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Did the Dorian Invasion of Greece Actually Happen?

hoplites, black figure pottery
Was the hypothesized Dorian invasion the cause of fundamental changes to late Bronze Age society in ancient Greece? Credit: Grant Mitchell / CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The Dorian Invasion is a historical and archaeological hypothesis that suggests a migration or invasion of the ancient Greek mainland by a group of people called the Dorians during the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age.

According to this theory, the Dorians, who spoke a Greek dialect, entered Greece from the north and displaced or assimilated the existing population. The date of the supposed invasion itself remains a point of debate, but some scholars place it at around 1100 BC.

The Dorian invasion theory is one of the most widely debated hypotheses in the study of early ancient Greek history. Late Bronze Age Greece and the collapse of Mycenaean civilization remain uncertain territory for scholars of history and archaeology.

The Dorian invasion theory

Proponents of the Dorian Invasion theory argue that this event caused a significant disruption in Bronze Age Greek civilization. They suggest that the Dorians played a role in the downfall of the Mycenaean civilization, leading to a period of decline and cultural regression known as the Greek Dark Ages. They point to evidence such as the destruction of certain palaces and changes in pottery styles to support their claims.

According to the historian Colin McEverely (1930-2005), “about 1200 [BC] the Achaean Greek and Hittite kingdoms were overthrown by the migrating barbarians… The Dorians, the northernmost of the Greek tribes, broke into the peninsula and methodically sacked the Achaean strongholds; they then took the sea and meted out the same treatment in Crete and Rhodes.”

Proponents of the Dorian invasion theory do not necessarily agree on the finer details beyond the broader hypothesis that the introduction of the Doric Greek dialect was due to an external influx of people called the Dorians. For example, one point of disagreement is whether the arrival of the Dorians was a violent invasion or a more peaceful migration.

map of Greek dialtects
Map showing the geographical distribution of ancient Greek dialects after the Dorian invasion supposedly took place. The dialect spoken in the broader Dorian region, excluding Doris itself, was previously believed to be Achaean. From Achaean, the dialects of Arcadocypriot and Aeolic are thought to have originated. However, Doric eventually replaced Achaean in southern Greece. Credit: Fut Perf / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Truth behind a legend?

The first scholars to develop the Dorian invasion theory, mostly writing in the 19th century, derived their initial hypothesis from ancient Greek legends and myths. According to Classical Greek tradition, the Dorians took possession of the Peloponnesus during an event known as the Return of the Heracleidae.

According to the legend, the Heracleidae were the descendants of the hero and demi-god Heracles, who upon his death, were exiled from the Peloponnesus. They returned to the region under the leadership of Kresphontes, Temenos, Eurysthenes, and Prokles, who divided it into three regions.

Kresphontes took Messenia, Temenos took the northeast, and the twins Eurysthenes and Prokles took Laconia, becoming the first dual kings of Sparta. This account is recorded in sources such as Herodotus.

Heracles and Prometheus
Heracles, wearing the coat of the Nemean, Lion approaches Prometheus. The Dorian invasion theory was initially derived from an ancient Greek legend about the descendants of Heracles. Credit: Christian Griepenkerl / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Opponents of the Dorian invasion theory

The Dorian invasion theory is not without its detractors. In fact, the historian Dr. Owen Rees argues that the consensus among modern historians and archaeologists is that the hypothesis is wrong.

Critics argue that the evidence is insufficient to conclusively prove that a large-scale invasion ever occurred. They propose alternative explanations, such as internal social and economic factors, as the cause of the changes in Greek civilization during that time period.

The English historian and archaeologist Vincent Robin d’Arba Desborough (1914-1978) was highly critical of the theory. He wrote “If [invaders] remained and settled, why have they left no trace? Can one really suppose that they were so primitive as to leave no evidence, whether in some new custom or at the very least in some new artifact? If they moved on, where did they go? If they went back, why did they do so, leaving the good land which they could have occupied.”

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