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The history of ancient Greece is one that I find immensely fascinating. If you know anything about me, you know I've dedicated hundreds of thousands of words on this website to ancient history, but chiefly I've talked about the Roman Empire and certain religious topics. But there's something about ancient Greece that I find mysterious and almost foreboding that keeps me from trying to write too much about it. Part of this mystique is related to the Greeks themselves. While the ancient writers have been dead for thousands of years, their words reach across the centuries in a timeless way. Their preoccupations seem too remote from ours at first, but once you get past the dense philosophy of Plato or the grandiose political history of Thucydides or the archaic poetry of Homer -- and you spice up the language a bit -- you're confronted by a people whose thoughts and desires seem so thoroughly contemporary that you can't help but see a little bit of yourself in them. It's amazing to think that so much of the heritage of the western world ultimately originates from such a comparatively tiny part of the world.

And this writeup isn't about those people! Interestingly, the Greeks are apparently not even the original inhabitants of Greece. The exact nature of the Greek migration into the place we call Greece is lost to time, but it was a long process (or possibly a few processes) that took a few hundred years. Nobody knows where the earliest Greek-speaking peoples came from or really even when they came to Greece. We can guess that they probably started trickling into the region sometime between 1700 BC and 1650 BC. By about 1400 BC, these people were the dominant cultural and linguistic force in Greece. We call them the Mycenaean Greeks after the city of Mycenae because that city appears to have been the biggest and best example of the type of culture that spread throughout Greece in this period.

For as smart as the ancient Greeks were, they knew surprisingly little about their own origins. The classical Greeks -- those living in the 5th century BC -- and their intellectual heirs in the Hellenistic and imperial eras did not believe they were the first people to have lived in their own country. By tradition, they believed that mainland Greece had previously been inhabited by an indigenous population that they called the Pelasgians. The word itself has no definitive etymology and there's no telling whether this is a word derived from an early form of Greek or whether it's what the Pelasgians called themselves or whether it's something else entirely.

The reason for this is because there are no known examples of the Pelasgian language in existence. Their society was either never literate or was so minimally literate that any examples of Pelasgian writing that did exist were lost a very long time ago. We can read the Mycenaean language, which is a very early form of Greek, but even written examples of this significantly better understood language disappear around the year 1100 BC. The time between the end of Mycenaean writing in Greece and the appearance of what would go on to be the Greek alphabet -- a period covering roughly 1100 BC to 750 BC -- is called the Greek dark ages. It is at the end of this period that the first literary reference to the Pelasgians appears in Greek: Homer's Iliad lists them as allies of Troy.

Pre-classical Greek history is kind of intimidating because of the lack of primary written sources about it. There are certain things we can infer from archeology and from later traditions, but the Pelasgians present a particularly difficult challenge. The ancients considered them barbarians, meaning that they found their speech incomprehensible. This makes it difficult to know whether or not the term "Pelasgian" referred to one specific group or to any of a number of groups who may have inhabited the Greek mainland before the Mycenaeans and their descendants. There are also competing theories that say there were multiple migrations of Greek-speakers into Greece over a very long period of time and that the Pelasgians were not the original inhabitants of the region and that they came from Thessaly or Thrace after the fall of the Mycenaeans but before the arrival of the Dorian Greeks into the south of Greece. The historical memories of Pelasgians, in this view, are therefore significantly more recent than originally assumed, and the process of Greek replacing the Pelasgian language could have continued on into the classical period.

Either way, though, the ancient writers were in agreement that some type of replacement definitely happened. Strangely, there is not a heavy tradition of replacement through conquest or extermination. There are a few references to small-scale conflicts and there are some writers who believed the Pelasgians simply picked up and moved somewhere else, but this doesn't seem to have been a primarily violent process. I'm willing to bet that the bulk of the Pelasgians simply intermarried with Greek-speakers and started speaking Greek to facilitate trade. If indeed the spoken Pelasgian language persisted in some isolated places into the 400s BC, it was probably never written down at all, which would account for its total disappearance from history.

There is also a train of thought that says the Pelasgians never existed at all. The ancient Greeks believed that history was divided into four ages: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Coincidentally enough, their conception of the start of the Iron Age basically mirrors our own, namely about 1000 BC. What is not coincidental, however, is that all the great events of Greek mythology took place before the Iron Age. This is because the ancients had no records of what transpired before that time. The Trojan War is mythologically supposed to have taken place between the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, which places it chronologically right before the Bronze Age collapse that brought down the Mycenaean civilization (among others). And indeed, all available evidence for a historical Trojan War places it at that time. By necessity, the Pelasgians would have been a major force in the same time that Heracles and Jason are said to have lived. Conveniently, by the time they enter actual written history, they're already gone. Are the Pelasgians just an invention of later Greeks?

There's some precedent for this type of thing, surprisingly. The Romans had their own version of the Pelasgians living in Italy, the people known as the Etruscans. We know for sure, however, that the Etruscans existed because they had a written language and they left ample physical evidence of their presence in the places that the Romans would later take over from them. It should not be surprising to learn, then, that one hypothesis about the Pelasgians is that they were related in some way to the Etruscans. This hinges on a language discovered on the Greek island of Lemnos known as Lemnian that bears some similarities to Etruscan as well as a belief in antiquity that Lemnos had been settled by Pelasgians who had been kicked out of Greece. It's important to note, however, that only two small samples of the Lemnian language exist -- about 60 or 70 words total -- and that the Etruscan language itself is still largely undeciphered. DNA testing has revealed that there is no appreciable genetic connection between the Etruscans and the Lemnians. This doesn't necessarily preclude a linguistic connection on its own, but the relationship is too tenuous to place it at the center of a theory about the Pelasgians, a people for whom no definite genetic or linguistic information exists at all.

In this way, then, we have another similarity to the ancient Greeks: we still know virtually nothing about the Pelasgians. It's possible that they contributed several sounds and letter combinations to the ancient Greek language but the fact that these innovations would have occurred pretty much precisely during the time that the written word disappeared in Greece makes it impossible to know. Either way, though, the Pelasgians make for a good cautionary tale: if you want people to get your story right, write it down, write it early, and write it often.