Barbarians and Bureaucrats: The Minoans

The Palace Civilizations of the Aegean: The Minoans

   The story of European civilization really begins on the island of Crete with a civilization that probably thought of itself as Asian (in fact, Crete is closer to Asia than it is to Europe). Around 1700 BC, a highly sophisticated culture grew up around palace centers on Crete: the Minoans. What they thought, what stories they told, how they narrated their history, are all lost to us. All we have left are their palaces, their incredibly developed visual culture, and their records. Mountains of records. For the Minoans produced a singular civilization in antiquity: one oriented around trade and bureaucracy with little or no evidence of a military state. They built perhaps the single most efficient bureaucracy in antiquity. This unique culture, of course, lasted only a few centuries, and European civilization shifts to Europe itself with the foundation of the military city-states on the mainland of Greece. These were a war-like people oriented around a war-chief; while they seemed to have borrowed elements of Minoan civilization, their's was a culture of battle and conquest. We call them the Myceneans after the best-preserved of their cities, and their greatest accomplishment, it would seem, was the destruction of a large commercial center across the Aegean Sea in Asia Minor: Troy. Shortly after this defining event, their civilizations fell into a dark ages, in which Greeks stopped writing and, it seems, abandoned their cities. It was an inauspicious start for the Europeans: while the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians had enjoyed almost two thousand years of continuous civilization, in Europe the experiement began with the brilliance of the Minoan commercial states translated into the brief, war-like city-states of the Myceneans, only to slip back into the tribal groups that had characterized European civilization for almost all of its history. In spite of this, the basic character of European civilization is laid down in this early experiment; even though they slip into obscurity, the Greeks will permanently remember the Myceneans as the defining moment in their history.

   Lost to human memory for over three and a half millenia, the Minoans stand at the very beginning of European civilization. While Europeans had known about the pre-Homeric world through the poems of Homer, only the Greeks and Romans seem to have taken these poems seriously as history. That pre-Homeric world, however, was lost in the haze of generations of oral story-telling before it finally got fixed in the poems of Homer. However, in 1870, an amateur archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, determined to find the real Troy of the Trojan War, the war that is the center of the Homeric poems. After successfully locating and digging up Troy, he turned his sights to the Greek mainland and discovered two ancient cities, Myceanae and Tiryns, which together revealed a civilization that up until that point had only been known in the poems of Homer and Greek drama. His discoveries inspired a man named Arthur Evans to begin digging in Crete in order to discover what he thought would be an identical, Mycenean culture thriving on that island; instead, what he found was a people far more ancient than the Myceneans, and far more unique than any peoples in the ancient world: the Minoans.

   They were a people of magnificent social organization, culture, art, and commerce. There is no evidence that they were a military people; they thrived instead, it seems, on their remarkable mercantile abilities. This lack of a military culture, however, may have spelled their final downfall. For the Minoans also exported their culture as well as goods, and a derivative culture grew up on the mainland of Greece, the Myceneans, who were a war-like people. Strangely enough, the direct inheritors of their traditions may have been the agents of their destruction.

   But we know now that Greek civilization began at least a millenium before the Age of Athens and almost eight hundred years before Homer. It began off the mainland of Greece, in the Aegean Sea, in the palaces of the bureaucrat-kings of Minoa.

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Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-12-97