric Question concerns the doubts and consequent debate over the historicity of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as the identity of their author, Homer.



The amalgamation of several small settlements into a single urban center.


The literal translation of this word from Greek is “city.” It typically refers to the Greek city-states of the Archaic and Classical periods.

Archaic Greece

The Archaic period of Greek history lasted from the 8th century BCE to the second Persian invasion of Greece in 480 BCE. The period began with a massive increase in the Greek population and a structural revolution that established the Greek city-states, or polis. The Archaic period saw developments in Greek politics, economics, international relations, warfare, and culture. It also laid the groundwork for the classical period, both politically and culturally. During this time, the Greek alphabet developed, and the earliest surviving Greek literature was composed. Monumental sculpture and red-figure pottery also developed in Greece, and in Athens, the earliest institutions of democracy were implemented.

Some written accounts of life exist from this time period in the form of poetry, law codes, inscriptions on votive offerings, and epigrams inscribed on tombs. However, thorough written histories, such as those that exist from the Greek classical period, are lacking. Historians do have access to rich archaeological evidence from this period, however, that informs our understanding of Greek life during the Archaic period.


View from Philopappos, Acropolis Hill. The Acropolis of Athens, a noted polis of classical Greece. 

Development of the Polis

The Archaic period saw significant urbanization and the development of the concept of the polis as it was used in classical Greece. However, the polis did not become the dominant form of sociopolitical organization throughout Greece during the Archaic period, and in the north and west of the country it did not become dominant until later in the classical period. The process of urbanization known as “synoecism” (or the amalgamation of several small settlements into a single urban center), took place in much of Greece during the 8th century. Both Athens and Argos, for example, coalesced into single settlements near the end of that century. In some settlements, physical unification was marked by the construction of defensive city walls. The increase in population, and evolution of the polis as a sociopolitical structure, necessitated a new form of political organization.

Age of Tyranny


Archaic Greece from the mid-7th century onward has been referred to as an “age of tyrants.” Various explanations have been provided for the rise of tyranny in the 7th century. The most popular explanation dates back to Aristotle, who argued that tyrants were set up by the people in response to the nobility becoming less tolerable. Because there is no evidence from this time period demonstrating this to be the case, historians have looked for alternate explanations. Some argue that tyrannies were set up by individuals who controlled privates armies, and that early tyrants did not need the support of the people at all. Others suggest that tyrannies were established as a consequence of in-fighting between rival oligarchs, rather than as a result of fighting between oligarchs and the people.

Other historians question the existence of a 7th century “age of tyrants” altogether. In the Archaic period, the Greek word tyrannos did not have the negative connotations it had later in the classical period. Often the word could be used as synonymous with “king.” As a result, many historians argue that Greek tyrants were not considered illegitimate rulers, and cannot be distinguished from any other rulers during the same period.

The Homeric Question

The Homeric Question concerns the doubts and consequent debate over the identity of Homer, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey; it also questions the historicity of the two books. Many scholars agree that regardless of who authored Homer’s works, it is highly likely that the poems attributed to him were part of a generations-old oral tradition, with many scholars believing the works to be transcribed some time in the 6th century BCE or earlier. Many estimates place the events of Homer’s Trojan War as preceding the Greek Dark Ages, of approximately 1250 to 750 BCE. The Iliad, however, has been placed immediately following the Greek Dark Age period.