During the International Bronze Age two distinctive civilizations appeared on the eastern Mediterranean and left a significant mark on history. They are known in history as the Minoans and Mycenaeans. Both were pretty dynamic for their time. The Minoans called the island of Crete home while the Mycenaeans resided on mainland Greece. This would evolve over time with overlap occurring between the two cultures. This article takes a look at the political contrasts of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations.
The Minoans were heavily engaged in trade and their reach extended far beyond the island of Crete. The island’s natural resources played a large role in the ancient society’s economy. Its resources included timber, cypress wood, precious stones, copper, silver, gold, ivory and other raw materials. 2 Additionally, the Minoans adopted ideas and techniques from other cultures, which included imported materials – highlighting further their interest in building relationships with others.
Photo description by author "This Minoan bronze bull is dated to 1300-1200BC, and was discovered on the island Crete"
Similarly, Mycenaeans adopted from other cultures, including the Minoans. Having adopted their neighbor’s numeration and measurement system, they use it to facilitate both production and trade. Society members who were centered around palace life controlled commerce and these structures also served as administrative centers of food collection and distribution. In time, the Mycenae widely distributed goods and products from other countries to other regions, gaining wealth from this practice. 3, 4
[ Related Reading: Economic Growth in the Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations ]
Author description: "inlaid bronze dagger; Mycenae late helladic"
These two areas of Greece had distinct political similarities and differences in their respective societies. In terms of similarity, the Minoans actively pursued diplomatic relationships with foreign nations and the Mycenaean rulers held similar philosophies. As part of their delegation tactics, the Minoans presented rich gifts to Egyptian pharaohs, whereas the Mycenaeans forged diplomatic ties with Egyptian pharaohs by presenting them with ceremonial plaques.
Military Roles and Defenses
A significant difference in the political arena that existed between the two civilizations was the fact the Minoans felt their island provided enough protection from enemies. This society did not appear to place emphasis on organized defenses to protect themselves from outsiders.
Alternatively, the Mycenaeans were a warlike people and kings relied on their refined warriors. These warriors served a dual role in society; they performed as law enforcement during peace times, but in wartime wore a hat that defined them as being military officers.
The Minoans lived in a decentralized fashion and archaeological evidence indicates the earlier Minoan civilizations did not operate within a hierarchical structure, but seemed to change around 2000 BC when social classes emerged and there were clearer lines of distinction in levels of power. Over time Minoan rulers would hold strict control over the production of wealth, managing both specialized artists and farmers, even determining how much they could keep before turning the rest over to the ruling class.
Author description "Minoan Palace Ruins"
Author description "Mycenae Lions"
In Mycenaean society, distinct lines were drawn between aristocracy and subjects. Skeletal remains show the higher class people had taller and stronger bones as opposed to the minuscule ones of subjects, suggesting a parallel between the wealthy and the poor in terms of nutrition. The afterlife seemed to attribute a high importance to the afterlife; royal burials and military prowess was highly valued and warriors took war weapons to the grave. This signifies the high value their culture placed on the warlike presence they had possessed and how military status was highly valued in their society. Members of the society who held high any kind of political position were valued and treated as privileged, even in the afterlife.
In both societies, the leaders and élite citizens enjoyed tremendous luxury, at least for a time.
Minoan Civilization Collapses
Somewhere between 1645 BC to 1500 BC Minoan society experienced a volcanic eruption or other major disruption relating to fire and violence which destroyed its trade and prosperity. Experts speculate this event weakened Minoan society because it destroyed their ships and interrupted their agricultural progress. Due to this, the success that the Minoan's previously enjoyed abruptly ended.
Author photo description: "Within the Akrotiri archaeological site. This is a huge building that covers the Minoan town that was buried by the volcanic eruption circa 1400 BCE."
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As Minoan existence weakened, at some point invaders took control of Crete. Evidence of Mycenaean culture has been located on Crete, however, it is not clear if Mycenaean people caused Minoan's collapse or if they exploited the Minoans' vulnerability after their economic collapse had occurred because of a volcanic eruption. Artifacts found by archeologists on Crete suggest the Mycenaeans were present on the island and perhaps took control around the time of Minoan's collapse.
Mycenae life continued until 1200 BC and "lingered until the middle" of the 11th c. BC. While there are speculations, it is unclear what made their civilization disappear and this topic is still widely debated.
A distinct difference that I find interesting is the way each civilization ended. While natural disaster seemingly brought down Minoan society, there have been theories a Mycenae appreciation for warfare and competitive nature contributed to their downfall at the end of the International Bronze Age. While their era was "brilliant", it inevitably ended in a period of what is known as a "dark age" (Levack, et al, pg 45). It was at this time they were conquered, and historians agree many factors likely contributed, including the possibility of the peasant class revolting against the ruling one.
History is typically doomed to repeat itself and it seems many other future civilizations followed similar patterns as the Mycenaean and Minoan societies did. Regardless of an era, it’s the politics that shape a civilization. It's interesting to look back and ahead to see the likenesses and the differences that have occurred throughout the world.