Minoan civilization started around 2800 B.C.E. on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea. They used their metalworking and carpentry skills to build ships. They made their ships slimmer and faster. The Minoans placed a large wooden beam in the prow (front of the ship) to sink enemy ships. Crete was the world’s first seafaring nation – trading pottery, leather and bronze armor, and metal jewelry.
The Minoans had bronze skin and long dark hair. Men wore loincloths and women wore full skirts. Both wore jewelry. The people of Crete loved sports. Events were held in an open air arena. Boxing and bull leaping were held there. Many experts believe bull leaping was a religious ceremony as well as a sport.
At the heart of each Minoan city stood a palace rather than a temple. The Minoan cities did not have walls around; they depended on the sea and navy to protect them. The palace at Knossos served as a government building, temple, factory and warehouse. The inside walls were decorated with brightly colored frescoes. Passageways and rooms formed a labyrinth giving the palace the name – “House of the Double Ax.” Minoan houses were two stories high and could be entered only by lowering a ladder over the side of the roof. The windows were made of oiled and tinted parchment.
The rulers of Crete were priest kings. They made the laws and represented the gods on earth. The Minoans had many gods. The main god was the Great Goddess, Mother Earth. Minoans built shrines in palaces, houses, hilltops and caves to worship. The Minoans believed the lily, double ax and dove were sacred.
Around 1400 B.C.E. control of the sea passed from the Minoans to the Mycenaeans. Legend explains the fall of the Minoans with the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.
The Mycenaeans came from the grasslands of southern Russia and settled in the lowlands of Greece. The Mycenaean kings built fortress-palaces on hilltops. The chief feature of the palace was the megaron. Land was divided into estates that were farmed either by enslaved people or by tenants. The Mycenaeans relied on hunting to get more meat.
Minoan traders visited Greece. The Mycenaeans began to imitate many Minoan customs. Most important of all, they learned how to build ships and how to navigate. The Mycenaens began to grow olives, and the sale of olive oil made them rich. They found trading stations and settlements on nearby islands. Despite their success in trade, the Mycenaeans were warriors at heart. By about 1400 B.C., they had replaced the Minoans as the chief power of the Aegean world.
The Mycenaeans are famous for their attack on Troy, a major trading city in Asia Minor. About 500 years after the Mycenaeans attacked Troy, a blind Greek poet named Homer composed the Iliad, a long poem about the event. Homer also composed a poem called the Odyssey, which tells about the wanderings of Odysseus, a Mycenaean hero of the Trojan War. After 10 years of fighting, Odysseus had the soldiers build a huge, hollow wooden horse. The best soldiers hid inside. The Trojans tied ropes to the wooden horse and pulled it into the city as a victory prize. At night, the hidden Mycenaeans killed the king of Troy and burned the city.
The Mycenaeans did not return to peaceful ways after crushing Troy. A series of civil wars, or wars between opposing groups of citizens, broke out. A people called Dorians entered Greece and conquered the Mycenaeans. As a result of the civil wars and the Dorian invasion, the Aegean world entered a “Dark Age,” which lasted until about 800 B.C. The people of the Aegean region forgot how to write and keep records. The Aegean world was cut off from the Middle East, and the people had to create a new civilization on their own with herding and farming as the main ways of life.
Critical Thinking Questions What effect did being an island civilization have on the Minoans? How well did the Minoans use their natural resources? Explain your answer. In what ways would the Mycenaean civilization have been different if the people had not learned to build and sail ships? Imagine you are an archaeologist who has dug up artifacts you believe are Mycenaean. Describe two artifacts you have found and what each was used for. What human actions and geographic factors made it possible for the “Dark Age” of the Aegean world to last for 300 years?