c. 3300 BC – c. 1450 BC
So we come to the first civilisation that I’m covering, where we don’t believe it arose independently of any other civilisation, without essential contacts and writing systems imported from other neighbouring civilisations at the time, and it’s the Minoans, also the first civilisation in Europe. There is possibly the Cycladic civilisation, which I will be covering in two posts’ time, but that will be a short post as there isn’t much to say that I won’t say here and the Minoans are much more interesting. Though we do believe that there were humans there before civilisation sprang up, indeed, they may have been on Crete for millennia before, they only started working in the sense of an active civilisation at some point between 3600 BC and 2000 BC.
Time And Location
See, it is questionable, if I am going in chronological order, whether I should be doing this now or not. Nearly every source I look at gives a different start date for the rise of the Minoan civilisation, with many as late as 2000 BC, but at some point after the Egyptian civilisation rose, the Bronze Age and organised society came into effect on Crete, and it came into effect here before any others in the Aegean sea. And before we go any further we should address that they are only called the Minoan civilisation because early archaeologists placed great importance on the mythical king Minos, the first king of Crete, at Knossos. Crete appears in a lot of Greek myths as the oldest part of the the Greek civilisation and as virtually all the Minoan kings we know about are mythical, we might as well cover those here. It may not be strictly history but I don’t make a claim to be a strict historian. Just know that information about the personalities is indeed mythical and probably not fact. But they are great stories.
Minoan Crete itself had effective control over the entire island of Crete, although as usual with early history, best not to define those borders and take it as if they did. The kings didn’t have any real control away from the island although their culture certainly spread to outside of Crete and we’ll see how that goes in another section.
Let’s start with the person after who this is named, Minos of Knossos. Allegedly the first king of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa, he reigned three generations before the Trojan War, which puts him pretty late in our chronology for the Minoan civilisation so you can already see the gaps, i.e. if he existed, he was not the first king and well, Zeus and Europa, gods getting involved. He’s supposedly contemporaneous with several kings of Athens, although Thucydides calls him the first man to build a navy. Some people try to rationalise away the inconsistencies in the chronology, as well as his character, there are complimentary things about him sometimes and at other times, he is a brutal tyrant, with saying that there were multiple King Minos’, which could be accurate, numbering systems for rulers was not an exact science at this point in history. His position at the beginning of the Homeric epics makes him an archetypal patriarch of Greek civilisation, whatever his personality and when he ruled. At some point, Minos is responsible for trapping the hero Theseus in the labyrinth with his Minotaur (Minos’ bull), where said hero then navigated the labyrinth with a piece of string and slew the monster in single combat. Also, Minos had the characters Daedalus and Icarus on his island (in some stories, Daedalus built Minos’ labyrinth), who make their escape from his rule at some point, before Icarus does his Icarus thing and flies too close to the sun.
Most other personalities of Crete are connected to Minos, his son Deucalion rules after he dies and his grandson Idomeneus takes the Cretans into the Trojan War, where they fight alongside the rest of the Greeks in the Iliad. And I’m sure I’ll be talking about that loads in future posts, the Trojan War is incredible and affects the culture of so many of these Aegean civilisations.
Minoan Culture and Society
The key thing about the Minoans is that all of what we know from them comes from archaeological sites, and we can identify a few of these, the places I have marked on the map, as palace sites, where the kings of Crete, named Minos or not, built their palaces. And these palaces, from what we have excavated of them, show some immense structural design showing that these settlements that had them, Knossos, Malia, Zakros and Phaistos, were key administrative centres. They have been dated to 2000 BC, but as usual with this kind of thing, that has come under a lot of dispute from archaeologists, the palaces could have easily been built at different times catering to the needs of the rulers.
The Minoan religion seems to have been largely based around goddesses and despite Greek mythology involving them in Greek epics, did not seem to worship the Greek pantheon. There is potential for Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, to have been a figure that was one of these goddesses, if she was associated with the labyrinth, which, in some form or another was something the Greeks picked up from the ancient Minoans when they told the story of King Minos. There is a possibility for human sacrifice but this is unconfirmed and disputed. The other obstacle to finding out more about this is that like with the Indus, we do not have the ability to translate the Minoan script. There are few sources to work with and even fewer we are sure is Minoan, we have early Cretan hieroglyphs possibly associated with the Minoans, they remain undeciphered. It is essentially completely unknown to us.
Minoans domesticated bees and developed Mediterranean polyculture, meaning they grew a variety of crops in the farmland of Crete. As for leisure and art, we only really have remnants of Minoan art and pottery, frescoes from the palaces and some jewelry, not enough to give a clear indication.
Military, Trade and Decline
What we do know is that the Minoans were a people who picked up a good amount of early mercantile traits, as the first civilisation in Europe, they oversaw much of the trade coming in from the comparatively well developed area of the Levant over to mainland Greece and beyond. Sea trade was a very important part of antiquity, goods could travel much further than they could by cart and the Minoans took to this. We have a picture of them travelling to Cyprus, to the Levant, to Egypt, to the Greek mainland, they possibly had several ‘colonies’ among the Greek islands. They likely had very close contact with the people of the Cyclades. We have images from Egypt that indicate Minoans visited there in at least the 15th century if not more often.
Militarily, some people think the Minoans were mostly peaceful, as usual this far back, it’s so hard to be sure. They certainly didn’t have anyone who’d stop them. There’s a huge debate about whether they even had any fortifications, there are certainly fortified ancient settlements in Crete, but whether they were Minoan is debated. The Wiki section on Minoan weaponry has multiple issues so I’ll do what I think I’m doing best and make it clear. They had some Bronze Age weapons. They were probably at least a little military focused. But it didn’t dominate their society and there is no clear evidence of major military engagements with anyone. That we know of. There were almost certainly some. This is just how it goes in ancient times.
What’s curious about the end of the Minoan civilisation is unsure we are about how it stops. We know that the Mycenaean civilisation gets a foothold there around about 1420 BC, and that was definitely an overrunning of the comparatively weak Minoan forces, but there are plenty of theories that there was a large earthquake or a volcanic eruption on one of the nearby islands that damaged the civilisation so much that it was easy pickings for the invading Mycenaeans. Crete sits on a plate and there were numerous earthquakes there that damaged the civilisation in its history so it could be only fitting that one of those brought it to an end.