This article covers the society, economy and culture of the Minoan civilization. For more on its history, and its place within the broader story of Greek history, see the article on the history of Ancient Greece.
The Minoans have an important place in world history, as building the first civilization to appear on European soil.
Minoan civilization emerged around 2000 BCE, and lasted until 1400 BCE. It was located on the island of Crete, which is now a part of Greece. The Minoans were famous for the magnificent palaces they built, above all at Knossos.
There was, if fact, never a people who called themselves the “Minoans”. The civilization of Ancient Crete was given this name by the 19th century British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who, when he began excavating at Knossos in 1900, thought he had discovered the palace of the legendary king Minos, who appears in several Greek myths.
Neolithic (Stone Age) farming villages began to appear in Crete sometime from 7000 BCE. With the arrival of the Bronze Age, trade routes spread out from the Middle East in search of copper, tin and other resources. Given that water transport was, until the coming of railways, much more efficient than land transport over distances of more than a few miles – one of those often-ignored factors which had such an impact on world history – it was natural that the Mediterranean would from ancient times be a major conduit of trade. Several regional cultures emerged in the 4th millennium BCE in and around the Aegean Sea, which pioneered seaborne commerce. One of these evolved into the Minoan civilization.
As an island in the eastern Mediterranean, Crete enjoyed a strategic location between the centers of civilization in the Middle East and the sources of much-needed minerals in the Balkans, Italy, and as far west as Spain. The rulers of Crete were therefore able to make their land into a center for international maritime trade.
The long-distance trade networks of the Bronze Age were largely dominated by the rulers of well-placed chiefdoms and city-states which straddled the trade routes. They were able to tax the flow of trade, and their seats of power became centers of industrial activity, where goods were manufactured – especially elite items such as bronze weapons, armor and jewelry.
Bronze Age cultures outside the main river valley civilizations therefore tended to consist of largely Neolithic farming populations ruled over by a small but wealthy ruling class, who lived in comparatively luxurious – and often fortified – centers. Minoan civilization is a spectacular example of this.
Palace complexes dotted ancient Crete. These began to be built around 2000 BCE, with phases of palace construction and enlargement interspersed with periods of decline and retrenchment. The long-term trend was for a few of the palaces to get larger, while others declined in size, or disappeared altogether. In the final phase (1600 – 1400 BCE) Knossos emerged as by far the largest and most sophisticated palace, a multi-storied complex of stone buildings impressive by any standards. It was clearly the seat of the most powerful ruler on the island.
Minoan palaces were usually situated in or near towns and cities. Here lived the bronze workers, wall painters, potters and other craftsmen who worked in the palace workshops, as well as the traders and crews who manned the Minoan ships. The city of Knossos, adjacent to the great royal palace, was one of the largest urban centers anywhere in the ancient world.
Between the main palaces were situated much smaller groups of buildings which scholars interpret as rural “villas” for members of the palace elite. They often exhibit the same artistic and architectural motifs as the palaces, though on a less magnificent scale.
The remains of Minoan palaces, especially Knossos, show an astonishing level of material culture for the time. The larger ones would have housed hundreds of inhabitants, and were serviced by elaborate water supply and sewage systems. Our knowledge of the lives of the people who lived in these palaces is limited by the fact that, although writing was practiced (in the form of a script called Linear A, which was a pictographic script like Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform), it has not yet been deciphered by modern scholars.
Lively and colorful wall frescoes, however, have survived, as well as some statuettes and painted pottery. These give us a vivid glimpse of some aspects of Minoan life. They apparently depict a religious life dominated by priestesses. Their ceremonial dress was almost Victorian in its shape and decoration, with its wide skirts and tight bodices; but there was one glaring difference – the Minoan priestly dresses were bare-breasted. It is likely that this is linked to a fertility cult, prevalent in ancient religions.
Another remarkable feature shown in the paintings is bull-jumping – a sport undertaken by both men and women. This too was almost certainly connected to religious ceremonies, as was most public sport in the pre-modern world. It is tempting to see here the origins of bull-fighting, which became prevalent in southern Europe hundreds of years later.
The influence of Minoan civilization spread to many places on the Mediterranean coast – on the Greek mainland, where it had a major impact on the emerging Mycenaean civilization; on the coast of Asia Minor; as far west as the coasts of Italy and Sicily; and in the east, on the Canaanite culture.
Minoan pottery has also been found in Egypt. Clearly Minoan traders and sailors journeyed far and wide in search for trade items, and, judging by the power and wealth apparent at Knossos, the Minoans came to dominate maritime trade in the eastern and central Mediterranean.
In about 1400 BCE, the archaeological evidence shows a sudden break in the historical record – the palace of Knossos collapsed, its inhabitants dispersed. Modern scholars have linked this to a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused by a volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Thera. Palace-building returned after a little while, but on a smaller scale; and the script has changed – it is now one which scholars call Linear B. This script has, unlike Linear A, been deciphered, with most of the documents relating to routine trade and administration. Linear B was also used on the Greek mainland at this time, and this suggests that the centers of power in Crete had been taken over by conquerors from Greece. These held sway for some two centuries before themselves vanishing.
After that, there are no signs of palace building, nor of writing, nor of any other kind of high culture, for several centuries. When at last literate civilization returns to the island it is as part of the civilization of Classical Greece, an entirely different one from that of the Minoans. A new chapter in the history of the world has begun.