January 17, 2013

Warlike Minoans

War was central to Europe's first civilization, contrary to popular belief
Research from the University of Sheffield has discovered that the ancient civilisation of Crete, known as Minoan, had strong martial traditions, contradicting the commonly held view of Minoans as a peace-loving people.

The research, carried out by Dr Barry Molloy of the University of Sheffield's Department of Archaeology, investigated the Bronze Age people of Crete, known by many as the Minoans, who created the very first complex urban civilisation in Europe.

"Their world was uncovered just over a century ago, and was deemed to be a largely peaceful society," explained Molloy. "In time, many took this to be a paradigm of a society that was devoid of war, where warriors and violence were shunned and played no significant role.

"That utopian view has not survived into modern scholarship, but it remains in the background unchallenged and still crops up in modern texts and popular culture with surprising frequency.
Personally, I'm not very surprised about this re-appraisal of the relationship of Minoans with war. There are multiple lines of evidence for Minoan power (e.g., the Thucydidean thalassocracy, the belief in Minos and Rhadamanthys as judges in Hades, the Theseus/Minotaur/Attican tributes legend) that have always suggested to me that the Bronze Age Cretans did not achieve pre-eminence only due to the attractiveness of their culture and/or their trading acumen, but also because they actually projected power by force.

One of the biggest arguments for Minoan pacifism was the lack of fortifications in Minoan sites. But, I've never found that argument convincing, because this lack might actually signify an excess of power (strong nations having no need of fortifications), and we need not forget that other unfortified city called Sparta, which, hopefully, no one could ever mistake as a champion of pacifism.

The Annual of the British School at Athens, 107, pp 87-142doi:10.1017/S0068245412000044


Barry P.C. Molloy

Together with politics, economics and religion, war is one of the fundamental factors that canshape a society and group identities. In the prehistoric world, the sources for the study of war are disparate and their interpretation can be inconsistent and problematic. In the case of Cretein the Bronze Age, a systematic analysis of the evidence will be undertaken for the first time inthis paper, and this opportunity is used to critically evaluate the most effective ways of employing the widely agreed sets of physical correlates for ancient war in the archaeological record. A further objective in exploring the diachronic roles of war in these societies is to movethe discussion from a niche field to a more integrated, and systematic, social analysis. Theexistence and character of a warrior identity is examined, and it is proposed that it oftenconstituted a conspicuous element of male identity. The varying scales and time spans throughwhich war can influence a society are discussed, and a broad framework for understanding war in social process, practices and events is proposed.



apostateimpressions said...

I would think that any pacifistic tribe would end up either dead or with the worst land available. They would live wretched, miserable lives and achieve an extremely low level of culture. Classical high civlizations depended on the existence of militaristic races that were able to conquer other people, take their lands and their goods and subject the vanquished to slavery. The Greek city states and Rome were all aristocratic, slave-based societies. That is how the ancient world worked and there is no reason to assume that Minoa was any different. The high cultures of Greece and Rome remain the basis of western civilization and it may be that all high culture has such an origin.

See Nietzsche, On The Greek State:


shenandoah said...

I disagree. I don't consider Roman or Greek civilization, "high culture" by my own definition, and I don't think that their malignantly aggressive attitudes served them well at all in the long term. There can be a 'happy medium', a certain level of moderation, of ~balance. A civilization can better defend itself, when not grossly overextended with delusional ambitions of conquering and control the entire planet. The Greek and Roman, and other very militaristic ancient empires were extremely wasteful of their resources, and that is why they were forced to depend so much on slave labor. They are ancient history marked by ruins now, and so will any society be, which follows in their footsteps. It's called, "burn-out"; and "folly".

andrew said...

The issue of fortifications likely has a lot to do with the fact that Crete was an island inhabited by people with superior maritime technology. The sea itself was their palisade. The abundance of coastline made walls separating, for example, one side of Crete from the other, a la the Great Wall of China or Hadrian's Wall obsolete.

A scarcity of the right kind of construction materials for effective fortifications could also have been a factor.

I could also imagine a lack of fresh water resources that were not easily obstructed at attractive fortress locations could have been a factor - being under seige during a dry month with no water is not very helpful.

It could also be the case that fortifications are mostly errected to defend against animals and people who are perceived as barbarians and that on Crete, if it was balkanized politically at some point (I don't know what the political structure of Minoan Crete was like myself), even hostile populations might have been perceived as "civilized."

terryt said...

"One of the biggest arguments for Minoan pacifism was the lack of fortifications in Minoan sites. But, I've never found that argument convincing, because this lack might actually signify an excess of power (strong nations having no need of fortifications)"

That has long been my belief as well.

"The Greek city states and Rome were all aristocratic, slave-based societies. That is how the ancient world worked"

And the not-so-ancient world to some extent.

"I don't think that their malignantly aggressive attitudes served them well at all in the long term".

Nor will such an approach serve any group today who employs such tactics. However in the short term they will do very well.

Stephen said...

The less that is known about a civilization, the more historians/archaeologists idealize them and project there liberal values onto them.

Despite all the sacrificial remains and graphic art it took quite a while for historians to realize that the Mayans where not just peaceful astronomers.

apostateimpressions said...

shenandoah, historians attribute the decline of Greece not to excessive militarism but to military decline. The Romans conquered Greek land from 168 BC onward.

Similarly, Edward Gibbons in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire points to the decadent influence of Christianity which undermined Roman civic virtus.


As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers' pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and more earthly passions of malice and ambition, kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. [...] If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors." (chap. 39).

Va_Highlander said...

The human tendency to look back to some imaginary and idyllic "Golden Age" seems very strong. As the stories of Arthur Evans, Marija Gimbutas, and others, have shown, even archaeologists are not safe from such pitfalls.

There were fortifications on Crete until Late Minoan I, the peak of Minoan power. From then on, military architecture seems to disappear from there and from other Minoan sites within their immediate sphere of influence.

On the periphery, however, the Minoans were apparently still building fortified installations, even at that late date. The implication seems to be that they had nothing to fear from each other, or from their immeidate "minoanized" neighbors.


We may even set Gibbons aside and note that, in the days of the old republic, military service was compulsory for male citizens. It was a basic element of Roman culture. As republic gave way to empire, Roman citizens were ever more reluctant to serve in the military and became increasingly reliant on professional and foreign troops. Arguably, Romans as a society became rather less militaristic, as they approached their terminal phase.

Fanty said...

I think its always possible that fortifications are "recycled".

I know that in Germany a lot of the medieval fortification was used as a stonequarry by farmers and other people.

Not far from where I live there is a mountain, wich still has the name of a castle but there is no castle to see. If you read the description you see, not only was the castle recycled but the top most 30m of the mountain that it once crowned had been removed for house/cathedral building aswell after there was no use for the military fortification anymore.

I also read, that in the 13th century, there had been 35.000 fortifications (some possibly wooden forts anyways) in Germany. By now, 1.000 of these can be identified as ruin fortification by an amateur eye.

Germans did not rate the old stuff as worth to keep and removed it without a teardrop until the "Romantic" age, when the middle ages became a Hype and anyone thought it was a golden age of chivalry and stuff and suddenly they stopped to remove the old crap.

Couldnt it be that a lot of the Minoan fortifications are now farmers walls between cabbage fields? ^^

Raimo Kangasniemi said...

People who accuse of historians and archaeologists projecting "liberal" attitudes to past civilizations like the Minoans are themselves of guilty themselves of wanting to see the past projecting their own ideology. In reality, whatever false ideas Evans had about Minoans would have been rooted in his own background as a Victorian era member of the British upper classes. It has to be said that Evans vision of a relatively peaceful and even idyllic Minoan culture was formed also as a result of comparing what finds he had of them to what was known of the neighbouring cultures and their successors. It wasn't just fancy. Looking at the Mycenean fortresses he naturally saw the Minoan palace compounds as representative of a more peaceful society. Another question is, was there ever a one Minoan society? Was there a single state on Crete that was a thalassocracy, or was Crete divided between numberous statelets which would have looked to outsiders more or less similar but which might not have had that much feeling of unity and shared identity? Perhaps Minoan culture was comprised of speakers of several different languages, which could explain the difficulty of solving their writing system.

princenuadha said...

Didn't an important ancient Greek say that the in the most belligerent nations, the men tend to be ruled by the women. Contra feminist theory of course...

Raimo Kangasniemi said...

That's just ancient misogynism, intended as a slight against women. No intention of matriarchy or equality of sexes was behind it, but claim that weak-willed men were controlled by their mothers, wifes and mistresses who could then dictate policies through them.

Grey said...

"this lack might actually signify an excess of power (strong nations having no need of fortifications)"

Especially naval powers.

Lathdrinor said...

It is not that high cultures were pacifistic, but that in the process of peaking, they become militarily decadent through, I argue, a combination of affluence and the mindset that results from it. There are no high cultures in the ancient world - that I know of - that did not lose its martial acumen over time, and principally after it had obtained wealth and prosperity. The transition is marked by the rise of pacifistic philosophical/theological traditions, but I find these not to be the cause but the symptom of a society in martial decline, which becomes susceptible to the moral principles of the Pax ecumen.

The primary cause, I believe, has to do with simply the availability of comfortable alternatives to military vocations. A man born in the midst of peace and plenty is not keen on risking his life away soldiering on the frontiers, while his equally decadent elites fear him enough to not force him into it. This goes hand in hand with the increasing use of external mercenaries and auxiliaries following the end of mass conscription - let war be conducted by the poor and the hungry, while the wealthy loiter behind ivory gates. Add in a dose of snobbish complacency - brought about by economic and cultural ascendance - and we have a recipe for the classic scenario of a decadent civilization soon to be destroyed by newcomers of the warrior ethos.

Frankly speaking, this is not so different from the state of the Western world today. The biggest difference, geopolitically, is that Pax Atomica gives the Western world a military deterrence option that ancient societies did not have when their men traded their swords for stylus and plowshare. Economically, however, it's obvious that the West is in the final stages of decline, with a snobbish indolence in work ethic and a corresponding use of external mercenaries and auxiliaries, which in this case is simply outsourced and immigrant labor.

andrew said...

"Perhaps Minoan culture was comprised of speakers of several different languages, which could explain the difficulty of solving their writing system."

This is very unlikely. Parts of Linear A, such as its system of denoting numbers and a smattering of proper names and deciphered nouns appear to be consistent across Crete. While Linear A is not completely deciphered, our partial understanding of it is sufficient to pretty much rule out this possibility.

Now, it is certainly possible that Linear A coded an elite scribal class language or classical dialect of a commoon language that had differences between parts of Crete in the everyday vernacular. But, the difficulty in deciphering Linear A has other sources.