Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Civilization Spreads to the West

Steve Muhlberger

So far the lectures have concentrated on Mesopotamia and Egypt.   Even before 2000 B.C., there were noteworthy civilizations outside these two areas.   Between 2000 and 1000 B.C. (second millennium B.C.), civilization began to spread quite dramatically.

I am going to focus on two different cultures active in this period:   the Minoan and the Mycenaean, which together constitute the earliest civilization of the Aegean Sea.   I've chosen them because they help to connect the older civilized centers of the Middle East with the later developments of Archaic and Classical Greece.
 The Minoan and Mycenaean cultures are interesting for a number of reasons, but one of them is that when they collapsed, they were not quickly replaced by something similar, as so often happened in Egypt or Mesopotamia.   They left behind only confused legends.   The Classical Greeks knew less about them than we do today.   They are fascinating "lost civilizations."

Geographical background:

The Mediterranean Sea is a shallow and sheltered body of water that has its dangers but is easier to navigate than the great oceans.    (Ancient navigators in their tiny boats usually coasted from sheltered spot to sheltered spot and landed most every night.)  It is potentially a great highway.

The Aegean, which lies between modern Greece and Turkey, is a bay of the Mediterranean, and like it but even easier to sail.    The area surrounding the sea is rich in foods (wheat, wine, oil, grapes) and other resources like silver.

The Aegean is also connects  southern Europe and western Asia, and  the rest of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea (which has productive coasts and gives access to Ukraine, Russia, and Central Asia).

Thus the Aegean is a crossroads in the Mediterranean highway.

The Greeks believed that the first king who dominated the Aegean was Minos, whose wife gave birth to the monstrous Minotaur.   Minos kept the Minotaur in a Labyrinth (maze) and fed it with human tribute until the Athenian hero Theseus penetrated the Labyrinth and killed the Minotaur.

This was considered merely a myth until the end of the last century.

In the 1870s, Heinrich Schliemann, a banker turned archaeologist who was looking for traces of the Trojan War, found what he believed to be the site of Troy in northwestern Turkey.    He later went to Mycenae, the legendary home of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, and found graves full of treasure.

Suddenly old legends (in this case the stories of Homer) were coming to light.

In 1896, Arthur Evans, the curator of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, suggested that the source of the Mycenaean culture found by Schliemann was in Crete.    In 1899 he went there, bought the site at Knossos, and began digging up a large palace covering 5 1/2 acres (over a hectare).

The palace ruins were remarkable for looking very much like a labyrinth (or perhaps, to the less romantic, like a contemporary Mesopotamian palace).

This was only the first of a number of palaces and other impressive sites found in Crete and elsewhere in the Aegean.   Evans named this Cretan civilization "Minoan" after King Minos of legend.

Thanks to Evans and many later investigators, we now know quite a bit about these two early Aegean cultures.  However, since we have very few written sources and have to depend on archaeology for most of our knowledge, there are a lot of important questions unanswered.

Here's some of what we do know.  (All dates are approximate because they depend on archaeological sequences that experts still argue about.)

The Aegean was a rather advanced area long before the Minoans and Myceneans; techniques invented elsewhere were quickly adopted there.   The Bronze Age began in Crete around 3000 B.C., long before it did in Egypt, and there was an impressive Bronze Age culture in the Aegean basin.

Between 2200 and 2000 B.C., the mainland and other islands were involved in destructive wars and migrations (the first appearance of the Greeks?), but Crete seems to have been untouched and continued to develop.

Around 2000 B.C., the first big palaces were built in Crete, including one at Knossos.    A form of writing appeared, a pictographic script probably invented locally.   The appearance of palaces and writing simultaneously is no coincidence.   (You might ask yourself why.)  The script (called Linear A) is still unreadable.  Crete in this period was very active in trade and supported very skilled artisans, including bronze workers whose artistry was known and appreciated at Mari in Mesopotamia.

There seems to have been some trouble in Crete around 1700 (damage to the palaces).   But Crete soon recovered and the palaces and associated settlements reached new levels of sophistication:  paved roads, good drains, running water, at least for the nobility.   The cities and palaces seem to have been unwalled, showing a sense of security -- perhaps due to their command of the sea, as in the Minos myth?

The art of this period is particularly striking, and I urge you to visit one of the many sites on the Internet that show samples.

The wall paintings in particular project a charming image of the Minoans:  a trim stylish people with a feeling for beauty and movement.   The images of the bull-games, in which acrobats, male and female, grabbed the horns of bulls and somersaulted over them, are fascinating?   Did these games actually take place?   Were they really so carefree?   Is this connected to other evidence of human sacrifice?   We don't know.

Another impressive set of images is that of the half-dressed women -- by the standards of almost every ancient culture, the bare-breasted women of Knossos and other sites are shocking.   This, and the prominent place goddesses held in Minoan religion, have led people to assert that women held an unusually important place in society.   But the fact is, that this is art, palace art, and we don't really know how it reflected social reality.

Also around 1700, a new culture was developing on the mainland of what is now Greece.  This is the Mycenaean culture, named after the important site associated with Agamemnon.  We know about the earliest Mycenaeans from their shaft tombs, some of which held dazzling treasure including what Schliemann called "the death mask of Agamemnon."   The tombs reveal a warrior culture fascinated with war, hunting and chariots.  At first there seem to have had no cities or palaces.
Eventually, however, these warlords learned how to imitate their island neighbors and palaces and archaeologically impressive settlements rose on the mainland.

This flourishing world was upset by two catastrophes that brought to an end classic Minoan civilization.   The first was a major volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, location of a palace and a rich city; this was followed (most scholars think) by a wave of palace and settlement destruction on Crete.   When exactly these events took place and whether they are related, and how, is still a matter of active debate.

In the 1400s, however, some of the palaces of Crete were rebuilt -- and the people who rebuilt them were the Mycenaeans.   They took over not just the sites of their predecessors, but their methods of administration.  The Mycenaeans adapted Linear A into Linear B, which records an early form of Greek.  The contents of most of the tablets that are preserved are inventories that list the obligations of various persons and communities to provide sheep, wool, oil, grain, and other commodities.   Others may record the issuing of weapons, armor, and horses to warriors.

Sometimes this is called an era of decline, because the art of this era is somewhat cruder and certainly more warlike than the previous one, but if it was decline it was a slow one.

The Cretan palaces were destroyed again around 1350, rebuilt.   They may have been destroyed by the mainland Mycenaeans, because sites there survive.  However, the culture was becoming artistically and technically impoverished and more concerned with defense.   Palaces were surrounded in this period by huge "Cyclopean" walls that still survive (notably at Mycenae).   Nevertheless around 1200 the remaining palaces were destroyed.

Were the people who destroyed the Mycenaean culture the Dorians of Greek legend?   No one knows.   One of the most important things about this last wave of destruction is that it very little of the preceding culture survived.   The legends the Greeks knew, Minos, Homer, the Trojan War, don't relate to the real history of the preceding period in any simple way.

The Trojan War was probably a real event (around 1200, near the end of the Mycenaean era), and it is a war to take a rich, fortified city.   However, the institutions of the attacking Greeks (who come from Mycenae among other places) have nothing to do with the palace-centered, bureaucratically administered domains of the real Mycenaeans.   Homer's heroes live in a much simpler society, of the sort that arose after the fall of the earlier Aegean civilization.  Neither the poet nor his audience really understood the Minoans or the Mycenaens.

What we know of the Aegean civilization of the second millennium B.C. shows us:

These are important historical facts; but I think the appeal of the art, and the mystery of these lost cultures is and will probably remain the chief reason scholars and ordinary people go back to them.

Peter Levi, Atlas of the Greek World

M.I. Finley, Economy and Society in Ancient Greece

Nicholas F. Jones,  Ancient Greece:  State and society (Upper Saddle River, N.J., 1997)

Some WWW sites:

 Artist's impression of the Knossos palace.

 Iraklion Museum site on Knossos.

 Some Minoan art from a commercial site.

 Hugh Lester's collection of Mycenaean architecture and art.

These just scratch the surface.   See also the home page for this course for other sites.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.