Carol G. Thomas is Professor of History and Vidalakis Professor of Hellenic Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her publications include Alexander the Great in His World (Wiley-Blackwell 2007), The Trojan War (2005), Finding People in Early Greece (2005), and Citadel to City State: The Transformation of Greece 1200-700 BCE (1999).
The history of Greece is the story of one of the world's most durable cultures. Even omitting the earliest wanderers into the Greek mainland who began to arrive about 70,000 years ago, the story reaches back to nearly 7,000 bce 1 with the first settled villages of farmers and herders. No written evidence exists to identify these peasants as Greek speakers. However, one view is that agriculture and domestication spread from what is now Turkey to Greece and then further west and that the carriers were people who spoke an Indo-European language. Greek is an Indo-European language. Thus, if not in the form that Thucydides and Socrates spoke, the language of these early farmers would have been the ancestral version of Classical Greek. Inasmuch as an abiding characteristic of Greek identity is the Greek language, the account of people living in the peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea and on the islands of that same sea reaches deep into prehistory.
This view that agriculture and Indo-European languages spread together is not universally accepted but, even so, it is certain that the language of the second millennium Bronze Age civilization in Greece was an early form of Greek. Tablets discovered in the remains of citadel centers like Mycenae, Pylos, and Thebes were inscribed in a syllabic mode of writing that has been deciphered as an archaic form of later Greek. Thus the heroic age associated with the Homeric epics can be associated with the latter-day heroes of the Persian Wars. While the Bronze Age centers in the Aegean underwent the same time of troubles that disrupted life in the entire eastern Mediterranean, shrunken relics of the past glorious world persisted through a 400 year period often known as the Dark Age, although as we will see it was not completely dark. After the widespread destruction and depopulation at the end of the second millennium, inhabitants of tiny hamlets survived, then slowly but steadily they began to grow in numbers and skills. By the end of the eighth century bce , an age of revolution marked the end of darkness. The product was the Classical Age, the age of the polis (the type of community that formed the basis of this period of Greek history) and the brilliant institutional and intellectual life it produced. Its language attested in texts and inscriptions was Greek.
When the Macedonian kings Philip II and his son Alexander III harnessed Greek hoplite strength to the Macedonian army and proceeded to conquer the east as far distant as the Indus River Valley, the Greeks found themselves in a larger, different world. Nonetheless, this world did not lose its Hellenic base and the three centuries from 323 to 30 bce are known as Hellenistic, or Greek-like, due to the strong continuing Greek elements that helped to secure its foundations. The language of the Hellenistic kingdoms was Greek, albeit influenced by languages in the territories brought under Greco/Macedonian control.
Much the same situation prevailed when the Romans replaced the Hellenistic kings: Greece became a province to be sure but some of the best of the Romans agreed with the Roman poet Horace that "Conquered Greece took its captor captive." 2 One concrete example is the important polis of Corinth which had been destroyed in the mid-second century bce and was re-founded as a Roman city; its inhabitants were Latin-speaking Romans. Within two generations, however, the dominant language had become Greek. In fact, the eastern portion of the once-unified empire was spared the collapse of the western half, surviving after 476 ce to become a new empire centered on the city of Constantinople, which had been founded a millennium earlier as a Greek colonial polis . Changes in institutions, beliefs, and values were numerous, certainly. However, the official imperial langua