A.Decline of the Minoan Civilization
In 2000 B.C.E, the Greeks settled the lands that were surrounded by the waters of the Aegean Sea and created a culture that shaped Western heritage forever. The Greeks made history when they settled in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Syria-Palestine.
The first cultures in Greece arose in the later 3rd and 2nd millennia: the Minoans on Crete and the Mycenaeans on the mainland. These are the cultures that were the source of later Greek myths, and whose religious and social structures influenced so much of later Greece and Europe. The great palaces, fortifications and tombs are testimony to the achievements of these people.
Most of what we know about both cultures has been gained through archaeology. Though both were literate, Minoan texts are still almost unreadable, and the Mycenaean tablets are mostly bureaucratic inventories. Thus material evidence is critical for understanding and reconstructing these fascinating cultures.
About 725 B.C.E, Sparta embarked on a path that made it Greeces most respected military power. The state wanted all of its men to be superb soldiers, and it persuaded them to sacrifice privacy and comfort to physical conditioning, military training, and discipline.
Athens evolved slower then Spartan society. Years of consistent cultivation diminished the Athenian fields, which lead them to slavery. Athenians were sold abroad.
During the Bronze Age period, Greek civilization was evolving in the Aegean World. The Aegean World was divided into three developing parts: on the island of Crete, on the smaller islands of the Aegean Sea, and on the mainland of Greece. Aegeans first civilization was on Crete, which was a bridge between the older civilization of the East and settled land by the Greeks. Crete was inhabited from the sixth millennium B.C, but it was later, probably around the late fourth-early third millennium that immigrants from Asia Minor founded a genuine civilization (Demand 12).
In the Bronze Age most tools and weapons were made of bronze. It had been thought that the use of bronze had originated in the Middle East, but discoveries near Ban Chiang and Thailand, indicate that bronze technology was known there as early as 4500 BC. Bronze objects have been found in Asia Minor that date from before 3000 BC.
The Bronze Age in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean has been divided into three phases – early, middle, and late. The early phase is characterized by increased use of the metal. It was the time of the Sumerian civilization and the rise of Akkad to prominence in Mesopotamia; it also generated the spectacular treasures of Troy (Nystrom 31). Babylon reached its height of glory during the middle Bronze Age. Minoan Crete and Mycenaean Greece were major late-Bronze-Age civilizations. The Bronze Age there ended about 1200 BC, after which iron technology became common.
The Minoan civilization began on the island of Crete; a large island located midway between Asia Minor and Greece. As an island, it was isolated from the mainland of Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Egypt. As the population began to thrive, it also began to increase, and it is evident that the resources of the island became increasingly insufficient to handle the increased population. Some migrated, populating other islands in the Aegean Sea. They took their growing civilization with them and spread Minoan culture, religion, and government all over the Aegean Sea. For this reason, the Minoan culture is also called the “Aegean Palace Civilization.” Crete became the central exporter of wine, oil, jewelry, and highly crafted works; in turn, they became importers of raw materials and food. In the process they built the first major navy in the world; its primary purpose, however, was mercantile. We know of the Minoans only through their ruins. Splendid as they are, with their remarkable architectural logic, their hypnotic art, and the richness of cultural artifacts, they spoke a language we don’t understand and they wrote in a script, which we can’t read. Many walls carried murals showing landscapes, seascapes, festivals, and sports (Kagan 23).
Minoan culture reached its height in the 2nd millennium BC at Knossos, Phaestos, Mallia, and other flourishing centers. Little was known about Minoan culture before the discovery of a great palace at Knossos by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who named the culture it represented Minoan, in association with Minos, the legendary king. The palace at Knossos was probably damaged by an earthquake about 1700BC, a date that marked the end of one phase of the early history of Crete. A new dynasty developed an even more brilliant culture. The palace at Knossos was rebuilt on a more elaborate scale; it rose to three or four stories and contained many extensive rooms and passages and a luxuriously decorated throne room. Conspicuous among the many paintings was scenes of bull leaping, a sport that may have given rise to the later Greek myth of the Minotaur. Sanctuaries within the palace provided a place for the worship of a mother goddess, probably the one called Rhea by the Greeks (Nystrom 34). Associated with her worship was the double ax, pictures of which appear on some of the walls of the palace. In the ruins were also found handsome examples of sculpture and metalwork. Evidence exists that the Minoans had a complex system of weights and measures. They knew how to make fine burnished pottery, frequently decorated with incised geometric motifs, and were capable of building stone houses, though they also still made use of caves for habitation. Metals were as yet unknown and the tools and weapons they needed (hammers, axes, knives etc.) were made of a range of hard stones.
The kings of Knossos attained their greatest power about 1600BC, when they controlled the entire Aegean area and traded extensively with Egypt. The destruction of Knossos and the collapse of Minoan culture coincided with the beginning of the most flourishing period of Mycenaean civilization in Greece; this coincidence suggests that the warlike Mycenaeans attacked and destroyed the Minoan civilization.
The Knossos is the most famous archaeological site on Crete. It contains the ruins of the largest and most luxurious Minoan palace, built in the middle of a large town. The first palace was built around 2000 BC and destroyed around 1700 BC. The second one was built immediately afterward, more magnificent than the first.
This was also destroyed, around 1500 BC, most likely by the terrible eruption of the volcano on Santorini.
Findings on Crete after 1900 revealed some 3000 clay tablets inscribed with two scripts, called Linear A and Linear B. The earlier of the two, employed by the Minoans, was Linear A and it was already flourishing about 1750BC. Minoans also added inked Linear A inscriptions to stone and terra-cotta vessels. The Linear B tablets found at Cnossus on the island of Crete are pedestrian documents (Kagan 23). A unique clay disk found at the site of Phaestos is often adduced as the earliest example of printing-that is, reproducing written text by using “letter” stamps; the disk was stamped on both sides, while still wet, with a series of seal stones comprising a set of 45 symbols.
Linear B tablets were found on Crete and also at Pylos and Mycenae on the Greek mainland; the majority of tablets are dated between 1400BC and 1150BC. In 1952 the British architect and cryptographer Michael Ventris and John Chadwick deciphered Linear B and identified the language it transcribes as an early Greek dialect.
Caves were first used in Crete as dwellings or at least as habitation sites in the Neolithic period. Toward the end of the Neolithic, they also began to be used extensively as cemeteries, and such usage continued throughout the early Minoan period and in some areas even longer. Caves appear to have first been used as cult places early in the Middle Minoan period, at more or less the same time when the first Cretan palaces were being constructed. There may very well be some connection between the establishment of powerful central authorities in the palaces and the institution of worship in caves.
The evidence for the use of caves as cult places consists of pottery, animal figurines, and occasionally bronze objects. Such objects are found not only in caves, which had previously served habitation or funerary purposes, but also in caves that had the earliest known functions housing of some religious activity. In addition to artifacts, some cult caves contain large quantities of animal bones, mostly from deer, oxen, and goats and no doubt derived from some form of animal sacrifice.
One of the better-known cult caves is the “Cave Of Eileithyia” near Amnisos, associated with the divinity Eileithyia on the basis of a reference in Homer’s Odyssey. The caves that have furnished by far the richest assortments of objects are: the Kamares Cave, on the south slope of Mt. Ida at about 6000 feet; the Dictaean or Psychro Cave, on the west side of the Lasithi Plain in the foot hills of Mt. Dikte; the Idaean Cave, on the west side of the Neda Plain and on the northern slopes of Mt. Ida, and the Arkalochori Cave, not far south of the newly discovered palace at Galatas.
The decline of the Minoan civilization in the Late Minoan period coincided with the rise of the first great civilization of the Greek mainland, the Mycenaean, which reached its peak between 1500 and 1200 BC. Named after the ancient city of Mycenae, it is also known as the Achaean civilization after the Indo-European branch of migrants who had settled on mainland Greece and absorbed many aspects of Minoan culture.
Unlike Minoan society, where the lack of city walls seems to indicate relative peace under some form of central authority, Mycenaean civilization was characterized by independent city-states such as Corinth, Pylos, Tyrins and, the most powerful of them all, Mycenae. The Mycenaeans were closed within massive walls on easily defensible hilltops. The ruins of Mycenae walls were termed Cyclopean, because they were thought to have been built by the like-named giants.
The Mycenaeans most impressive legacy is magnificent gold jewelry and ornaments, most of which can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The Mycenaeans wrote in what is called Linear B, which has been deciphered as an early form of Greek (Demand 34). Examples of Linear B have also been found on Crete, suggesting that Mycenaean invaders may have conquered the island, perhaps around 1500 BC, when many Minoan palaces were destroyed. Mycenaean influence stretched further than Crete: the Mycenaean city-states banded together to defeat Troy and thus to protect their trade routes to the Black Sea, and archaeological research has unearthed Mycenaean artifacts as far away as Egypt, Mesopotamia and Italy. The Mycenaean civilization came to an end during the 12th century BC, when Dorian tribes invaded Greece and swept all before them.
Memories survived, however, and gave rise to the earliest monuments of Greek literature: Homers epics, the Iliad and the odyssey (Kagan 24). The Mycenaeans, written by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey, called them the Achaeans. Their language, an early Greek dialect, was written in the Linear B script. In the age of the Trojan War described in Homer’s epics, Mycenae was the home of King Agamemnon from the house of Atreus and the leading city in the Greek world. About 1200BC the supremacy of Mycenae came to an end, perhaps because of interstate rivalry, which was compounded about a century later by the successful invasion of another Greek people, the Dorians, from the north. About 468BC it was again besieged and destroyed, this time by the inhabitants of rgos, and never rebuilt.
Athens was one of the first city-states. Each of these independent states consisted of a city and the region that surrounded it. Athens had a king, as did other Greek states. According to tradition, the first king of Athens was named Cecrops. Kings ruled the city-state until 682 B.C. Beginning that year, elected officials named Archons, headed the government of Athens. The general assembly, which consisted of all adult male citizens of Athens, elected the archons to one-year terms. After their term of office, the archons joined the Areopagus, a council of elder statesmen. The Areopagus judged murder trials and prepared political matters for the vote of the general assembly. Hippias fell from power in 510 B.C., and Cleisthenes, the head of a leading family, became the most powerful statesman in Athens. About 508 B.C., the Athenians adopted a new constitution proposed by Cleisthenes, which made the state a democracy (Nystrom 36). This constitution was an unwritten one, but it stayed in effect with little change for hundreds of years. The constitution kept the ideas of Solon, but it also provided for new conditions that had developed since Solon’s rule. Until Cleisthenes’ time, citizenship in Athens had been based on blood relationship to the four Ionic tribes that had originally settled Attica.
A man had to belong to a phratry (brotherhood) to be a citizen. Under Cleisthenes’ system, all men 18 years of age and older were registered as citizens and as members of the deme (village or town) in which they lived. In time, membership in the demes became hereditary, and so a man might belong to a deme in which he did not actually live. Cleisthenes divided the demes into 30 groups called trittyes, which, in turn, were divided into 10 new tribes. Each of the 10 tribes was made up of 3 trittyes from different regions of Athens. Thus, members of each tribe came from various families and different parts of the city-state.
Athens led the empire into the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.) against Sparta and its allies. Sparta won this war and remained the most powerful Greek state until 371 B.C., when it was defeated by Thebes. Athens never regained its political leadership. But the city remained Greeces intellectual center. People still came to Athens as a center of culture under Macedonian rule, and later under Roman rule. For hundreds of years, wealthy Roman families sent their sons to Athens to complete their education. However, Athens lost its position as a cultural center in A.D. 529, when the Byzantine emperor Justinian closed the city’s schools of philosophy. From about 1100 to 1400, during the Middle Ages, Athens declined even further. As the power of Byzantium weakened, various Italian and other European rulers occupied the neglected city. In 1456, Athens fell to the Ottoman Empire. The Islamic Ottomans did little to restore the Christian city to its former glory. In 1833, after the Greek War of Independence, Athens became the capital of the new kingdom of Greece. The first king, Otto I, or Otho I, and his advisers were German. They used modern Western European ideas–such as public squares and straight streets–in their urban planning designs along the northern and eastern slopes of the Acropolis. The population grew to about 500,000 by the mid-1920’s.
The Spartans people belonged to three classes. The Spartans themselves were descended from the Dorians, a people who invaded the Greek peninsula in the 1100’s B.C. They were the ruling class of Sparta and were the only ones who had full rights of citizenship. They enslaved the earlier Greek peoples of Laconia, the Achaeans and Ionians. These enslaved Greeks, who were called helots, which outnumbered the Spartans. Some of the non-Spartan Greeks escaped enslavement. They were not citizens, but they lived in Sparta as free people. This group was known as the perioeci. The numbers of the three classes varied widely during Sparta’s long history. Some authorities estimate that at the height of Spartan power there were about 25,000 citizens, an unknown number of perioeci, and as many as 250,000 helots (Nystrom 46). Every Spartan male belonged to the state from the time of his birth. A boy was left to the care of his mother until he was seven years of age, when he was enrolled in a company of 15 members, all of whom were kept under strict discipline. From the age of seven, every boy had to take his meals with his company in a public dining hall. The bravest boy in a company was made captain. The others obeyed his commands and bore such punishments as he decided they should have. As a result of this system, the Spartan men became tough, proud, disciplined, and noted for obstinate conservatism and for brevity and directness of speech. From childhood, life was one continuous trial of endurance. All the gentler feelings were suppressed. Spartan women, on the other hand, lived the freest life of any women in Greece. As girls, they engaged in athletics, and as women, they ran their own households. They engaged in business, and many became wealthy and influential. Aristotle tells us that women owned two-fifths of the land in Sparta. The Dorians who settled in Sparta extended their control over all Laconia at an early date. In the 700’s B.C., they conquered Messenia, the rich farming region to the west of Mount Taygetus. Sparta failed to conquer the cities of Arcadia but forced them to enter the Peloponnesian League. The members of the league were obliged to follow Sparta in war. By 500 B.C., this league included most cities in southern and central Greece. Sparta conquered Athens, the leader of the powerful Athenian Empire, in the hard-fought Peloponnesian War. In 404 B.C., the Athenians were forced to accept a humiliating peace treaty. But the leadership won by Sparta was short-lived. The Spartans ruled over the other Greek states so cruelly that they revolted and threw off the Spartan yoke. At the battle of Leuctra, in 371 B.C., Sparta lost forever its claim to supremacy in Greece. But it remained powerful for the next 200 years. In 146 B.C., Sparta came under the control of Rome.
During the periods in Cretes history known as Middle and Late Minoan, the island evolved a unique civilization. The Minoans were known for their palace sites at Cnossus, their workshops for making pottery and jewelry, and their cellars that were filled with oil and grain.
The Mycenaean world contained a number of independent, powerful, and well-organized kingdoms. Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaeans were preoccupied with war.
The need for defense probably promoted the development of strong, centralized monarchies. Many Mycenaean towns fell about 1200 B.C.E., but some flourished for another century and some were never destroyed or abandoned.
The Athenians depended on small family farms that grew wheat, for their cultivation was diminishing rapidly. Poorer farmers survived by borrowing from other wealthy farmers. Athenians resulted to slavery in order to keep their people alive.
The Spartans lived in a constant state of military preparation. The state wanted all of its men to be well-trained soldiers. The Spartan polis controlled the life of being from birth. They learned to fight, to endure privation, to bear physical pain, and to live off the land. A Spartan was on active duty from the military until the age of sixty.
Demand, Nancy. A History of Ancient Greece. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
Kagan, Donald and Steven Ozment and Frank M. Turner. The Western Heritage. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999.
Nystrom, Bradley P. and Stylianos V. Spyridakis. Ancient Greece: Documantary Perspectives. Dubuque: Kendall-Hunt, 1985.