Reading History #10: The First European Civilizations of Crete and Greece

Copyright @2015 by Robert M. Shurmer

After a seven days’ march through woodland, the traveler directed toward Baucis cannot see the city and yet he has arrived. The slender stilts that rise from the ground at a great distance from one another and are lost above the clouds support the city. You climb them with ladders. On the ground the inhabitants rarely show themselves: having already everything they need up there, they prefer not to come down. Nothing of the city touches the earth except those long flamingo legs on which it rests and, when the days are sunny, a pierced, angular shadow that falls on the foilage. (Italo Calvino, ‘Invisible Cities’)

Our knowledge of the ancient civilization that once effloresced on the islands of the eastern Mediterranean strikes me much like Calvino’s Baucis perched on its long flamingo legs. It has been over a century now since archaeologists first discovered the brilliantly colored and stunningly beautiful artwork scattered about the buried remnants of palatial-cities that speak more of Bauhaus than they do ancient history. Yet we still remain, for the most part, ignorant of the ancient inhabitants of these awesome structures. Even the language they spoke (and wrote) is unintelligible to us. Despite the stunning physical evidence, this civilization hovers in the clouds just beyond our reach, like Baucis, inviting much speculation and fantasizing, taunting us with its beauty and modernity, but nary an inhabitant revealing themselves completely to those of us left here on the ground.

The first civilizations to appear in Europe, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, developed in the eastern Mediterranean Sea on lands that today are part of the modern nation of Greece. The earlier and more dominant of the two, at least until about 1600 BCE, was situated on the island of Crete and a few other islands scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian Seas. It flourished between the years c.2000-1300 BCE and achieved its most profound expression in the cities of Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia, each of which supported populations of between ten and forty thousand people. We may never know what those people called themselves because we still lack the ability to read their writing, but it is certain that the Egyptians, the Canaanites, and the Mesopotamians maintained contact with them and had their own names for them. After it finally collapsed c.1200 BCE, this Cretan civilization disappeared to history and its memory passed into the realm of myth. Not until the British archaeologist Arthur Evans, working c.1900, began excavating near the modern city of Heraklion did significant remains resurface. Evans’ team revealed the foundations of what appeared to be a single massive structure, half palace residence, half city. He published his findings in a prodigious work of scholarship titled The Palace of Minos at Knossos. Calling upon Greek mythology, more specifically the story of King Minos of Crete, Evans put a name these mysterious people who thrived on Crete four thousand years ago; we refer to them today as the Minoans.

For most of the 20th century, historians have debated the origins of Minoans. Their history, of course, can only be glimpsed through a dark glass vaguely. They appear for three or four centuries as a major trading partner with most of the ancient civilizations of the Near East, particularly Egypt and the less-advanced Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland, and have left evidence of their commerce scattered far and wide. The Minoans certainly maintained significant contact with the Assyrians before 1600 BCE, traded extensively with the Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland, and sent much of their ornate high-end luxury crafts to Egypt. “Their relative wealth,” writes historian J.M. Roberts, “is attested by the rows of huge and beautiful oil-jars [pithoi] found in their palaces. Their concern for comfort and what cannot but be termed elegance comes clearly through the dolphins and lilies which decorate the apartments of a Minoan queen.”2 Visual evidence of the figures drawn in their paintings and similarities in architecture convinced some, Arthur Evans included, that they must have been emigrants from Egypt. Others speculated that they may have been a break-away group of Hittites from southern Turkey or the original peoples of Canaan, early Phoenicians perhaps, displaced by the turbulence that came to that region c.2000 BC. This version fits with the Greek mythological story of Europa’s rape, which tell of Zeus’s abduction of a Phoenician princess from Tyre to deposit her on Crete.

The issue may have finally been resolved by science. George Stamatoyannopoulos, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle put Evans’ theory to the test by surveying the remains of over 100 people who lived on Crete between 4900 and 3800 years ago, 37 of which yielded DNA markers that allowed him to identify the Minoans as Europeans. “For the last 30, 40 years there’s been a growing sense that Minoan Crete was created by people indigenous to the island,” says Cyprian Broodbank, an archaeologist at Cambridge University. The DNA evidence suggests that the Minoans are not some break-away group from the Near East, but rather a group that traveled to Crete from Europe, via the Adriatic and Aegean sea lanes. Broodbank welcomes the latest line of support for this hypothesis. “It’s good to have some of the old assumptions that Minoans migrated from some other high culture scotched,” he says.Whatever their origin, the Minoans are unique among the ancient peoples, certainly not derivative culturally of other Bronze Age civilizations.

Minoan ships depicted in a wall fresco from remains at Thera (Santorini)

Minoan ships depicted in a wall fresco from remains at Thera (Santorini)

The excavation of Crete has uncovered some fascinating finds that reveal exactly how well-connected the Minoans were to a vast international trade network. Vases and papyrus from Egypt, including one of the only trade objects found anywhere bearing the name of Thutmoses III, cylinder seals from Mesopotamia, gold cups from Greece, storage jars from Canaan, ivory from Africa, and spices and gemstones from Europe and Asia are among the items that found their way to Crete. The things that Minoans themselves produced tell of a people deeply attached to a maritime lifestyle: frescoes of dolphins and men with stringers of silver fish, multi-oared pleasure ships cruising below brightly colored palaces, and jugs whimsically decorated with inked octopodes. Intrigued by the abundance of seafaring-themed objects discovered at Minoan sites across Crete, Evans became convinced that sea-power lay at the heart of all Minoan endeavors, and he labeled Minoan Crete the world’s first thalassocracy, i.e. state that rules by sea power, preceding Greek maritime power by more than a thousand years.

Despite the pronouncements of Evans and others similarly inclined that the ancient cities of Crete were governed by some kind of commercial sea-lords, it is actually difficult to pronounce with any certainly what kind of political or religious system did exist in Minoan society. Similarities to Evans’ own British Empire are certainly evident in the early characterization of Minoan society, one that held sway for most of the 20th century, and provide a good lesson concerning historical interpretation: we often see the patterns that are most familiar too us, projecting what we personally find agreeable (or detestable) upon other societies. As if in pursuit of a historical stamp of approval for the presumed virtues of his own society, enterprise, commerce, and profit, Evans fabricated a perfect proto-Britannic sea-borne ancient empire. But what do we really know for sure about these people who have left us such captivating remains of an advanced civilized society? Again, a lack of readable documents hinders us at every turn; the Minoans themselves remain mute and we are left to piece together a story from the physical remains alone.

That’s not to say that we lack documents written by the Minoans. Archaeologists have uncovered a sizable collection of tablets written in what they call Linear A, the Minoan script, which certainly intimates organization and a vast hierarchical administration. But with no understanding of precisely what the writing means historians can say little definitively about what Minoans thought of themselves, their government, their past, or how they perceived the cosmos. What we can read is written in a script called Linear B, which the British cryptologist Michael Ventris proved (only in 1952) to be a form of written Greek. The language shift is a crucial piece of information that provides insight into the political dynamics in the eastern Mediterranean during the period. Tablets written in Linear B appear only after 1600 BCE or so and have been found both on Crete and on mainland Greece, most notably at Pylos, which indicate that Greek-speakers were migrating to Crete after c.1600 BCE and adopting the written script of the Minoans.

But if groups of Mycenaeans moving to Crete after c.1600 BCE, by about 1350 BC or so, a new threat appeared in the eastern Mediterranean, aptly known to historians collectively as the Sea Peoples. Egyptian accounts give them names such as the Danuna, Tjekker, Weshesh, Shardana, Shekelesh, and Pelset and call them ‘Northerners from all lands’ and from ‘countries of the sea.’  Ramses II let it be known to posterity that those that landed in Egypt were either killed outright on the beaches or taken as captives, ‘settled in strongholds and taxed,’ thus proving the old adage that the only absolutes in history are death and taxation.3  While the origins of these shadowy groups from the sea are hotly contested among scholars — Libya, Sicily, Sardinia, Italy, Greece, Canaan, and Turkey have all been associated with one group of them or another —  all agree that they were aggressive and displayed little inclination for negotiation and/or peace with the inhabitants of the lands they attacked, plundered, destroyed and ultimately settled upon.

The Sea Peoples certainly played a role in the decline and ultimate collapse of civilizations throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. With the span of only a century, c.1250-1150 BCE, every Bronze Age civilization of the Aegean and Near East experienced trauma and collapse. Only Egypt did not wither and die off entirely.As Eric Cline, one of the most prominent scholars working on the period, writes in his recent book 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed:

In the end, it was as if civilization itself had been wiped away in much of the region. Many, iff not all, of the advances of the previous centuries vanished across great swaths of territory, from Greece to Mesopotamia. A new transitional era began: an age that was to last for at least one century and perhaps as many as three in some areas.2

Regarding their impact on Crete,  J.M. Roberts says that “they were successful colonists who exploited the lowlands and drove away the Minoans and their shattered culture to lonely little towns of refuge where they disappear from the stage of world history.”3  The evidence shows that the material conditions that made Minoan civilization possible deteriorated at the end of the Bronze Age: more and more artifacts and images of the warlike Mycenaeans show up all over Crete, defensive fortifications were constructed with greater frequency and strength than at any time previously, and some trade items become more and more rare on the island. Archaeological evidence indicates that the greatest palace-city of Evans’ Sea-lords, Knossos, was sacked and burned c. 1380 BCE. Minoan civilization was already in severe decline and perhaps even gone altogether by the time Cretan society collapses entirely and the thread of history snaps. If the attacks did not come until c.1250 BCE, the Sea Peoples arrived relatively late in the game, after the real damage had already been inflicted. They picked the pockets of a man already down and bleeding.


On the mainland of Greece, the Mycenaeans, our second of the two European civilizations, braced for a final showdown with the violent spirit of the times. While perhaps not on par with their Minoan neighbors as high-end dealers, the Mycenaeans were integrated into a web of long-distance commercial trade and dealt extensively with the Hittites, Canaanites, and Egyptians. Evidence also shows they had particularly close trading relationships with the island of Cyprus which supported  a significant Mycenaean population at the time.4 Economic disruption in the Aegean, therefore, took its toll on the cities of the Greek mainland. The massive fortification systems, the hallmarks of Mycenaean architecture that are still around today, were erected sometime around c.1250 B.C. as the latest defensive measures. The sheer size of these walls indicates the size of the threat they faced. The cities of Mycenae and Tyrins installed corbel-vaulted tunnel systems and secret galleries, carved hundreds of feet down into the very bedrock, that lead to water sources deep beneath the fortresses. The city of Mycenae assembled the famous Lion Gate which controlled access the the citadel of the city, the residence of the warrior chieftain or wanax in the proto-Greek language used by the Mycenaeans. Cline points out that similarities in construction of these defensive works with those of the Hittite Empire show that the two civilizations maintained close contact with each other up to the very end, when war, famine, and shattered both beyond recovery. The Hittites will be lost to memory until 20th century excavations in Aleppo. The Mycenaeans, however, were most spectacularly remembered among the Greeks in stories and songs (i.e. lyric poetry) that got passed down, orally of course since writing, too, disappeared, from generation to generation. Thier deeds in the age when civilization collapsed are now preserved in the Classic texts, The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Books referenced:

  1. (Scientific American, 15 May 2013)
  2. Cline, pp.6-9.
  3. Roberts, p. 95-96.
  4. Cline, pp.87-88.

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