Source: Richard Hooker Bureaucrats and Barbarians


Reading: The Minoan Civilization


Major Regions of Ancient Greece





Major Cities of Ancient Greece





The Palace Civilizations of the Aegean


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, theirs 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 experiment 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 millennia, 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 millennium 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.



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.



The History

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 millennium 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.


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 leveled 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



Bulljumping illustration


Since we have only ruins and remains from Minoan culture, we can only guess at their religious practices. We have no scriptures, no prayers, no books of ritual; all we have are objects and fragments all of which only hint at a rich and complex religious life and symbolic system behind their broken exteriors. The most apparent characteristic of Minoan religion was that it was polytheistic and matriarchal, that is, a goddess religion; the gods were all female, not a single male god has been identified until later periods. Many religious and cultural scholars now believe that almost all religions began as matriarchal religions, even the Hebrew religion (where Yahweh is frequently referred to as physically female), but adopted patriarchal models in later incarnations. What precipitated the transition from goddess religions to god religions is still subject to much debate and controversy, but the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle because of agriculture may have fundamentally reoriented society towards patriarchal organization and the subsequent rethinking of goddess religions. It is certain, however, that urbanization dramatically precipitated gender inequality as human life suddenly assumed a double quality: public life and private life. The domination of public life, that is, administration, rule, and military organization, by men certainly produced a reorientation of religious beliefs. The Cretans, however, do not seem to have evolved either gender inequality nor adapted their religion to a male-centered universe. The legacy of the goddess religion seems to still be alive today. Both Greece and Crete are Greek Orthodox Christian. In Greece, however, only women regularly swear by the name of the Virgin Mary, while in Crete both men and women swear by her name, particularly the epithet, "Panagia," or "All-Holy."

   The head of the Minoan pantheon seems to have been an all-powerful goddess which ruled everything in the universe. This deity was a mother deity, that is, her relationship to the world was as mother to offspring, which is a fundamentally different relation than the relationship of the father to his offspring. This is an impossibly difficult difference to really understand, but Sigmund Freud in Moses and Monotheism hints at its fundamental aspect. The relationship between a mother and offspring is a real, biological relationship that can be concretely demonstrated (the child comes from the mother). The relationship to the father is also a biological relationship, but it can only be inferred (because the child doesn't come directly from the father's body). It is inferred symbolically, that is, the child looks like the father. One aspect of goddess religion, then, is a fundamentally closer relationship, kinship and otherwise, to the deity, wheras god religions tend to stress distance. These, however, are only guesses because so little comes down to us about goddess religions of antiquity.



The Religion

It's difficult to assess the nature of the mother-goddess of Crete. There are numerous representations of goddesses, which leads to the conclusion that the Cretans were polytheistic, while others argue that these represent manifestations of the one goddess. There are several goddesses we can distinguish, though. The first one we call "The Lady of the Beasts," or the "Huntress"; this goddess is represented as mastering or overcoming animals. In a later incarnation, she becomes "The Mountain Mother," who is standing on a mountain and apparently protects the animals and the natural world. The most popular goddess seems to be the "Snake Goddess," who has snakes entwined on her body or in her hands. Since the figurine is only found in houses and in small shrines in the palaces, we believe that she is some sort of domestic goddess or goddess of the house (a kind of guardian angel–in many regions of the world, including Greece, the household snake is worshipped and fed as a domestic guardian angel). But the household goddess also seems to have taken the form of a small bird, for numerous shrines are oriented around a dove-like figure. Most scholars believe that the principle female goddesses of Greek religions, such as Hera, Artemis, and so on, ultimately derive from the Minoan goddesses.

   The world for the Minoans seems suffused with the divine; all objects in the world seem to have been charged with religious meaning. The Minoans particularly worshipped trees, pillars (sacred stones), and springs. The priesthood seems to have been almost entirely if not totally female, although there's evidence (precious little evidence) that the palace kings had some religious functions as well.

   The Minoan religious world apparently had numerous demons as well, who are always pictured as performing some religious ritual or another, so their exact nature is difficult to assess. They are always depicted as human beings, with the hands and feet of a lion. While they are certainly monstrous, they may, in fact, be symbols of religious worship.




Women in Minoan Culture


Urbanization dramatically changes social relations. In place of real, biological relationships based on kinship, urbanized cultures organize themselves around more abstract, less stable, and inherently unequal lines. In particular, urbanized society is organized around "class," that is, economic function, rather than kinship. Economic function produces a kind of social inequality, as administrators, kings, and priests, come to occupy economically more important roles (distribution and regulation) than others. While there is really no such thing as social mobility in the ancient world, class is inherently unstable as a way of organizing society. Urbanization also produces a split in human experience; life is divided into a public and a domestic sphere. In small tribal societies, this split is non-existent or barely evident, but urbanization produces a marked distinction between these two spheres. Almost universally, men dominate the newly formed public sphere: administration, regulation, and military organizations. Social inequality, then, gets established along sexual lines as well as economic function. This is a dramatic and traumatic change for any society to go through; literally, the entire world view has to adapt dramatically to account for this new inequality. For instance, most religions probably began as goddess religions; the new urbanized societies, however, develop god religions in their place.

Crete, so singular in everything else, seems to have avoided this. Not only does Crete seem to be a class-based society where there is little class inequality, archaeological evidence suggests that women never ceased playing an important role in the public life of the cities. They served as priestesses, as functionaries and administrators, and participated in all the sports that Cretan males participated in. These were not backyard sports, either, like croquet. The most popular sports in Crete were incredibly violent and dangerous: boxing and bull-jumping. In bull-jumping, as near as we can tell from the representations of it, a bull would charge headlong into a line of jumpers. Each jumper, when the bull was right on top of them, would grab the horns of the bull and vault over the bull in a somersault to land feet first behind the bull. This is not a sport for the squeamish. All the representations of this sport show young women participating as well as men.

   Women also seem to have participated in every occupation and trade available to men. The rapid growth of industry on Crete included skilled craftswomen and entrepreneurs, and the large, top-heavy bureaucracy and priesthood seems to have been equally staffed with women. In fact, the priesthood was dominated by women. Although the palace kings were male, the society itself does not seem to have been patriarchal.

   Evidence from Cretan-derived settlements on Asia Minor suggest that Cretan society was matrilineal, that is, kinship descent was reckoned through the mother. We live in a patrilineal society; we spell out our descent on our father's side—that's why we take our father's last name and not our mother's last name. While we can't be sure that Cretan society was matrilineal, it is a compelling conclusion since the religion was goddess-based.

 While very little Minoan culture remains for us—no writings, music, or religious texts—we do have Minoan art. For the Minoans literally surrounded themselves with art, and that fact more than any has mesmerized all the scholars and students of the culture. It's hard, in fact, to distance yourself from the visual culture and view it dispassionately, for seeing Minoan art for the first time produces the illusion that you are staring at kindred souls. They are, of course, not kindred souls and the artwork had far different meaning for the Minoans than it does for us.  

While I'm unable to put into words the hypnotic quality of the art, I perhaps can account for the illusion that it is somehow approachable. For the Minoans seem to have been the first ancient culture to produce art for its beauty rather than its function. While much of Minoan art, like almost all the art produced in the Middle East and Egypt, had religious and political functions, the bulk of the art seems to be simply superfluous decoration. Art in Mesopotamia and Persia served political and religious purposes; while compelling and aesthetically very sophisticated, the art served a larger purpose. The Minoans, however, not only decorated their palaces, they decorated them with art; they used art for pleasure. To walk through a Minoan palace was to walk through room after room of splendid, wall-sized paintings. Minoan art frequently involves unimportant, trivial details of everyday life, such as a cat hunting a heathcock, or an octopus, or representations of sports events (rather than battles, or political events and leaders, and so on). This is simply design for design's sake and suggests a human imagination that is rapt by the details of life. Most depictions of human beings represent them in the less dramatic and meaningful events of life, such as bearing a vase or simply walking down the street.

   This, perhaps, is the greatest Minoan legacy on the Greek world, for the great revolution in Greek art involves precisely this idea of producing art for pleasure only, that is, a purely aesthetic purpose for art: "art for art's sake." This is no trivial matter in the development of Western culture, for applied to other pursuits, such as philosophy and mathematics, this attitude towards art produces theoretical knowledge, knowledge for the sake of knowledge, which doesn't exist until the Greeks invent it.


Bull Jumping

The Minoans were a sport-centered society; while all sports ultimately derive from religious rituals, by the time the Cretans were enjoying their palace civilization, sport seemed to have passed over into a recreational activity. This is a new pheneomenon in the ancient world: sport for sport's sake, and parallels a number of other aspects of Minoan culture. We know a great deal about Cretan sports because they are a common subject of wall paintings and vase sculptures. The most popular sport subjects in Minoan painting and sculpture are two sports in particular: boxing and bull-jumping.

   Bull-jumping did not involve killing the bull, rather it was a test of both courage and agility. A bull would run at a jumper or line of jumpers; when it was close enough, the jumper would grab the bull's horns and either vault onto the bull's back or vault over the bull in a somersault and land on his or her feet on the other side of the bull. The difficulty of this vaulting is eloquently demonstrated in a Minoan vase: when you grab hold of a charging bull's horns, it jerks its head up violently—that's how it attacks with its horns. So the vaulter must get his or her momentum from this incredibly violent head jerk and use it to gracefully mount or vault the bull (we're not sure which). The Minoan depictions of this event show a remarkably graceful and gymnastic sport that seems less about bravery and strength and more about grace and fluidity. Since the bull provides most of the momentum in the vault, it seems likely that the activity has more in common with gymnastics than bull-fighting. In keeping with the singular gender equality of Minoan culture, both young men and young women participated in the sport, although the young women dressed in male clothes.