The term Aegeans generally applies to the people living during the Bronze Age in lands bordering the Aegean Sea. The area predominantly included Greece, Macedonia, Thrace, and the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. It also encompasses the islands of Crete, Rhodes, Cyclades, Sporades and others. The general time frame is between 2800 BC to 1100 BC but sometimes extends the Stone Age cultures of the area.
Of most vital interest are the Greek legends and epics which later evolved between 850 to 323 BC. The earlier legends are somewhat vague in that they fail to recognize and detail the first inhabitants on the area who later became the Grecian population. All that is left of the early people are a few preclassical architectural remains, notably the walls of fortification around Mycenae, Tiryns, and Athens. The masonry of such structures was believed by the classical Greeks to have been raised by superhuman beings or the Cyclopes from which originated the term “cyclopean masonry.” Also discovered were the tholos or “beehive” tombs, of which the most impressive is the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae. If any documents of the Bronze Age survived later generations were unable to decipher. There was one official doctrine in some states that declares the Greek population had been autochthonnous (sprung from the soil). Speculation concerning the pre-Grecian stratum was not encouraged so no systematic history remains.
Both the Greek states and prominent families preserved the gallant deeds of their predecessors. Among these are the Voyage of the Argonauts, the War of the Seven against Thebes, the war between the Achaeans (also known as the Argives or the Danai) of the Greek mainland and the inhabitants of the city in Asia Minor known as Ilium or Troy, the exploits of Hercules (Heracles) and of Theseus, and the Return of the Heraclidae. Families kept genealogies that professed to record continuous lines of descent from ancestors who had traveled to Colchis with Jason or had participated in the fighting at Troy. From such material minstrels composed lengthy narrative poems called epics. The names and synopses of fifteen or so epics have survived, of which two, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are the best known. These two legends have survived in their entirety and are laden with myth and saga.
The epics which passed among the early Grecians were said to be the history of early Greek. However, when used for dating events they proved to lack accuracy. Eratosthenes assigned the date for the fall of Troy as about 1183 BC while the Parian marble, on which events in Greek history were inscribed, gives about 1209 BC.
There has been much debate as to whether the epics were fictional or factual. In early classical studies they were thought to be mostly fictional. The composition of the Odyssey with its supernatural monsters, sorceresses, visit to Hell, and repeated divine intervention does little to refute the fictional charge. But, on the other hand, the Iliad appears more factual since it fixes within close geographical limits the scene of a certain military operation, near the Dardanelles, and to contain circumstantial references to coastlines, streams, fortification walls and gates, the view from the heights, the palace of the ruling prince, and other things which might be identified and located.
Many artifacts have been discovered by archaeologists. Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) contributed much to the knowledge of the Aegeans. He was thoroughly convinced after reading the Iliad that the story portrayed the location where the buried city of Troy might be found. He retired from business and traveled to the mound known locally as Hissarlik in Asia Minor. There digging begun on what was later known as Schliemann’s Seven Cities of Troy. These were seven levels containing evidence of previous occupation. It was only in one of the lowest levels where he discovered a splendid gold treasury and declared that he had found the treasure of Priam, which had been hidden during the sacking of Troy. But, since he was an amateur Schlimann met much skepticism until he uncovered the prehistoric circle graves of Mycenae and linked Tiryns and the tholos tomb of Orchomenos to the same culture. His assistant and successor Wilhelm Dorpfeld continued the work and found further evidence to link this region to the legend, a work which Schliemann is now given credit for as having begun.
Excavations have continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries which have given many artifacts including buildings, and hieroglyphic scripts that have increased our knowledge of the history and language of these ancient people. A.G.H.
Source: Jotham Johnson, New York University 61.