A new interplay of cultures brought many changes to peoples on the fringe of the Near East but civilization in the Aegean islands was rooted in the Neolithic as it was elsewhere. The first metal object found in Greece - a copper bead - has been dated to about 4700 BC, and European as well as Asian stimuli may have been at work. Crete is the largest of the Greek islands. Several centuries before 2000 BC, towns with a regular layout were being built there by an advanced people who had been there through Neolithic times. They may have had contacts with Anatolia which spurred them to exceptional achievements, but the evidence is indecisive. They could well have arrived at civilization for themselves. At any rate, for about a thousand years they built the houses and tombs by which their culture is distinguished and these did not change much in style. By about 2500 BC there were important towns and villages on the coasts, built of stone and brick; their inhabitants practised metal-working and made attractive seals and jewels. At this stage, that is to say, the Cretans shared much of the culture of mainland Greece and Asia Minor. They exchanged goods with other Aegean communities. There then came a change. About 500 years later they began to build the series of great palaces which are the monuments of what we call ‘Minoan’ civilization; the greatest of them, Knossos, was first built about 1900 BC. Nothing quite as impressive appears anywhere else among the islands and it exercised a cultural hegemony over more or less the whole of the Aegean.
Minoan is a curious name; it is taken from the name of a King Minos who, although celebrated in legend, may never have existed. Much later, the Greeks believed - or said - that he was a great king in Crete who lived at Knossos, parleyed with the gods, and married Pasiphae, the daughter of the sun. Her monstrous offspring, the Minotaur, devoured sacrificial youths and maids sent as tribute from Greece at the heart of a labyrinth eventually penetrated successfully by the hero Theseus, who slew him. This is a rich and suggestive theme and has excited scholars, who believe it can throw light on Cretan civilization, but there is no proof that King Minos ever existed. It may be that, as legend suggests, there was more than one of that name, or that his name was a titular identification of several Cretan rulers. He is one of those fascinating figures who, like King Arthur, remain just beyond the borders of history but inside those of mythology.
Minoan, then, simply means the civilization of people who lived in Bronze Age Crete; it has no other connotation. This civilization lasted some 600 years, but only the outlines of a history can be put together. They reveal a people living in towns linked in some dependence on a monarchy at Knossos. For three or four centuries they prosper, exchanging goods with Egypt, Asia Minor and the Greek mainland, and subsisting on a native agriculture. It may have been this which explains Minoan civilization’s leap forward. Crete seems then, as today, to have been better for the production of olives and vines, two of the great staples of later Mediterranean agriculture, than either the other islands or mainland Greece. It seems likely, too, that she raised large numbers of sheep and exported wool. Whatever its precise forms, Crete experienced an important agricultural advance in late Neolithic times, which led not only to better cereal-growing but, above all, to the cultivation of the olive and vine. They could be grown where grains could not and their discovery changed the possibilities of Mediterranean life. Immediately they permitted a larger population. On this much else could then be built because new human resources were available, but it also made new demands, for organization and government, for the regulation of a more complex agriculture and the handling of its produce.
Whether or not this explains the appearance of Minoan civilization, its peak came about 1600 BC. A century or so later, the Minoan palaces were destroyed. The mystery of this end is tantalizing. At about the same time the major towns of the Aegean islands were destroyed by fire, too. There had been earthquakes in the past; perhaps this was another of them. Recent scholarship identifies a great eruption in the island of Thera at a suitable time; it could have been accompanied by tidal waves and earthquakes in Crete, seventy miles away, and followed by the descent of clouds of ash which blighted Cretan fields. Some people have preferred to think of a rising against the rulers who lived in the palaces. Some have discerned signs of a new invasion, or postulated some great raid from the sea which carried off booty and prisoners, destroying a political power for ever by the damage it inflicted, and leaving no new settlers behind. None of these can be conclusively established. It is only possible to guess about what happened and the view which does least violence to the lack of evidence is that there was a natural cataclysm originating in Thera which broke the back of Minoan civilization.
Whatever the cause, this was not the end of early civilization in Crete, for Knossos was occupied for another century or so by people from the mainland. Nevertheless, though there were still some fairly prosperous times to come, the ascendancy of the indigenous civilization of Crete was, in effect, over. For a time, it seems, Knossos still prospered. Then, early in the fourteenth century BC it, too, was destroyed by fire. This had happened before, but this time it was not rebuilt. So ends the story of early Cretan civilization.
Fortunately, its salient characteristics are easier to understand than the detail of its history. The most obvious is its close relationship with the sea. More than a thousand years later, Greek tradition said that Minoan Crete was a great naval power exercising political hegemony in the Aegean through her fleet. This idea has been much blown upon by modern scholars anxious to reduce what they believe to be an anachronistic conception to more plausible proportions and it certainly seems misleading to see behind this tradition the sort of political power later exercised through their navies by such states as fifth-century Athens or nineteenth-century Great Britain. The Minoans may have had a lot of ships, but they were unlikely to be specialized at this early date and there is no hope in the Bronze Age of drawing a line between trade, piracy and counter-piracy in their employment. Probably there was no Cretan ‘navy’ in an institutional sense at all. Nevertheless, the Minoans felt sufficiently sure of the protection the sea gave them - and this must have implied some confidence in their ability to dominate the approaches to the natural harbours, most of which are on the north coast - to live in towns without fortifications, built near to the shore on only slightly elevated ground. We do not have to look for a Cretan Nelson among their defenders; that would be silly. But we can envisage a Cretan Hawkins or Drake, trading, freebooting and protecting the home base.
The Minoans thus exploited the sea as other peoples exploited their own natural environments. The result was an interchange of products and ideas which shows once more how civilization can accelerate where there is the possibility of cross-fertilization. Minoans had close connections with Syria before 1550 BC and traded as far west as Sicily, perhaps further. Someone took their goods up the Adriatic coasts. Even more important was their penetration of Greece. The Minoans may well have been the most important single conduit through which the goods and ideas of the earliest civilizations reached Bronze Age Europe. Certain Cretan products begin to turn up in Egypt in the second millennium BC and this was a major outlet; the art of the New Kingdom shows Cretan influence. There was even, some scholars think, an Egyptian resident for some time at Knossos, presumably to watch over well-established interests, and it has been argued that Minoans fought with the Egyptians against the Hyksos. Cretan vases and metal goods have been found at several places in Asia Minor: these are the things which survive, but it has been asserted that a wide range of other products - timber, grapes, oil, wood, metal vases and even opium - were supplied by the Minoans to the mainland. In return, they took metal from Asia Minor, alabaster from Egypt, ostrich eggs from Libya. It was already a complex trading world.
Together with a prosperous agriculture it made possible a civilization of considerable solidity, long able to recover from natural disaster, as the repeated rebuilding of the palace at Knossos seems to show. The palaces are the finest relics of Minoan civilization, but the towns were well built too, and had elaborate piped drains and sewers. This was technical achievement of a high order; early in the sequence of palaces at Knossos the bathing and lavatory provision is on a scale unsurpassed before Roman times. Other cultural achievement was less practical, though artistic rather than intellectual; Minoans seem to have taken their mathematics from Egypt and left it at that. Their religion went under with them, apparently leaving nothing to the future, but the Minoans had an important contribution to make to the style of another civilization on the Greek mainland. Art embodied Minoan civilization at its highest and remains its most spectacular legacy. Its genius was pictorial and reached a climax in palace frescoes of startling liveliness and movement. Here is a really original style, influential across the seas, in Egypt and in Greece. Through other palatial arts, too, notably the working of gems and precious metals, it was to shape fashion elsewhere.
Representative art provides a little evidence about the Cretans’ style of life. They seem to have dressed scantily, the women often being depicted bare-breasted; the men are beardless. There is an abundance of flowers and plants to suggest a people deeply and readily appreciative of nature’s gifts; they do not give the impression that the Minoans found the world an unfriendly place. Their relative wealth - given the standards of ancient times - is attested by the rows of huge and beautiful oil-jars found in their palaces. Their concern for comfort and what cannot but be termed elegance comes clearly through the dolphins and lilies which decorate the former apartments of a Minoan queen.
Archaeology has also provided evidence of the Minoan religious world, though this does not, perhaps, take us very far since we have no texts. We have representations of gods and goddesses, but it is not easy to be sure who they are. Nor can we much penetrate their rituals, beyond registering the frequency of sacrificial altars, sanctuaries in high places, double-headed axes, and the apparent centring of Minoan cults in a female figure (though her relationship to other deities remains a mystery). She is perhaps a Neolithic fertility figure such as was to appear again and again as the embodiment of female sexuality: the later Astarte and Aphrodite. In Crete she appears elegantly skirted, bare-breasted, standing between lions and holding snakes. Whether there was a male god, too, is less clear. But the appearance of bulls’ horns in many places and of frescoes of these noble beasts is suggestive if it is linked to later Greek legend (Minos’s mother, Europa, had been seduced by Zeus in the shape of a bull; his wife Pasiphae enjoyed a monstrous coition with a bull from which was born the half-bull, half-man Minotaur), and to the obscure but obviously important rites of bull-leaping. Sacrifice, it is clear, was important in the Minoans’ ritual attempts to achieve communion with their deity or deities, and there is evidence which, it has been argued, points to its inclusion of human victims, even of children, and perhaps of ritual consumption of their flesh. Yet it is striking that whatever it was, Cretan religion does not seem to have made Minoans gloomy; pictures of sports and dancing or delicate frescoes and pottery do not suggest an unhappy people.
The political arrangements of this society are obscure. The palace was not only a royal residence, but in some sense an economic centre - a great store - which may perhaps best be understood as the apex of an advanced form of exchange based on redistribution by the ruler. The palace was also a temple, but not a fortress. In its maturity it was the centre of a highly organized structure whose inspiration may have been Asian; knowledge of the literate empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia was available to a trading people. One source of our knowledge of what Minoan government was trying to do is a huge collection of thousands of tablets which are its administrative records. They indicate rigid hierarchy and systematized administration, but not how this worked in practice. However effective government was, the only thing the records certainly show is what it aspired to, a supervision far closer and more elaborate than anything conceivable by the later Greek world. If there are any analogies, they are again with the Asian empires and Egypt.
At present, the tablets tell us only of the last phase of Minoan civilization because many of them cannot be read. The weight of scholarly opinion now inclines to the view put forward a few years ago that the script of a great mass of them found at Knossos is used to write Greek and that they date from about 1450 to 1375 BC. The script in which they are written has been termed ‘Linear B’. The earlier written records are found at first in hieroglyph, with some symbols borrowed from Egypt, and then in another script (not yet deciphered) termed ‘Linear A’ and used from perhaps as early as 1700 BC . Almost certainly it was wholly non-Greek. Some have argued that incoming Greeks took over pre-existing Minoan administrative practice and put down records, such as were already kept, in their own tongue. The earlier tablets probably contain information which is very like that in the later, but, if so, it is about Crete before the coming of whoever presided over the last phase and mysterious end of Minoan civilization.
Successful invasion from the European mainland would itself have been a sign that the conditions which had made this civilization possible were crumbling away in the troubled times of the closing Bronze Age. Crete for a long time had no rival to threaten her coasts. Perhaps the Egyptians had been too busy; in the north there had long been no possible threat. Gradually, the second of these conditions had ceased to hold. Stirring on the mainland were others of those ‘Indo-European’ peoples who have already cropped up in so many places in this story. Some of them penetrated Crete again after the final collapse of Knossos; they were apparently successful colonists who exploited the lowlands and drove away the Minoans and their shattered culture to lonely little towns of refuge where they disappear from the stage of world history.
Ironically, only two or three centuries before this, Cretan culture had exercised something like hegemony in Greece, and Crete was always to hang about mysteriously at the back of the Greek mind, a lost and golden land. A direct transfusion of Minoan culture to the mainland had taken place through the first Achaean peoples (the name usually given to these early Greek-speakers) who came down into Attica and the Peloponnese and established towns and cities there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries BC. They entered a land long in contact with Asia, whose inhabitants had already contributed to the future one enduring symbol of Greek life, the fortification of the high place of the town, or acropolis. The new arrivals were culturally hardly superior to those they conquered, though they brought with them the horse and war-chariot. They were barbarians by comparison with the Cretans, with no art of their own. More aware of the role of violence and war in society than were the islanders (no doubt because they did not enjoy the protection of the sea and had a sense of continuing pressure from the homelands from which they had come), they fortified their cities heavily and built castles. Their civilization had a military style. Sometimes they picked sites which were to be the later centres of Greek city-states; Athens and Pylos were among them. They were not very large, the biggest containing at most not more than a few thousand people. One of the most important was at Mycenae, which gave its name to the civilization that finally spread over Bronze Age Greece in the middle of the second millennium.
It left some splendid relics, for it was very rich in gold; strongly influenced by Minoan art, it was also a true synthesis of Greek and indigenous cultures on the mainland. Its institutional basis seems to have been rooted in patriarchal ideas but there is more to it than that. The bureaucratic aspiration revealed by the Knossos tablets and by others from Pylos in the western Peloponnese of about 1200 BC suggests currents of change flowing back from Crete towards the mainland. Each considerable city had a king. The King at Mycenae, presiding over a society of warrior landowners whose tenants and slaves were the aboriginal peoples, may have been at an early date the head of some sort of federation of kings. There are Hittite diplomatic records which suggest some degree of political cohesion in Mycenaean Greece. Below the kings, the Pylos tablets show a close supervision and control of community life and also important distinctions between officials and, more fundamentally, between slave and free. What cannot be known is just what such differences meant in practice. Nor can we see much of the economic life that lay at the root of Mycenaean culture, beyond its centralization in the royal household, as in Crete.
Whatever its material basis, the culture represented most spectacularly at Mycenae had by 1400 BC spread all over mainland Greece and to many of the islands. It was a coherent whole, although well-established differences of Greek dialect persisted and distinguished one people from another down to classical times. Mycenae replaced the Cretan trading supremacy in the Mediterranean with its own. It had trading posts in the Levant and was treated as a power by Hittite kings. Sometimes Mycenaean pottery exports replaced Minoan, and there are even examples of Minoan settlements being followed by Mycenaean.
The Mycenaean empire, if the term is permissible, was at its height in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC. For a while, the weakness of Egypt and the crumbling of the Hittite power favoured it; for a time a small people enriched by trade had disproportionate importance while great powers waned. Mycenaean colonies were established on the shores of Asia Minor; trade with other Asian towns, notably Troy at the entrance to the Black Sea, prospered. But there are some signs of flagging from about 1300 BC. War seems to have been one answer; Achaeans took important parts in attacks on Egypt at the end of the century and it now seems that a great raid by them which was immortalized as the Siege of Troy took place about 1200 BC. The troubled background to these events was a series of dynastic upheavals in the Mycenaean cities themselves.
What can be called the Dark Ages of the Aegean were about to close in and they are as obscure as what was happening in the Near East at about the same time. When Troy fell, new barbarian invasions of mainland Greece had already begun. At the very end of the thirteenth century the great Mycenaean centres were destroyed, perhaps by earthquakes, and the first Greece broke up into disconnected settlements. As an entity Mycenaean civilization collapsed, but not all the Mycenaean sites were abandoned, though their life continued at a lower level of achievement. The kingly treasures disappeared, the palaces were not rebuilt. In some places the established resident peoples hung on successfully for centuries; elsewhere they were ruled as serfs or driven out by new conquerors from the north, who had been on the move from about a century before the fall of Troy. It does not seem likely that these new peoples always settled the lands they ravaged, but they swept away the existing political structures and the future would be built on their kinships, not on the Mycenaean institutions. There is a picture of confusion as the Aegean Dark Age deepens; only just before 1000 BC are there a few signs that a new pattern - the ground-plan of classical Greece - was emerging.
Legendary accounts of this attribute much to one particular group among the newcomers, the Dorians. Vigorous and bold, they were to be remembered as the descendants of Heracles. Though it is very dangerous to argue back from the presence of later Greek dialects to identifiable and compact groups of early invaders, tradition makes them the speakers of a tongue, Doric, which lived on into the classical age as a dialect setting them apart. In this case, tradition has been thought by scholars to be justified. In Sparta and Argos, Dorian communities, which would be future city-states, established themselves. But other peoples also helped to crystallize a new civilization in this obscure period. The most successful were those later identified as speakers of ‘Ionic’ Greek, the Ionians of the Dark Age. Setting out from Attica (where Athens had either survived or assimilated the invaders who followed Mycenae), they took root in the Cyclades and Ionia, the present Turkish coast of the Aegean. Here, as migrants and pirates, they seized or founded towns, if not on islands, almost always on or near the coast, which were the future city-states of a seafaring race. Often the sites they chose had already been occupied by the Mycenaeans. Sometimes - at Smyrna, for example - they displaced earlier Greek settlers.
This is a confusing picture at best and for much of it there is only fragmentary evidence. Yet from this turmoil there would slowly re-emerge the unity of civilization enjoyed by the Bronze Age Aegean. At first, though, there were centuries of disruption and particularism, a new period of provincialism in a once cosmopolitan world. Trade flagged and ties with Asia languished. What replaced them was the physical transference of people, sometimes taking centuries to establish new settled patterns, but in the end setting out the ground-plan of a future Greek world.
Immediately, there was a colossal setback in civilized life which should remind us how fragile it could be in ancient times. Its most obvious sign was a depopulation between 1100 and 1000 BC so widespread and violent that some scholars have sought explanations in a sudden cataclysm - plague, perhaps, or a climatic change such as might have suddenly and terribly reduced the small cultivable area of the Balkan and Aegean hillsides. Whatever the cause, the effects are to be seen also in a waning of elegance and skill; the carving of hard gems, the painting of frescoes and the making of the fine pottery all come to a stop. Such cultural continuity as the age permitted must have been largely mental, a matter of songs, myths and religious ideas.
Of this troubled time a very little is dimly and remotely reflected in the bardic epics later set down in writing in the Iliad and the Odyssey. They include material transmitted for generations by recitation, whose origins lie in tradition near-contemporary with the events they purport to describe, though later attributed to one poet, Homer. Exactly what is reflected is much harder to agree about; the consensus has recently been that it is hardly anything for Mycenaean times, and little more for what immediately followed them. The central episode of the Iliad, the attack on Troy, is not what matters here, though the account probably reflects a real preponderance of Achaean initiative in the settlement of Asia Minor. What survives is a little social and conceptual information carried incidentally by the poems. Though Homer gives an impression of some special pre-eminence enjoyed by the Mycenaean king, this is information about the post-Mycenaean Aegean of the eighth century, when recovery from the Dark Ages begins. It reveals a society whose assumptions are those of barbarian warlords rather than those of rulers commanding regular armies or supervising bureaucracies like those of Asia. Homer’s kings are the greatest of great nobles, the heads of large households, their acknowledged authority tempered by the real power of truculent near-equals and measured by their ability to impose themselves; their lives are troubled and exacting. The atmosphere is individualistic and anarchic: they are more like a band of Viking leaders than the rulers who ran their affairs with instruments like the Mycenaean tablets. Whatever reminiscences of detail may survive from earlier times (and these have sometimes been confirmed in their accuracy by excavation) and however many reflections of later society they eventually contained, the poems only fitfully illuminate a primitive society, still in confusion, settling down perhaps, but neither so advanced as Mycenae had been, nor even dimly foreshadowing what Greece was to become.
The new civilization which was at last to emerge from the centuries of confusion owed much to the resumption of intercourse with the East. It was very important that the Hellenes (the name by which the invaders of Greece came to be distinguished from their predecessors) had spread out into the islands and on to the Asian mainland; they provided many points of contact between two cultural worlds. But they were not the only links between Asia and Europe. Seeds of civilization were always carried about by the go-betweens of world history, the great trading peoples.
One of them, another seafaring race, had a long and troubled history, though not so long as its legends said; the Phoenicians claimed that they had arrived in Tyre in about 2700 BC. This may be treated like stories about the descent of the Dorian kings from Heracles. None the less, they were already settled on the coast of the modern Lebanon in the second millennium BC, when the Egyptians were getting supplies of cedarwood from them. The Phoenicians were a Semitic people. Like the Arabs of the Red Sea, they became seafarers because geography urged them to look outwards rather than inland. They lived in the narrow coastal strip which was the historic channel of communication between Africa and Asia. Behind them was a shallow hinterland, poor in agricultural resources, cut up by hills running down from the mountains to the sea so that the coastal settlements found it difficult to unite. There were parallels with the experience of later Greek states tempted to the sea in similar circumstances and in each case the result was not only trade but colonization.
Weak at home - they came under the sway of Hebrew, Egyptian and Hittite in turn - it cannot be entirely coincidental that the Phoenicians emerge from the historical shadows only after the great days of Egypt, Mycenae and the Hittite empire. They, too, prospered in others’ decline. It was after 1000 BC, when the great era of Minoan trade was long past, that the Phoenician cities of By bios, Tyre and Sidon had their brief golden age. Their importance then is attested by the biblical account of their part in the building of Solomon’s Temple; ‘thou knowest’, says Solomon, ‘that there is not among us any that can skill to hew timber like unto the Sidonians’, and he paid up appropriately (1 Kings 5: 6). This is perhaps evidence of a uniquely large and spectacular public works contract in ancient times, but there is copious evidence later of the continuing importance of Phoenician enterprise. Ancient writers often stressed their reputation as traders and colonizers. They may have traded with the savages of Atlantic Europe; they were certainly skilled long-distance navigators. Their dyes were long famous and much sought after even in classical times. No doubt commercial need stimulated Phoenician inventiveness; it was at Byblos (from which the Greeks were to take their name for a book) that the alphabet later adopted by the Greeks was invented. This was a great step, making a more widespread literacy possible. Yet no remarkable Phoenician literature survives, while Phoenician art tends to reflect their role of the middleman, borrowing and copying from Asian and Egyptian models, perhaps as the customer demanded.
Trade was the Phoenicians’ preoccupation and did not at first require settlement overseas. Yet they came to base themselves more and more on colonies or trading stations, sometimes where Mycenaeans had traded before them. The furthest lay just beyond the entrance to the Mediterranean, where Gadir was founded on the site of modern Cadiz to link Mediterranean to Atlantic trade, and assure supplies of silver and tin. There were in the end some twenty-five such ports up and down the Mediterranean, the earliest set up at Kition (the modern Larnaca) in Cyprus at the end of the ninth century BC. Sometimes colonies, followed earlier Phoenician commercial activity on the spot. They might also reflect the time of troubles which overtook the Phoenician cities after a brief phase of independence at the beginning of the first millennium. In the seventh century Sidon was razed to the ground and the daughters of the king of Tyre were carried off to the harem of the Assyrian Ashurbanipal. Phoenicia was then reduced to its colonies elsewhere in the Mediterranean and little else. Yet their establishment may also have reflected anxiety at a wave of Greek colonization in the west which threatened the supply of metal, especially of British tin and Spanish silver. This could explain the Phoenician foundation of Carthage a century earlier; it was to become the seat of a power more formidable by far than Tyre and Sidon had ever been and went on to establish its own chain of colonies. Further west, beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, Cadiz was already known to Phoenicians who called there while looking for an Atlantic trade further north.
The Phoenicians were among the most important traffickers in civilization but so, willy-nilly, had been others - the Mycenaeans by their diffusion of a culture and the Hellenes by their stirring up of the ethnic world of the Aegean. The Cretans had been something more; true originators, they not only took from the great established centres of culture, but remade what they took before diffusing it again. These peoples help to shape a more rapidly changing world. One important side-effect, of which little has yet been said, was the stimulation of continental Europe. The search for minerals slowly took explorers and prospectors further and further into that unknown. Already in the second millennium there are the first signs of a complicated future; beads found at Mycenae were manufactured in Britain from Baltic amber. Trade was always slowly at work, eating away isolation, changing peoples’ relations with one another, imposing new shapes on the world. But it is hard to relate this story to the stirring of the ethnic pot in the Aegean, let alone to the troubled history of the Asian mainland from the second millennium BC.