by ProfDave, ©2022

“Minoan fresco depicting a bull leaping scene, found in Knossos, 1600-1400 BC, Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete,” Wikimedia Commons, CC by SA 2.0

(Mar. 7, 2022) — [See the previous article in this series here. — Ed.]

Last week we looked at the cradles of civilization in the great river valleys of the Middle East, South Asia and China and only mentioned Europe in passing.  But in ancient times, the center of European civilization was not a river valley, but the great Mediterranean Sea.  Of the civilizations we have discussed, the Egyptians were seafarers, sailing up the Nile, the length of the Red Sea and down the coast of East Africa as far as the straits of Madagascar.

But the greatest sea power until 1450 BC was an island to the northwest: Crete.  160 miles long and about 30 miles wide, this island at the mouth of the Aegean Sea was home to the Minoan civilization.  It had been a commercial center since 3000 BC, trading with Egypt, Phoenicia, Asia Minor and Greece.  By 2400 Minoa had developed a pictographic form of writing and entered the Bronze Age, technologically equivalent to Egypt and Sumer.  Tin came from as far away as Bohemia and Britain.  Enormous wealth and power flowed to the city-states of the island, and they dominated southern Greece.  Of them, the central city of Knossos was the greatest.  It was destroyed in 1700 by an earthquake and a revolt of the eastern part of the island. 

A new dynasty emerged to rebuild Knossos and unite 300 prosperous cities in new magnificence under King Minos.  The great palace of Knossos, the Labyrinth, was as extensive as the modern Pentagon.  They had indoor plumbing and running water.  Minoan fleets swept the sea of pirates and enemies.  City walls were unnecessary.  Trading posts were established in Cyprus, Syria, and Sicily as well as mainland Greece and the islands.  All this came to an end rather suddenly about 1450.  First, Egypt broke its trading alliance and bypassed Minoan traders.  Then the Achaean Greeks rebelled, built a fleet, defeated the Minoan navy and landed an army on the defenseless home island.  The Minoan civilization crumbled into legend.

What we know about Minoan civilization is from its art – and it seems a bit too good to be true.  Is this indeed the legendary Atlantis?  An idyllic land of luxury, peace, and beauty, where toreadors (male and female) vaulted over bulls instead of killing them.  Unfortunately, we can’t read Linear A.  So what do the exposed breasts mean?  The religion of Crete may have developed from some form of fetishism.  Four symbols predominate: the pillar, the double axe, the shield, and the sacred tree.  There is an affinity with the Great Mother goddesses of Mesopotamia, except that Crete emphasized motherhood (hence breasts?) while the Canaanites emphasized sex to make the crops grow.  Secondary to the goddess was her male counterpart, Minotaur, the man-bull – hence the bull dancing.

The new master of the Aegean was Mycenae, a city of wealth and power astride the route from the Peloponnesus peninsula to Achaia and the north.  Greece and the Aegean are a mountainous country, in the water and above it, a jumble of protected valleys and islands tumbling into the sea.  What soil there is is not good.  Indo-European tribes had arrived in the area about 2000 BC and gradually filtered southwards, driving their herds before them.  They were organized in multi-family clans, phratries, and tribes under chieftain-kings. Geography broke them down into tiny states, each with its own valley, king, citadel (acropolis), shrine to a favorite local god, market and harbor.  This unit became the polis. 

From 1600 to 1450, Mycenae was a tributary of Knossos and culturally dependent on Crete.  Mycenaeans dressed, worshiped, and danced with the bulls like the Minoans, but were in general a less affluent and more warlike people.  Then they allied with Tiryns, Athens and Thebes to conquer Crete.  Mycenaean civilization reached its peak in the 1300s.  They used a revised form of the Phoenician alphabet that included vowels – a distinct improvement.

Then Mycenae and its allies challenged Troy and its allies for control of the Hellespont and access to the Black Sea trade routes.  While they were destroying the Trojan Federation of northwest Asia Minor, a new wave of Indo-Europeans, the Dorians, swept into Greece from the west, burning Mycenae and other Achaean cities.  Refugees fled into the Aegean islands and Ionia (western Asia Minor).  The Aegean became the center of Greek culture.  The Dorians were ethnically and linguistically similar to the other Greek tribes, but lacked the veneer and reflected wealth of Minoan civilization.  For instance, instead of the tightly laced Cretan styles, they brought the safety pin and the chiton, a simple wrap-around garment for both sexes.  The Great Mother retreated into the lower levels of the Pantheon as Demeter, and the Minotaur lost divinity altogether as a man-eating monster.

What follows, 1100 – 750, is a confused period of war and scanty records called the Greek Dark Ages.  It wasn’t necessarily a dark time of hardship and destruction (though your text takes that position), so much as a dark time we can’t see into.  The blind poet Homer (or others writing in his name) threw light on these times in his immortal Iliad and Odyssey, but prosaic records of what things were really like are hard to find.  It was a time of transition.

The Dorian invasion had the billiard effect of displacing a wave of “people of the sea” from the Aegean who invaded and infiltrated the coastal lands of Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria about 1200 BC.  They variously conquered or were absorbed by local Semitic or Canaanite culture.  In Lebanon the foothills come right down into the sea, yielding a myriad of bays and islands ideal for maritime city states.  The interval of 1200 – 800 BC, during the weakness of Egypt and between the Hatti and the Assyrians – as we have seen – allowed for the rise of Philistia, Israel, Phoenicia and Aram. 

Phoenicia did not have enough food from the land, so it turned to the sea and to trade.  Cedar logs for construction and ship building were exchanged for agricultural products.  Specialized industries flourished in radiant purple murex dyed textiles, metallurgy, arms (used by the Achaeans in the Iliad), and costume jewelry.  Caravans carried goods from Mesopotamia and the East, while Phoenician ships probed the coasts of the Mediterranean as far as Gibraltar (1000 BC), then on to Cape Verde, the Azores, and Britain.  The Phoenicians were vicious monopolists – they sank rival ships on sight – planting trading posts everywhere and permanent colonies in Carthage (modern Tunis), Malta, Sardinia, and Cadiz (Spain).  Carthage became independently powerful, planting its own colonies around the western Mediterranean. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians were merchants and industrialists, not artists.  They were a grimly practical people who used sorcery to ward off storms and control markets. Their culture and religion, such as it was, derived from their Canaanite roots.  Baal was the chief god, followed by the goddesses Anat, Astarte, and Asherah (merged by the Greeks into Aphrodite) – gods and goddesses primarily concerned with food, drink and sex.  They had to be appeased by blood sacrifice – often human – and were feared rather than loved for the bad luck they could bring.

Sailing west from Greece or north from Carthage, Greeks and Phoenicians encountered Italy.  Italy had better soil, but is also mountainous.  It is protected and limited in the north by the Alps and split lengthwise by the Apennine spine.   Indo-Europeans seem to have appeared in Italy about 1500 BC.  Another wave came about 1000 BC.  There were Gauls in the north and Greek colonists in the south (called Magna Graecia), and Illyrians came across the Adriatic from the Balkans. 

Of most interest are the Etruscans, a non-Indo-European people – possibly from Asia Minor.  They appeared in central Italy between 1000 and 800 BC.  They were seafarers, used iron, and formed a twelve-city league in Etruria – the area around Rome.  Their polytheistic religion emphasized strict ritual, obedience to the gods, divination and dread of demons.  They shared a pantheon headed by a sky god with the Indo-Europeans, but had a distinct, indecipherable, language.  They were to be a major influence on the later Romans.  Rome was founded as an Etruscan city under Etruscan kings in 753.


David W. Heughins (“ProfDave”) is Adjunct Professor of History at Nazarene Bible College.  He holds a BA from Eastern Nazarene College and a PhD in history from the University of Minnesota.  He is the author of Holiness in 12 Steps (2020).  He is a Vietnam veteran and is retired, living with his daughter and three grandchildren in Connecticut.

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