The Dorian invasion is a concept devised by historians of Ancient Greece to explain the replacement of pre-classical dialects and traditions in southern Greece by the ones that prevailed in Classical Greece. The latter were named Dorian by the ancient Greek writers after the historical population that owned them, the Dorians.
Greek legend asserted that the Dorians took possession of the Peloponnesus in an event called the Return of the Heracleidae. Classical scholars saw in the legend a hypothetically real event they termed the Dorian invasion. The meaning of the concept has changed several times, as historians, philologists and archaeologists used it in attempts to explain the cultural discontinuities expressed in the data of their fields. The pattern of arrival of Dorian culture on certain islands in the Mediterranean, such as Crete, is also not well elucidated. The Dorians colonised a number of sites on Crete such as Lato.
Despite nearly 200 years of investigation the historicity of the Dorian invasion has never been established. The meaning of the concept has become to some degree amorphous. The work done on it has mainly served to rule out various speculations. The possibility of a real Dorian invasion remains open.
Return of the Heracleidae
The ancient tradition tells that the descendants of Heracles (the Heracleidae), exiled after his death, returned after some generations in order to reclaim dominion their ancestor Heracles had held in the Peloponnesus. The Greece to which the traditions refer is the mythic one, now considered to be Mycenaean Greece. The theme of the “return of the Heracleidae” is considered legendary. The exact descent differs from one ancient author to another, the salient point being that in each case a traditional ruling clan traced its origin, thus its legitimacy, to Heracles.
The translation of “return” is strictly English; the Greek connotations are quite different. The Greek words are katienai and katerchesthai, literally “to descend”, “come down” or “go down” or less commonly “be brought down.” It means a descent from uplands to lowlands, or from the earth to the grave, or a rushing down upon as a flood, or sweeping down upon as a wind or a ship, or those returning from exile (which typically would have to be by ship). It is never used as a simple return home, which is a nostos (as in nostalgia or the “returns from Troy”). The Heracleidae are not returning to a former home for which they are homesick, they are sweeping down upon the Peloponnesus in war, thus inviting the English translation of invasion.
Hyllus, a Perseid, was driven from the state of Mycenae into exile after the death of Heracles by a dynastic rival, Eurystheus, another Perseid:
“After the death … of Herakles, his son Hyllos and his other children were expelled and persecuted by Eurystheus … Eurystheus invaded Attica, but perished in the attempt …. All the sons of Eurystheus lost their lives … with him, so that the Perseid family was now represented only by the Herakleids ….”
The Pelopid family now assumed power. The Heraclids “endeavored to recover the possessions from which they had been expelled” but were defeated by the Ionians at the Isthmus of Corinth. Hyllus staked peace for three generations against immediate reoccupation on a single combat and was killed by Echemus of Arcadia.
The Heracleidae now found it prudent to claim the Dorian land granted to Heracles: “and from this moment the Herakleids and Dorians became intimately united together into one social communion.” Three generations later the Heracleidae with Dorian collusion occupied the Peloponnesus, an event Grote terms a “victorious invasion.”
The term “invasion”
The first widespread use of the term “Dorian invasion” appears to date to the 1830s. A popular alternative was the “Dorian migration.” For example, in 1831 Thomas Keightly was using “Dorian migration” in Outline of History; by 1838 in The Mythology of Ancient Greece and Italy he was using “Dorian invasion”.
Neither of those two words exactly fit the return, as they imply an incursion from outside a society to within; but the Dorians were not outside of either Greece or Greek society. William Mitford’s History of Greece (1784–1810) described a “Dorian conquest” followed by “a revolution in Peloponnesus so complete that, except in the rugged province of Arcadia, nothing remained unaltered.”
In 1824 Karl Otfried Müller’s Die Dorier was published in German and was translated into English by Tufnel and Lewis for publication in 1830. They use such terms as “the Doric invasion” and “the invasian of the Dorians” to translate Müller’s “Die Einwanderung von den Doriern” (literally: “the migration of the Dorians”), which was quite a different concept.
On one level the Einwanderung meant no more than the Heraklidenzug, the return of the Heracleidae. However, Müller was also applying the sense of Völkerwanderung to it, which was being used of the Germanic migrations. Müller’s approach was philological. In trying to explain the distribution of tribes and dialects he hypothesized that the aboriginal or Pelasgian population was Hellenic.
Müller goes on to propose that the original Pelasgian language was the common ancestor of Greek and Latin, that it evolved into Proto-Greek and was corrupted in Macedon and Thessaly by invasions of Illyrians. This same pressure of Illyrians drove forth Greeks speaking Achaean (includes Aeolian), Ionian and finally Dorian in three diachronic waves, explaining the dialect distribution of Greek in classical times.
In 1902, K. Paparigopoulos, calling the event the “Descent of the Heraclidae”, stated that the Heraclidae came from Thessaly after being kicked out by the Thessalians living in Epirus.
Kretschmer’s external Greeks
Toward the end of the 19th century the philologist Paul Kretschmer made a strong case that Pelasgian was a pre-Greek substrate, perhaps Anatolian, taking up a classical theme of remnant populations existing in pockets among the Greek speakers, in mountainous and rural Arcadia and in inaccessible coasts of the far south. This view left Müller’s proto-Greeks without a homeland, but Kretschmer did not substitute the Heracleidae or their Dorian allies from Macedon and Thessaly. Instead he removed the earliest Greeks to the trail leading from the plains of Asia, where he viewed the Proto-Indo-European language as having broken up about 2500 BC. Kretschmer suggested that somewhere between that Asian homeland and Greece a new cradle of the Greek tribes developed, from which Proto-Ionians at about 2000 BC, Proto-Achaeans at about 1600 BC and Dorians at about 1200 BC came to swoop down on an increasingly less aboriginal Greece as three waves of external Greeks.
Kretschmer was confident that if the unknown homeland of the Greeks was not then known, archaeology would find it. The handbooks of Greek history from then on spoke of Greeks entering Greece. As late as 1956 J.B. Bury’s History of Greece (3rd edition) wrote of an “invasion which brought the Greek language into Greece”. Over that half-century Greek and Balkan archaeology united in an effort to locate the Dorians further north than Greece. The idea was combined with a view that the Sea Peoples were part of the same north-south migration about 1200 BC.
The weakness in this theory is that it requires both an invaded Greece and an external area where Greek evolved and continued to evolve into dialects contemporaneously with the invaded Greece. However, although the invaded Greece was amply represented by evidence of all sorts, there was no evidence at all of the external homeland. Similarly, a clear Greek homeland for the Sea Peoples failed to materialize. Retaining Müller’s three waves and Kretschmer’s Pelasgian pockets the scholars continued to search for the Dorians in other quarters. Müller’s common ancestor of Greek and Latin had vanished by 1950; and by 1960, although still given lip service, the concept of Greek developing outside of Greece was in decline.
Greek origin in Greece
Additional progress in the search for the Dorian invasion resulted from the decipherment of Linear B inscriptions. The language of the Linear B texts is an early form of Greek now known as Mycenaean Greek. Comparing it with the later Greek dialects scholars could trace the development of the dialects from the earlier Mycenaean. For example, classical Greek anak-s, “king”, was postulated to be derived from a reconstructed form *wanak-, and a glance at Linear B texts turned up the historical form wa-na-ka.
Ernst Risch lost no time in proposing that there was never more than one migration, which brought proto-Greek into Greece, and that proto-Greek then dissimilated into dialects within Greece. Meanwhile the linguists closest to the decipherment were having doubts about the classification of proto-Greek. John Chadwick summarizing in 1976 wrote:
“Let us therefore explore the alternative view. This hypothesis is that the Greek language did not exist before the twentieth century B.C., but was formed in Greece by the mixture of an indigenous population with invaders who spoke another language …. What this language was is a difficult question … the exact stage reached in development at the time of the arrival is difficult to predict.”
In another ten years the “alternative view” was becoming the standard one. JP Mallory wrote in 1989 concerning the various hypotheses of proto-Greek that had been put forward since the decipherment:
“Reconciliation of all these different theories seems out of the question … the current state of our knowledge of the Greek dialects can accommodate Indo-Europeans entering Greece at any time between 2200 and 1600 BC to emerge later as Greek speakers.”
By the end of the 20th century the concept of an invasion by external Greek speakers had ceased to be the mainsteam view, (although still asserted by a minority); thus Geoffrey Horrocks writes:
“Greek is now widely believed to be the product of contact between Indo-European immigrants and the speakers of the indigenous languages of the Balkan peninsula beginning c. 2,000 B.C.”
If the different dialects had developed within Greece no subsequent invasions were required to explain their presence.
Invasion or migration
After the Greek Dark Ages, much of the population of the Peloponnesus spoke Dorian, while the evidence of Linear B and literary traditions, such as the works of Homer, suggests that the population spoke Achaean – Mycenaean Greek – before. In addition, society in the Peloponnesus had undergone a total change from states ruled by kings presiding over a Palace economy to a caste system ruled by a Dorian master ethnos at Sparta.
According to the scholar H. Michell: “If we assume that the Dorian invasion took place some time in the twelfth century, we certainly know nothing of them for the next hundred years.” Blegen admitted that in the sub-Mycenaean period following 1200: “the whole area seems to have been sparsely populated or almost deserted.”
The problem is that there are no traces of any Dorians anywhere until the start of the Geometric period about 950 BC. This simple pottery decoration appears to be correlated with other changes in material culture, such as the introduction of iron weapons and alterations in burial practices from Mycenaean group burials in tholos tombs to individual burials and cremation. These can certainly be associated with the historical Dorian settlers, such as those of Sparta in the 10th century BC. However, they appear to have been general over all of Greece; moreover, the new weapons would not have been used in 1200.
The scholars were now faced with the conundrum of an invasion at 1200 but a resettlement at 950. One explanation is that the destruction of 1200 was not caused by them, and that the quasi-mythical return of the Heracleidae is to be associated with settlement at Sparta c. 950.
Closing the gap
The quest for the Dorian invasion had begun as an attempt to explain the differences between Peloponnesian society depicted by Homer and the historical Dorians of classical Greece. The first scholars to work on the problem were historians researching the only resources available to them: the Greek legends. The philologists (later linguists) subsequently took up the challenge but in the end only brought the problem into sharper definition. Finally the archaeologists have inherited the issue. Perhaps some distinctively Dorian archaeological evidence will turn up or has turned up giving precise insight as to how and when Peloponnesian society changed so radically.
The historians had defined the Greek Dark Ages, a period of general decline, in this case the disappearance of the palace economy and with it law and order, loss of writing, diminishment of trade, decrease in population and abandonment of settlements (destroyed or undestroyed), metals starvation and loss of the fine arts or at least the diminution of their quality, evidenced especially in pottery. By its broadest definition the dark age lasted between 1200 and 750, the start of the archaic or orientalizing period, when influence from the Middle East via the overseas colonies stimulated a recovery.
A dark age of poverty, low population and metals starvation is not compatible with the idea of great population movements of successful warriors wielding the latest military equipment sweeping into the Peloponnesus and taking it over to rebuild civilization their way. This dark age consists of three periods of art and archaeology: sub-Mycenaean, Proto-geometric and Geometric. The most successful, the Geometric, seems to fit the Dorians better, but there is a gap, and this period is not localized to and did not begin in Dorian territory. It is more to be associated with Athens, an Ionian state.
Still, the Dorians did share in the Geometric period and therefore to find its origin might be perhaps to find the origin of the Dorians. The Geometric originated by clear transition from the Proto-geometric. The logical break in material culture is the start of the Proto-geometric at about 1050 BC, which leaves a gap of 150 years. The year 1050 offers nothing distinctively Dorian either, but if the Dorians were present in the Geometric, and they were not always in place as an unrecorded lower class, 1050 is most likely time of entry. Cartledge says humorously:
“It has of late become an acknowledged scandal that the Dorians, archaeologically speaking, do not exist. That is, there is no cultural trait surviving in the material record for the two centuries or so after 1200 which can be regarded as a peculiarly Dorian hallmark. Robbed of their patents for Geometric pottery, cremation burial, iron-working and, the unkindest prick of all, the humble straight pin, the hapless Dorians stand naked before their creator – or, some would say, inventor.”
The question remains open to further investigation.