History 1113
The Origins of Greek Society

The Minoans: An Early Society in the Aegean.
Minoan society emerged around 2200 B.C.E. on what is now the island of Crete, and lasted in one form or another until about 1100 B.C.E.  The Minoans were a Bronze Age civilization, which is no surprise given that the Bronze Age had also reached other parts of the Mediterranean not too distant from Crete, such as New Kingdom Egypt, Palestine/Syria, and Anatolia (i.e. Turkey).  For those interested in the origins of the adjective Minoan, it comes from the name of a legendary king of Crete, Minos, whose wife produced an offspring with a bull known to us as the Minotaur.  As the story goes Minos kept the Minotaur in a maze for he was ashamed of this proof of his wife's indiscretion.  It was the hero Theseus who, using the instructions of King Minos's daughter, entered the labrynth, fought, and killed the Minotaur. 

And now back to history. 
Minoan society was quite sophisticated, with the focal point being its cities.  Several Minoan urban settlements had large palaces by 1700 B.C.E. with the major royal residence was located in Knossos [NAH-suhs] (see the map on p.32 of World History).  Minoan society was ruled by a king, but he did not have the same exalted status that the pharaohs of New Kingdom Egypt or the rulers of the Hittite or Mesopotamian states did.  One could think of the Minoan king as a sort of administrator in charge of the trading activities of the state.  The real power in Minoan society lay in the hands of the priests. 

As a consequence of its unique power structure, Minoa did not display the same militaristic or political ambitions as its mainland Mediterranean neighbors such as New Kingdom Egypt.  Minoans relied on their navy to protect them and to control their access to trade in the Mediterranean, at which it was very good indeed.  Cities had no defensive walls and although trade served as the chief economic engine, wealth tended to be evenly distributed.  In other words, there was a high degree of socio-economic equality even after urbanization came to Minoan society and although there were slaves the social distance between slave and free was not nearly as great as in other Mediterranean societies.  In addition, Minoan society tended to be fairly open with regard to cultural influences from abroad; it is possible, for example, that the Minoan writing system derived in part from Egyptian hieroglyphics and Minoans also had contact with the coastal society of Palestine/Syria, the Phoenicians (or Canaanites).

Given trade's great importance you would expect that the Minoans would have displayed great prowess in this area, and they did.  They were arguably the first truly dominant long-distance, maritime traders in the Mediterranean.  In order to carry on long-distance commerce and run their sophisticated society Minoans naturally needed a writing system and they did have one.  Scholars call it Linear A (not very romantic!).  It had 87 characters and has recently been deciphered so we can expect our picture of Minoan culture to be transforming rapidly in the coming years.  The large Minoan bureaucracy that supported the Minoan king also employed this writing system as they managed agricultural production and distribution as well as the work of the skilled artisans serving the society.  As trade was effectively a royal monopoly, the bureaucracy also had a large hand in controlling it as well.

Minoans also managed to develop a sophisticated culture alongside their dynamic, mercantile economy.  Minoan religion emphasized female deities as well as the worship of bulls and included child sacrifice.  As you might imagine based on this religious evidence, women in Minoan society enjoyed a lot of freedoms that they did not have in the societies we have been studying so far. 

The Decline of Minoan Society, c. 1700-1300 B.C.E.
Despite its advances, Minoan society encountered two crises that it ultimately could overcome.  First, in 1700 B.C.E. a massive earth quake hit Crete and then, some time between 1630 and 1450 B.C.E., a volcano on the island of Thera (nearby Crete) erupted with force equivalent to a 600-700 kiloton bomb.  The volcanic activity also produced earthquakes and tidal waves.  This natural disaster destabilized Minoan society understandably enough.  Just consider for a moment what hurricane Katrina has wrought in the U.S., an advanced 21st century society and you can see how horrific this event must have been for the Minoans.  As if that were not enough, though, Minoans also had to cope with an invasion by people from what is now the Greek mainland known as the Mycenaeans [meye-seh-NEE-uhns] (after one of the chief cities Mycenae) c. 1450-1380 B.C.E. Minoan society could not cope with these challenges and by 1100 B.C.E. had disappeared.

Mycenaean Society.
Mycenaean society, while named after Mycenae, was not entirely under the rule of that city even though it did  become very influential at the height of its power in the 14th century B.C.E..  Given that Mycenaean society included the Greek mainland, Crete, and the coastal area of Anatolia this is not too surprising.  In any case, the Mycenaeans or, as Homer called them, the Achaeans, had entered the Greek mainland c. 2000-1900 B.C.E., not too long after the emergence of Minoan society.  They were part of a larger series of migrations stemming from Central Eurasia of a people scholars describes as Indo-Europeans of which the Hittites are another example.  Perhaps more so than the Minoans, the Mycenaeans benefited from their contacts with other cultures, although the reverse cannot be said.  They acquired their alphabet, trading techniques, and even architectural knowledge in part from the Phoenicians and in part from the Minoans.  From the Egyptians they learned about how to establish a complex society and from the Hittites they gained knowledge about different approaches to rule.  In addition, the Mycenaeans faced continual pressure from groups to their north, such as the Thracians, whom they had to keep at bay. 

As you can probably guess from this last statement, the Mycenaeans, unlike the Minoans, were warlike.  Indeed one could describe Mycenaean society as a warrior-dominated culture.  A king ruled each of the several hundred Mycenaean cities supported by a military elite who were a subset of the nobility.  Mycenaean kings kept a close watch on their nobles to ensure that rivals did not emerge and they lived in fortified palaces in contrast to their Minoan counterpart. The Mycenaeans also had a sophisticated bureaucracy, though they were not as precocious in trade as the Minoans.  Therefore the Mycenaean kings used their writing system, known as Linear B, chiefly to keep royal records.  The writing system does not appear to have been used for literary purposes.

One might ask why the Mycenaean society was or became so bellicose whereas the Minoans were peaceful.  There are many reasons, but one of them is surely related to resources.  The agricultural base in Greece is fragile, so even though peasants worked the lands of the Mycenaean kings and their noble supporters, this was not sufficient to support the society.  Therefore, Mycenaeans engaged in a mixture of piracy and commerce.  Of course, the Mycenaeans could have chosen only to act as peaceful traders, but given their conflicts with groups like the Thracians to their north, this was probably unlikely to happen.

Mycenaean armies, however, were not like the armies of the Mesopotamian empires or New Kingdom Egypt.  Nobles comprised the backbone of these armies as they were the ones who could afford the best weapons and armor.  Their followers tended to be much less well equipped and consequently did not play as large a role in fighting.  This is why it is often champions who feature prominently in the battles of the poet Homer's epics (it should be said that some scholars argue against the idea that there was one individual called Homer; for them the epics are part of an oral tradition) The Odyssey and The Iliad, works that mirror life in Mycenaean culture during the period of its decline.  It turns out, by the way, that there was indeed a Troy and the Mycenaeans did attack it c. 1250-1150 B.C.E.  Why they did so, however, is unknown as is the real reason for the decline of Mycenaean culture.

Decay of Mycenaean society, c. 1200-1050.
In any case, ca. 1200 B.C.E. Mycenaean society began a several century decline.  Traditionally, scholars argued that a second in-migration of Greeks (including and often thought of as mainly the Dorians, some of whom founded the city-state of Sparta) prompted this collapse.  These newcomers, so the story goes, moved into the Greek mainland and from there to Crete, Anatolia, etc.  Their arrival in the region displaced other peoples, including Mycenaeans and these people then raided Palestine/Syria and Egypt. In Egyptian sources the raiders are called the Sea People.  The Sea People disrupted Mediterranean trade as well as societies along the coast of Anatolia and Palestine/Syria as well as in Egypt and brought to an end the Bronze Age in the Mesopotamia/New Kingdom region.  On Crete and elsewhere in Mycenaean society the coming of Sea People caused much destruction as did the uprisings of the common folk among the Mycenaeans against their own leaders.  Indeed, scholars have called the period of discord that they ushered in the Dark Ages in Greece. 

More recently, however, scholars have gained access to more detailed archaeological evidence from Mycenaean settlements including Lefkandi, Nichoria, Athens, Corinth, and Ascra.  They have found that the evidence for a possible Dorian in-migration/invasion is slight.  Instead several other theories have been propounded, though none is definitively accepted.  Among the more prominent explanations, one suggests that the hierarchical city-state kingdoms that typified Mycenaean society by the 14th century B.C.E. had developed a level of complexity that had stretched their agricultural base the breaking point, meaning they did not have enough food to support the non-productive members of society.  This situation led to internal tensions and collapse.  Still another idea suggests that not Greeks but other, less-developed but well-armed Mediterranean peoples (e.g. Lycians, Sardinians, Tyrrhenians, Sicilians), operating like the Vikings of a later era, disrupted and destroyed Myceaean society.  Less accepted ideas are that of a general civil war and, alternatively, the notion of an eco-disaster of some sort such as persistent drought.

In terms of the geography of Greece, the following description of events is roughly accurate.  The in-migration of northerners into the Peloponnesus [pehl-oh-puh-nee-suhs], the migration of Greek speakers to islands in the Aegean Sea & to Asia Minor: Dorians on Crete, the Peloponnesus, & southwest Anatolia; Ionians in Attica, Euboea, the Aegean islands, and the middle of Asia Minor (i.e. Anatolia); and Aeolians in the North, on Lesbos, and in the northwest of Asia Minor (For the geography, again see p. 32 of World History).  The ultimate result of all of this movement and the resultant destruction was that Mycenaean society had all but completely disappeared by 1050 B.C.E.

The "Dark Ages" of Greece: c. 1050-750 B.C.E.
As the collapse of Mycenaean society continued after 1050 down to about 800 B.C.E., the region experienced drastic declines in population (as much as 80 percent) with some settlements disappearing altogether.  Towns & cities were frequently abandoned for at least a time and many returned to a  rural life, led by aristocrats and warrior kings; the kings or big men as some scholars term them, were called basileis.  All common or communal land was eliminated and the chief way in which people gained notoriety was by acquiring aretē (excellence or virtue), which one could only acquire by fighting and becoming a great champion, i.e. one of the aristoi (the best).  As noted above, champions or individual aristocrats dominated fighting as war-band leaders.  They led regular soldiers also, but these were not as organized, as well-equipped, or as important as later on.  The phratry (clan), which consisted of an aristocratic family head, his family, dependent nobles, richer farmers and poorer farmers and dependents was the core unit of the military.  Amidst all of this destruction, iron weapons were introduced, which, while certainly a new development, hardly improved life in the short term.

The above is based chiefly on the following works: Bentley & Ziegler, Traditioins and Encounters; Columbia Encyclopedia of World History consulted at: www.bartleby.com; Bulliet et al. The Earth and Its Peoples; Upshur et al., World History; Carol G. Thomas & Craig Conant, Citadel to City-State: The Transformation of Greece, 1200-700 B.C.E. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Uinversity Press, 1999); George Forrest, "Greece: The History of the Archaic Period," in The Oxford Illustrated History of Greece and the Hellenistic World, edited by John Boardman, jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 13-43.

I.  Minoan and Mycenaean Societies: Greece in the Era of Iliad and the Odyssey

A.  Minoan [mih-NOH-uhn] Society:  Crete, 2200-1100 B.C.E.

1.  Origins

2.  Structure of Society

3.  Decay of Minoan society

B.  Mycenaean Society

1.  Origins

2.  Structure of Society

3.  Decay of Mycenaean society   

C.  Dark Ages of Greece, 1050-750 B.C.E.

Key Terms
Knossos [Nah-suhs]
Linear A

Egypt (Middle and New Kingdom eras)

Mycenae [meye-SEE-neye]
Linear B
Trojan War

Peloponnesus [pehl-oh-puh-nee-suhs]
Sea Peoples


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