Mycenaeans and Minoans | The First Civilizations

In Greece, too, Bronze Age civilization had taken root. Greece was a largely barren land divided into small valleys and plains separated from each other, with none far from the sea. From earliest times the inhabitants took advantage of the rugged coasts and islands with their many shelters and good harbors to sail from place to place, profiting by the exchange of olive oil and wine for grain and metal and slaves.

Somewhat before 2000 B.C. the village Bronze Age culture of the inhabitants was interrupted by the invasion from the north of the first Indo-European speakers. The invaders first destroyed and then settled, no doubt intermarrying with the previous inhabitants, and developed early forms of the Greek language. This society had one of its chief centers at Mycenae.

The Mycenaeans traded with Crete; Minoan objects have been found in the famous royal tombs at Mycenae that perhaps span the century from 1600 to 1500 B.C. In fact, the Minoan influence upon the arts of the mainland was so profound that scholars speak of the “Minoanization” of mainland Greece. The most celebrated objects are great gold masks of warrior princes buried in the tombs and daggers inlaid with various metals that show hunting scenes of astonishing realism and beauty. Egypt and Anatolia also shared in the Mycenaean trade, but the chief influences in mainland Greece were Minoan.

Interchange went both ways. Mycenaean Greeks visited Crete as traders or even as tourists; perhaps they observed the absence of physical fortifications that left Knossos vulnerable. Then, it is conjectured, they moved in and seized power, perhaps about 1460 B.C. They now controlled the very center of the civilization that had already taught them so much. Military innovations followed in Crete; chariots were introduced, and arrows stored for large bodies of troops, but the invaders built no fortifications, presumably because they expected no new invasions.

In the palace of Minos the Greeks installed a throne room of the type found in their own mainland palaces. Most important, the Minoans showed them how useful it was to keep records; and since Linear A, devised for a Semitic language, would not do, the scribes may have invented a new script-Linear B. (On the other hand, Linear B may have been developed gradually from Linear A.) Conclusive proof, worked out in 1952 by Michael Ventris, a young English scholar, showed that the language of Linear B is early Greek.

Evans had found many Linear B tablets at Knossos, but no such tablets were known from mainland Greece until 1939, when an American scholar, Carl Blegen, discovered the first of what proved to be a large collection of them in Pylos. Since then many more have turned up elsewhere in Greece, including some in Mycenae itself. Acting on the assumption that it was probably Greek, Ventris used the wartime techniques of cryptography to show that the script was not an alphabet, but that each symbol represented a syllable, and then he cracked the code. The thousands of Linear B tablets are mostly prosaic inventories of materials stored in the palaces or lists of persons in the royal services.

The disappearance of Linear A in Crete, and the substitution for it about 1460 B.C. of the new Linear B, point clearly to a Mycenaean occupation that lasted almost a century. We cannot be sure how independent of the mainland the new Greek rulers of Knossos were; they may have been subordinate princes. The great palace of Knossos and other major Cretan centers were burned down about 1400, apparently after looting. We do not know who did this.

Perhaps it was the Mycenaeans themselves who, in revenge against Cretan rebelliousness that may have made the island ungovernable, decided to destroy the Cretan centers and sail away. Or perhaps the destruction was the result of a volcanic upheaval of the seabed. After the disaster of c. 1405 B.C. Crete remained rich and populous but lost its Mediterranean predominance, which passed to the aggressive mainland peoples.

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