The Bronze Age refers to a period of human history during which people made most of their tools and weapons of bronze—a mixture of copper, tin, and other metals. The Bronze Age occurred at different times in different areas of the world. In the region around the Aegean Sea, it lasted from about 3000 B.C. to 1200 B.C. During that time, three unique civilizations emerged in the Aegean region: the Cycladic, the Minoan, and the Mycenaean civilizations.

These Aegean cultures laid the early foundations for the development of Greek civilization.

Cycladic Civilization. The Cyclades are a group of islands located in the Aegean Sea between the Greek mainland and the coast of Asia Minor. Bronze Age culture began in these islands in about 2500 B.C. In addition to using bronze for their tools and weapons, the inhabitants of the Cyclades also fashioned objects from lead, silver, and marble. People of the Cycladic civilization lived in small, unfortified communities scattered among the islands. They practiced subsistence farming and traded with communities on the mainland. Religion seems to have centered around the worship of fertility goddesses. The Cycladic civilization disappeared around 1900 B.C., but its influence was felt on the Greek mainland, along the coast of Asia Minor, and on the large island of Crete to the south.

Minoan Civilization. Another Bronze Age culture had developed on Crete as early as 3000 B.C. but did not reach its height until after 2200 B.C. This culture was called the Minoan civilization, named after King Minos, a legendary ruler of the island. Early Minoan civilization was similar to that of the Cyclades in several important ways—the use of bronze, a focus on agriculture and trade, and the worship of goddesses. During the high point of Minoan civilization, between about 2200 and 1500 B.C., the Minoans established carefully planned towns and cities on Crete and built networks of roads to connect them. They also extended their trading networks throughout the Mediterranean region.

Minoan rulers built great multiroom palaces, decorating the walls with lively frescoes* of dolphins, athletic young men and women, and other subjects. The Minoans also developed a form of writing based on pictographs*, which modern archaeologists call Linear A. Around 1450 B.C., this was replaced by Linear B, an early form of the Greek language. At about the same time, the Minoan civilization mysteriously faded into obscurity. Archaeologists believe that a large volcanic eruption on the Aegean island of Thera destroyed many Cretan cities, ruined agriculture, and caused the civilization’s decline. It is also probable that people from mainland Greece invaded Crete in the aftermath of this disaster, met little resistance from the peace-loving Minoans, and destroyed much of their culture.

Mycenaean Civilization. After the decline of Minoan civilization, the Greek mainland became the focus of Aegean culture. Around 2000 B.C., a group of people known as the Mycenaeans invaded Greece from the north and developed a Bronze Age culture centered in the Peloponnese, the large peninsula that forms the southernmost part of Greece. By 1600 B.C., Mycenaean civilization had spread throughout Greece and into the coastal regions of Asia Minor.

Mycenaean civilization was notable for its massive stone architecture and heavily fortified cities with walls of huge stones. Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaeans had a warlike culture, and they controlled territory and extended their power through military might. Mycenaean warrior kings built great palaces and royal tombs, and they collected taxes and crops from their subjects. Between 1600 B.C. and 1400 B.C., the Mycenaeans competed with the Minoans for trade dominance in the Mediterranean. This contact with Minoan culture helped inspire Mycenaean civilization. The Mycenaeans, for example, decorated their graves with the beautiful craftwork of Minoan artists. After the Mycenaeans invaded Crete in the 1400s, however, the Mycenaean culture largely overtook the Minoan culture and contributed to its decline.

* fresco method of painting in which color is applied to moist plaster and becomes chemically bonded to the plaster as it dries; also refers to a painting done in this manner

* pictograph picture used to represent a sign or symbol, as in ancient writing

Around 1200 B.C., Mycenaean domination of the Aegean region was disrupted by invasions from the north and by internal strife. Thereafter, Mycenaean civilization declined and Greek civilization began to take shape. This period is known as the Dark Age because so little is known about Greece during this era of its history. It was during this period that the Mycenaean king Agamemnon and other legendary heroes* destroyed the city of Troy in Asia Minor, an event celebrated in the epics of the Greek poet Homer. (See also Archaeology of Ancient Sites; Architecture, Greek; Greece, History of: Early Greeks; Mycenae; Trade, Greek.)

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

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