Why no Literary Relics
from Five Centuries?

The Dark Ages left no literary remains, not even a single word on a sherd or a few characters on a clay tablet.

M. Bowra in his book Homer and His Forerunners puts the problem in straight terms:

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Mycenaean script continued anywhere in Greece after c. 1200. There is no trace of writing of any kind in the sub-Mycenaean and Protogeometric periods, or indeed before the middle of the eighth century, when the new and totally different Greek alphabet makes its first appearance. Now, this is surely not an accident. A single scratched letter from this period would be enough to show that writing survived; but not one has been found. This is undeniably a most remarkable phenomenon, for which it is hard to find either a parallel or an explanation. A society seems suddenly to have become illiterate, and to have remained so for centuries. How and why this happened we do not know. . .1

Bowra expresses his wonder at “this astounding state of affairs.” It “undermines any hope that the transmission of heroic poetry was maintained by a succession of written texts from the time of the Trojan War.”

On the one hand, “the Homeric poems contain material which is older than 1200.” On the other hand, Bowra states his conviction that we can be “reasonably confident that Homer worked in the latter part of the eighth century, since this suits both the latest datable elements in his details and his general outlook.” Is this not an impasse—the poet separated from his subject by almost five centuries, with an intimate knowledge of a vanished civilization and no art of writing in between?

Alan J. B. Wace challenged this view, and in his preface to Ventris’ and Chadwick’s Documents in Mycenaean Greek (1956) wrote that future discoveries and study would “undoubtedly make clear” whether the Dark Age was really dark:

The orthodox view of classical archaeologists is that there was a ‘Dark Age’ when all culture in Greece declined to barbarism, at the close of the Bronze Age and in the early period of the ensuing Iron Age. Even now, when it is admitted that the Greeks of the Late Bronze Age could read and write the Linear B Script, it is still believed by some that in the transition time, the Age of Bronze to that of Iron, the Greeks forgot how to read and write until about the eighth century when they adapted the Phoenician alphabet. It is incredible that a people as intelligent as the Greeks should have forgotten how to read and write once they had learned how to do so.2

Then where are the documents, what is the testimony?

“. . . Letters or literary texts may well have been on wooden tablets or some form of parchment or even papyrus; some fortunate discovery will possibly one day reveal them to us.” A quarter century since this was written nothing has been found that would substantiate this hope, as nothing was found in the preceding eighty years of excavation in Greece. In the quoted passage the words “it is still believed by some that . . . the Greeks forgot how to read and write” refers to almost every classicist who agrees that the Dark Age left no written record because none was written.3

“There is no scrap of evidence,” writes Denys L. Page in History and the Homeric Iliad, “and no reason whatever to assume that the art of writing was practiced in Greece between the end of the Mycenaean era and the eighth century B.C. . . .”4

And one hundred pages later: “. . . The Iliad preserves facts about the Trojans which could not have been known to anybody after the fall of Troy VIIa.”5

Then back to the question one hundred pages earlier: “How did the truth survive through the Dark Ages into the Iliad?”6


  1. Sir Maurice Bowra, Homer and His Forerunners (Edinburgh, 1955) pp. 1-2.
  2. P. xxviii; cf. J. Chadwick, “The Linear Scripts” in The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. II, ch. XIII (1971) p. 26; V. R. d’A. Desborough, The Greek Dark Ages (London, 1972) p. 321.
  3. The contention that during the Dark Ages the Greeks wrote only on perishables does not carry weight. In Mycenaean times, and again from the eighth century on, the Greeks left writing on imperishable materials, such as baked clay or stone, as well as on perishable ones, such as papyrus or wood. The view that all writing during the Dark Ages was on perishable materials, none of which was found, is thus rather difficult to uphold. In The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece (Oxford, 1961) p. 17, L. H. Jeffrey convincingly disputes the “perishables” theory.
  4. (Berkeley, Ca., 1959) p. 122.
  5. Ibid., p. 221.
  6. Ibid., p. 120. Rhys Carpenter is among those who argue that an oral tradition stretching over centuries was not capable of preserving a detailed picture of Mycenaean Greece (Folk Tale, Fiction and Saga in the Homeric Epics); yet Denys Page and many other scholars state unequivocally that an accurate picture was somehow preserved.