Minoan, Mycenaean Civilizations and Origin of Greek Civilization

To the men of early civilizations, the sea meant mystery and danger. In their sailboats and other small craft, they ventured upon it with caution, staying close to the shoreline by day and taking refuge in harbors at night. Little by little the sea grew in importance as a highway for trade. The Phoenicians were among the early traders who dared to navigate the open waters. Others who met the challenge of the deep were the people who lived on the islands of the Aegean Sea and along its shores; Crete Island (largest Island of Greece) developed a flourishing culture.

Minoan Civilization

It is believed that Crete was first settled in the late Neolithic period by peoples from southwest Asia. In about 3100 B.C., Egyptians also immigrated to Crete. Between 1600 and 1400 b.c. Crete became a power in the ancient world, serving as a stepping stone on the trade routes between Europe and Africa and between Africa and Asia. The civilization which developed on Crete is called Minoan for King Minos. According to mythology, he was a semi-legendary figure who ruled Crete.

Ancient Greek legends include a number of references to Minoan civilization. One of the best-known stories concerns the Minotaur, a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man, which was made an object of worship and kept beneath the royal palace in a labyrinth, an intricate and bewildering series of passageways. Every year the Minotaur was offered a tribute of seven youths and seven girls from Athens. Finally, it was slain by the Greek hero, Theseus, who escaped from the labyrinth by following a thread given him as a guideline by Minos’ daughter.

Until the end of the 19th century, little definite knowledge of Minoan civilization existed. But in 1894 Sir Arthur Evans, an English archaeologist, began excavations on Crete. He found inscribed clay tablets and jewelry, which revealed that the Minoans had developed a system of writing. Copper and bronze tools and weapons indicated the advanced stage of Minoan technological development. An important find was the ruins of the royal palace at Knossos, the capital city. It was an amazing building, six acres in area and like a giant labyrinth with its many living quarters, corridors, tunnels, storerooms, and an ingenious underground plumbing system.

Crete achieved an abundance of wealth based on its overseas trade and metalworking industries. Prominent among Minoan manufactured goods were decorated clay vases, bronze weapons, and locks and keys, which were traded for gold, silver, and grain.

Although Egyptian influences are prominent in much of Minoan art, the island people originated their own highly individualistic forms of architecture, painting, and sculpture. Their artistic works reflect the image of a pleasure-loving society whose members delighted in athletics and the world of nature.

Depicted in many of the wall paintings is the hazardous sport of “bull dancing.” The object of this sport was to meet the bull head-on, grasp his horns firmly, and somersault over his back to safety. Women as well as men participated in these events.

Mycenaean Civilization

About 1900 BC, a wave of invaders from the area around the Caspian Sea penetrated the Greek peninsula. Speaking an early form of Greek, these newcomers are known as Mycenaeans to distinguish them from the Greeks of a later day. At their fortified centres, especially at Mycenae and Tiryns, they began to engage in manufacturing and trade, successfully imitating the Minoans. About 1500 BC, the Mycenaeans captured Knossos, and during the following century they attacked and destroyed other Cretan cities until they were driven from the island in 1400 B.C.

While Minoan trade and city life revived somewhat, commercial leadership in the Aegean had by this time passed to Mycenae, and Crete fell into decline. Mycenae and Troy became centers of Aegean civilization. From 1400 to 1200 B.C., the dominant power in the Aegean was Mycenae.

During this period, a feeling of fellowship developed among the Aegean peoples. A common language was a contributing factor. Also important was religion. At this time there developed the idea of a single, all-powerful deity, Zeus, who ruled over a family of gods and goddesses. Aegean civilization also flourished in Asia Minor. Located strategically on the Hellespont, a narrow strait now known as the Dardanelles, was the city of Troy. It controlled the trade between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

After about 1300 B.C., Mycenaean trade began to decline for reasons still not fully understood, and trade contacts with Egypt and the east coast of the Mediterranean were severed. This period of crisis is revealed in the Iliad and the Odyssey, the epic poems attributed to the blind poet Homer. The first poem tells of the siege of Troy. Probably the most familiar part of the poem is the story of how Troy was taken. The Mycenaean invaders built a huge wooden statue of a horse outside the city gates and then departed. The Trojans were impressed with the statue, and moved it into their city only to discover too late— that the statue was filled with enemy soldiers. The Odyssey describes the wanderings of Odysseus (Ulysses) after Troy had been destroyed.

Origins of Greek Civilization

Throughout its existence, the Aegean civilization had been threatened by invaders. About 1100 BC, warlike peoples later known as the Dorians began moving into the Greek peninsula from the north. The Mycenaeans were driven from their cities, and many of the survivors fled eastward into Attica and settled in Athens. Others took refuge on the islands of the Aegean and on a strip of seacoast in Asia Minor known as Ionia. Still others fell victim to the conquerors, but in time a peaceful mingling began to take place.

From the mixture of various groups emerged the Greeks. During this period of transition —from the first Dorian invasions to about the middle of the 8th century B.C.—the basis for Greek civilization was laid. Little is known about this transitional period. Trade came to a standstill and the people lived in isolated agricultural communities. Gradually, Athens and other communities established contacts for mutual protection and for the observance of common religious festivals. From these contacts developed the famous Olympic games, beginning in the 8th century B.C. and held every four years in honor of Zeus. Little by little, the cultural unity was re-established which had existed when Mycenaean power was at its height. The Greeks called themselves Hellenes after Hellas, an area in northwest Greece. The great period of Greek civilization which followed the era of transition is called the Hellenic period, which lasted from about 750 to 338 BC.

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