Crete: Minoan civilisation and its successors

Rhyton (libation cup) in the form of a bull’s head. 16th century BCE, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

Crete, like most islands in the Mediterranean, has always been a crossroads of civilisations. It has been inhabited since at least 6000 BCE, when migrants from Anatolia in present-day Turkey crossed the sea and settled on the island. Some 3000 years later, Crete was part of an extensive naval trade network. The island had commercial ties with Cyprus and communities in south-west Asia, and later established trade relations with the pharaohs of Egypt to the south. Copper and obsidian were important commodities. An advanced civilisation, perhaps Europe’s earliest, flourished on the island. We do not know what the people of Crete called themselves in those days. This civilisation did not acquire a (modern) name until the beginning of the twentieth century, when British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) began excavating the ruins of the palace complex at Knossos. He called the civilisation ‘Minoan’, after the legendary king Minos of Knossos. This essay is about Minoan civilisation and its successors.

Minoan civilisation

Minoan chronology is difficult and based on much speculation. Margins of dozens or even hundreds of years are used. Yet the history of Minoan civilisation is usually divided into four periods:

  • the earliest or prepalatial period (3650-1900 BCE);
  • the protopalatial or Old Palace period (1900-1700 BCE);
  • the neopalatial or New Palace period (1700-1450 BCE) and
  • the postpalatial period (after 1450 BCE), when Mycenaeans from mainland Greece invaded Crete and began settling there.

Banquet vessel from the Old Palace period (ca. 1800-1700 BCE), Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

The words ‘Palace’ and ‘palatial’ refer to the huge structures that were built on various sites on the island after 1900 BCE, as a testament of the wealth of Crete at that time. They were not (just) palaces in the modern sense of the word, but enormous complexes with central courtyards and hundreds of rooms, some used for living, others for religious ceremonies or the processing and storing of goods in large vases called pithoi.

The most important palaces were at Knossos in the north of the island and at Phaistos in the south. The latter was well-situated for trade with Egypt, while Knossos was one of the staging points for the Minoan colonisation of the Cyclades and the Dodecanese islands during the New Palace period. It seems these palaces were not protected by defensive structures like walls and towers, although Evans’ theory that the Minoans were largely pacifist can be doubted.

Around 1700 BCE, or perhaps a little later, the palaces of the Old Palace period were destroyed, possibly by earthquakes. They were rebuilt on a grander scale, and the remains of these magnificent complexes can be admired today, not just at Knossos and Phaestos, but also at Malia or Kato Zakros. Cretan influences were visible far beyond Crete itself. The Egyptian pharaoh Thutmosis III (1479-1425 BCE) had a new palace constructed at Peru-nefer, which was decorated with frescoes that are usually attributed to Minoan artists. Nevertheless, although Minoans were active far beyond the borders of their island, Evans’ idea of a Cretan ‘thalassocracy’ – a Minoan maritime empire – seems a bit of an exaggeration and is not really backed up by solid evidence.

“Snake goddess”, ca. 1600 BCE, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

Although Minoan civilisation was obviously advanced and capable of producing beautiful art, it does not seem to have left us anything in the form of literature, either written prose or poetry. A pictographic script was used first – compared to Egyptian hieroglyphs by Evans – which was replaced by a script called Linear A after 1900 BCE. Neither script has ever been deciphered. Linear A was in turn replaced by Linear B after 1450, when immigrants from mainland Greece began colonising Crete. This script was deciphered in the 1950s by British decoder Michael Ventris (1922-1956), who had previously served in the RAF. Linear B is considered the earliest form of written Greek, predating the Greek alphabet by hundreds of years. It seems to have been used for administrative purposes only, which indicates that mythology, religious customs, poetry, epics and other stories were all passed on orally.

Mycenaean civilisation

Crete may have suffered badly during the so-called “Minoan eruption”. This term refers to a major volcanic eruption – perhaps between 1642 and 1540 BCE – that destroyed most of the island of Thera in the Cyclades and completely devastated the Minoan settlement of Akrotiri on this island. The volcano itself sank into the sea (which explains the peculiar shape of present-day Thera or Santorini), causing a gigantic tidal wave. This may have severely damaged settlements and agricultural estates on Crete, although the eruption was certainly not responsible for the end of Minoan civilisation. Nevertheless, it is often speculated that it did seriously weaken the Minoans, damaging their trading fleet and causing poor harvests and starvation. Another theory is that civil war erupted between the various Minoan communities, which brought Minoan civilisation on the brink of collapse, making it an easy prey for invading Mycenaeans.

Scene from the Agia Triada sarcophagus, ca. 1400 BCE, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

However this may be, it is clear that Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland began arriving on the island around 1450 BCE, thus ending the New Palace period and beginning an era of Mycenaean domination. It is difficult to determine whether this was a largely violent or a largely peaceful takeover – or something in between – but in any case, the palace at Knossos managed to hold out for another century or two before it faded into obscurity.

Mycenaean Crete is featured in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Forces from Crete participated in the Trojan War, and according to Book 2 of the first epic:

“From Crete, of a hundred populous cities, Idomeneus the famous spearman, led men of Cnossos and walled Gortyn, of Lyctus, Miletus, chalky Lycastos, Phaestus and Rhytium. And he shared the leadership with Meriones, peer of Ares-Enyalius, slayer of men. And they captained eighty black ships.”

Book 3 of the Odyssey claims that “Idomeneus brought those of his troops who escaped the war back to Crete, and none were lost at sea.” This Idomeneus was the son of Deukalion and the grandson of Minos. In Greek mythology, Minos is the son of Zeus and Europa, a princess the supreme god kidnapped from Phoenicia in the guise of a magnificent white bull. Minos had a brother named Rhadamanthys, who became a judge in the underworld. His daughter Ariadne helped Theseus defeat the minotaur. Of course it is very difficult, if not impossible, to establish any links between this mythological Minos and a historical ruler of the same name.

Bronze votive drum from the so-called Idaean cave. In the centre is Zeus. The style is Assyrian. 8th or 7th century BCE, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.

Dorian invasions

A few decades after the Trojan War (if it can be considered historical), around 1200 BCE, Dorian tribes invaded Greece and quickly overran most of the Mycenaean settlements. About a century later, these tribes turned their attention to Crete and occupied it as well, thus ending the Mycenaean civilisation on the island. The next period (1100-800 or 700 BCE) is usually called the Greek Dark Ages, as we really do not know much of what happened during these centuries. Still, we have to keep in mind that there are plenty of holes in our knowledge of the Minoan and Mycenaean periods as well. The Dorian tribes are mentioned in Book 19 of Homer’s Odyssey, in a passage in which Odysseus pretends to be King Deukalion’s son. About Crete he tells his audience:

“There are Achaeans there, and brave native Cretans, Cydonians, three races of Dorians, and noble Pelasgians too.”

Of course these lines are more representative of the situation on Crete in Homer’s own days (ninth century BCE) than of the post-Trojan War situation (ca. 1260 BCE). Nevertheless, this part of the poem is interesting because it sheds some light on the ethnic composition of the population of Crete during the Dark Ages.

The emergence of city states on Crete

Around 800 BCE, or perhaps a little later, city states, like the poleis on the Greek mainland, began to emerge on Crete. Relations between these cities seem to have been problematic at times. Frequently outsiders tried to intervene in their conflicts. For instance, in 271 BCE, the Spartan King Areus I aided the polis of Gortys against its rival Knossos. This was a risky operation, as Areus had left Sparta virtually undefended and vulnerable to an attack by King Pyrrhus of Epirus. Some fifty years later, Knossos and Gortys were apparently allied in a war against the polis of Lyttos (or Lyctus), a Spartan colony on Crete. The conflict again led to foreign interventions, with the Aetolians supporting Knossos and King Philip V of Macedonia and the Achaeans sending aid to Lyttos, which was utterly destroyed during the war. The conflict is mentioned by Polybius in the Fourth Book of his Histories.

Cretan archers (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Cretan archer (source: Europa Barbarorum).

In this period in history, Crete was not wealthy, nor a centre of naval trade. Cretan sailors were notorious, as they often operated as pirates. These pirates were sometimes used for political purposes. For example, King Philip V of Macedonia in 205 BCE tried to persuade his Cretan allies to attack Rhodian ships. Rhodos was an old enemy of Macedonia and a large commercial centre in the Aegean Sea. Cretan men also often served as mercenaries in foreign armies. They were especially known for their skills with the bow. If we are to believe the Greek historian Plutarch, the Roman consul Lucius Opimius in 121 BCE used armed men and Cretan archers (τοξοτῶν Κρητῶν) to attack the former people’s tribune Gaius Gracchus and his supporters, killing some 3.000 of them.

Now that the Romans have entered the stage, I will take a short break. I will discuss the Roman conquest of Crete in a future post.

Update 5 February 2017: images have been updated.

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