The Minoans and Mycenaeans

A few interesting links:

Minoan and Mycenaean art and architecture
Linear B and Other Ancient Scripts
Heinrich Schliemann

 Basic overview/time periods of Greek History

For convenience sake, we typicall divide Greek history up into the following periods:

1.  The Minoan period, very roughly  3000-1400 BC.  The Minoans were not Greek speakers, but, for reasons I will explain later, we typically begin the study of Greek history by talking about the civilization the Minoans created on the Island of Crete. 

2.  The  Mycenaean period, roughly 1600-1100 BC.  The Mycenaeans were Greek speakers and, apparently, borrowed much from the Minoans.  The Trojan War heroes (Agammenon, Odysseus, etc., if they were real figures, lived during the Mycenaean period.

3. The Dorian Invasion and Greek Dark Age, roughly  1100-800 BC.  This is a period in which a new wave of Greek speaking people sweeps into the Peloponnesian peninsula and creates a major disturbance.  Literacy disappears and there are few archaeological items of any interest from this period: a dark age in material culture and a dark age in terms of our knowledge.

4.  Rise of City-States (800-500).  Sparta and Athens in particular establish their distinctive ways of life and lay the foundations of their future greatness/importance.  Thebes and Corinth arise during this period as well, as do the city-states of Ionia (the west coast of present-day Turkey) and on Aegean islands.  Places like Miletus are the most culturally advanced in the Greek-speaking world. 

5.  The Persian War (490-479).  The Greeks knock out the heavyweight champions of the world, a victory that ushers in the achievements of "Golden Age" Greece.

6.  Athenian hegemony (479-404) and the Peloponnesian War (431-404).  The Golden Age of Athens and the great tragedy of Athenian democracy.

7.  Spartan hegemony (c. 404-371).   Divide and rule time: the victory of the Persian "archers."

8.  Theban hegemony (c. 371-362 ).  Pelopidas, Epamonandas, and the Sacred Band turn a loser into a champion.
9. Macedonian hegemony (c. 338-197).  Philip and Alexander change the Greek world--and a lot else besides.

10.  The Hellenistic Age (c. 338-31 BC).  Greek political greatness fades, but Greek culture lives on.

Minoan and Mycenaean history: problems with sources

As I said  (or should have said) last time, the Greeks are probably the most important of all ancient peoples in terms of their impact on subsequent civilization.  The archieved incredible things in poetry, philosophy, art, history, political science, medicine, biology, theater, and mathematics, producing works that, in many cases, are usurpassed in the history of the history of the world.

The most important and impressive of Greek achivements come either from the 5th century "Golden Age" or from the later Hellenistic period, but if one wants to understand how it is that the Greeks achieved so much, it's best to go back to the period of the Minoans and Mycenaeans.  Some historians lump these two periods together along with some broader trends and talk about Aegean culture--and that's certainly a useful way of approaching this material--thought I am going to follow the more usual designations. 

Unfortunately, we don't know nearly as much about the Minoans and Mycenaeans as we would like.  Still, the work of people llike Heinrich Schliemann, Sir Arthur Evans, and Michael Ventris have given us enough information to suggest that these peoples helped lay the foundations of later Greek greatness.

Schliemann, Evans and Ventris: evidence for great pre-classical European civilization

Not so very long ago (in the mid-19th century), no historian would have been able to say much with confidence about the Minoans and Mycenaeans .  Greek history started with the Dorians--and there wasn't much to say about that period either.  History depends on written records, and this was something the 19th century historians didn't have for anything pre-dating the 6th century BC.  Plutarch, a Greek writer from the 1st century AD, had better sources, but even he didn't have all that much to go on. 

There was, of course one source that seemed to come from the Dark Ages, and that pointed to an earlier Golden Age (the period we now call the Mycenaen period).  That source: the poems of Homer.  But 19th century scholars had no faith at all in Homer--or in other ancient writings either.  The 19th century tended toward skepticism about all ancient sources, and even stories that (say) Enlightenment scholars would have tended to believe, the 19th century dismissed as pure fantasy.

But one man turned things around: a German businessman named Heinrich Schliemann.  Here's an interesting summary:


Merchant digs more than gold

Heinrich Schliemann was a bold dreamer and a prolific liar. Despite those credentials, it wasn't politics that brought him to Gold Rush Sacramento in 1851. Instead, it was the death of his brother Ludwig, from typhus.

Schliemann, a German-born merchant had been living in St. Petersburg, Russia. He planned to make sure his brother was properly buried, claim what he believed to be a sizable estate, and get back to Europe.

What he found, however, was that his brother had been buried without a tombstone, and his brother's business partner had made off with the loot. So Schliemann paid $50 for a marble headstone, and set himself up in business as a gold broker. In addition to making up outrageous stories in his diary, Schliemann was more than a little paranoid.

Afraid of fire, his office was located in Sacramento's only brick-and-stone building, at Front and J streets. He wrote that he often slept on top of the gold, with pistols across his chest.

Despite two bouts of yellow fever, Schliemann persevered, and in nine months he made more than $400,000, some of it legitimately. He returned to St. Petersburg in 1852, using his Gold Rush fortune to make an even greater fortune in the Crimean War. And his money allowed Schliemann to indulge his real passion in archaeology -- and preserve himself a place in history.

In 1871, Schliemann, using Homer's "Iliad" as a guide, began digging in what is now Turkey, and found the lost city of Troy. A German merchant with a penchant for prevarication spurred the growth of modern archaeology and found the gold of an ancient era -- using the gold of California.
Now the story here calls Schliemann a liar, and, unfortunately, that seems to be true.  His account of his discoveries isn't necessarily as straight-forward as it might be.   Schliemann said he had first determined to excavate Troy at the age of 8.  Well, maybe.  And his account of falling in love with Homer after hearing a drunk recite Homeric poetry?  Well maybe that's true too.  Wikipedia has a really good (and fascinating) summary of the Schliemman's achievements--well worth your time.  The guy is a character: letting his kids be baptized, but dedicating them in his own way by reciting 100 lines of Homeric verse over little Agamememnon and Andromache!

Schliemann's work at Troy did suggest a great civilization at the time Homer suggested--though, interestingly, he identified "Troy 2" as the layer of Homer's Troy when it was really from an even earlier civilization.  Schliemann's methods weren't as good as those of modern archeologists, and he ended up accidently destroying some of the evidence of "Homeric" Troy. 

After excavating Troy, Schliemann went to the Greek mainland and excavated Tyrens and Mycenae--the city of Agamemnon.  What he found there was further confirmation that the Homeric stories contained at least partly accurate memories of a a great Greek civilization pre-dating Golden Age Athens by nearly 1000 years.  Schliemann's discoveries also pointed to an even earlier civilization.  He was going to excavate Knossos on the island of Crete, but died before he got the chance.  The actual excavation of Knosos was carried out by Sir Arthur Evans.  One again, Wikipedia has a really good (and fascinating) summary of  Evan's achievments.  Before reading that article,  I didn't know he had failed his exams in his Oxford University specialty (modern history) because he spent all his time on ancient and medieval history.  Ah, priorities.

Anyway, Evans excavations at Knossus revealed an advanced civilization developing as early as 3000 BC and, by 2000 BC, creating some rather impressive things.  Unfortunately, Evans wasn't able to provide the kind of evidence historians value the most: written documents.  Evans (c. 1900 AD) did discover documents, but they couldn't be translated.  There were three different scripts, a pictographic script that's sort of like Egyptian hieroglypics, Linear A, a script that still can't be deciphered, and Linear B that Evans (and many later scholars) couldn't figure out.  

The man who finally figures out Linear B was Michael Ventris.  It turns out that, as a boy (age 14), Ventris went to an exhibit of Minoan artificacts and just happened to meet Evans (then an old man in his 80's) who told him that Linear B had yet to be deciphered.  Ventris  went on to serve in World War II and then to earn a degree in architecture.  But he was fascinated by the riddle of Linear B--and (finally) figured out how to solve the puzzle.  He had at first thought that Linear B must have been related to the (also undeciphered) Etruscan language.  But, eventually, he figured out that Linear B was a method for writing an archaic form of Greek.  Sadly, not all that long after this great discovery, Ventris died in an automobile accident: possibly suicide by car.  He was only in his 30's.  Might he have gone on to also decipher Linear A?  Maybe: no one has read that particular riddle yet.  And Linear B turned out not to be quite so helpful becuase it's (first of all) a late script and (second) the texts preserved are bascially business records, not the laws, proverbs, stories, etc. that historians really want.

Also, Linear B seems to be the result of the decline of Minoan civilization.  Greek-speaking from the Mainland seem to have taken over rule of the non-Greek Minoans as the Minoans themselves had gone into a decline.  What all this means is that, when it comes to the Minoan period, we are left mostly in a guesswork position.  We've got archaeological artificats, but interpretation of these artificacts is sometimes a matter of dispute.

General interpretation of Minoan archaeology/potential problems

The typical textbook tells you that the Minoans were advanced a peaceful, well-organized, prosperous, literate, artistic people, well-disposed toward women, extensively involved in trade, matriarchal in religion, and superb at engineering.

The archaeological evidence can confirm some of this, but not everything.  Before the world was thoroughly explored, the old map-makers found themselves faced with the probably of terra incognita--unknown lands.  Do you just leave your map blank?  Often enough, no.  "Here be dragons," say the maps--or equally fantastic creatures.

Historians too have a tendency to fill in historical terra incognita with things they wish to find.  Equality for women?  A society without warfare?  Maybe just wishful thinking.   

Another problem is the ambiguity of some of the later sources that might otherwise help.  "Minos," for instance appears as a Cretan leader in several much later Greek tales.  Sometimes, he's an exceptionally cruel leader as, for instance, in the Deadalus story and the Theseus legend.  On the other hand, Minos is depicted elsewhere as a wise leader: Plato suggests that he's one of those that judge the dead and decide an appropriate afterlife for them, and Homer calls Minos a confidant of Zeus!

So what are we left with?  Advanced engineering and building?  We can be confident here.  Roads 11 feet wide. Indoor plumbing of a kind not equalled again for many centuries in Europe. Spacious buildings with 6-8 rooms. Palace grounds covering five acres?  That suggests an advanced organizational structure, as do the business records themselves.  Beautiful art?  Yes--again we're on safe ground.

But what about the evidence that the Minoans were peaceful? 
Minoan art features nature scenes suggesting cooperation with nature rather than conflict.  We get bull leaping (with both male and female athletes) rather than the killing of bulls.  We don't have warfare reflected in the surviving artworks, and we don't see lots in the way of preparation for fighting.  But these are a sea-faring people, and their fighting may well have been done in naval engagements which have left no trace.

High status for women and the matriarchal religion? Well, we've got goddesses including one with an owl and snakes--typical symbols later of Athena.  But Athena was the patron goddess of Athens, and few would argue that that status of women was particularly high.  Worship of goddesses often goes hand in hand with temple prostitution and the degradation of women.  I don't think that's the case here, but it's not safe to assume that beautiful goddess statuettes are proof of an egalitarian society.

Almost certainly we can conclude that the Minoans were dimly remembered for their achievements by later Greeks and that, in the Atlantis legends, we have a memory of Minoan greatness.  "Minos" most probably wasn't a single indivdual but a title (like pharaoh)--no wonder there's some ambiguity regarding "Minos" character. 

Unfortunately, we don't really know how Minoan civilization came to an end.  Some point to volcanic erruption and a following earthquake as a factor.  Others suggest that the Greek-speakers disrupted things.  Both were probably factors, but I would guess that, also, declining trade played a role.  Did Hyksos rule of Egypt (1750-1570) cut off important trade opportunities?  Hard to know.

But, despite all the terra cognita, it does seem reasonable to assume that memories of Minoan civilization much later did serve to inspire some of the great achievements of later Greece. 

The Mycenaens

There are somewhat similar problems when it comes to the Mycenaeans/Achaeans.  The Mycenaeans apparently begain moving in to the Greek mainland as early as 2000 BC, but they aren't very advanced until around 1600 BC.  Apparently, these Greek speakers came into contact with the more-advanced Minoans and adopted some Minoan traits for their own.  Once again, we don't have the written records we would like.   We've got Linear B business records once again, no laws, stories, proverbs, etc.

Excavating Mycenaean sites shows a culture similar in some ways to Minoan culture, but, in one important way, substantially different.  We have shaft graves filled with weapons, and walled cities prepared for defense.  Land warfare a much greater feature of Mycenaean society than Minoan society.   The poems of Homer, set in Mycenaean times, suggest a people for whom warfare stood at the heart of economic success.  Hittite and Egyptian records tend to confirm the idea that the Mycenaeans were a warlike people.

But he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.  Around 1100 BC a new wave of Greek speakers (the Dorians) swept into the Pelopponesian peninsula and displaced the Mycenaeans. Ancient writers suggested that the Athenians were a remnant of people who pre-dated the Dorians, and I'd guess that this is correct.  Some Mycenaean types probably ended up in Athens.  But, throughout Greece, the Dorian invasion disrupted greatly what had gone on before.  The Dorians with their iron weapons were more advanced in military technology than the Mycenaeans (who still depended on bronze).  But, in every other way, the Dorians were less advanced, and during the next centuries, Greece goes through a dark age.  Material culture declines.  Literacy disappears.  The Greeks achieve nothing of lasting greatness.  But out of the dark, come two things: the rise of the polis and the poems of Homer.

As I've mentioned earlier, 19th century scholars dismissed Homer's stories as entirely without historical foundation.  Schliemann showed that this view was wrong.  Both the Iliad and the Odyssey have portions at least that reflect real conditions during the Mycenaean period.  Maybe the names of his heroes are historical--and maybe even some of the character descriptions.  The cities he indicates as important do often seem to those that were in fact important in the Mycenaean period.  Yes, there's a mixture of material that reflects the dark age in which the poems actually took shape, but there's evidence for earlier condidtions as well--and we'll talk about this some as we actually read the Iliad.