Ancient Empires Before Alexander 7 of 16, lecture 2009, Empires of the Bronze Age Aegean
The Minoan Thalassocracy
The first civilization to appear in the Mediterranean was the civilization that we call Minoan, which emerged on Crete during the 3rd millennium B.C. Because we have not deciphered the Minoans’ language, everything we know about them comes either from excavating their sites or from legends written down 15 centuries later by the Greeks.
By about the year 2000, large, complex structures had appeared; excavators call these palaces. The so-called Palatial period was the zenith of Minoan civilization and lasted until about 1450. According to Greek authors, it was during this period that the Minoans built for themselves the first thalassocracy, or sea empire. Archeology confirms a
Minoan presence on the islands of the Aegean and hints at one in southern Italy and Sicily, but we know no details, not even the names of any Minoan rulers, much less how the thalassocracy was organized. Around 1450, Minoan Crete was conquered by invaders, who we know to have been Greeks.
Mycenae and the Dawn of Greece
Early in the 2nd millennium B.C., a wave of destruction swept over the southernmost peninsula of the Balkans, heralding the arrival of a new people: the Greeks. By about 1600, their leaders had begun to build large palaces for themselves at a number of easily defended sites in southern and central Greece and burying their dead in deep shaft
graves with rich troves of grave goods. Around 1500, the palace elites began interring their dead in large, beehive shaped tholos tombs. These have mostly been plundered, but the evidence suggests that the dynasties that built them were made up of merchant princes, who derived their wealth from far-flung trade networks. There is nothing to indicate that Greece was a centralized monarchy, but some centers were especially wealthy and large. Chief of them was Mycenae.
The Collapse of the Mycenaean World
The archeological evidence shows that Mycenaean Greece reached its zenith during the century after the Greek takeover of Crete. This was the heyday of the merchant princes, and finds of Mycenaean trade goods around the Mediterranean point to the existence of a trade network as extensive as the Minoans’. Then, after 1350 B.C., trouble
appeared. Later legends remember conflicts between the palaces (such as a Peloponnesian expedition against Thebes) and political turmoil within the palaces (with numerous dynasties being replaced during the 13th century). Hittite texts speak of increasing troubles in western Anatolia associated with the Greeks and of the marauding Sea
Peoples of the Aegean beginning to trouble Egypt. Most tellingly, the palaces receive massive fortifications, becoming citadels. Then, in the late 13th and early 12th centuries, around the time of the siege of Troy, Mycenaean civilization collapsed, violently. The citadels were destroyed, sometimes more than once, and by 1150 were abandoned altogether. Greece entered a long dark age.
Robert L. Dise Jr. has taught at the University of Northern Iowa since 1992; prior to joining its faculty, he taught at Clinch Valley College (now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise). He received his B.A. in History from the University of Virginia (at Charlottesville), concentrating on the history of the ancient world, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, specializing in the history of Rome.
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