While the peoples of the ancient Near East gave us civilization, the Greeks gave it forms and meanings that make us look to them as the founders of our own culture, Western Civilization. Greek genius and energy extended in numerous directions. Much of our math and science plus the idea of scientific research and the acquisition of knowledge apart from any religious or political authority goes back to the Greeks. The philosophy of such Greeks as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle laid the foundations for the way we look at the world today. Our art, architecture, drama, literature, and poetry are all firmly based on Greek models. And possibly most important, our ideas of democracy, the value of the individual in society, and toleration of dissent and open criticism as a means of improving society were all products of the Greek genius. Even those critical of our own society and Western Civilization overall have the Greeks, creators of Western Civilization, to thank for that right.
Greece’s geography strongly affected its history. Greece was a hilly and mountainous land, breaking it up into literally hundreds of independent city-states. These city-states spent much of their time fighting one another rather than uniting in a common cause. Greece was also by the sea with many natural harbors. This and the fact that it had poor soil and few natural resources forced the Greeks to be traders and sailors, following in the footsteps of the Phoenicians and eventually surpassing them.
The Minoans (c.2000-1500 B.C.E.)
The first Greek civilization was that of the Minoans on the island of Crete just south of Greece. Quite clearly, the Minoans were heavily influenced by two older Near Eastern civilizations, Mesopotamia and Egypt, by way of the Cycladic Islands, which formed natural stepping stones for the spread of people from Greece and of civilized ideas from the Middle East. Egyptian influence on the Minoans is especially apparent. Minoan architecture used columns much as Egyptian architecture did. Minoan art also seems to copy Egyptian art by only showing people in profile, never frontally. Still, the Minoans added their own touches, making their figures much more natural looking than the still figures we find in Egyptian art.
Since we have not been able to translate the few examples of their hieroglyphic script, known as Linear A, there are some very large gaps in the picture we have of these people. We do not even know what the people on Crete called themselves. The term Minoans comes from Greek myths concerning a legendary king of Crete, Minos, who supposedly ruled a vast sea empire. As with most myths, there is a grain of truth in this myth, for the Minoans were a seafaring people who depended on their navy and trade for power and prosperity.
Two things, both relating to Crete’s maritime position, largely determined the nature of the Minoan’s civilization. First, they had a large fleet, which was useful for both trade and defense. Second, Crete’s isolated position meant there was no major threat to its security at this time and therefore little need for fortifications. These two factors helped create a peaceful and prosperous civilization reflected in three aspects of Minoan culture: its cities and architecture, the status of its women, and its art, especially its pottery.
The Minoans had several main cities centered around palace complexes which collected the island’s surplus wealth as taxes and redistributed it to support the various activities that distinguish a civilization: arts, crafts, trade, and government. The largest of these centers was at Knossos, whose palace complex was so big and confusing to visitors, that it has come down to us in Greek myth as the Labyrinth, or maze, home of the legendary beast, the Minotaur. The sophistication of the Minoans is also shown by the fact that they had water pipes, sewers, and even toilets with pipes leading to outside drains. Since their island position eliminated the need for fortifications, Minoan cities were less crowded and more spread out than cities in other civilizations.
Minoan women seem to have had much higher status than their counterparts in many other ancient civilizations. One likely reason was that, in the absence of a powerful warrior class and a constant need for defense, they had more opportunity for attaining some social stature. This is reflected in their religion where the primary deity was an earth goddess. Minoan art also depicts women as being much freer, even participating with men in a dangerous gymnastic ritual of vaulting themselves over a charging bull.
Minoan art especially its pottery, also shows a peaceful prosperous society, depicting floral designs and such marine wildlife as dolphins and octopuses rather than scenes of war. Its diffusion around the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean shows that Minoan influence was quite widespread, extending throughout the Cycladic Islands and Southern Greece. The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur where Athens had to send a yearly sacrifice of its children to Crete, reflects Minoan rule and indicates that it might not always have been so peaceful. Recent archaeological evidence indicates the Minoans did at times practice human sacrifices.
Minoan civilization continued to prosper until it came to a sudden and mysterious end. A combination of archaeology and mythology provide clues to how this may have happened. The central event was a massive volcanic eruption that partially sank the island of Thera some eighty miles northeast of Crete and left a crater four times the size of that created by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, the largest recorded volcanic eruption in recorded history, This eruption had three devastating effects: a shock wave which levelled Crete’s cities, a tidal wave which destroyed its navy, and massive fallout of volcanic ash which poisoned its crops. Together these weakened the Minoans enough to let another people, the Mycenaean Greeks eventually take over around 1450 B.C.E.
This seems to correspond to the myth of the lost continent of Atlantis, passed on to the Greeks from the Egyptians who had been frequent trading partners with the Minoans. When the Minoans, whose fleet was destroyed by the tidal wave, suddenly stopped coming to visit Egypt, stories drifted southward about an island blown into the sea (i.e., Thera) which the Egyptians assumed was Crete. Over the centuries the stories kept growing until Crete became the vast mythical continent and empire of Atlantis set in the Atlantic Ocean. The Greeks picked up the story, which is found in its most complete form in Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus and Critias.
The Mycenaeans (c.1500-ll00 B.C.E.)
were Greeks from the mainland who took advantage of the Minoans’ weakened state to conquer Crete and assume Minoan dominance of the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. They were a vigorous and active people who engaged in trade and some piracy over a wide area extending from southern Italy in the west to Troy and the Black Sea in the northeast. We are almost as much in the dark about Mycenaean history and society as we are about the Minoans. We do have some written records in a script called Linear B which concern themselves mainly with official tax records and inventories. Three types of evidence tell us at least a little about Mycenaean society. First of all, we know that they were divided into different city-states such as Mycenae, Pylos, Tiryns, and Athens. Most of these consisted of highly fortified central palace complexes which ruled over surrounding villages. The Mycenaeans tried to run these as highly centralized states such as existed in Egypt and Mesopotamia. We do not know if these city-states were completely independent or looked to one city, probably Mycenae, for leadership. However, sources, such as the Iliad tell us that the Mycenaeans could apparently unite in a common endeavor such as the Trojan War.
Second, the art, armor, and remains of fortifications, such as those at Mycenae, tell us the Mycenaeans were much more warlike than the Minoans. Later Greeks had no idea of the existence of Mycenaean civilization and thought these massive walls and gates had been built by a mythical race of giants known as the Cyclopes.
Finally, archaeological remains also tell us that the Mycenaeans, at least the upper classes, were fabulously wealthy from trade and probably occasional piracy. Gold funeral masks, jewelry, bronze weapons, tripods, and a storeroom with 2853 stemmed goblets all attest to the Mycenaeans’ wealth. Keep in mind this is only what we have found. There is no telling how much of their wealth was plundered by grave robbers.
Around 1200 B.C.E., a period of migrations and turmoil began that would weaken and eventually help destroy Mycenaean civilization. Once again, the main troublemakers were the Sea Peoples whom we have seen destroy the Hittite Empire, conquer the coast of Palestine, and shake the Egyptian Empire to its very foundations. The Sea Peoples also hit the Mycenaeans, destroying some settlements and driving other inhabitants inland or across the sea away from their raids. The historical Trojan War and sack of Troy took place at this time at the hands of the Mycenaeans, who may have been running from and, in some cases, joining up with the Sea Peoples. Hittite records associate their own decline with people known as the Ahhiwaya, translated as “Achaeans” (Greeks).
Whatever role the Mycenaeans may have played in all these raids, the result was widespread turmoil as cities were sacked, populations displaced, and trade disrupted. Even though the Mycenaeans survived the actual onslaught of the Sea Peoples, they did not survive the aftermath of all this destruction. Reduced revenue from trade may have caused more warfare between the city-states over the meager resources left in Greece. This warfare would only serve to weaken the Mycenaeans further, wreck trade even more, aggravate grain shortages at home, and so on. This recurring feedback of problems opened the way for a new wave of Greek tribes, the Dorians, to move down and take over much of Greece. A period of anarchy and poverty now settled over the Greek world which virtually blotted out any memories of the Minoans and Mycenaeans. However, on top of the foundations laid by these early Greek cultures an even more creative and vibrant civilization would be built, that of the classical Greeks.