In the early centuries of the first millennium BCE, the Iron Age spread through Europe. There are much more abundant sources of supply for iron than there are for tin and copper. This made it possible to use iron in a range of artefacts for which bronze was too expensive, for example nails for building, and iron or iron-tipped tools for agriculture. New iron tools allowed farming to be extended into areas with heavier soil.
Substantial villages and associated field systems were now common in western and central Europe. By the end of the 8th century most of the peoples of Europe had adopted iron working, though bronze remained important in ornamentation, alongside the rare and more valuable gold.
Proto-Corinthian olpe with animals and sphinxes, ca. 640 BCE–630 BCE. From Corinth.
The practice of cremating the dead continued in eastern and central Europe into the early 1st millennium. These centuries also saw the spread of systematically fortified settlements at this time, clearly centres of powerful chieftainships.
Further south, another major development of the early 1st millennium BCE had been taking place. This was the rise and spread of civilization in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions.
This Mediterranean civilization originated on the coasts of the Middle East, as Phoenician traders from Syria carried features of advanced Middle Eastern civilization westward, through the Mediterranean. It was then spread further by such Mediterranean societies such as the Greeks and Etruscans. This process can be seen clearly in the adoption of alphabet writing systems by European peoples.
The new civilization that developed in along the southern fringes of Europe was based on a new form of social and political organization, the Mediterranean city-state. It originated with the coastal societies of Syria and Asia Minor, the Phoenicians, Neo-Hittites and Philistines, and from there spread to Greece, Italy, North Africa, southern France and Spain. It greatly stimulated commercial activity, within the Mediterranean and Black Sea region and beyond, into the temperate regions of western and central Europe, and the steppes of eastern Europe.
The Mediterranean city-state fostered the development of a more communal society than any previous form of state, one less dominated by authoritarian rulers. This had immense consequences for politics, seeing the appearance of the republic, and then democracy, as a form of government. It also led to the spectacular cultural achievements of Phoenician, Greek, Etruscan, Carthaginian and Roman civilization.
Meanwhile, the period from 700 BCE sees the spread of fortified centres across a broad band of central Europe, from Burgundy to Bohemia. Many are associated with massive burial mounds containing richly furnished graves. Some archaeologists see these hill forts as “princely centres”, capitals of proto-states from which powerful and wealthy chieftains rule over large territories.
The grave goods often include Greek and Etruscan pottery and metal objects, indicating trade with the world of the Mediterranean city-states. But they also include finely-made indigenous objects in gold and bronze, of the so-called Hallstatt style.
These finds indicate a replacement of the old Bronze Age trade patterns, which spanned continental Europe from east to west as well as from north to south, with new trading patterns more focussed on a North-South axis. In this new system, Mediterranean societies tended to trade their manufactured goods (luxury metal objects, jewellery and so on) with raw materials (grain, wine, metals, slaves) from the north-west Europe (Gaul) and the north-easterly Europe (the Ukraine).
One consequence of this was that the northern and central parts of Europe became something of a cultural backwater. The Teutonic peoples of northern Germany and southern Scandinavia remained at a lower level of material culture, and their society continued to be based on small settlements no larger than hamlets and small villages. The large, proto-towns of the Celts were alien to them.
Further east, an important development had been taking place amongst the steppe peoples of the Ukraine. They had been replacing chariot warfare – which they had invented about a thousand years before – with cavalry warfare. Fighting on horseback gave them an agility which chariots could not match, and thus a tactical edge in battle. In the first half of the 1st millennium BCE steppe nomads such as the Cimmerians and Scythians launched devastating attacks southwards from the Black Sea region, causing the downfall of kingdoms in Asia Minor. The militaristic Assyrians soon equipped their own armies with the new cavalry, but were not able to escape their fearsome raids.
Largely due to the close proximity of literate, city-state civilizations on their southern flank, the peoples of temperate continental Europe emerged into the light of history in the early 1st millennium. The Celts (and later Germans) in the west and the Cimmerians and Scythians in the east appear as the first archetypal “barbarians”, a source of fear and admiration to the city-dwellers further south.
Maps of Ancient Europe
The History of Ancient Europe:
See also more on: