Minoan Thalassocracy


Fresco of Dolphins, ca. 1600 BC, from Knossos,...

Fresco of Dolphins, ca. 1600 BC, from Knossos, Crete. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sun Feb 22 00:32:59 2009
Lacking any decipherable contemporary documents we are dependent on later writers and archaeology. There is a great amount of creative interpretation involved with either of these. Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides and even Plutarch pass along stories that often seem to tell us as much about their own time as it does about the Minoans. Thucydides is the first to tell us of a Minoan Thalassocracy, which seems remarkably similar to the Athens of his own time.


Archaeologists, influenced by Thucydides and other ancient writers, have read into their available data a wide range of interpretations. Pendlebury describes a Minoan Thalassocracy that extended through the Aegean islands, the Peloponnese, to the North and to the West as far as Sicily. What began as trading posts, developed into alliances that became more coercive and eventually outright colonies. (J. Pendlebury The Archaeology of Crete: An Introduction 1939) Weiner is more restrained and describes a Thalassocracy centered at Knossos that included only the islands and coastal areas of the Aegean. (M. Wiener, “The nature and control of Minoan foreign trade” Bronze Age Trade in the Mediterranean, 1991) Sturt Manning offers an even more restricted view.  He sites evidence of Cretan sword production, military scenes in art and seals, and fortified Cycladic sites and suggests that their presence on the frontier of the Minoan sphere of influence (either inside or outside) is compatible with the idea of a Minoan Thalassocracy. (Sturt W. Manning, “The Military Function in Late Minoan I Crete” World Archaeology, Oct. 1986)


Other archaeologists like Chester Starr claim that there is no evidence of a Minoan Thalassocracy. He traces the misconception to Thucydides anachronistically projecting his experience with classical era Athens onto Minos and the Cretans. (Chester G. Starr “The Myth of the Minoan Thalassocracy” Historia: Zeitschrift fü r Alte Geschicthe Vol.3 No.3, 1955)  Jan Driessen, Olga Krzszkowska and Keith Branigan all point out that the fortifications that have been found are multifunctional and may be more indicative of wealth and status than military function. They also suggest that most of the images and artifacts interpreted as weapons and combat could just as easily be viewed as a kind of social or religious ritual. (Jan Driessen “The Archaeology of Aegean Warfare;” Olga Krzszkowska “So Where’s the Loot? The Spoils of War and the Archaeological Record;” Keith Branigan, “The Nature of Warfare in the Southern Aegean During the Third Millennium B.C.” all in Polemos: Le Contexte Guerrier en Egee a L’Age du Bronze. 1998)


Renfrew and Knapp offer a more varied and multidimensional analysis. Renfrew points out a variety of trade and redistribution mechanisms including but not limited to the centralized palace-directed exchange that suggest alternatives to a military hegemony. (A. C. Renfrew, The Emergence of Civilization, 1972) Bernard Knapp argues for a more multidimensional and “entrepreneurial” understanding. “The mechanisms that propelled trade in such a system were diverse, complex, multidimensional and repeatedly in flux as different opportunities and distinctive products became available to the traders, raiders and entrepreneurs active in long distance exchange.” (A. B. Knapp, “Thalassocracies in Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean Trade: Make and Breaking a Myth” World Archaeology, Feb. 1993) While these interpretations are broad enough to seem vague and somewhat unsatisfying, I think they offer the most comprehensive and complete picture we can have based on our current information.




~ by severalfourmany on February 22, 2009.

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