Barbarians and Bureaucrats: The Minoans

The History of the Minoans

   We know of the Minoans only through their ruins. Splendid as they are, with their remarkable architectural logic, their hypnotic art, and the richness of cultural artifacts, they spoke a language we don't understand and they wrote in a script which we can't read. So the voices of the Minoans, their stories, their history as they understood it, is lost to us. Even if we do by some miracle decipher their writing and penetrate the mists of their language, we may not end up with much of anything. For all of their writing seems to be one thing: accounts and records. The Minoans were, after all, a great mercantile people and they kept profoundly accurate records of their transactions.

   So much of what we know of Minoan history is nothing more than a good guess, and good guesses are, I should warn, especially prone to being wrong. The archaeological evidence points to only a few reasonable certainties about Minoan history. Around 3000 BC, Crete was settled by a people who probably came from Asia Minor, who, by 2000 BC was already living in cities, trading with other nations in the Mediterranean, and employing a hieroglyphic system of writing, probably derived from Egyptian hieroglyphics. This hieroglyphic writing would eventually evolve into a linear script. They built magnificent palace centers at Knossos, Phaistos, and Kato Zakros; these palaces seem to have dominated Cretan society. We have no idea what language they spoke, but they certainly spoke a non-Hellenic language (that is, a language not closely related to Greek) and probably spoke a non-Indo-European language. Homer, writing almost eight hundred years after the collapse of the Aegean palace civilizations, in Book Nine of The Odyssesy gives a list of people living on Crete; among that group he lists are the "Eteo-Cretans," who are probably the original Minoans. This group persists as an independent group until around 140 BC; their language, Eteo-Cretan, was probably a near relative of the language of the Minoans. The Greeks called non-Hellenic languages "barbaric," from the word "barbar," which means "speaking nonsense" ("bar bar bar bar"). They called people who spoke barbaric languages, "barbarians"; so the Greeks in many ways distinguished themselves from other people by the language they spoke. The Eteo-Cretans, then, originators of Greek civilization itself, had become the barbarians in the Greek world.

   All archaeological evidence suggests that the Cretan states of the first half of the second millenium BC were bureaucratic monarchies. While the government was dominated by priests and while the monarch seemed to have some religious functions, the principle role of the monarch seemed to be that of "chief entrepreneur," or better yet, CEO of the Cretan state. For the Cretans operated their state as a business, and entrepreneurship seemed to be the order of the day. While the bulk of the population enjoyed the wealth of international trading, the circumstances of that trade was tightly controlled from the palace. Beneath the king was a large administration of scribes and bureaucrats who carefully regulated production and distribution both within the state and without. This administration kept incredibly detailed records, which implies that they exercised a great deal of control over the economy.

   In order to facilitate trade, the Cretans and their Aegean relatives developed the most advanced navy that had ever been seen. While scholars earlier believed that Crete must have been a "thalossocracy," that is, a "sea power," that view has been seriously challenged. The Cretans probably did not develop a military navy, as did the Egyptians, but concentrated solely on trade and mercantilism. They did build what looks like warships, but it seems that these warships were most likely mercantile ships with the capability of defense against pirates.

   Their trade was extensive. The Egyptians were highly familiar with the Cretans, who even appear in Egyptian art. Cretan artifacts turn up all over Asia Minor, and they seem to have been involved in trade with the tribal clans living on the Greek mainland. All of this concentrated mercantile activity produced great wealth for the Cretans, which went into massive building projects, art, and technological development. The Cretans, for instance, seem to be the only people in the ancient world that would construct multi-room buiidings for a large part of society including even the poorest people. The common household in the ancient world, of course, was a single room (this would be the norm up until the 1600's in Europe. The Cretans were the first to build a plumbing system in their buildings (a technology that was forgotten when Cretan society collapsed). And Cretan society seems to be the first "leisure" society in existence, in which a large part of human activity focussed on leisure activities, such as sports. In fact, the Cretans seem to have been as sports addicted as modern Americans; the most popular sports were boxing and bull-jumping. Women actively participated in both of these sports. The immense concentration of wealth in such a small population led to an explosion of visual arts, as well. Unlike the bulk of the ancient world, the Minoans developed a visual culture that seems to have been solely oriented around visual pleasure, rather than visual utility, political, religious, or otherwise.


Bulljumping illustration


   The concentration of wealth produced another singular phenomenon in the ancient world: social equality. In general, the move to urbanization is a traumatic move. Society ceases to be organized around kinship lines and begins to be organized around "class," that is, economic function. This always means social inequality, as the more "professional" classes (usually bureaucrats) enjoy more privileges and wealth. In Crete, however, the wealth seems to have been spread pretty liberally. In the excavated city of Gournia, we can discern easily the "poor" parts of town; even there, however, people are living in four, five, and six room houses—veritable mansions in the Middle East or Egypt! So life was pretty good for just about everyone. In addition, there seems to have been no inequality along gender lines, although we can't fully construct the gender relations in ancient Crete.

   The architecture of the palaces and cities have one more singularity. Unlike any other major cities or palaces, the palaces and towns of the Cretans seem to have no defensive works whatsoever throughout much of their history. This understanding of Cretan society, however, is being seriously revised as city defensive works are being uncovered. These newly found defensive works, however, are not of the size and strength of other Asian and later Mycenean defensive works. The presence of only a small amount of defensive works in the archaeological record leads us to a tentative conclusion: the Minoans throughout much of their history were relatively secure from attack, though these attacks seem to have occured sporadically. This conclusion helps to explain every other aspect of Minoan history: their concentration of economic resources on mercantilism, their generous distribution of wealth among their people, and, unfortunately, their downfall.

   The downfall of the Cretans was a slow and painful process as near as we can tell. After five centuries of prosperity, the palace centers were destroyed by an earthquake in 1500 BC. The cataclysm may have been more serious. Around 1500 to 1450 BC, the island of Strongphyle, a volcano, erupted in an explosion four to five times greater than the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883. This explosion fragmented the island into several small islands, and the caldera of the volcano is centered on the island of Thera; therefore, the event is called the Thera eruption. Based on the size of the caldera, the eruption was somewhere equivalent to 600 to 700 tons of TNT (that is, a 600 kiloton atomic bomb). Archaeological evidence suggests the explosion was not unexpected; on the island of Thera, the Cycladic city of Akrotiri was abandoned by its inhabitants shortly before the eruption. The earthquake activity preceding the explosion levelled several Minoan cities in the islands surrounding Strongphyle, and probably levelled Knossos as well. But the eruption itself would have produced tidal waves that would have destroyed all the palaces and cities on the northern coast of Crete, including Knossos. We aren't certain, however; it has been argued that the explosion of Thera occurred in 1200 BC, since there is little evidence that the palace cities were destroyed by anything other than an earthquake. Whatever happened, the Minoans, weakened by this catastrophe, seem to have been conquered by the Myceneans, who, influenced by the Aegean civilizations, had developed their own civilization on the Greek mainland. We know the Myceneans control the show after 1500 BC because a new style of writing dominates Cretan culture sometime between 1500 and 1400 BC. Called "Linear B" script, this writing is conclusively an early form of Greek, but it employs the earlier script (Linear A) of the Minoans. It seems the Myceneans employed Minoan bureaucrats and scribes to carry on business, but in a language they understood, that is, Greek. The Myceneans, however, seem to have adopted Minoan civilization comfortably rather than imposing their own more imposing culture. But in 1400, another wave of Myceneans put an end to the palace civilization on Crete for all time.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-12-97