The Iron Age was a period in human history that followed the Bronze and Stone Ages. During the Iron Age, people across much of Europe, Asia and parts of Africa began making tools and weapons from iron and steel. The Iron Age started between 1200 B.C. and 600 B.C., depending on the region. For some societies, including Ancient Greece, the start of the Iron Age was accompanied by a period of cultural decline.
Humans may have smelted iron sporadically throughout the Bronze Age, though they likely saw iron as an inferior metal. Iron tools and weapons weren’t as hard or durable as their bronze counterparts.
The use of iron became more widespread after people learned how to make steel, a much harder metal, by heating iron with carbon. The Hittites—who lived during the Bronze Age in what is now Turkey—may have been the first to make steel.
When Was the Iron Age?
The Iron Age began around 1200 B.C. in the Mediterranean region and Near East with the collapse of several prominent Bronze Age civilizations, including the Mycenaean civilization in Greece and the Hittite Empire in Turkey. Ancient cities including Troy and Gaza were destroyed, trade routes were lost and literacy declined throughout the region.
The cause for the collapse of these Bronze Age kingdoms remains unclear. Archaeological evidence suggests a succession of severe droughts in the eastern Mediterranean region over a 150-year period from 1250 to 1100 B.C. likely figured prominently in the collapse. Earthquakes, famine, sociopolitical unrest and invasion by nomadic tribes may also have played a role.
Some experts believe that a disruption in trade routes may have caused shortages of the copper or tin used to make bronze around this time. Metal smiths, as a result, may have turned to iron as an alternative.
Greek Dark Ages
Greece had become a major hub of activity and culture on the Mediterranean during the late Bronze Age. The Mycenaean civilization was rich in material wealth from trade. Mycenaeans built large palaces and a society with strict class hierarchy.
But around 1200 B.C. Mycenaean Greece collapsed. Greece entered a period of turmoil sometimes called the Greek Dark Ages.
Archaeologists believe there may have been a period of famine in which Greece’s population dropped dramatically during this time. Major cities (with the exception of Athens) were abandoned. As urban societies splintered, people moved toward smaller, more pastoral groups focused on raising livestock.
Mycenaean Greece had been a literate society, but the Greeks of the early Iron Age left no written record, leading some scholars to believe they were illiterate. Few artifacts or ruins remain from the period, which lasted roughly 300 years.
By the late Iron Age, the Greek economy had recovered and Greece had entered its “classical” period. Classical Greece was an era of cultural achievements including the Parthenon, Greek drama and philosophers including Socrates.
The classical period also brought political reform and introduced the world to a new system of government known as demokratia, or “rule by the people.”