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.
Into the Labyrinth
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.”
Thucydides’ vision of ancient Crete was a thalassocracy, from the Greek words thalassa, meaning “sea,” and kratos, meaning “power.” This notion may well reflect the historian’s concerns with naval power in the region in his own day more than the reality of ancient Crete. Modern historians tend to view Crete as a less aggressive power that used its naval expertise to dominate trade rather than to conquer.
Power, Prestige, and Palaces
Despite the importance of Crete to ancient Greek civilization, archaeological study of its culture is relatively recent. Some of the earliest traces of a powerful, Bronze Age civilization were uncovered in the 19th century. British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered extensive ruins on Crete in the early 1900s. In honor of the legendary King Minos, he termed the civilization he uncovered “Minoan.”
Archaeological evidence shows that during the third millennium B.C. Crete lay at the center of an extensive trading network dealing in copper from the Cyclades and tin from Asia Minor. These materials were essential for producing bronze, a commodity that brought power and prestige to the Minoans. In the second millennium B.C., great palaces began to be built on Crete during the period known as the Neopalatial (circa 1700-1490 B.C.). Evans excavated several of these structures, including the magnificent Palace of Knossos, seat of the legendary King Minos. More recent archaeological digs have demonstrated that Crete was widely urbanized during this period and that Knossos exercised some kind of hegemony over other Cretan cities. The mid-second millennium B.C. seemed a time of great prosperity.
Although many Minoan structures have been given the secular term “palace,” researchers believe their role was not a royal one. It has never been firmly established whether Minoan Crete had a true royal dynasty, so these lavish palaces may have had mixed secular and religious roles. Some archaeologists interpret these palaces more as civic centers from which to control and distribute raw materials, carry out rituals, mete out justice, maintain water distribution, and also organize festivals for the populace. Daily life was, for the majority, simple but comfortable. Islanders lived in houses made of stone, mud brick, and wood, and the domestic economy was based on viticulture and olive farming. The surrounding cypress forests provided timber for shipbuilding for the important Minoan fleet.
As the Minoan upper classes grew increasing wealthy, they imported luxuries—jewelry and precious stones—which provided extra incentive to develop new trading routes for Crete’s exports: timber, pottery, and textiles. Little evidence has been found of city walls or fortifications built on ancient Crete during this time. This finding seems to suggest that either there were no serious threats to the island or—more likely—that patrolling ships were enough to guard its coastlines. A maritime force would have also protected the trading routes, harbors, and strategic points, such as Amnisos, the port that served the capital, Knossos.
As Minoan culture and trade radiated across the Aegean, communities on the islands of the Cyclades and the Dodecanese (near the coast of modern-day Turkey) were radically changed through contact with Crete. Cretan fashions became very popular in the eastern Mediterranean. Local island elites first acquired Cretan pottery and textiles as a symbol of prestige. Later, the presence of Minoan merchants also prompted island communities far from Knossos to adopt Crete’s standard system of weights and measures.
Perhaps the clearest sign of Minoan influence was the appearance of its writing system in the languages of later cultures. Characteristics of Crete’s letters appear to have used several forms. One of the oldest was discovered by Arthur Evans and is now known as Linear A. Despite not yet being deciphered, scholars believe it is the local language of Minoan Crete. But it must have been an important regional common language of its day, as Linear A has been found inscribed on many of the clay vessels discovered on islands across the Aegean.
The other script, called Linear B, evolved from Linear A. Deciphered in the 1950s, Linear B is recognized as the oldest known Greek dialect. The Minoans also maintained trading relationships with Egypt, Syria, and the Greek mainland. Their trade routes may have extended as far west as Italy and Sicily. Certain locations had especially close ties with Crete and its sailors. These included Miletus on the Anatolian peninsula on Crete’s eastern trading route. The city of Akrotiri on the island of Thera (modern-day Santorini) is one of the best preserved of these Minoan settlements. A volcanic eruption around the 16th century B.C. buried Akrotiri under ash, preserving its ruins which were excavated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Digs in the 1960s and ’70s unearthed a wealthy city with many distinctive Minoan features. Its walls boasted stunning murals of brightly colored, stylized images of sparring boxers, climbing monkeys, swimming dolphins, and flying birds. The quality of the paintings uncovered at Akrotiri suggests that artists either from Crete or influenced by its culture had set up workshops in this city.
Other Aegean settlements bearing clear evidence of Minoan influence include the Cycladi islands of Melos and Kea, and islands in the Dodecanese, such as Rhodes. The settlement of Kastri, on the island of Cythera, south of the Peloponnesian peninsula of the Greek mainland, is another example of Cretan cultural power. Built to exploit the local stocks of murex—a mollusk highly prized for its purple ink used for dyeing cloth—Kastri is purely Minoan in its urban planning. But even this town was not a colony. There is no evidence that these places were politically subject to Crete, as it is not believed that they paid any kind of tribute beyond the money exchanged when trading goods.
From the Ashes
Minoan civilization declined by the late 15th century B.C., but the exact cause is unknown. One theory is that the volcanic eruption on Thera damaged other cities along Minoan trade routes, which hurt Crete economically. Taking all the evidence available, the volcano did not directly affect life on Crete—about 70 miles to the south. No damage from the eruption has been found there.
Four times more powerful than the devastating Krakatoa volcanic eruption of 1883, the volcano on Thera (modern-day Santorini) exploded around the 16th century B.C. It buried cities, killing thousands, and—some say—led to the collapse of Crete. Stories of the Minoan decline are believed to have morphed into the legend of Atlantis as described by the Greek philosopher Plato circa 360 B.C.
Crete’s cities seemed unaffected for at least a few generations after the volcano. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of an invasion in the mid-15th century B.C. Many sites, including several large palaces in central and southern Crete were burned, and many settlements were abandoned shortly thereafter. The invaders most likely overthrew the Minoan government and took control of the island, ending the era of Crete’s dominance.
Despite its abrupt ending, the influence of Crete survived. Its vibrant culture made a major impact on the rising new regional power: the Mycenaean Greeks, who lauded King Minos and Crete in their mythology. Linear B, the Cretan writing system adopted by the Mycenaeans, would be the basis for the Greek in which the poet Homer would write his two masterpieces.