Was Minoan Crete a thalassocracy?

Published

Claim

During the Bronze Age, the Minoan civilization on Crete enjoyed peace thanks to its strong fleet, which dominated the seas and thus prevented outsiders from landing armies on Cretan shores.

Rating

Unproven

Explanation

Inspired by the relatively recent discoveries by the German entrepeneur Heinrich Schliemann (1882-1890) at Troy and Mycenae, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans began excavating at the site of Knossos in Crete for remains of the Bronze Age. Evans orginally believed he would find the remains of a Mycenaean palace, but it soon became apparent that he had stumbled upon something that was, in part, much older than the palaces on the Greek mainland.

Evans dubbed this new civilization “Minoan”, naming it after King Minos, the legendary figure who was thought by Greeks of the historical period to have ruled the island of Crete. Knossos was shown to have been the site of a large complex structured around a central court. Other, similar complexes have since been unearthed at Phaistos, Mallia, Zakros, and elsewhere. They are often referred to as “palaces”, though we don’t know if Minoan society was ruled by a monarch.

Archaeologists recognize a number of different phases in the history of the Minoan culture. The earliest palaces were dated to ceramic phases Middle Minoan IB to Middle Minoan II; this was the Protopalatial or Old Palace period (ca. 1925/1900 to 1750/1700 BC). After this came the Neopalatial or New Palace period, from Middle Minoan III to Late Minoan IB (ca. 1750/1700 to 1470/1460 BC). During this phase, the Minoan civilization is thought to have reached its zenith. It ended with the widespread destruction of the Minoan palaces across Crete, with only Knossos continuing in use afterwards during the Monopalatial or Final Palace period, i.e. Late Minoan II down to perhaps Late Minoan IIIB (ca. 1470/1460 BC down to maybe ca. 1360 BC or later; see e.g. Preston 2008).

Evans emphasized that Minoan art doesn’t glorify violence or warfare, and that the Minoan palaces, in contrast to the later Mycenaean citadels of mainland Greece, lacked fortifications. Thus, a narrative was born that painted the Minoans as generally peaceful. That they had nothing to fear from outside invaders or seaborne raiders was due to the Cretans’ ability to control the seas using their strong fleet and enforce a Pax Minoica or “Minoan Peace”.

The ultimate source for presumed Minoan thalassocracy is Thucydides (1.4):

Minos is the first to whom tradition ascribes the possession of a navy. He made himself master of a great part of what is now termed the Hellenic sea; he conquered the Cyclades, and was the first coloniser of most of them, expelling the Carians and appointing his own sons to govern in them. Lastly, it was he who, from a natural desire to protect his growing revenues, sought, as far as he was able, to clear the sea of pirates.

However, Thucydides lived in the fifth century BC or a thousand years after the glory days of Knossos. He himself refers to “tradition”, and we have no real idea as to when Minos – who the ancient Greeks believed was a son of Zeus! – is supposed to have lived. It’s certainly possible that the Bronze Age Cretans possessed a large fleet and were able to control the seas. Their influence is clearly noticeable at Akrotiri on Thera, as well as many other sites, and Minoan-style frescoes have even been found as far afield as the city of Avaris in Egypt (Bietak et al. 2007).

Already in 1955, Chester Starr casted doubt on what he referred to as the “myth of Cretan thalassocracy”. Other ideas about Minoan culture, originally espoused by Arthur Evans and often still dominant in the field of Aegean archaeology, have been deconstructed in recent years (see, especially, Schoep 2018). Recent research has also focused on trying to understand the nature of warfare in Minoan Crete (Driessen 1999; Molloy 2012; Whittaker 2015), rather than simply denying its existence; some studies have focused on Cretan fortifications and defensive architecture (e.g. Alusik 2007).

Because we cannot prove a negative, we have rated this claim as “unproven” rather than simply true or false. Further research is necessary to better understand the nature of warfare in Minoan Crete and the power dynamics between the Minoan “palaces” and other entities in the Aegean and beyond.

Related claims

References

  • Tomas Alusik, Defensive Architecture of Prehistoric Crete (2007).
  • Manfred Bietak, Nanno Marinator, and Clairy Palivou, Taureador Scenes inTell El-Dab’a (Avaris) and Knossos (2007).
  • Jan Driesen, “The archaeology of Aegean warfare”, in: Robert Laffineur (ed.), Polemos: Le Contexte Guerrier en Égée à L’Âge du Bronze (1999), pp. 11-19.
  • Erik Hallager, “Crete”, in: Eric H. Cline (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (2010), pp. 149-159.
  • Colin MacDonald, “Knossos”, in: Eric H. Cline (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (2010), pp. 529-542.
  • Laura Preston, “Late Minoan II to IIIB Crete”, in: Cynthia W. Shelmerdine (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age (2008), pp. 310-326.
  • Ilse Schoep, “Building the Labyrinth: Arthur Evans and the construction of Minoan civilization”, American Journal of Archaeology 122 (2018), pp. 5-32.
  • Chester Starr, “The myth of the Minoan thalassocracy”, Historia 3.3 (1955), pp. 282-291.
  • Helène Whittaker, “Symbolic aspects of warfare in Minoan Crete”, in: Geoff Lee, Helène Whittaker, and Graham Wrightson (eds), Ancient Warfare: Introducing Current Research, vol. 1 (2015), pp. 1-13.