In the epic poem The Odyssey, the Greek poet Homer praised an island that lies “out in the wine-dark sea . . . a rich and lovely sea-girt land, densely peopled, with 90 cities and several different languages.” This sophisticated place is not just a random spot in the Mediterranean—Homer is describing Crete, southernmost of the Greek islands and home to one of the oldest civilizations in Europe. Located some 400 miles northwest of Alexandria in Egypt, Crete has been inhabited since the Neolithic period, around 7000 B.C. The culture that developed there during the second millennium B.C. spread throughout the entire eastern Mediterranean world. Crete’s command of the seas would allow its stunning art and architecture to deeply influence the Mycenaean Greek civilization that would succeed it.
Many myths and legends of Crete center around King Minos, son of the god Zeus and the Phoenician princess Europa. The thunder god had turned himself into a gentle, white bull. Charmed by the creature, Europa climbed on its back, and the bull bore her away to Crete where she would later bear their children. Minos became king of Crete and was said to be advised by Zeus himself. Under his rule, Minos built a strong navy and defeated rival city Athens. In one popular myth, Minos demands that Athens send 14 Athenian youths to Crete to be sacrificed to the fearsome Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull, who dwelled in the labyrinth on the island. These myths were created after Minoan civilization had declined, but still reflected the respect that later Greeks had for the people of Crete.
Despite Minos’s mythological status, the historian Thucydides—working at the height of Athens’s golden age in the fifth century B.C.—wrote of him as if he were a historical figure, “the first to whom tradition ascribes the possession of a navy.” Thucydides describes Minos as a conqueror: He expanded Cretan territories, taking the Cyclades—the 30 or so islands that scatter the sea to the north of Crete—expelling the native Carian peoples, and appointing his own sons to govern there. The historian also claims that, in order to “protect his growing revenues, [Minos] sought, as far as he was able, to clear the sea of pirates.”