And every time, it is ships, it is ships, it is ships of Cnossos coming

(From D. H. Lawrence, ‘The Greeks are Coming’)

In 2008 the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA) staged a typically handsome and informative exhibition in their headquarters in midtown Manhattan, which they entitled ‘The First Palatial Civilization in Europe: Minoan Crete, 3000–1100BC’. The more than 200 objects on display were arresting enough—wall-painting fragments, precious jewellery and figurines in various materials, ceremonial vessels and offerings, sealstones, pottery, tools, traces of food preparation, and inscribed tablets. Indeed, it is the last item in that list, the 3,000–4,000 tablets inscribed in the ‘Linear B’ syllabic script found in the palace at Cnossos and datable to around 1400 BCE, that has earned the city of Cnossos pole position on our starting-grid of Greek cities. For in 1952 the architect and amateur codebreaker Michael Ventris, indispensably assisted by the Cambridge Hellenist John Chadwick, announced to an astonished world that Linear B—unlike its Cretan predecessor, the still undeciphered Linear A script—had been devised to transcribe the earliest known form of the Greek language (and not, for instance, Etruscan—still undeciphered…). Ventris and Chadwick thus added more than half a millennium to the language’s known history, and gave an entirely new meaning to what—from a historian’s viewpoint—is the latest stage of Greek prehistory, in archaeologists’ parlance the Late Bronze Age.

Almost as exciting, though, was the exhibition’s title, which with a truly Greek passion for ‘famous firsts’ broadly and loosely designated the Cretan Early, Middle and Late Bronze Ages as ‘the first palatial civilization in Europe’. Actually, Crete is an island distinguished in important part precisely because it is not geographically on the European continental mainland but lies roughly equidistant between southern Greece and north Africa, and athwart trading and migration routes running from the eastern Mediterranean (the Near or Middle East today) to Greece, Egypt, and points further west. Aptly, its fauna and flora and microclimates exactly reproduce the island’s median position between the three continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia, making it one of the most fascinating of all the contiguously bounded Greek terrains for the tourist to visit today.


Map 2. Bronze Age Crete (Scientific American ‘Ancient Cities’ special issue 1994, p. 48)

That the Cretan Bronze Age was a ‘palatial’ civilization is not controversial, though the first palaces—at Cnossos and four other centres extending across the island’s 160-kilometre length (it is the third largest island in the Mediterranean after Cyprus and Sicily)—were developed much nearer 2000 than 3000 BCE. But that the civilization was ever Greek at all in any sense was proven only by Ventris and Chadwick, half a century and more after (Sir) Arthur Evans (1851–1941), pioneer excavator of Cnossos, had dubbed it ‘Minoan’ in honour of a Cretan King Minos of much later Greek legend. Herodotus, fully earning his spurs as the world’s first historian, had very sensibly doubted whether a Minos had ever really existed, since he did not belong to the ‘so-called human generation’, as opposed to the pre-human world of myth and legend. But Evans was not only hugely wealthy and a fiercely competitive and energetic excavator, but also a gifted publicist, and his ‘Minoan’ tag served both to humanize and to hellenize a culture that was not only pre-Greek in origin but also for most of its duration un-Greek. For, whatever language ‘Linear A’ script may record, it is certainly not Greek—and possibly belongs, not to the Indo-European language family of which Greek is a member, but to the Semitic language family. Most later Greeks of the historical period—Herodotus being a major exception—were convinced that the legendary eponym Minos was as real and as Greek as could be; indeed, he was thought to have functioned in the emblematic manner of early rulers, as a lawgiver. This was appropriate enough, in one way, since historic-era Crete with its reputed one hundred cities (in fact far fewer) was famously fertile in producing legislators and laws. The best-known are those of the central Cretan city of Gortyn (below). But we today should be very wary of leaping to infer that Evans’s—and the ancient Greeks’—Minos was a real-life, proto-Greek counterpart of the utterly real Babylonian codemaker Hammurabi (early eighteenth century BCE).

The true interest of Minos is that he is a character from one of the ancient Greeks’ most enduring intellectual and performative inventions, namely myth. It is true that some myths—‘tales’ is what the Greek word muthoi generically means, traditional ones in this particular case—may contain historical matter buried somewhere deep down near their origins. But it is not for their correspondence to historical fact that traditional tales become myths and serve the various functions—explanation of the world’s composition and creation, or legitimation of political power, for example—that myths definitionally perform. Myths’ practical functions normally far outweigh their (usually scant or null) verifiably accurate historical content. Thus, although the compilers of a Greek chronography known as the Parian Marble (written up on local stone on the Cycladic island of Paros in the late 260s BCE) included the reign of Minos in their listing of ‘Greek History’ dates between (what we call) 1582 and 264/3 BCE, we would do far better to stick with thescepticism noted above of Herodotus, and regard Minos (product of the rape by Zeus in the guise of a bull of the Phoenician princess Europê) and his alleged thalassocracy as no more historical and no less mythical than the Minotaur (offspring of Minos’s wife Pasiphae and—the recurring bovine motif obtrudes—a bull).

At best, then, we may speak of ‘myth-history’, as far as the Late Bronze Age of Crete is concerned—and that goes for the rest of Greece too (despite the ostensible historicity of the Homeric poems, as we shall see in the next chapter). That myth-history, supplemented or corrected by the mute but usually objective data of archaeology, is indeed all we have to go on for reconstructing at least the first seven or so centuries (c.1500–800 BCE) of attested Greek activity. And the first observation to be made is of difference. That is, between the world of the prehistoric Greek or non-Greek palace and the historic Greek polis there is a fixed and unbridgeable gulf—a gulf in both material and ideological as well as more narrowly political culture.

The Cretan Late Bronze Age palace—Cnossos’s measured some 750 square metres in area—functioned politically and ceremonially as the seat and symbol of power exercised by some sort of paramount chief or overlord, a ‘big man’ (presumably, rather than a Queen) who—at least under the Greek dispensation—may have been called anax or ‘lord’. But there were other people of distinction and consequence, inhabiting close by what have been called ‘mansions’ constructed of the same finely dressed and neatly jointed ashlar masonry as the palace itself. Economically, the palace of Cnossos acted as a redistributive and storage centre capable, it is most recently thought, of supporting some 14,000–18,000 souls (a sober estimate far more plausible than the grossly inflated figure of 80,000–100,000 favoured by Evans himself).

At the core of this fundamentally agrarian regime, and made possible by a climate which seems in essentials to have changed but little over three thousand years, was the ‘Mediterranean triad’ of dietary staples: grain (chiefly barley, because it is much more drought-resistant, but also various kinds of wheat and some other lesser grains such as millet), wine (Cretan soil and climate still are famously suitable for viticulture), and oil, that is, olive oil (ditto). It is estimated from the storage capacity of the jars in the palace’s west wing that to fill them might have required as many as 32,000 olive trees grown on an area of 320 hectares. But these three staples were powerfully supplemented by coriander and saffron and—at least to judge from the later Linear B tablets—by serious pasturage of sheep for woolmaking. And the domestic productive economy was interlocked with a sophisticated network of trading contacts extending into Egypt in the south, to the Cyclades islands and southern Peloponnesian mainland to the north, and to the Levant, mediated by a complex system of weights and boosted by the extreme skill of Cretan craftsmen, nowhere displayed to more telling effect than in the production of tiny seals, semi-precious stones, and gold rings engraved with scenes both of everyday life and of religious ritual activity.

The staples triad had been established as such in mutual symbiosis during the Early Bronze Age (third-millennium) ‘emergence of civilization’ (to use Colin Renfrew’s handy but somewhat elliptical phrase). It is tempting therefore, if by ‘civilization’ we understand citi-fication, to speak of Cnossos as becoming a ‘city’ of sorts some time around or after 2000 BCE. Strikingly absent, however, not only from Cnossos but from all the other contemporary Cretan palaces and other major settlement centres, are city walls. Comparatively speaking, what is most striking is the absence from Crete of the sort of massive fortification walls that marked—and marked out—the Greek mainland at this time. These walls were known to the later Greeks as ‘Cyclopean’, because they thought only giants like Homer’s one-eyed Cyclopes could possibly have made them.

Not that the palaeo-Cretans were innocent of all aggression, no doubt, let alone bloodshed. Examples of what look uncannily like human sacrifices have been found in eastern Crete and not far from Cnossos itself. But leaving aside such spectacularly gory exceptions, the Late Bronze Age Cretans’ establishment of some sort of network of ‘colonies’ or at least trading outposts stretching from the Aegean to Egypt, such as that at Kastri on the small offshore island of Cythera, is unlikely to have been achieved totally peacefully. Indeed, famous frescoes from the ancient Greek ‘Pompeii’—modern Akrotiri on the Cycladic island of Santorini (ancient Thera)—that are datable to before that island’s massive volcanic self-destruction in the 1620s BCE show what must surely be ‘Minoan’ warfleets in action. But back at home, in Crete and especially Cnossos, the most violent kind of licensed social activity seems to have been a form of ritual bull-leaping—leaping, not Spanish-style killing, as is depicted with immense skill in a variety of artistic media, again including fresco. A fine gold cup deposited in a large grave at Vapheio in the south-east Peloponnese dated c.1500 seems to show bulls being rounded up for this purpose (Plate 2). On this evidence, it would be rash to deny that there was some form of bull-worship practised on Crete, involving the ceremonial placing and no doubt use for worship of what archaeologists call ‘horns of consecration’.

It is against the backdrop of apparent pacificity (if I may coin that word) that the violence of the transition from native Cretan to foreign rule at Cnossos in the period around 1450 BCE transpires so markedly, attested, for conspicuous instance, by the sudden unannounced presence of a number of ‘warrior graves’ (graves stuffed with—bronze—weapons). What is now known as ‘Final Palatial Crete’ is thus most economically explained as having been midwifed by conquest, and it is a further economy of inference—from the language and script of the Linear B tablets—to suppose that the invading conquerors were Greek-speakers from the Greek mainland, especially the Peloponnese.

It is true that there has been huge debate over the dating of the Cnossos Linear B tablets. Although Evans did pay some considerable attention to the then newfangled notion of stratigraphy, his encouragement of his workers’ speed of work by means of bribery did not lend itself to the most scrupulous recording of levels of deposit, or enable easy retrospective decipherment of the data retrieved from the soil in stratified sequences. In the 1960s my own former Oxford doctoral supervisor, John Boardman, was obliged to defend fiercely the scholarship—and honour—of Evans (who had dated them c.1400 BCE) against a determined assault by the philologist L. R. Palmer, who wished to downdate them to c.1200 (the rough date of all the other known examples, both from the Greek mainland and from elsewhere in Crete). The Boardman defence of Evans has been universally adjudged successful, more successful at any rate by far than Cnossos’s of itself against the mainlanders.

These mainlanders are known to scholarship if not to history as the Mycenaeans, and they will be the subject of the next chapter. But first a brief Cnossian prospect. Cnossos’s—and Crete’s—political heyday fell in the firmly prehistoric Bronze Age, but Dark Age and Archaic Crete (eleventh to ninth centuries, seventh to sixth centuries) were not a total cultural blank by any means, and the island traditionally was unusually fertile in the creation of early poleis. Another tradition, however, is better based and corroborated, namely that of early historical Crete as a land of lawgivers and laws. For conspicuous example, the excavated Agora (see Glossary) of Drerus and a late-seventh-century law inscribed on bronze from that same small city in eastern Crete bear objective witness in support of that claim.

In later historical times Cnossos was revived as a Hellenic city, with an important cult of the earth-mother goddess Demeter. Among the relatively large number of inscribed Cretan documents of the fifth century—most famously, the ‘Code’ of Gortyn in central Crete, inscribed on temple walls around 450 BCE—there is a fragmentary text of about the same date from the sanctuary of Artemis at Tylissus that links Cnossos with not only Tylissus but also Argos in the Peloponnese (subject of our Chapter 4) in a detailed and complex religious-cum-political pact concerning among other things distribution of war-booty. One possible explanation for the involvement of Argos is that the city was regarded as—and maybe really was—the colonial founder of the other two some time during the Dark Age of the eleventh to tenth centuries, by which time Argos was a Dorian city. At any rate, as an anachronistic reference in Homer had already announced, by the Classical period Crete had been re-colonized, this time by a wave of predominantly Doric-Greek-speaking immigrants (not necessarily also conquerors) who came to stay.

The subsequent fortunes of Cnossos may be traced well into the era of Roman conquest, occupation, and provincialization of the island (after 146 BCE). There has even been talk of a (Roman) ‘imperial renaissance’. But what visitors to the site today will see—an ‘opera set on a wet afternoon’, as I have heard it described—is very much a product of Sir Arthur Evans’s imagination.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!