Barbarians and Bureaucrats: The Minoans

The Land

   The Minoan civilization began on the island of Crete, a large island located midway between Asia Minor and Greece. On the island, the climate is comfortable and the soil fertile; as an island, it was isolated from the mainland of Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Egypt (which isn't far away to the south). None of the earliest great cultures of the ancient world were seafaring cultures, so Crete was spared the great power struggles that shook small states like Judah and Israel. However, as an island, resources were limited. As the population began to thrive, it also began to increase, and it is evident that the resources of the island became increasingly insufficient to handle the increased population. So the Cretans improvised. Some migrated, populating other islands in the Aegean Sea, that island dotted expanse of water that separates Greece from Asia Minor. In doing so, they took their growing civilization with them and spread Minoan culture, religion, and government all over the Aegean Sea. For this reason, the Minoan culture is also called the "Aegean Palace civilization." But the Cretans who remained turned to other economic pursuits to support the growing population; in particular, they turned to trade. Crete became the central exporter of wine, oil, jewelry, and highly crafted works; in turn, they became importers of raw materials and food. In the process they built the first major navy in the world; its primary purpose, however, was mercantile.

   One should always be reasonably suspicious of geographical explanations of culture or history, but the Minoans seem to have genuinely benefitted from their geographical uniqueness. Because Crete was relatively isolated, the palace civilizations that grew up there were spared the constant warfare that mainland cultures suffered. Also, the limited size of the island seems to have quashed any territorial greed that drove so many of their contemporaries. The expense of a standing army, the economic disaster of a foreign invasion, and the maintenance of a military bureaucracy all drained economic resources profoundly in all the cultures we've studied so far. The Minoans, however, seem to have been spared this economic onus, so economic growth really did translate into cultural and technological growth.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-11-97