It is astonishing that history should lose all track of a civilization which lasts for six centuries, makes superb ceramics and metalwork, trades extensively over a wide region, and houses its rulers in palaces elaborately decorated with superb fresco paintings. Yet this has been the case with the Minoans in Crete, until the excavation of Knossos.
We still know little more about them than is suggested by Minoan art and artefacts. It is typical that the name they have been given derives from a figure of myth rather than history – Minos, the legendary king of Crete whose pet creature is the Minotaur, a monster with the body of a man and the head of a bull which feeds on young human flesh.
Three very similar palaces have been excavated in Crete from the Minoan period – at Knossos, Mallia and Phaistos. Built from around 2000 BC, each is constructed round a large public courtyard; each has provision for the storage of large quantities of grain; each is believed to be the administrative centre for a large local population. The number at Knossos has been variably estimated as between 15,000 and 50,000 people.
Administrative records and accounts are kept on clay tablets in a script as yet undeciphered (it is known as Linear A). Archaeological discoveries reveal that trade is carried on round the entire Mediterranean coast from Sicily in the west to Egypt in the southeast.
Overseas there are outposts of Minoan culture. It is not known whether they are colonies or more in the nature of trading partners, influenced by the culture of Crete. Notable among them is the city of Akrotiri, on the island of Thera. Its houses, apparently those of rich merchants, have survived with their frescoes intact. Several of the houses stand to a height of three storeys, with their floors still in place.
The reason for their preservation is the eruption of the island’s volcano in about 1525 BC. Like Pompeii a millennium and a half later, Akrotiri is pickled in volcanic ash.
Defensive walls are notably absent in Minoan Crete, as also are paintings of warfare. This seems to have been a peaceful as well as a prosperous society. But its end is violent. In about 1425 BC all the towns and palaces of Crete, except Knossos itself, are destroyed by fire.
It is not known whether this is a natural disaster, which gives Greeks from the mainland their chance, or whether Greek invaders destroy Minoan Crete – keeping only the main palace for their own use. But it is certain that the next generation of rulers introduce the culture of mainland Mycenae, and they keep their accounts in the Mycenaean script – Linear B. It seems probable that a Mycenaean invasion ends Minoan civilization.
The first Greek civilization: from the 16th century BC
The discovery that Linear B is a Greek script places Mycenae at the head of the story of Greek civilization. Its right to this place of honour is reinforced in legend and literature. The supposed occupants of the Mycenaean palaces are the heroes of Homer’s Iliad.
Archaeology reveals the rulers of these early Greeks to have been as proud and warlike as Homer suggests.
Their fortress palaces are protected by walls of stone blocks, so large that only giants would seem capable of heaving them into place. This style of architecture has been appropriately named Cyclopean, after the Cyclopes (a race of one-eyed giants encountered by Odysseus in the Odyssey). The walls at Tiryns, said in Greek legend to have built by the Cyclopes for the legendary king Proteus, provide the most striking example.
At Mycenae it is the gateway through the walls which proclaims power, with two great lions standing above the massive lintel.
Royal burials at Mycenae add to the impression of a powerful military society. The tombs of the 16th century (known as ‘shaft graves’ because the burial is at the bottom of a deep shaft) contain a profusion of bronze swords and daggers, of a kind new to the region, together with much gold treasure, including death masks of the kings.
By the 14th century the graves themselves become more in keeping with the status of their occupants, with the development of the tholos or ‘beehive’ style of tomb. The most impressive is the so-called Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae, with its high domed inner chamber (independently pioneered in Neolithic western Europe 2500 years previously).
The earliest known suit of armour comes from a Mycenaean tomb, at Dendra. The helmet is a pointed cap, cunningly shaped from slices of boar’s tusk. Bronze cheek flaps are suspended from it, reaching down to a complete circle of bronze around the neck. Curving sheets of bronze cover the shoulders. Beneath them there is a breast plate, and then three more circles of bronze plate, suspended one from the other, to form a semi-flexible skirt down to the thighs. Greaves, or shinpads of bronze, complete the armour.
The Mycenaean warrior’s weapons are a bronze sword and a bronze-tipped spear. His shield is of stiff leather on a wooden frame. Similar weapons are used, several centuries later, by the Greek hoplites.
Trade and conquest: 13th – 12th century BC
By the 13th century Mycenaean rulers control to varying degrees the whole of the Peloponnese, together with the eastern side of mainland Greece as far north as Mount Olympus, the large islands of Crete and Rhodes and many smaller islands. This is indeed a civilization which spreads around and through most of the Aegean.
Mycenaeans trade the length of the Mediterranean, from the traditional markets of the eastern coasts to new ones as far away as Spain in the west. They also have long-range trading contacts with Neolithic societies in the interior of Europe.
In the latter half of the 13th century, according to well-established oral tradition, the rulers of Mycenaean Greece combine forces to assault a rich city on the other side of the Aegean Sea. The city is Troy. Some four centuries later the oral tradition will be written down as the Iliad.
In Homer’s poem it takes many years before Troy is finally subdued. If there is truth in this, the war perhaps fatally weakens the Greeks. Certainly archaeology reveals that the successful Mycenaean civilization comes to an abrupt end not very much later – in about 1200 BC.
The sudden destruction of Mycenaean palaces in Greece is part of a wider pattern of chaos in the eastern Mediterranean. As far away as Egypt, the pharaohs fight off invasion by raiders whom they describe as people ‘from the sea’. It is a mystery, then as now, exactly where these predators come from.
The most likely answer is the southern and western coasts of Anatolia. The rulers of Anatolia, the Hittites, are among their victims. So also are the communities of the eastern Mediterranean, where some of the Sea Peoples settle – to become known as the Philistines.
Doric and Ionic: from the 12th century BC
In muted form Mycenaean Greece survives this first assault. But it suffers a final blow later in the 12th century at the hands of the Dorians – northern tribesmen, as yet uncivilized, who speak the Doric dialect of Greek. The Dorians move south from Macedonia and roam through the Peloponnese. They have the advantage of iron technology, which helps them to overwhelm the Bronze Age Mycenaeans.
The Dorian incursion plunges Greece into a period usually referred to as a dark age. But Dorian military traditions survive to play a profound part in the heyday of classical Greece. The ruthlessly efficient Spartans will claim the Dorians as their ancestors, and model themselves upon them.
The rival tradition in classical Greece is linked with Athens, an outpost of Mycenaean culture. Athens successfully resists the Dorians and becomes something of a place of refuge for those fleeing the invaders.
With the encouragement of Athens, from about 900 BC, non-Dorian Greeks migrate to form colonies on the west coast of Anatolia. These colonies eventually merge to form Ionia (Ionic is the dialect spoken by the Athenians and by many other Greek tribes). In subsequent centuries Ionia, with Athens, becomes a cradle of the classical Greek civilization. So there is a genuine continuity from Mycenae. It is reflected in the romantic idea of Mycenaean Greeks expressed by Homer – himself probably a native of Ionia.