Crete is the southernmost and largest of the Greek islands. Its important location on sea routes between Greece and the Near East led to early Cretan contacts with ancient civilizations in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean region. These contacts probably influenced the development of Minoan civilization, which flourished on Crete from about 2000 to 1400 B.C.
Crete had been settled for several thousand years before the Minoan period. By the early Bronze Age (ca. 3000 B.C.), the island had well-established farming societies. From 3000 to 2000 B.C., the people of Crete learned to work with bronze and to cultivate olives and grapes—important and versatile food sources that improved their way of life. The Cretans were also excellent seafarers, who engaged in extensive trade with other communities around the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean seas. By this trade, the Cretans exchanged wine, oils, textiles, lumber, and other goods for products such as tin, which they needed to create bronze. Moreover, the Cretans began to build houses and public buildings in large communities, perhaps establishing the earliest towns in the eastern Mediterranean region.
Minoan Civilization. The prosperity from Crete’s thriving agriculture and sea trade led to the rise of a rich and elegant civilization around 2000 B.C. Historians call it Minoan after Minos, a mythical king of Crete. The heart of Minoan civilization lay in several enormous palaces built around the island. The largest and most famous of these was at Knossos, on the northern coast of Crete. This royal complex covered about six acres and served as the religious, social, and commercial center of the small kingdom. Knossos and the other palaces of Crete were not fortified, which suggests that the Minoans felt little need for the defense of their island home.
About 1700 B.C., an earthquake (or series of earthquakes) destroyed most of the palaces on the island, but the Minoans rebuilt them more magnificently than before. Many elaborate frescoes* decorated the new walls. By about 1600 B.C., the Minoans had reached a new level of wealth, which brought about a golden age of art and culture. Skilled artisans* produced fine cloth as well as metal and gem work, and made pottery that they adorned with flowers, fish, and animals. Life for the Minoans, as depicted in their art, seems to have been peaceful and pleasurable, full of dancing, games, and festivals.
The pleasures of Crete came to an abrupt end, however, sometime between 1400 and 1200 B.C. The circumstances are mysterious, since there are no written records from that time, and Minoan prosperity was apparently still at its peak. Archaeological evidence shows that some catastrophe occurred during that time, which damaged or destroyed nearly all the palaces on the island. The cause may have been a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption, or else a violent uprising or a raid by outsiders. After this time, the Cretans apparently tried to rebuild again, but invaders from the Greek mainland soon overran the island. Minoan civilization disappeared.
* fresco method of painting in which color is applied to moist plaster and becomes chemically bonded to the plaster as it dries; also refers to a painting done in this manner
* artisan skilled craftsperson
Greek Crete. Over the next centuries, the culture of Crete became thoroughly Greek. As Greek civilization developed, numerous city-states* arose around the island. This period of Crete’s history was dominated by the Dorians, a group of northern Greeks who spread across the Greek mainland and islands sometime after 1200 B.C.
During the classical* period, Cretan society resembled the powerful military society of Sparta. In fact, Sparta’s constitution may have been modeled after one from Crete. As in Sparta, the city-states of Crete valued order, obedience, and service to the state above all else, and the state directed many family and religious matters. The cultures of both Crete and Sparta were a source of fascination to Greek philosophers from less regimented societies, such as Athens. Both Plato and Aristotle analyzed Cretan and Spartan customs at length in their writings about law and morality.
These writings, as well as Cretan law codes and a long account by the Greek historian Ephoros, provide a picture of what life was like for the men of Crete. All males had to spend much of their lives in military training and hunting. They ate all their meals together in “men’s houses,” or mess halls, where they were separated according to age. Boys had to eat sitting on the floor, while the men sat on benches. To toughen the boys, they were made to wear the same shabby clothes winter and summer, and required to wait on the men at meals.
The boys of Crete underwent a complex series of initiations, or rites of passage, to reach manhood. As a boy came of age, he selected an adult man to be his sponsor. This adult taught the boy hunting and military skills and also engaged him in a homosexual relationship. At the end of the initiation period, it was customary for the sponsor to give the young man presents to symbolize his new rank. These included a suit of armor, an ox to sacrifice, and a drinking cup. After a group of young men had passed their initiation, they were all expected to find female brides at once and start households.
Roman Rule. Crete remained outside most of the major events of Greek history during the classical era. Crete’s city-states periodically fought with each other and with other islands, but Crete managed to avoid the conquests of King Philip II of Macedonia, who by 338 B.C. had brought Greece into his empire. The island kept its independence throughout the Hellenistic* era, during which time it became a haven for pirates.
Meanwhile, Rome arose as the dominant power in the Mediterranean. Even as Rome gained control over Greece and Asia Minor, Crete remained an isolated pirate stronghold. Eventually, however, the Romans became fed up with the disruption of trade caused by the pirates, and they were angered by Crete’s support of Rome’s enemies. In 67 B.C., Rome crushed the Cretans and made the island a Roman province*. Crete remained part of the Roman and Byzantine empires for the next 800 years.
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 to 323 B.C.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
Under Roman rule, both Jews and Christians established communities on the island. In the A.D. 300s, the island was rocked by several major earthquakes that disrupted life and prosperity on the island. In the early A.D. 600s, Crete faced frequent raids by Slavs, and later by Arabs. Arabs captured the island around A.D. 828. (See also Bronze Age, Greek; Greece, History of; Homosexuality; Minos; Philip II; Piracy; Polis; Rome, History of; Social Life, Greek; Trade, Greek; Trade, Roman.)
* province overseas area controlled by Rome