Episode 12: Early Greek, Hittite and the Trojan War (Extended Version)

The first Greek and Hittite civilizations emerge from Indo-European tribes in the eastern Mediterranean. The Greeks adopt an early form of writing and fight the Trojans. An alphabet allows the ancient history of the Greeks to be recorded in the Iliad and the Odyssey. (Note: This episode was posted on October 31, 2020 and is an extended version of the episode originally posted in August, 2013. This episode includes approximately 25 minutes of material not included in the original episode.)


Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

Map Prepared by Louis Henwood (Click Map for Larger Image)

28 thoughts on “Episode 12: Early Greek, Hittite and the Trojan War (Extended Version)

  1. I recently discovered the podcast and it’s fabulous. I was a European history major back in college (a long time ago) and this is how to do history. Wonderful stuff, and I’ve subscribed on Patreon to support the podcast.

    I have a question about this episode. The Myceneans spoke an ancestor of classical Greek, wrote linear B, and fought the war with Troy we all know about. The civilization collapsed, overrun by invaders. Three hundred years went by without a writing system, until the alphabet was borrowed and the Greeks wrote down their legends.

    But why were these people speaking Greek and writing down Mycenean legends? Weren’t these people the descendants of the overruners, not the Myceneans? Wouldn’t they have had their own language and legends?

    Thanks for the podcast. I’m going to hate it when I catch up to you and have to wait for new episodes.

    • Hi Lawrence,

      It is generally believed that the Mycenaean civilization was disrupted, but not displaced. The invaders apparently overran Greece, and destroyed much of the existing civilization. Some probably settled among the native population, but the language of classical Greece was definitely descended from the earlier Mycenaean language. That implies that a significant number of Greek-speakers remained in place during and after the disruptions caused by the ‘Sea Peoples.’

  2. Hi Kevin,

    My wife recently pointed out your podcast and I love it. I noticed you called the event covered here (and in the next episode) the “Invasion of the Sea Peoples.” I’m curious if you’ve also come across it as “The Bronze Age Collapse?”

    The invasion (there also seems to be some evidence of displaced local communities also rising up in rebellion) was certainly a part of this, but there also seems to have been collapses in trade networks and the ability to enforce customs/duties/taxes in outlying areas.

    I think your focus on the invasion works better for the points you want to highlight as part of this narrative, so please don’t take this as a criticism, I was just curious if you had run across the broader arguments in your research.

    Again, thank you for the podcast, it has really been great.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast. Yes, this period is also known as the Bronze Age Collapse. It seems that various historians have slightly different takes on these events. I chose to emphasize the role of the sea peoples because it tied in with the overall narrative.

  3. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the great listening your efforts provide. I have not finished this episode but am pausing at the ninth minute because for the second time I’ve heard the expression ‘reduced to writing’. You used it at the end of the last episode to say the Greeks had “reduced their language to writing”. Why ‘reduced’? What reduces when a language is written down? I believe it, but I don’t know why.

    • Hi Sean. It’s just a figure of speech. It means that something spoken has been written down. Maybe it’s more common in the US. Also, it is often used in the law to refer to an oral agreement that has been put in writing. Being an attorney, I may have picked up the phrase through legal usage.

    • Written language tends to be more standardized, less prone to change and variation than the spoken language, so it makes sense to me to think of it as “reduced” to a less diverse, more uniform version. But that’s just my association.

  4. I stumbled across your podcast yesterday. Joy!

    I am bowled over by your mastery of the material and your seemingly effortless ability to communicate this mountain of knowledge in a lucid and engaging manner.

    You obviously weren’t hiding behind the door when the grey matter was being handed out.

    Thank you so much.

  5. While I agree that alphabets are easier to work with than syllabaries and logographic scripts, I doubt highly that people were unable to learn it. It’s more likely that they were restricted from learning it, as early writing was probably more of a practice for the elites or religious leadership. This is a common practice even in the Middle Ages, as I’m sure you’re aware. Opening it up to the larger society is more likely a cultural shift, or both easier access to tools, a new system of writing, and a shift to wider education.

    There are still a few syllabaries and syllabic alphabets still being used on national level (Japanese, Korean walks a line, etc). The one major disadvantage that syllabaries have is that they don’t transfer to other languages easily, although cuneiform was adapted strangely well, which is its own story.

    Anyway, this is still great stuff, cheers.

  6. I love your podcasts. My BA is in Early German Languages. But I have a great interest in the history of languages. Your presentation is outstanding, so well organized I can almost see your outline, and so informative. Thank you. I just recently started listening to the series and am familiar with about half the titles in your bibliography, but have only read about 10 of them. I might suggest for historical background Eiic H. Cline 1177: the year Civilization Collapsed, though I’m sure you know about it. Thank you again for the podcasts.

    • Thanks! I am familiar with that book, but I didn’t discover it until I had already prepared these early episodes. My “Resources” page included books and other resources that I used for the first 50 or so episodes. It doesn’t include as many of my later resources, but I literally use hundreds of books for research, so I am not sure how helpful it would be to list all of them.

  7. Regarding the Minoan language: The oldest language was a pictographic writing system developed around 2000 BCE known as the Cretan hieroglyphs. Another group of signs was identified as Linear A, developed around 1700 BCE. While Cretan hieroglyphs have a pictorial appearance, Linear A has a linear appearance. It has been speculated that both Cretan hieroglyphs and Linear A represent the same language.

    Minoan civilization had trade contacts with the advanced Middle Eastern civilizations, with Egypt being the most influential. It is likely that the earliest Minoan writing (Cretan hieroglyphs) was modelled after the Middle Kingdom Egyptian hieroglyphs.

    Although superficially indeed similar to Egyptian symbols, Cretan Hieroglyphs are clearly distinct in both form and phonetic value. Yet the biggest difference lies in the underlying system itself. Egyptian Hieroglyphs are part of a complex writing system, where most signs have more than one possible reading, dependent on context (similarly to the Japanese Kanji characters). Signs could have both a phonetic (single consonant or syllable) value or an ideogrammatic (word) reading, but could even be utilized as phonetic complements or logograms (a written character that represents a word or phrase, like in Chinese), “reinforcing” the reading of words they were attached to. As many of these duplicities could only be interpreted by a native speaker of Old Egyptian, this system was very difficult to utilize for speakers of foreign languages. Also, the Egyptian system had over 800 different signs, which is an extremely large inventory of symbols compared to Cretan Hieroglyphs (roughly 85 or so different signs are known). Linear A signs identified ranges from 77 to 85 according to different scholars, suggesting that this was a syllabic writing system.

    Minoan scribes might have took the concept of writing from Egypt, creating their own signs and simplifying the system so that it became almost fully phonetic. Such a low number of individual characters is uncharacteristic of the complex writing systems of the ancient Near East, but it is fully compatible with a simple syllabary (reminiscent of the modern Japanese Hiragana or Katakana writing). Thus, some assume that Cretan Hieroglyphs, similarly to all later Aegean writing systems, were already syllabic in nature.

    Other scholars see Semitic influences / a relationship to Mesopotamian writings in the Minoan language, but these depend solely on Semitic loanwords, such as “sesame”, a word that appears in both Linear A and B (and also in ENGLISH).

    One thing is clear: After the rebuilding of the palatial complexes on Crete (with the advent of the so-called “New Palace Period”) the Hieroglyphic script fell out of regular use. A new script has taken its place, called Linear A. The relationship of Linear A and Hieroglyphics is probably comparable to the relation between Egyptian Hieroglyphic and Hieratic/Demotic script. Current available evidence suggests that the underlying system remained essentially the same; it is the shape of signs that suffered profound change due to graphical simplification.

    Linear A was used much more extensively than Hieroglyphs. Hundreds of clay tablets, inscribed vessels, statues, altarstones and even jewelery testifies its daily use. The triumph of Linear A is also striking in a geographical sense: Wherever Cretan traders went, Linear A followed. Perhaps due to the simplicity of the syllabary, it quickly spread to other regions surrounding Crete. While regularly used on many Aegean islands, sporadic finds suggest that it also reached the Greek mainland as well as the island of Cyprus and the Syrian coast.

  8. Very late to the party, I know, but there’s an additional meaning of “clew” in English. It’s the part of the sail to which the working rigging (sheet) is fastened.

  9. You state a couple of times that syllabic writing does not work well. I think it more acurate to say that syllablic writing doesn’t work well for the Indo-european languages that we know of and is a terrible fit for Greek as well.

    Linguists have consistently found that syllable writing works well if your language has between 70 and 100 (or so) and this even allows for general literacy. For instance, when Sequoyah finally settled on a syllable writing system of 86 (now down to 85) symbols the Cherokee nation had a 90% literacy rate within a few years. (I can’t seem to find my reference right now but you can find similar data at onmiglot.com and wikipedia says more than half.) That means that full grown adults were willing and capable of learning around 90 unique symbols to read and write.

    Where do these numbers come from? Existing writing systems. These limits seem so consistent across all languages that if the only thing known about a writing system is that it has 85 unique symbols, the general consensus among linguists will be that it is a syllabic writing system unless other evidence presents itself.

    The bad fit for Indo-european languages (like Greek) is not because syllabic writing is a bad idea but because of the numbet of syllables in the language. Ancient Greek had about 15 consonants with around half a dozen vowels (each short or long) and 15 times 12 quickly pushes past the upper limit of 100. Then consider that Greek (like English) can also place consonants on the end of a syllable making a syllabic writing system a bad fit, not a bad way to write.

    • Exactly. For a language like Japanese, where you can’t have a syllable ending on a consonant (except n), there are no consonant clusters, and the number of vowels isn’t too high either, a syllabic system is perfectly fine. The Japanese syllabic systems aren’t any harder to learn than many variations of the Latin script. Indo-European languages are obviously a different story.

  10. I’ve been listening to the podcast and I really enjoy it. In this episode you used the words “Palestine” which confused me, because the name of “Palestine” was given to the region by the Romans, and this episode is just dealing with the ancient Greeks, the Sea People, the Philistines and these civilizations weren’t contemporary of the Romans. The name in the bible for that region is Canaan, if I’m thinking of right place. Can you clarify?

  11. Pingback: Get a Clew: Changes in Word Spelling – Jane Addams Papers Project

  12. Syllabic writing systems are still around today in languages such as Japanese without any issues in low literacy rates. This seems misleading.

    • That is true, but modern countries like Japan also have a highly organized and structured educational system which requires every student to learn that writing system. That type of universal formal education didn’t exist in the ancient cultures discussed in this episode.

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