The Minoans and Mycenaeans
A few interesting links:
and Mycenaean art and architecture
Linear B and Other Ancient
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
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
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
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
Schliemann, Evans and Ventris: evidence for great
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.
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, 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
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.
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
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
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
The typical textbook tells you that the Minoans were advanced a
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
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
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
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.
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.