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The Birth of History in Greece

History begins when a culture uses a written language to record past events. Without written literature, a culture, no matter how well preserved by archaeology or even oral tradition, is prehistoric.

Greek history began some time around 750, when the Greeks adapted the Phoenician alphabet to their own language, adding vowels and transforming some sounds. Soon afterwards, the Greeks used the language, which had customarily been used by the Phoenicians for keeping trading records, to record their history as preserved in epic oral tradition.

Writing had existed on the Greek mainland before. Under the rule of the Mycenaeans, a script called Linear B was used. It was used by scribes, primarily to keep detailed records concerning the intake and distribution of goods flowing through Mycenaean citadels. These writings were lists, meant to be transitory and not to communicate with posterity. They were meant to make easier the administrative duties of a group of bureaucrats within the Mycenaean government.

The re-introduction of writing circa 750 was the real beginning of history. Almost immediately, the two Homeric epics were recorded. The Iliad especially is an undeniably historical work. As well as being an exciting story meant to entertain, it is an almost self-conscious effort to preserve the account of an important war expedition. Whether or not the events of the Iliad occurred, they were regarded as historical by the epic's preservers. The motivations of the major figures are explored, and great effort is gone to preserve the names and lands of the major chiefs in the war (Iliad 2). This information was preserved in written form so that subsequent generations could learn from the past.

Although the exact date is unknown, it is clear that Greek history began when Greeks first used their adopted alphabet to record their traditions and stories, some time around 750 BCE.

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