Chronicle 5. THE ENIGMATIC SEA PEOPLES
BEFORE WE GO WEST, we need to sail into the “Great Green” (the Mediterranean to the Egyptians) in search of the Sea Peoples, meeting more migrant bands on the way. Voyaging in space and time, in history, legend and myth, we must go back to the explosive finale of the 17th century BCE, the “big bang” of the Minoan volcanic eruption on Thera-Santorini, for it occurred very close to the period the Sea Peoples initially appeared in Egypt. If we take into account the wrecking of the Minoan navy policing the seas, we can presume that these peoples were nothing but pirates at the time, and we also realize how interdependent the great powers were in the ancient world. Later the Egyptians started identifying various bands of Sea Peoples in their own style, and one of the first mentioned were the Sherden or Shardana, a large group of pirates.
They disrupted trade in the end of the 13th century and contributed greatly to the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization. Nonetheless, they are not mentioned in either Hellenic or Hittite legends or documents, suggesting that they did not originate from either sphere of influence. Many scholars relate the Shardana to Sardinia due to the similarity between the two words. Based on the same principle, the archaeologist Margaret Guido proposed that the Shardana might have ultimately derived from Sardis and the Sardinian plain nearby, in Lydia, and perhaps migrated later to Sardinia. It seems that many people, and not only the Trojans that would become Romans, left Anatolia and the Aegean for the Italian peninsula and its islands due to the Bronze Age collapse, rather than before. There is evidence that gives credit to Virgil’s Aeneid – without excluding the possibility of earlier migrations. Recent genetic studies indicate that the populations not only of people, but even of cattle, in various Italian regions, especially in Tuscany, are more related to Anatolia, mainly in the northwest, than to anywhere else.
A famous passage from Herodotus portrays the migration and drifting of Lydians because of famine:
“Their king divided the people into two groups, so that the one should remain and the other leave the country. His son, Tyrrhenus, was to be the head of those who departed. They went down to Smyrna and built themselves ships. After sailing past many countries they came to the Ombrici, where they founded cities and called themselves Tyrrhenians.”
We can’t but remember that Anatolia faced the same acute problem of famine in the time of the collapse and, as a result, the Sea Peoples, then a coalition of seagoing migrants, closed ranks seeking relief from scarcity. Drought could have easily precipitated socio-economic problems and wars. As regards the story told by Herodotus and its link to the Sea Peoples, several scholars contend that those called Teresh by the Egyptians were none others than the Tyrrhenians, or Tyrsenians, who are often identified with the Tusci (hence Tuscany), the Latin exonym for the Etruscans, or Rasena, as they called themselves. The Tyrsenian linguistic family, together with Etruscan, includes the Lemnian language, spoken on the Aegean island of Lemnos until the 6th century BCE. Another Aegean tongue possibly related to the Etruscan was the Minoan Cretan. A third Aegean island close to Anatolia mentioned as their possible homeland by Thucydides is that of Lesbos. The Romans, as Virgil’s readers, identified the Teresh with the Trojans. This version would serve their interests for the Etruscans were their rivals. If they showed that they had a common ancestry, any further animosity between them would be considered fratricidal. There are some clues to support this view. Several writers, as e.g. Andrea Salimbeti in “The Greek Age of Bronze: Sea Peoples”, note that a Trojan connection in the case of the Teresh or Tursha should be at first taken under consideration:
“Troy appears in a Hittite record as Taruisa. It is a reasonable assumption that the people of Taruisa called themselves by some name close to this; stripped of vowels so that it can be compared to the Egyptian spelling”.
The Troad was outside the territory but within the sphere of influence of Hatti. However, another Hittite record points to a different location, for it contains a list of cities, among them Tarsa, most likely Tarsus. These toponyms and corresponding ethnicities would be written down in Egyptian hieroglyphs or in any Semitic script as “T-r-s” or “T-r-sh” – that is, without vowels.(a)
Anatolian connections have been suggested for other Sea Peoples, as well, like the Lukka (Lycians). Most striking is that the vast majority of them seem to have descended from the Troad. Therefore, some researchers, such as the Swiss geoarchaeologist Eberhard Zangger, have proposed that “the Sea Peoples may well have been Troy and its confederated allies, and the literary tradition of the Trojan War [e.g. the Iliad] may well reflect the Greek effort to counter those raids.”(b) Therefore, despite the attempts of many historians to discredit the historicity of the Iliad, the Trojan War is considered a historical event and a key to grasp the underlying causes of these epoch-making developments. “For sure, the Sea Peoples’ movement was one of the largest and most important migrations in history that changed the face of the ancient world more than any other single event before the time of Alexander the Great”, Andrea Salimbeti remarks. This long, ravaging war, in combination with the widespread famine in the entire peninsula, created the explosive conditions leading to the collapse. Under the circumstances, many Trojans, allies or neighbours became refugees, and some survived by their wits and swords. Archeological evidence leads to the conclusion that the Sea Peoples were not pirates anymore, nor raiders plundering and pillaging established cities, but instead a mass of people looking for a place to settle, in search of a home. This was obvious since their first invasion of Egypt under Libyan leadership when they were accompanied by their families and belongings. The Libyan tribes also played a role in the first campaigns against Egypt. Herodotus and Hecataeus mentioned one of them centuries later. It was the Berber tribe of the Maxyes or Mazyes, the Mazaces to the Romans or the Meshwesh to the Egyptians, who also claimed to have a Trojan heritage.
Despite the attempts to discredit the historicity of the “Iliad”, the Trojan War is considered a historical event. “The Sea Peoples may well have been Troy and its confederated allies, and the literary tradition of the Trojan War may well reflect the Greek effort to counter those raids.” (Eberhard Zangger)
“One of the theories links them to the Pelasgians who were allies of Troy, and one group of them lived in Thrace”, Andrea Salimbeti explains.(c) “Those Pelasgians would have migrated south, overrunning and fatally damaging Achaean Greek civilization. Shortly after, many would have gone farther south to Crete.” In addition, there are Biblical references to the Philistines as coming from a place called Caphtor, identified by certain scholars with Crete.(d) “This theory”, Salimbeti adds, “has been somewhat strengthened by the discovery in Crete of the Phaestos disc. One of the symbols shows the head of a man crowned with feathers – very similar to the feather-topped helmets of the Peleset depicted” at the Temple of Ramses III.(e)
Another ‘Trojan’ Sea People might have been the Weshesh. The scarcity of information led ‘necessarily’ to speculation about possible links between their name and that of Ilion, as the city of Troy was also called by the Greeks, or Wilusa (Wilusiya) by the Hittites – after king Ilus (thence the Iliad). “The W of Weshesh”, Salimbeti notes, “is a modern invention for ease of pronunciation; the Egyptian records refer to Uashesh”. Some scholars associate this people with Assos, also in the Troad, or with Iasos (Iassos) in Caria, or with Issos in Cilicia. Others have theorized that they became part of the Israelite confederacy, as the tribe of Asher. Another people connected with the Hebrews were the Tjeker. Moving to Canaan, they captured the city-state of Dor and turned it into a large, well-fortified capital of their kingdom. Dor was violently destroyed in the mid-11th century BCE by the expanding Phoenicians, who were checked by the Philistines, and then by the Hebrews. King David (if he was something more than just a mythological figure) supposedly conquered Dor and the Tjeker were mentioned no more.
A possible linguistic connection has been proposed between the Tjeker and the Tekrur, identified with the Teucri, a tribe described by some ancient sources as inhabiting northwest Anatolia to the south of Troy. Tradition offers basically two candidates for a homeland: Crete or Attica. Legend links all three places and goes even further, following two heroes with the same name: Teucer (or Teucrus). According to Virgil, the older Teucer was from Crete but left the island with a third part of its inhabitants during a great famine (how many such stories…). They settled near a river, which was named Scamander after his father. Dionysius of Halicarnassus claims Teucer had gone to the Troad from Attica. Scamander (or Xanthos) was said to have been a river-god, a son of Oceanus. According to Homer, he fought on the side of the Trojans after Achilles insulted him. He was the personification of the river that flowed by Troy. The Hellenes had set up their camp near its mouth, and their battles with the Trojans were fought on its plain. With the arrival of Dardanus there, Teucria was renamed as Dardania (thence Dardenelles), and later Troad (from king Tros). But these toponymic changes would not deter the Trojans to often call themselves Teucrians. Aeneas e.g. is described as “the great captain of the Teucrians”.
The younger Teucer (or Teucrus) was a son of king Telamon of Salamis, the island of Attica where the decisive naval battle of the Graeco-Persian Wars would be fought. He was half Trojan because his mother was a princess of Ilion. He also fought in the Trojan War, but on the side of the Hellenes, having his half-brother, Ajax, as a co-fighter, while his cousins, Hector and Paris, and his uncle Priam were ‘enemies’. After all, war was a family affair – let alone for Teucer Jr! On his return to Salamis, however, his father accused him for not bringing Ajax’s body back home. He was disowned, exiled, and set out to find a new home. With his departing words that Horace turned into a moving ode, he exhorted his companions to “despair in no way… tomorrow we shall set out upon the vast ocean”.(f) This speech, related later to the theme of voyages of discovery, is also found in Dante’s Inferno and in Tennyson’s Ulysses. Teucer eventually joined the Phoenician king Belus of Tyre in his campaign against Cyprus, and when the island was seized, Belus handed it over to Teucer as a reward. He founded there the city of Salamis, named after his homeland.
The “copper island”, a vital node in the trade networks, experienced two waves of Greek settlement: The initial consisted of Mycenaean traders around 1400 BCE. Towards the end of this period, great amounts of ‘Mycenaean’ pottery were produced in Cyprus. A major second wave, connected with Teucer’s story, took place just after the Bronze Age collapse ca 1100 BCE, with the island’s predominantly Hellenic character dating from this era, due to the ‘invasion’ of Helladic refugees. Apart from Salamis, Teucer is credited as a founder of other cities, as well. A local legend in Galicia, in northwestern Iberia, relates the foundation of Pontevedra to ‘Teucro’. The legend seems to be based more on the conjecture that Greek traders might have arrived there in ancient times. Though legends appear for a certain reason, historians and archaeologists tend to agree that the initial settlement was probably formed when Gallaecia was integrated into the Roman Empire (1st century BCE). Pontevedra, which means “the old bridge”, in reference to an old Roman bridge across the Lérez River, is sometimes poetically called The City of Teucro, and its inhabitants teucrinos – like the Trojans.(g)
Up to now, with the sole exception of Teucer attacking Cyprus in collaboration with the Phoenicians and representing the people who found refuge there (well, at the expense of the locals), we have seen no Hellenes fighting alongside the Sea Peoples, but rather against them, in the Trojan War. It is what Sanford Holst already said in our previous Chronicle:
“The Mycenaeans attacked the Anatolian people from the seaward side. To deal with this problem, warriors and ships in the Sea Peoples confederacy poured from Anatolia and the Black Sea into the Aegean, where they ravaged the Mycenaeans.”
Let us try to verify this in Wikipedia:
“The invaders, that is, the replacement cultures at those sites, apparently made no attempt to retain the cities’ wealth but instead built new settlements of a materially simpler cultural and less complex economic level atop the ruins. For example, no one appropriated the palace and rich stores at Pylos, but all were burned up, and the successors (whoever they were) moved in over the ruins with plain pottery and simple goods. This demonstrates a cultural discontinuity.”
This may demonstrate a logical discontinuity, as well! The author leaves the question of who the invaders were open. However, he/she identifies them with “the replacement cultures”, who were stupid enough to “burn up the palace and rich stores” instead of appropriating them. Quite simply, the invaders had no plan to settle there; they went there just to destroy: they were not “the replacement cultures”.
The Anatolians predominated among the Sea Peoples but were not alone. Names of tribes with dubious or unknown origin are several in the Egyptian files – like the Shekelesh, probably the Siculi, who moved to Sicily from the Italian mainland.
“There was a gigantic series of migratory waves, extending all the way from the Danube valley to the plains of China”, Michael Grant comments, and Moses I. Finley agrees: “A large-scale movement of people is indicated… The original centre of disturbance was in the Carpatho-Danubian region of Europe… pushing in different directions at different times.”
However, if we have faith in Michael Wood, they were Greeks:
“Were the sea peoples in part actually composed of Mycenaean Greeks – rootless migrants, warrior bands and condottieri on the move? Certainly there seem to be suggestive parallels between the war gear and helmets of the Greeks and those of the Sea Peoples”. Moreover, including the Sherden and Shekelesh among the ‘villains’, he reminds us that “there were migrations of Greek-speaking peoples to [Sardinia and Sicily] at this time”. Troy, he concludes, “was sacked by essentially [!] Greek Sea Peoples”…(h)
Michael Wood is not alone, too. The identification of the Denyen and Ekwesh with the Danaans and Achaeans respectively are long-standing issues in Bronze Age scholarship, especially as the “suspects” lived “in the isles”…(i) Were the Egyptian scribes so naïve to use two names for one and the same people? What kind of Bronze Age scholars are they if they (pretend to) ignore that Achaeans and Danaans are synonymous terms? Have they not been schooled in the Iliad? Homer mentions the name Achaeans 598 times; Danaans 138 times; Argives 182 times; and Hellenes only once. According to a version of the myth, they were ancestors of the Greeks and their tribes: Hellen, Graecos, Magnes, and Macedon (Makednos) were sons of Deucalion and Pyrrha, the only survivors of the Great Flood. Sons of Hellen were Dorus, Xuthus, and Aeolus; sons of Xuthus were Ion and Achaeus. Danaus from Egypt, Pelops from Anatolia, and Cadmus from Phoenicia gained a foothold in Greece and were assimilated and Hellenized. At least for the Danaans, perhaps due to their ‘Egyptian’ origin, there is some “flexibility”: they are either identified with the people of Adana in Cilicia, or possibly related to the land of the Danuna near Ugarit in Syria, or perhaps they are rumoured to have joined Hebrews to form one of the original 12 tribes of Israel, that of Dan.
The major event in Pharaoh Merneptah‘s reign (1213-1203 BCE) was a war against a confederacy termed the ‘Nine Bows’ acting under the leadership of the king of Libya. The pharaoh states that he defeated the invasion, killing 6,000 soldiers and taking 9,000 prisoners. To be sure of the numbers, among other things, he took the penises of all uncircumcised dead and the hands of all the circumcised. We mention this macabre detail because, as it turned out, the Ekwesh were circumcised, a fact that would certainly have obliged any Bronze Age scholar to ‘acquit’ the Greeks.(j)
The next round in this protracted war took place some three decades later, during the reign of Ramses III (1186-1155 BCE), the last great pharaoh of Egypt. His inscriptions state that the ‘Nine Bows’ re-appeared as a “conspiracy in their isles”. Most tribes mentioned above were there again; we also learn that there were at least two great battles, one in the sea and the other on the land.
“When it was over”, the Wikipedia article on the Sea Peoples says, “several chiefs were captive: of Hatti, Amor, and Shasu among the ‘land peoples’, and the Tjeker, ‘Sherden of the sea’, ‘Teresh of the sea’ and Peleset or Philistines (in whose name some have seen the ancient Greek name for sea people: Pelasgians).”
What conclusions can we draw? We are surprised first of all since our scholars were not… surprised at all when they read about a Hittite chief among the captives: Hatti had been a Sea Peoples’ arch-enemy – and one of their greatest victims! But scholars are usually aware of such “details” and are not taken by surprise. Furthermore, the same thing had happened before and the pharaoh’s complaints had been officially forwarded to the Hittite monarch – as long as the Hittite kingdom still existed. OK, but why don’t they bother to explain, instead of wasting their time trying to involve the Greeks in this… “conspiracy theory”? We eventually realize that the destruction of the established civilizations, above all the Hittite and Mycenaean, was a deliberate tactics of the Sea Peoples to garner more strength at sea and amass land forces, as well. After all, the empires belonged to the aristocracies, Hittite or Mycenaean. What else could a desperate Hellene or a destitute Anatolian do under the circumstances but to follow the peoples with whom he shared the same aspirations for a better life? But what a pity for our scholars: not even one Greek among the captive chiefs… He probably managed to escape! The other captives were chiefs of the Amorites, who lived in Syria and part of Mesopotamia, and possibly of the Hebrews: Shasu is a term for nomad wanderers, and at least one of their tribes worshipped the Jewish god Yahweh. The rest were captains of ships. The pharaoh concluded his report as follows: “I slew the Denyen in their isles” and “burned” the Tjeker and Peleset… He thus implied some maritime raids of his own, some punitive expeditions elsewhere in the Mediterranean. In the Aegean? Where, what and whose were these “isles”? Whatever the answers, the chain reaction of the raids went on; it was the Egyptians’ turn to destroy – but destruction bears no signature.
The destruction of the established civilizations was a deliberate tactics of the Sea Peoples to garner more strength at sea and amass land forces, as well. After all, the empires belonged to the aristocracies, Hittite or Mycenaean. What else could a desperate Hellene or a destitute Anatolian do under the circumstances but to follow the peoples with whom he shared the same aspirations for a better life?
Homer mentions an Achaean attack upon the Nile delta, and Menelaus speaks of the same in the Odyssey recounting his own return home from the Trojan War. This was not the only such action by Mycenaeans against Egypt, where they went ‘just for the fun of it’, and some gain, of course. Taking into account the turbulence among and within the great Mycenaean royal families, the hypothesis that they may have destroyed themselves completely is long-standing and seems to find support by the reputable historian Thucydides:
“For in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands… were tempted to turn to piracy, under the conduct of their most powerful men… They would fall upon a town unprotected by walls… and would plunder it… no disgrace being yet attached to such an achievement, but even some glory.”
Chronicle 3. MYCENAE: FROM KNOSSOS TO TROY
AS HEIRS of the Minoans, the Mycenaeans assumed control of the “Tin Routes” – that is, the maritime trade network of metals from the Occident. Their acme lasted for about 250 years until the Bronze Age collapse. This extensive network sheds some light on the reason why Mycenaean artifacts have been found well outside the limits of the Mycenaean world: swords located as far away as Georgia in the Caucasus; an amber object inscribed with Linear B symbols in Bavaria, Germany; double axes and other objects from the 13th century BCE in Wessex and Cornwall, England, and in Ireland. There is convincing evidence that during the final phase of construction of Stonehenge in Wiltshire, around 1600 BCE, the builders were in commercial contact with “the great contemporary Mediterranean civilizations of Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, Egypt, and the ancestors of the travelling-trading Phoenicians,” as said.(a) The grave of a Mediterranean teenage boy that died ca 1550 BCE and several items of Mediterranean origin have been found in the burial ground of Stonehenge.
The Mycenaean period (ca 1600–ca 1100 BCE) is the historical setting of much Hellenic literature and myth, including the Epic Cycle and Greek tragedy. Historians have traditionally blamed the collapse on an uprising or an invasion by another Hellenic ethnic group, the Dorians, though at least one of the Mycenaean centres, Pylos, was most probably destroyed by the so-called Sea Peoples.(b) There are also theories of natural disasters or large-scale drought, which could have contributed, as well. The movements of people from the Balkans and Anatolia to the Near East at that time were quite real. The internal factors theory has the Mycenaean civilization falling in the course of societal conflicts brought on by a rejection of the palatial system by the underprivileged strata of society, who were quite impoverished by the period’s finale. Another hypothesis mingles social with ethnic divisions. In this context it has to be stressed that the Iron Age made large numbers of comparatively cheap weapons accessible to all. War was no longer a privilege of the aristocracy. The iron weapons were not as good as the bronze ones, but they could still kill… (See the previous Chronicle 2).
Mycenaean settlements were not confined in southern Hellas, but also appeared in Epirus, Macedonia, islands of the Aegean, the Asia Minor coast, Cyprus, Canaan and Italy. The towns were well fortified, in contrast to Minoan Crete. The best Mycenaean palaces were excavated at Mycenae , Tiryns, and Pylos. They were the heirs of the Minoan palaces but inferior to them. The heart of the palace was the megaron, the throne hall. Staircases found in Pylos indicate that the palaces had two stories. Located on the top floor were probably the private quarters of the royal family. Supreme power appears to have been held by a king, identifiable in the Homeric ἄναξ (‘divine lord’, ‘sovereign’, ‘host’). His role was military, judicial, and religious. Occurrences of the word in texts having to do with offerings suggest that the sovereigns were worshiped. Apart from that, no priestly class has yet been identified. Furthermore, it remains problematic to pick out a place of worship with certainty. It seems that many gods and religious conceptions of the Minoans were fused in the Mycenaean religion, the mother of the classical Greek religion. The Eleusinian mysteries were established during the Mycenaean period on a pre-Hellenic vegetation cult with Minoan elements. Demeter and other gods appear in Arcadian myths as animal-headed. Representations of processions with animal masks, or of ‘daemons’, remind us of the Hellenic myth of the Minotaur. Dionysos, the only Greek god who died in order to be reborn as he often appeared in the religions of the Orient, was related to the Minoan myth of the ‘Divine Child’ who was abandoned by his mother and then brought up by the powers of nature.(c) Mycenaean painting was very much influenced by Minoan art. Bull-jumping frescoes are found at Mycenae and Tiryns, as well. However, the Mycenaeans depicted the animals only in relation to man or as victims of the hunt, and thus displayed a different relation to nature compared to the Minoans.
Commerce remains curiously absent from the written sources in Linear B. However, it is known that the Minoans exported fine fabrics to Egypt; the Mycenaeans no doubt did the same. Most probably they borrowed knowledge of navigational matters from the Minoans, as is evidenced by the fact that their maritime commerce did not take off until after the collapse of the Minoan civilization. It seems that certain products, notably fabrics and oil, even metal objects, were meant to be sold outside the kingdom, because they were made in quantities too great to be consumed solely at home. Pottery was also produced in great quantities. Especially after the conquest of Minoan Crete, production increased considerably, notably in Argolis, the area of Mycenae, with great numbers exported outside Hellas. The products destined for export were more luxurious and featured heavily worked painted decorations incorporating mythic, warrior, or animal motifs. The Mycenaeans’ network extended as far as southern Spain, Britain, and central Europe, while their pottery has been found in Sardinia, Sicily, southern Italy, the Aegean, Asia Minor (amongst others at the old settlement of Miletus where high-quality Minoan and Mycenaean ceramics have been recovered), other parts of Anatolia, Cyprus, Canaan and Egypt. Minoan and Mycenaean foreign trade is one of the most important chapters of the Bronze Age history and an open challenge to every archaeologist and historian.
The Mycenaean maritime commerce did not take off until after the collapse of the Minoan civilization. Especially after the conquest of Crete, production of goods meant to be sold outside the kingdom increased considerably…
The Mycenaeans, as conquerors of Crete, became heirs to the Minoan thalassocracy; but they did not last long. The Trojan War, that took place in 1194-1184 BCE according to Eratosthenes,(d) the Sea Peoples’ raids, and the great instability of the epoch, led to their downfall during the Bronze Age collapse. Many historians believe the transition to the Iron Age was violent, sudden and culturally disruptive. The Aegean and Anatolian palatial civilizations were replaced, after a hiatus, by the isolated village cultures of the so-called Greek Dark Ages, which were dark, indeed, but not only Greek. In just 50 years, in the first half of the 12th century, the downfall of the Mycenaean world and the Hittite Empire, the catastrophe in Syria, Canaan, and Egypt, and the cultural collapse that followed, resulted in the interruption of trade routes and the severe reduction of literacy. The Mycenaean Linear B writing was forgotten. The Hellenes would need to re-invent writing in the late 9th or early 8th century BCE.(e) In this period almost every city was violently destroyed and often left unoccupied thereafter, such as Hattusa, the Hittite capital, Mycenae, and Ugarit. Troy was destroyed at least twice, before being abandoned. Fewer and smaller settlements suggest famine and depopulation.
The Trojan War was just an act of this tragedy on a big scale involving numerous ethnicities: the fighters in the alliance of Troy are depicted in the Iliad as speaking various languages and thus needing to have orders translated to them by their commanders. On the Greek side instead the Trojan campaign was anything but Pan-Hellenic: even the great hero, Achilles, tried to evade ‘conscription’ disguised as a girl in the palace of Skyros! Several areas, e.g. Macedonia, Epirus, and in part Thessaly, stayed away, probably because they were under the control of the Dorians, who would proceed to the Peloponnese some time later, filling the vacuum created by the demise of the Mycenaeans. None of the palaces survived and up to 90% of small sites were abandoned suggesting depopulation on a major scale. Athens and some other cities continued to be occupied but with a more local sphere of influence, limited trade and an impoverished culture, from which they took centuries to recover. The Dark Ages would last for more than 400 years. After ca 1100 BCE, the decoration on Hellenic pottery lacks the figurative adornment of Minoan or Mycenaean ware and is restricted to simpler, generally geometric styles (1000–700 BCE). It’s the reason why this age is also called Geometric, or Homeric, due to the composition of Homer’s epics, ca the 8th century, and the entire Epic Cycle. Those epics, a by-product of the new alphabet and inspired mainly by the Trojan War and its repercussions that would later feed the tragedians’ imagination, together with the emergence of the Greek poleis in the 9th century, were the first signs of recovery in Hellas.
The catastrophe was even worse in Anatolia. Every important site shows a layer of destruction. Here civilization possibly did not recover to the level of the Hittites for another thousand years. Cyprus witnessed two waves of destruction: by the Sea Peoples ca 1230, and by Aegean refugees ca 1190 BCE. In Syria, Ugarit was burned to the ground. In addition, the cities along the coast from Gaza northward were destroyed. However, strangely enough, the raids did not affect the Phoenician cities; they were confined in southern Canaan. Assyria, who was protected by the best army in the world, also remained intact; nevertheless, it withdrew to its borders for a long time. As for Egypt, although victorious against the invaders and surviving for a while, it succumbed some time later. Robert Drews describes the Bronze Age Collapse as “the worst disaster in ancient history, even more calamitous than the collapse of the Western Roman Empire”. A number of people referred to the cultural memories of the disaster as stories of a “lost golden age”. Hesiod e.g. spoke of Ages of Gold, Silver and Bronze, separated from the modern harsh cruel world of the Age of Iron by the Age of Heroes. It seems that the disruption of long distance trade, an aspect of the so-called ‘systems collapse’, cut easy supplies of tin, making bronze impossible to produce.
The disruption of long distance trade cut easy supplies of tin, making bronze impossible to produce.
Chronicle 2. MINOAN CRETAN THALASSOCRACY
THE MINOAN civilization, as part of the Aegean cultures in the Bronze Age, arose in the island of Crete, flourished from the 27th to the 15th centuries BCE and then vanished. It came to light again at the outset of the 20th century CE thanks to the British archaeologist Arthur Evans. The term Minoan refers to the legendary Minos. We presume, on no evidence, that it was not a name but a royal title. In the Odyssey, composed centuries after the demise of the Minoans, Homer calls the natives of the island Eteocretans (‘true Cretans’); probably they were true descendants of the Minoans. In addition, there were several settlements in the Aegean and the Ionian Seas, as well as in Sicily and Canaan, known by the name Minoa. The root min- appears in some Aegean languages, toponyms and in the name of the Minyans, an autochthonous people inhabiting the Aegean. We assume that the Cretans were not Indo-Europeans, but a Mediterranean people related to the Pelasgians – the pre-Hellenic dwellers of the Aegean region – and possibly to the Minyans. Crete remained free from invasions for many centuries, and managed to develop an independent and distinct civilization, one of the most advanced in the Mediterranean area during the Bronze Age, together with that of Egypt. Linear A, the Minoan script, has not yet been deciphered; it possibly represents an Aegean language, not related to any Indo-European tongue.
“Crete was well placed in relation to sea trading routes”, Eugene Hirschfeld comments, writing on “Grace in the Aegean: the art of the Minoans”. “Thucydides wrote that Minos was the first to build a navy:
‘The first person known to us by tradition as having established a navy is Minos. He made himself master of what is now called the Hellenic sea, and ruled over the Cyclades, into most of which he sent the first colonies… and thus did his best to put down piracy in those waters, a necessary step to secure the revenues for his own use.’
“With their merchant fleet, the Minoans came to dominate the seas, sailing for hundreds of miles in search of trade, from Spain in the west to Syria in the east…(a) It is possibly a measure of both the Minoans’ geographical isolation and the strength of their fleet that their coastal towns seem to have had few fortifications. Thus their period of ascendancy was called by Arthur Evans the Pax Minoica or ‘Minoan peace’ – a time when cities needed no walls.(b) Like Pax Romana, of course, such a peace if it existed would have been the product of military strength rather than pacifism.”
One after the other, the unique features of this marvellous civilization seem to arise from only one: the Minoans’ thalassocracy, their “geographical isolation and the strength of their fleet”, as Hirschfeld says and then explains:
“As a maritime trading civilization, it is unsurprising that the Minoans left us some beautiful fresco images of their ships, wooden sailing vessels superior to any others on the Mediterranean. Perhaps because of this fleet and the protecting seas, military images are unusual in Minoan art. Until the attacks by the Mycenaeans in 1450 BC, there is no real evidence that the Minoans fought wars with any other culture. This is in stark contrast to their contemporaries: the city states of Mesopotamia were constantly at war, celebrating their exploits on such works as the Stele of the Vultures, and Egypt covered tomb walls with images of military pomp. The Minoans preferred leisurely scenes or sports. They loved to decorate walls with murals of dolphins, flowers and fish. Their art has a grace, movement and exuberance distinct from the art of Egypt and Sumer, and… their craftsmanship is second to none.”
This civilization is an astonishing paradox: A great power without a military aristocracy; a palace that was not a royal residence and neither the king was glorified; a religion with no grandeur, while women were equal to men and free – or so it seems.
This civilization is an astonishing paradox, indeed: A great power without a military aristocracy; a palace that was not a royal residence and neither the king was glorified; a religion with no grandeur, while women were equal to men and free – or so it seems:
“The Minoans were skilled and sensitive architects, and the palaces count amongst their greatest works of art. The most famous is the palace at Knossos, often called the ‘Palace of Minos’. A multi-storey complex of corridors, rooms and staircases built around a central courtyard, the palace boasted impressive plumbing as well as lovely frescos, columns and gardens. Visitors found its ‘agglutinative’ architecture of over 1000 rooms so confusing that it is thought to have inspired the myth of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. Knossos was an entire community, a centre for religion, pottery production and storage of trade goods, and a venue for festivals. For this reason the term ‘palace’ is not adequate for describing these Minoan complexes.”
“Sitting at the apex of a trading empire, the Cretan kings were extremely wealthy. It is therefore interesting that they appear to have ordered no sculpture, memorials, king-lists or other works to boast of their power and status… We find nothing like the mighty monuments to the god-kings of Egypt. We have no record either of a king Minos or of any other named monarch, male or female… Historian R. F. Willetts has suggested that the apparent modesty of the Minoan aristocracy can be explained by a difference in religious emphasis: the Minoans did not seek to associate the king with the immortal gods, like the Egyptians or Mesopotamians, but rather worshiped a particular vision of nature. From this standpoint, images glorifying the king were unnecessary.”
“Women seem to have enjoyed higher status in Minoan culture than was usual in the Bronze Age… They served as administrators and priestesses… Women’s relative equality may be because of the absence of military threat, giving far less impetus to the development of a male warrior discourse and thus a greater role and respect for women. It is tempting when looking at images of young women somersaulting over bulls with the men to conclude that women enjoyed considerable freedom… As for religion, Minoan art provides us with faience figurines of a ‘snake goddess’, and frescos… on which women priests outnumber men. No images of male deities have been found from the peak of Minoan civilization. The apparent prominence of women in Minoan religion has led to conjecture that the principal deity or deities of Minoan Crete may have been female, e.g. an earth or mother goddess.”
What conclusions can we draw?
“Minoan art does show a greater emphasis on spontaneity and invention, and is more secular and informal… less constrained by rigid conventions and geometry”, Eugene Hirschfeld writes. “The absence of battles, kings, boastful inscriptions and historical events in its art is surprising for the time. We need to recognize such distinctions without falling into the crude formulations sometimes used in the past, such as posing cultured Minoans against barbarous Mycenaeans. Arnold Hauser’s first explanation for the particular character of the Minoans’ art is the relatively modest role of religion in their society. Minoan shrines seem to have been small, even in the palaces, kept in people’s homes or built in out of the way places like hills and caves. There is nothing like the great cult of the dead seen in Egypt, or the grandiose works that went with it. There was therefore less impetus towards sternly imposed conventions. He also admires the urbanity of the cultural life that arose around the palaces: ‘The freedom of Cretan art can also be partly explained by the extraordinarily important role which city life and commerce played in the island’s economy… city life was probably nowhere so highly developed as in Crete’. The ‘palace’ was the centre of Minoan life: of trade and agriculture, but also of art. It was perhaps this union of trade and culture in a context of long internal stability that gave Minoan art its urbane liveliness. Crete’s geopolitical situation may also have exerted an influence. With the natural protection of the sea and backed by their fleet, the Minoans had little need to fear invasion. In the absence of a warrior class, not only were women’s rights better than in most Bronze Age cultures, but art was less constrained by the military and religion.”
“The absence of battles, kings, boastful inscriptions and historical events in Minoan art is surprising for the time… It was perhaps this union of trade and culture in a context of long internal stability that gave Minoan art its urbane liveliness.” (Eugene Hirschfeld)
The influence of the Minoan civilization outside Crete manifests itself in the presence of Minoan handicrafts on the Greek mainland. After around 1700 BCE, the material culture of the Hellenes achieved a new, higher, level due to Minoan influence. Connections between Crete and Egypt were prominent. Minoan wares were found there, while several Egyptian items were imported, especially papyrus, as well as artistic ideas. The Egyptian hieroglyphs served as a model for the Minoan pictographic writing, from which the Linear A writing system developed. The Minoan palaces were later occupied by the Mycenaeans (late 15th–early 14th century BCE) who adapted the Minoan Linear A script to the needs of their own language, a form of Greek, which was written in Linear B.(c) The Mycenaeans generally tended to adapt rather than destroy Cretan culture, religion and art, and they continued to operate the economic system and bureaucracy of the Minoans. After about a century of partial recovery, most Cretan cities and palaces went into decline in the 13th century BCE. When the Bronze Age came crashing down some time later, Crete did not feel the agony of death.
The Minoans were traders, and their cultural contacts reached far beyond Crete – to copper-bearing Cyprus and Asia Minor (Anatolia), Egypt and Canaan (the Levant), the Balkans and the Black Sea area, especially Colchis (Georgia/Abkhazia), Mesopotamia and even faraway Afghanistan. Paintings in Thebes, Egypt, from the 15th century BCE depict a number of Minoans bearing gifts. Inscriptions record these people as coming from the “islands in the midst of the sea”, and may refer to gift-bringing merchants or officials from Crete. Minoan techniques and styles in ceramics also provided models for Helladic Greece. Along with Thera, Cretan ‘colonies’ can be found on Cythera, an island close to the mainland that came under Minoan influence in the 3rd millennium and remained Minoan in culture for a thousand years, until the Mycenaean occupation in the 13th century, as well as in Melos, Kea, Aegina, Rhodes and Miletus. The Cyclades and the Dodecanese were in the Cretan cultural orbit.
Certain locations within Crete emphasize it as an ‘outward looking’ society. The palace of Kato Zakros, e.g., is located within a bay, 100 metres from the modern shore-line. Its large number of workshops and the richness of its site materials indicate a centre for import and export. Such activities are elaborated in artistic representations of the sea with ships and sailors, e.g. the Flotilla fresco on Thera. Homer recorded a tradition that Crete had 90 cities. Multi-room constructions were found even in the ‘poor’ areas, revealing a social equality and even distribution of wealth derived through trade. There was a high degree of organization, with no trace of the military aristocracies that characterized the following civilizations. While the Mycenaeans relied mainly on conquest to expand, the Minoans were a mercantile people engaged primarily in overseas trade. No doubt they should have been involved in the Bronze Age’s most crucial trade of tin: tin, alloyed with copper, obviously from Cyprus, was used to make bronze.(d) The Minoan decline seems to be correlated with the decline in the use of bronze tools in favour of iron ones.
Multi-room constructions were discovered even in the ‘poor’ areas, revealing a social equality and even distribution of wealth derived through trade. There was a high degree of organization, with no trace of the military aristocracies that characterized the following civilizations…
The Mediterranean copper island was Cyprus; the word copper comes from the name of the island: from the Latin phrase Cyprium (aes), ‘Cyprian (metal)’. A possible etymological origin of the name Cyprus is the Sumerian words for copper or bronze (zubar/kubar), due to the massive deposits of copper ore found in the island. But where did the Minoans find tin, the necessary component to produce bronze? Tin is very rare in the eastern Mediterranean. The only known source of cassiterite in the area was Kestel-Göltepe in the Taurus Mountains of south-central Anatolia. It supplied tin from the late 4th millennium to the mid-19th century BCE, when the ores became uneconomical or ran out. There were three other sources of tin available to the Minoan traders: the distant northeastern Afghanistan, central Europe (Bohemia), and the West, with vast amounts of tin in places such as Iberia, Brittany in northwestern France, and especially Cornwall in southwestern Britain. For the seafaring Cretans, the Occident was the destination they possibly preferred best. And when the mines in Taurus had shut down, Western tin became more important and the Minoans would have totally monopolized the supply of tin into the Eastern Mediterranean with their navy and shipping. Objects made by Minoans suggest there was an extensive network with mainland Greece, Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and westwards as far as Iberia, and even further, that is, Bohemia, Brittany and, of course, Cornwall. Trade in nearby lands was direct, while in distant places could also be indirect, through middlemen. Undoubtedly, the Cretan ships should have transported British tin. If they also dropped anchor in British harbours is another story.
Where did the Minoans find tin, the necessary component to produce bronze? Undoubtedly, the Cretan ships should have transported British tin. If they also dropped anchor in British harbours is another story.
The Cretans derived their surplus from trade, unlike Babylon and Egypt that mainly relied on agriculture. They were the unrivalled long-distance traders, masters of the sea routes, having developed the most advanced navy that had ever been seen. They traded not only their own manufactured goods ‘Made in Crete’, such as ceramics and metalwork, but also acted as intermediaries, trading raw materials and finished products throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Their most valuable re-exports were pottery, copper, tin, gold, and silver. They were active not only in the East, but also in the West, founding emporia all around. Their most privileged trade contacts in the Orient were certainly those with the Egyptians, while their most significant Occidental partners should have been the Iberians, as the peninsula was rich in metals, especially silver, but also tin. Trade in tin was very lucrative in the Bronze Age, because, as we have seen, it is an essential component of true bronze, and comparatively rare: only gold and silver are rarer. Apart from the cassiterite deposits in Iberia, the locals obviously knew where the Cassiterides were.(e)
The metals were just the beginning of a far broader economical and cultural exchange. A lot of Iberians e.g. are nowadays intrigued by the fact that so long ago the Minoans were practicing their own version of ‘bullfights’. In his bilingual book (in Portuguese and English) “Fado – Lyrical Origins and Poetic Motivation”, Mascarenhas Barreto refers to the Neolithic hunting rituals as a possible origin of bull-leaping (“pegas”) and wonders “whether the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula learnt this from the Cretans of the 3rd millennium BC or if they themselves may have been the teachers, since the bulls were taken from their natural habitat in the peninsula to the island of Crete” (see also Voyage 3: Iberia’s Odyssey). But, when one speaks of such extensive exchanges taking place in the 3rd millennium BCE, with customs adopted and bulls transported so far away, is it really so important to know who imitated whom?
Mascarenhas Barreto wonders “whether the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula learnt [bull-leaping] from the Cretans of the 3rd millennium BC or if they themselves may have been the teachers, since the bulls were taken from their natural habitat in the peninsula to the island of Crete.”