Ancient Crete, Greece

Knossus, so far as we yet know, was the earliest seat of Grecian civilization. This ancient city stood not on the mainland of Greece, but on the largest of the Grecian islands, Crete, whose people have so recently been rescued fro.. Turkey and reunited with the kingdom of their own race. At Knossus excavations of the last few years reveal that there was a city of rich and splendid civilization at least as far back as 2500 B.C. Beyond that we can trace remnants of the earlier generations slowly developing from barbarism during many centuries. Twelve thousand years ago the site of Knossus was already inhabited by a race of fishermen who were what scientists call autochthonous, that is, we have no evidence of their coming from any other place; they seem to have grown up with the soil. They were of the aboriginal race which was spread over the whole Aegean region.

These earliest traceable people of the Aegean islands were a short dark-skinned folk, who continued, though with some admixture of other races, to be the chief stock of the Greeks whom we meet in historic times. These Aegean seem to have progressed toward civilization in Crete more rapidly than else-where; probably because in those days every man was the enemy of every other outside his immediate tribal circle, and the Cretans were sheltered by the ocean from the invasion of other races. Gradually in their peaceful homes they learned seamanship; they established trade relations with the earlier Egyptian dynasties; and by 2500 B.C. they had become a mighty people under a king whose name has been preserved to us by later Greek legend, as Minos.

Minos, King of Crete, becomes thus the earliest Greek whose life and rank and personality we can even vaguely reconstruct. His palace at Knossus has been unearthed, and shows that he was no petty city-king, but that his sway extended over the whole broad island of "hundred-citied Crete," as later poets called it. He was probably high-priest as well as king, ruling his people chiefly through their religion. They worshipped a female deity, the "Great Mother," the productive force of Nature, and they symbolized this Mother by a sort of double axe which we find stamped upon their ornaments and buildings. Theirs was a cruel worship, involving public sacrifices of human beings made to savage bulls before a crowd of people; or perhaps the sacrifice was to a bull-headed idol such as the Moloch of the Phoenicians. The later Greeks who had been tributary to Crete long remembered these sacrifices; and we come upon traditions of the "Minotaur" or Minos bull in many places.

Later legend said of Minos that he was the first man to establish himself as king of Crete, and that he gave the Cretans their earliest code of laws. He also established a navy and with it conquered other islands, building up an Empire of the Sea. He was finally slain in Sicily while warring there.

Another name connected by tradition with Minos is that of Daedalus, the first great architect. At the command of the king, Daedalus built the wonderful palace whose remains we know. It was called the Labyrinth, and sheltered not only the royal court, but also the monster, the Minotaur, who could never find a way out from among its thousand winding passages. Daedalus was also the earliest sculptor and inventor. Legend said that in an effort to escape from the tyranny of Minos he built himself a pair of wings and flew on them from Crete to Sicily. It was in pursuit of him that Minos invaded Sicily. With Daedalus in his aerial flight went his young son Icarus, on a second set of wings; but Icarus, in his delight, flew too high and the sun melted the wax with which his wings were fastened on, so that he fell into the sea and was drowned. This is the earliest tale we have of man's ages of endeavor to conquer the air.

Turning again to what we really know of Crete from modern excavations, we learn that a Cretan form of civilization spread over the other islands and over the mainland of European Greece. The artistic skill of this age as shown by its pottery and sculpture was almost, if not entirely, equal to that of the later and more celebrated Greeks. The people had even a method of writing, not by letters, but by word or syllable signs, a language which we find on their inscriptions and have not yet succeeded in deciphering. They had apparently no knowledge of the strong metal iron, but had discovered and employed the softer metal copper, and had even learned to mix it with tin and so harden it into bronze. Of this they made themselves armor and ornaments and weapons. Thus they were in what we call the "Bronze Age," which almost everywhere preceded the "Iron Age."

The first city of European Greece to which we know positively that the Cretan civilization spread was Argos. This celebrated town was situated on the southeast coast of Greece, facing toward Crete, just where a fertile and beautiful farming valley stretches back from the head of a deep and sheltered bay. Here, perhaps, the Cretans planted their first colony; and here at all events was erected a celebrated religious shrine, renowned among the earliest Greeks and still traceable by its ruins today. It is called the Argive Heraeum, or temple to the goddess Hera, the great mother, presumably the same Mother Nature whom the Cretans worshipped. Argos was remembered by the European Greeks as their oldest and once their greatest city. And in the list of gods whom they finally created for themselves, they represented Hera, or Juno, as we have learned from the Romans to call her, as the chief goddess, the wife of the god of heaven, Zeus or Jupiter.

We cannot trace all the details of the progress of civilization among the European Greeks. But the central fact of it is quite clear. About 1500 B.C. they were invaded and partly conquered by a foreign and much ruder race from the heart of Europe. These people are called in Grecian legend the Achaeans. Cretan civilization was almost destroyed by these semi-barbarians. They were apparently a Celtic or Gothic race. They were few in number and soon blended with and were lost amid the mass of Greeks. But they had been tall and blonde, very different from the small and dark-complexioned Aegean; and the characteristics of the Achaeans occasionally reappeared in their descendants. They represent the magnificent physical type on which the famous Greek statues were modelled; and as we gaze on these beautiful figures we must remember that they represent not what most of the Greeks were, but only the ideal which they admired.

The Achaeans did not conquer all Greece; though they succeeded in destroying most of its Cretan culture. The Athenians, for instance, made it their boast in later years that they had never surrendered to foreigners, that they represented the pure Greek stock. And perhaps we may trace to this fact their artistic supremacy. Nevertheless, in the course of centuries the two races blended everywhere, and it is to the ensuing social organization of Achaean kings and Aegean peoples that the Greek legends refer. It is of them that Homer sings. They fought the war against Troy.

Before that celebrated war, the old Cretan supremacy had wholly disappeared. The gorgeous palace of Minos at Knossus was destroyed about 1500 B.C.--perhaps by some of these Achaean invaders. Argos also lost its early leadership to the neighboring city of Mycenae, built close beside it, but higher up the valley, farther from the Argive source of strength, the sea, and occupying a more commanding hill-top. Mycenae, though not founded by the Achaeans, was adopted by them as their capital, their chief city. Excavations there reveal a civilization quite gorgeous in its way, but far below that of the earlier Cretan days.

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Read about Ancient Crete, Greece in the The Story of the Greatest Nations and the Worlds Famous Events Vol 1

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