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The Dorian invasion is a concept devised by historians of Ancient Greece to explain the replacement of pre-classical dialects and traditions in southern Greecemarker by the ones that prevailed in Classical Greece. The latter were named Dorian by the ancient Greek writers after the historical population that owned them, the Dorians.

Greek legend asserted that the Dorians took possession of the Peloponnesusmarker in an event called the Return of the Heracleidae. Classical scholars saw in the legend a hypothetically real event they termed the Dorian invasion. The meaning of the concept has changed several times, as historians, philologists and archaeologists used it in attempts to explain the cultural discontinuities expressed in the data of their fields. The pattern of arrival of Dorian culture on certain islands in the Mediterraneanmarker, such as Cretemarker, is also not well elucidated. The Dorians colonised a number of sites on Crete such as Latomarker.

Despite nearly 200 years of investigation the historicity of the Dorian invasion has never been established. The meaning of the concept has become to some degree amorphous. The work done on it has mainly served to rule out various speculations. The possibility of a real Dorian invasion remains open.

Return of the Heracleidae

The ancient tradition is that the descendants of Heracles, exiled after his death, returned after some generations in order to reclaim dominion their ancestor Heracles had held in the Peloponnesusmarker. The Greece to which the traditions refer is the mythic one, now considered to be Mycenaean Greece. The theme of the "return of the Heracleidae" is considered legendary. The exact descent differs from one ancient author to another, the salient point being that in each case a traditional ruling clan traced its origin, thus its legitimacy, to Heracles.

The translation of "return" is strictly English; the Greek connotations are quite different. The Greek words are katienai and katerchesthai, literally those who "descent", "come down" or "go down" or less commonly "are brought down." It means a descent from uplands to lowlands, or from the earth to the grave, or a rushing down upon as a flood, or sweeping down upon as a wind or a ship, or those returning from exile (which typically would have to be by ship). It is never used as a simple return home, which is a nostos (as in nostalgia or the "returns from Troy"). The Heracleidae are not returning to a former home for which they are homesick, they are sweeping down upon the Peloponnesus in war, thus inviting the English translation of invasion.

There is, however, a distinction between Heracleidae and Dorians. George Grote summarizes the relationship as follows:
Herakles himself had rendered inestimable aid to the Dorian king Aegimius, when the latter was hard pressed in a contest with the Lapithae ....
Herakles defeated the Lapithae, and slew their king Koronus; in return for which Aegimius assigned to his deliverers one third part of his whole territory, and adopted Hyllus as his son.
Hyllus, a Perseid, was driven from the state of Mycenaemarker into exile after the death of Heracles by a dynastic rival, Eurystheus, another Perseid:
After the death ... of Herakles, his son Hyllos and his other children were expelled and persecuted by Eurystheus ...
Eurystheus invaded Atticamarker, but perished in the attempt ....
All the sons of Eurystheus lost their lives ... with him, so that the Perseid family was now represented only by the Herakleids ....
The Pelopid family now assumed power. The Heraclids "endeavored to recover the possessions from which they had been expelled" but were defeated by the Ionians at the Isthmus of Corinthmarker. Hyllus staked peace for three generations against immediate reoccupation on a single combat and was killed by Echemus of Arcadiamarker.

The Heracleidae now found it prudent to claim the Dorian land granted to Heracles: "and from this moment the Herakleids and Dorians became intimately united together into one social communion." Three generations later the Heracleidae with Dorian collusion occupied the Peloponnesus, an event Grote terms a "victorious invasion."

The term invasion

The first widespread use of the term "Dorian invasion" appears to date to the 1830s. A popular alternative was the "Dorian migration." For example, in 1831 Thomas Keightly was using Dorian migration in Outline of History; by 1838 in The Mythology of Ancient Greece and Italy he was using Dorian invasion.

Neither of those two words exactly fit the return. They imply an incursion from outside a society to within, but where did the Dorians fit, outside or in? William Mitford's History of Greece, 1784-1810, described a "Dorian revolution" and Grote's first two volumes did not appear until 1846, although he was working on them since 1822.

In 1824 Karl Otfried Müller's Die Dorier came out and was translated into English by Tufnel and Lewis for publication in 1830. The English uses such terms as "the Doric invasion" and "the invasion of the Dorians" to translate Müller's "Die Einwanderung von den Doriern," (literal: "the migration of the Dorians") which was quite a different concept; presumably "invasion" was already current in English.

On one level the Einwanderung meant no more than the Heraklidenzug, the return of the Heracleidae. However, Müller was also applying the sense of Völkerwanderung to it, which was being used of the Germanic migrations. Müller's approach was philological. In trying to explain the distribution of tribes and dialects he hypothesized that the aboriginal or Pelasgian population was Hellenic. His famous first paragraph of the Introduction asserts:
The Dorians derived their origin [der Ursprung des dorischen Stammes] from those districts in which the Grecian nation bordered toward the north upon numerous and dissimilar races of barbarians.
As to the tribes which dwelt beyond these borders we are indeed wholly destitute of information; nor is there the slightest trace of any memorial or tradition that the Greeks originally came from those quarters.

Müller goes on to propose that the original Pelasgian language was the common ancestor of Greek and Latin, that it evolved into Proto-Greek and was corrupted in Macedon and Thessaly by invasions of Illyrians (such as the Bryges). This same pressure of mysterious Illyrians drove forth Greeks speaking Achaean (includes Aeolian), Ionian and finally Dorian in three diachronic waves, explaining the dialect distribution of Greek in classical times.

The Illyrians do not overrun the more easily defended peninsula of Greece as they did Macedon and Thessaly but drive large-scale migrations toward it on three different occasions.

Kretschmer's external Greeks

Toward the end of the 19th century the philologist Paul Kretschmer made a strong case that Pelasgian was a pre-Greek substrate, perhaps Anatolian, taking up a classical theme of remnant populations existing in pockets among the Greek speakers, in mountainous and rural Arcadiamarker and in inaccessible coasts of the far south. This view left Müller's proto-Greeks without a place to be, but Kretschmer did not return the Heracleidae or their Dorian allies from Macedon and Thessaly. Instead he removed the earliest Greeks to the trail leading from the plains of Asia, where he viewed the Proto-Indo-European language as having broken up about 2500 BC. Somewhere between Greece and there a new cradle of the Greek tribes developed, from which Proto-Ionians at about 2000 BC, Proto-Achaeans at about 1600 BC and Dorians at about 1200 BC exited to swoop down on an increasingly less aboriginal Greece as the three waves of external Greeks.

Kretschmer was confident that if the unknown homeland of the Greeks was not then known, archaeology would find it. The handbooks of Greek history from then on spoke of Greeks entering Greece. As late as 1956 J.B. Bury's History of Greece (3rd edition) wrote of an "...invasion which brought the Greek language into Greece." Over that half-century Greek and Balkan archaeology united in an effort to locate the Dorians further north than Greece. The idea was combined with a view that the sea peoples were part of the same north-south migration at about 1200 BC.

The weakness in this theory is that it requires an invaded Greece and its mirror image where Greek evolved and continued to evolve into dialects contemporaneously with the invaded Greece. However, although the invaded Greece was amply represented by evidence of all sorts, there was no evidence at all of its hidden mirror. Similarly, the sea peoples failed to show anywhere except in the sea for which the Egyptians named them. Retaining Müller's three waves and Kretschmer's Pelasgian pockets the scholars continued to search for the Dorians in other quarters. Müller's common ancestor of Greek and Latin had vanished by 1950, breaking that link, and by 1960 although given lip service still the concept of Greek developing outside of Greece had seen its best days.

Greek origin in Greece

Additional progress in the search for the Dorian invasion came about as a result of the decipherment of Linear B, an early form of Greek written in a syllabary. It became known as Mycenaean Greek. Comparing it with the later Greek dialects scholars could see that a development had taken place. For example, classical Greek anak-s, "king", came from a reconstructed *wanak- and a glance at Linear B turned up wa-na-ka.

Ernst Risch lost no time in proposing that there was never any more than one migration, which brought proto-Greek into Greece, and it dissimilated into dialects in Greece. Meanwhile the linguists closest to the decipherment were having doubts about the classification of proto-Greek. John Chadwick summarizing in 1976 wrote:
Let us therefore explore the alternative view.
This hypothesis is that the Greek language did not exist before the twentieth century B.C., but was formed in Greece by the mixture of an indigenous population with invaders who spoke another language ....
What this language was is a difficult question ... the exact stage reached in development at the time of the arrival is difficult to predict.

In another ten years the "alternative view" was becoming the standard one. JP Mallory wrote in 1989 concerning the various hypotheses of proto-Greek that had been put forward since the decipherment:
Reconciliation of all these different theories seems out of the question ... the current state of our knowledge of the Greek dialects can accommodate Indo-Europeans entering Greece at any time between 2200 and 1600 BC to emerge later as Greek speakers.

By the end of the 20th century the concept of an invasion by external Greek speakers had been removed from the arena, although it is still asserted as a minority view. There was and always has been only one Greece and one population of Greeks:
Greek is now widely believed to be the product of contact between Indo-European immigrants and the speakers of the indigenous languages of the Balkan peninsula beginning c.
2,000 B.C.

Although the linguists had failed to return the Heracleidae, they had after a long Wanderung at last returned the Dorian invasion to Greece as an internal event.

End of Mycenaean IIIB destruction

Meanwhile the archaeologists were encountering what appeared to be a wave of destruction of Mycenaean palaces. Indeed, the Pylos tablets recorded the dispatch of "coast-watchers", to be followed not long after by the burning of the palace, presumably by invaders from the sea. Carl Blegen wrote:
the telltale track of the Dorians must be recognized in the fire-scarred ruins of all the great palaces and the more important towns which ... were blotted out at the end of Mycenaean IIIB.
Blegen follows Furumark in dating Mycenaean IIIB to 1300-1230 BC. Blegen himself dated the Dorian invasion to 1200 BC.

A destruction by Dorians has its problems (see next section) and is not the only possible explanation. At approximately this time Hittite power in Anatolia collapsed with the destruction of their capital Hattusamarker and the late 19th and the 20th dynasties of Egypt also suffered invasions of the Sea Peoples. Another theory, reported for instance by Thomas and Conant, attributes the ruin of the Peloponnesus to them:
Evidence on the Linear B tablets from the Mycenaean kingdom of Pylosmarker describing the dispatch of rowers and watchers to the coast, for instance, may well date to the time that the Egyptian pharoh was expecting the arrival of foes.

But who were the foes? The evidence on sea peoples indicates that some of them may have been Greek. Michael Wood suggests relying on tradition, especially that of Thucydides:
... let us not forget the legends, at least as models for what might have happened.
They tell us of constant rivalries with the royal clans of the Heroic Age - Atreus and Thyestes, Agamemnon and Aigisthes, and so on ....
In summary, the Mycenaean world disintegrated through "feuding clans of the great royal families." The possibility of some sort of internal struggle had long been under consideration. Chadwick after following and critiquing the development of different views, in 1976 settled on a theory of his own: there was no Dorian invasion. The palaces were destroyed by Dorians who had been in the Peloponnesusmarker all along as a subservient lower class, and now were staging a revolution. Chadwick espoused the view that northern Greek was the more conservative and proposed that southern Greek had developed under Minoan influence as a palace language.

As a disinterested non-speculator Chadwick had become the grand master of Mycenaean studies, the last surviving member of the team of Ventris and Chadwick. Now that he had taken a stand and was on that account more easily assailable his influence waned. His theory of a revolution although it reechoed that of William Mitford nearly 200 years ago was not generally accepted. Chadwick faded away into meritorious but active retirement and the studies he had helped to found went on.

Invasion or migration?

After the Greek Dark Ages, much of the population of the Peloponnesus spoke Dorian; the evidence of Linear B and literary traditions, such as the works of Homer, is that they spoke Achaean before, and it must have been Mycenaean Greek. Equally as significantly, society in the Peloponnesus had undergone a total change from states ruled by kings presiding over a Palace economy to a caste system ruled by a Dorian master ethnos at Spartamarker. Whether these data demonstrate that a Dorian population entered the Peloponnesus from outside of it, displaced some of the previous population there and reduced much of the remainder to hereditary subservience, changing the main dialect from Mycenaean to Doric, is the major historical question for the period.

No one questions that these changes took place, but how and when? H. Michell, a Sparta scholar, says: "If we assume that the Dorian invasion took place some time in the twelfth century, we certainly know nothing of them for the next hundred years." Blegen admitted that in the sub-Mycenaean period following 1200: "the whole area seems to have been sparsely populated ..."

The problem is that there are no traces of any Dorians anywhere until the start of the Geometric period at about 950 BC. This simple pottery decoration appears to be correlated with other changes in material culture, such as the introduction of iron weapons and alterations in burial practices from Mycenaean group burials in tholos tombs to individual burials and cremation. These can certainly associated with the historical Dorian settlers, such as those of Sparta in the 10th century BC. However, they appear to have been general over all of Greece; moreover, the new weapons would not have been used in 1200.

The scholars were now faced with the conundrum of an invasion at 1200 but a resettlement at 950. What took the Dorians so long and where were they for several generations? One answer is that the destruction of 1200 was not caused by the Dorians and that the quasi-mythical return of the Heracleidae is to be associated with settlement at Sparta ca. 950. It was a migration easily accomplished in a military vacuum.

Closing the gap

The quest for the Dorian invasion had begun as an attempt to explain the differences between Peloponnesian society depicted by Homer and the historical Dorians of classical Greece. The first scholars to work on the problem were historians researching the only resources available to them: the Greek legends. The philologists (later linguists) subsequently took up the challenge but in the end could only bring the problem into sharper definition. Finally the archaeologists have inherited the issue with high hopes. Perhaps some distinctively Dorian archaeological evidence will turn up or has turned up giving precise insight as to how and when Peloponnesian society changed so radically.

The historians had defined the Greek Dark Ages, a period of general decline, in this case the disappearance of the palace economy and with it law and order, loss of writing, diminishment of trade, decrease in population and abandonment of settlements (destroyed or undestroyed), metals starvation and loss of the fine arts or at least the diminution of their quality, evidenced especially in pottery. By its broadest definition the dark age lasted between 1200 and 750, the start of the archaic or orientalizing period, when influence from the Middle East via the overseas colonies stimulated a recovery.

A dark age of poverty, low population and metals starvation is not compatible with the idea of great population movements of successful warriors wielding the latest military equipment sweeping into the Peloponnesus and taking it over to rebuild civilization their way. This dark age consists of three periods of art and archaeology: sub-Mycenaean, Proto-geometric and Geometric. The most successful, the Geometric, seemed to fit the Dorians better, but there is a gap, and also this period is not localized to and did not begin in Dorian territory. It is more to be associated with Athensmarker, an Ionian state.

Still, the Dorians did share in the Geometric period and therefore to find its origin might be perhaps to find the origin of the Dorians. The Geometric originated by clear transition in the darkest of the dark age, the Proto-geometric. Families were so poor that they gave up bronze as a metal of jewelry and took to wearing simple iron rings and pendants. As for the sub-Mycenaean, their decoration is a loose and uncareful form of Mycenaean motifs, on which account they are generally held to be a refugee population. The question of why the refugees were haunting their former homes if the latter were in possession of the Dorians is part of the problem.

No answers are yet forthcoming. The logical break in material culture is the start of the Proto-geometric at about 1050 BC, which leaves a gap of 150 years. The year 1050 offers nothing distinctively Dorian either, but if the Dorians were present in the Geometric, and they were not always in place as an unrecorded lower class, 1050 is most likely time of entry. Cartledge says humorously perhaps with a note of whimsical frustration:
It has of late become an acknowledged scandal that the Dorians, archaeologically speaking, do not exist.
That is, there is no cultural trait surviving in the material record for the two centuries or so after 1200 which can be regarded as a peculiarly Dorian hallmark.
Robbed of their patents for Geometric pottery, cremation burial, iron-working and, the unkindest prick of all, the humble straight pin, the hapless Dorians stand naked before their creator - or, some would say, inventor.

Apparently archaeology cannot reach the Dorians either. Perhaps the material remains do not always characterize the movements and territories of peoples. The question, however, remains open to further investigation.


  1. C. Michael Hogan, Lato Fieldnotes, The Modern Antiquarian, Jan. 10, 2008
  2. Greece Part I, Chapter XVIII, Section I: "Return of the Herakleids into Peloponnesus."
  3. Greece Chapter IV: "Heroic Legends : Exile of the Herakleids."
  4. Mitford's single-volume first edition came out in 1784 to be followed by a second edition containing Volumes I and II in 1789. The remainder of the initial 8-volume set was published by 1810. The third edition of 1821 had more volumes. Some 29 editions more followed. Volume I dated 1823 containing extensive material on the Dorians can be downloaded, Google Books, at [1]. Mitford's work features marginal notes stating the ancient sources.
  5. Cited in the Bibliography. The English is downloadable, Google Books, at [2]; the 1844 edition of the German at [3]
  6. Hall (2000) and also
  7. A survey of the problems connected with the historicity of the "Dorian invasion" may be found
  8. Drews (1996): "The old view - that the Dorian invasion proceeded from the central Balkans and that it occurred ca. 1200 - is now maintained by only a few archaeologists and against increasing evidence to the contrary." ISBN 0691025916 page 63.
  9. The argument is summarized and Risch is cited in
  10. Those with access to this now rare book can find the quote along with a full consideration of the date in historical sources on and around page 30.
  11. This book, a pottery lookup reference, arranges pottery by stylistic groups, assigning relative dates correlated when possible to calendar dates, along with the evidence. It is the standard pottery reference for Mycenaean times.
  12. Chadwick's point of view is summarized and critiqued in


  • Müller, Karl Otfried, Die Dorier (1824) was translated by Henry Tufnel and Sir George Cornewall Lewis and published as The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race, (London: John Murray), 1830, in two vols.
  • Five editions between 1993 and 1995.

See also

External links

  • The Dorians, Minnesota State University Ancient Greek Civilizations site
  • Note that the online edition omits the critical bibliography, which features works only in German, and includes Müller but not Kretschmer. Also the online version runs paragraphs and section headings together. The paragraph division is not the one of the article.

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